Writing from Prison

by    /  September 25, 2014  / No comments

We will never know how many works of literature have died in Ethiopia’s prisons.

Guard Tower, Shashamane Prison, Ethiopia. Photo via Flickr user: Rod Waddington

The question of where an author wrote his work is central to understanding literature. Few other states accentuate the importance of location like prison and exile. Both, as places where writing occurs, represent impositions of political and social forces. Imprisoning and exiling, as far as prisoners of conscience and political exiles are concerned, is meant to punish and disconnect the individual from her audience and society. For many writers, producing work in these places is an act of defiance against location, resistance in the form of imagining and making connections, projecting the future, and reliving the past.

  1. Ethiopiques
  2. Why does a country with her own unique alphabet and long history of writing persist to deny citizens the right to freedom of expression in this era of Expression? No other country in Africa may typify this paradox more than Ethiopia. As Leopold Senghor’s famous collection of poems entitled “Ethiopiques” remained ‘powerful and popular’ so does the source of his intriguing title, Ethiopia, in her own ways. In “Ethiopiques,” I share Ethiopian views on pertinent issues related to journalism, culture and, of course, the overarching subject of politics.
  3. Mesfin Negash
  4. Mesfin Negash is an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in Sweden. He is one of the journalists accused of “terrorism” in 2011 by the Ethiopian government, and later sentenced to 8 years prison in absentia. The co-founder and first editor-in-chief of an acclaimed Ethiopian newspaper, Addis Neger, he continued writing from exile. In addition to writing and engaging in public discourses, he is an ardent advocate of Freedom of Speech and the Press. He is a student of political science and journalism known for his critical commentaries on significant political and social issues in Ethiopia.

Since the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, the number of political prisoners and refugees in my country has never ceased growing. It was natural, therefore, for the number of poems, letters and books written in and from prison to increase accordingly. The government affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission indicated in a 2012 report that there are 119 officially known prisons in Ethiopia. Most are overcrowded and too poorly financed to provide the basics for living, let alone writing. Though prisoners legally enjoy the right to write letters to family members, there are many cases where written materials are confiscated and prisoners are ordered to stop writing. How many letters, poems, articles, chapters, and books have been lost in these prisons? We will never know.

I have never found a study or a well-researched article on prison literature in Ethiopia. Most of the books written in Ethiopian prisons are nonfiction: autobiographies, memoirs of prison experiences, and political reflections. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was translated into Amharic during the prison sentence of the translator, journalist, and poet Nebiy Mekonnen. Certainly, there are many books inspired and informed by prison experiences, although most of them remain political works.

The list of Ethiopian prison literature I know of is largely books by prominent former government officials, politicians, and journalists. We know very little about letters or poems written in Ethiopian prisons, as very few of them are published. None of the books, however, have garnered as much attention as the one written by two Swedish journalists imprisoned in Ethiopia. Their book, 438 Dagar (438 Days) will be made into a movie soon, and possibly translated into English. Another notable exception is the painter and poet Kebedech Teklab, who wrote a book of poetry while she was a prisoner of war in Somalia in the 1980s.

As I write this article, a book by the imprisoned Ethiopian journalist Woubshet Taye hit the market in Addis Ababa. Another two bloggers from Zone 9, Zelalem Kibret and Befeqadu Hailu, smuggled their letters out from prison in August, and subsequently published them on their blog. All three of these writers are focused on sharing their prison experience, and criticizing the judicial system and its handling of detainees. Currently, seventeen Ethiopian journalists and bloggers are in prison for politically motivated “terrorism-related” crimes. Many more political prisoners are languishing all over the country.

Prison literature might have its own distinct life cycle, from inception to either publication or unnoticed disappearance. Writing, in a gated community of prison, is a performance of its own kind. What does it feels like to write in a prison where most of the traditionally “necessary” materials and environment are in short supply? What is in the exercise of writing in a prison consist of?

Letters, articles, poems, and books written from prison have a long history. PEN International developed a Handbook for Writers in Prison and organizes an annual prison writing contest. There are a number of groups and organizations established to support prisoners to write, especially in North America.

Ethiopia may not have the luxury of a writing handbook or annual contest for prisoners, but there must be a way to help Ethiopian prisoners who want to cultivate their writing skills. If prisoners’ writing is a kind of survival mechanism, writing to prisoners may constitute participation in this peaceful resistance against despair and injustice.

About the Author

Mesfin Negash is an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in Sweden. He is one of the journalists accused of “terrorism” in 2011 by the Ethiopian government. The co-founder and first editor-in-chief of an acclaimed Ethiopian newspaper, Addis Neger, he is currently the Managing Editor of Addisnegeronline.com. He is a political science student by training and known for his critical commentaries on significant political and social issues.

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