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  • Writer's pictureGail Vida Hamburg

Dissident Writers and Prison Literature

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

"To think of roses and gardens inside is bad, to think of seas and mountains is good.

Read and write without rest, and I also advise weaving and making mirrors.”

-- from 'Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison'

Nazim Hikmet.

Imprisonment is an overriding theme in Christianity—in the Bible, incarceration and freedom are metaphors for spiritual blindness and enlightenment. Bondage, sightlessness, lunacy, demonic possessions, and other forms of literal and figurative imprisonment are frequent occurrences in the Bible. In the New Testament, imprisonment is a danger for Christ and his disciples, and in Lives of the Saints, jail is a reality for many of them.

The letters of St. Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians are legitimate prison letters. Paul wrote them towards the end of his life, while imprisoned in Rome by the Emperor Nero, and awaiting execution. Unlike his letters to the Romans and Corinthians, which show his joy and zeal as a new convert and teacher, and rise to heights of great lyricism and seamless beauty, his prison letters reflect his weariness and suffering. Though battered, Paul is determined to be encouraging and instructional to his flock, and the early Church. He celebrates the life of the church, teaches new doctrine about love, faith, and action, and encourages the church to endure, as he endures.

Incarceration has also been the midwife of great literature. Dostoevsky was twenty-eight years old when he was arrested and sentenced to death. After a last minute reprieve, he spent eight years in a Siberian prison. Soon after his release, he wrote The House of the Dead, a powerful novel about his prison experiences, and later his masterpieces that limned the nature of good and evil. Juan Carlos Onetti, one of Latin America’s finest writers, was imprisoned in his native Uruguay for publishing a story that upset the military government. Upon his release, he was exiled to Spain, where he wrote his finest novel, Let the Wind Speak. Medina, its protaganist, lives across the river from Santa Maria—a town that he is forbidden from entering, and that he therefore wishes to destroy. In the end, the wind “speaks” by devouring the town. Onetti’s novel is an exile’s bitter lament for his home.

It is no surprise that so many writers have been sent to prison, and indeed are being incarcerated now, as I write this. Writers go to prison for nearly always a single reason: they chose through their writings to take sides in a political argument. Since the responsibility of dissent nearly always falls on the disseminators of ideas and information, it is inevitable that writers and intellectuals become vulnerable to government surveillance, censure, and imprisonment.

Arundathi Roy, the author of the Booker Prize winning novel The God of Small Things, writes in Power Politics: “Who but the writer can translate cash flow charts and scintillating boardroom speeches into real stories about real people with real lives? Stories about what it’s like to lose your home, your land, your job, your past, and your future to an invisible force?” The work of connecting the dots then, of deciphering “spin,” of deconstructing government duplicity, of monitoring unchecked power, falls on the writer. When they become too effective, too successful in their efforts, they frequently land in jail.

Most of the jailed dissident writers we have heard of have come from the former USSR, the countries of the Eastern Bloc, and African nations. Renowned jailed writers from those countries include Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn of the former USSR, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Albie Sachs and Breyten Breytenbach of South Africa, and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. However, with the fall of both Communism and Apartheid, the imprisonment of writers has moved its geographical base. Most of the imprisoned writers of our time – poets, novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, and journalists – are held in jails in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.

PEN, the international writers association that advocates for imprisoned dissident writers, reports that in 2002, there were more than eleven hundred writers held in prison. In 2003, President Fidel Castro of Cuba sent more than eighty writers and dissidents to prison, including Raul Rivero—the island’s most distinguished poet and man of letters.

The large volume of writings by jailed dissidents has resulted in a dubious distinction—prison literature has earned ranking as a genre. Jailed writings most frequently take shape as memoirs and poetry, since both forms can be written in short bursts, and are essentially plotless. Fiction writers have a more difficult time producing work behind bars, though the prison experience has moved many writers released from detention, to write works addressing fundamental and moral concerns.

Common themes in the prison genre, not surprisingly, include heaven and hell, life and death, and good and evil. Frequently, the best of this literature is reminiscent of the dark and dystopic tales of Kafka, Dostoevesky, and Orwell. Others are wildly satirical, in the manner of Swift and Rableis. Prison writing from South America and Cuba is often marked by a condition called choteo, which loosely translated means, “taking seriously nothing that ought to be taken seriously.” It results in literature that skewers, parodies, and offends with low comedy, gallows humor, and ribaldry.

Though prison literature is marked by an authenticity of narration devoid of flowery language, a small but significant portion of it is experimental and original, playing with language, metaphor, symbols, and images. While there are many stories of suffering and mindless barbarism by jailers -- which for me always veer towards the predictable -- there are others filled with original creative vision about surmounting the reality of prison. Many of these tales of survival are injected with self-deprecation, humor, irony, joy, insight, and uncommon beauty.

Time, of course, is an important element in prison writing. Ruth First, a South African writer and editor, who was arrested in the 1960s and sentenced to ninety days in prison for her involvement in anti-Apartheid activities, obsessed over time and boredom. In her memoir Ninety Days, she writes: “I calculated the date repeatedly. My calendar was behind the lapel of my dressing gown. Here, with my needle and thread, I stitched one stroke for each day passed. I sewed seven upright strokes, than a horizontal stitch through them to mark a week. Every now and then I would examine the stitching and decide that the sewing was not neat enough and that the strokes should be more deadly accurate in size; I’d pull the thread out and remake the calendar from the beginning. This gave me a feeling that I was pushing time on, creating days, weeks, and months. Sometimes I surprised myself and did not sew a stitch at the end of the day. I would wait three days and then give myself the wonderful thrill of knocking three days off the ninety.”

Because of sensory and tactile deprivation, especially in solitary confinement where the permanently lit sixty watt bulb is the center of experience, prison literature describes with powerful effect such ordinary events and experiences as eating, waking up, sunrise, music, bathing, rain, and the sound of children’s voices. These descriptions about mundane events are infused with rich, layered, sensual want. In Memory of Sky, Breyten Breytenbach’s memoir of his years in a South African jail, his descriptions of the environment are tender and moving. “It is 25th November 1975 when I am sentenced. I shall not be seeing the stars again for many years. In the beginning I don’t realize this, I don’t miss them. And then suddenly it becomes very important, like chafing sores in the mind – something you’ve taken for granted for so long and that you now miss, the way you’d miss a burial site if you died in space. It is not natural never to see the stars or the moon for that matter – it is as cruel as depriving people of sound. I see the moon again for the first time on 19th April 1976 … I looked up and to my astonishment saw in a patch of sky above, a shriveled white shape, a pearl in my eye. And I thought that she’d been hanged, that she was dead. The sun and its absence become the pivot of my daily existence. I wait. I build my day around the half hour when I’m allowed in the courtyard to see it. I follow its course through the universe behind my eyelids. I become its disciple.”

Prisoners often write sympathetically about their cell companions, while those in solitary confinement have written movingly about their affinity to other life forms, including spiders, mice, mosquitoes, and plants. George Mangkis, a law professor at the University of Athens and a frequent oppositional writer, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, and tortured repeatedly during his years of imprisonment. In Letter to the Europeans written from his prison cell, he offers an original account of co-existing with others. “I had been kept in solitary confinement for four months. I hadn’t seen a soul throughout that period, only uniforms – inquisitors and jailers. One day, I noticed three mosquitoes in my cell. They were struggling hard to resist the cold that was just beginning. In the daytime they slept on the wall. At night they would come buzzing over to me. In the beginning, they exasperated me. But fortunately I soon understood that I too was struggling hard to live through the cold spell. What were they asking me? Something unimportant. A drop of blood – it would save them. I couldn’t refuse. At nightfall I would bare my arm and wait for them. After some days they got used to me and they were no longer afraid. They would come to me quite naturally, openly. This trust is something I owe them. Thanks to them, the world was no longer merely an inquisition chamber.”

The Argentinean writer, Jacobo Timerman, who was sentenced to prison in 1977, willfully blocked out of his mind everything he loved, as a method of survival. In Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, he writes: “One day, a guard handed him a letter and two candies from his wife. He writes, “How I cursed my wife that day! How many times I told myself I wouldn’t read the letter, I wouldn’t eat the candies. After so many efforts to forget, to refrain from loving and desiring, to refrain from thinking … And now this world, so heavily armored, so solid and without cracks, has been penetrated by a letter and two candies. Risha tells me that if she could she’d give me all the air in the world, all her love … In a rage, I throw the letter into the latrine, and with equal rage stick the two candies into my mouth. But already I’m lost, for the flavor is overpowering, as is my wife’s face.”

The act of writing is difficult for all writers, even writers in freedom who have laptops, the Internet for research, writing groups, and cappuccinos on demand. Writers in prison have often had to use their ingenuity to carry out the essential gesture of writing. “Paper, any paper, is about the most precious article for a political prisoner, more so for someone like me, who was in political detention because of his writing. For the urge to write is almost irresistible. At Kamiti Prison, almost all the prisoners were composers and writers. Toilet paper, good, faithful stuff, enabled us to daily defy the intended detention of our minds,” writes Ngugi Wa Thiong’O in his memoir, Detained.

Irina Ratushinskaya, a poet in former USSR, was sentenced in 1982 to seven years of hard labor for her poems—referred to by the state, as anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Denied paper, pen, and pencils, she composed poems in her head. Sometimes she scratched them on cakes of soap with burnt matchsticks, memorized them, and then washed away the evidence. When she managed to secure paper, she wrote her poems in small tight rows, or used the paper to write her indexes, while her poems remained inside her head. Shortly before her release in 1987, Ratusinskaya was in an accident while being transported in a prison convoy. A doctor diagnosed concussion and gave her Demerol. She writes in her memoir Grey is the Color of Hope, “I spent the next 24 hours frantically worrying that I had lost part of my memory … Then I was jolted by a new fear. Maybe I’ve forgotten my poems. I hadn’t risked writing them down for some time. All I have are a few well-secreted tiny slips of paper with an index. I use this index daily to revise the poems in my head. Not all of them of course. About twenty or thirty at a time. I work my way through the end then go back to the beginning.” The poems she wrote in a tiny hand onto strips of paper, were smuggled out of camp, and published in 1984 as Pencil Letter Poems.

There are two writers who produced a substantial body of work both inside and outside prison: the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, and the Cuban novelist, Reinaldo Arenas. Hikmet and Arenas were celebrated national writers in their respective countries, long before they were imprisoned for their writings. Both Hikmet and Arenas wrote remarkable, ambitious, original works of literature under extraordinary circumstances—under siege. Both sustained their writing throughout their imprisonment, and continued to write prolifically after their release. Unlike many of the European dissidents like Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, and the Soviets from Akmatova to Solzenitzyn who attained celebrity and all its fruits, Nazim Hikmet and Reinaldo Arenas are relatively unknown hothouse orchids in the kingdom of literature.

Mustafa stopped.

Mahmut was a little taken aback:

“That’s a strange epic,” he said,

“this guy in prison has written a different kind of epic. He’s stirring up something.

But your voice is sad, son, And it reads like music: It touches a man.”

- from Human Landscapes from My Country

by Nazim Hikmet

While the reality of prison conditions, which are numerous, brutal, and nearly uniform in their representation, are interesting on an psycho-social level, the best prison writers show an ability to liberate themselves from the corporeal, and transcend space and time, to create literature that “reads like music, that touches a man.”

The prison experience is after all a journey—undertaken alone, in time, through hell, from day to night and back again, and from confinement to freedom. It is a path to moral and spiritual transformation, and in a larger sense, a journey from tyranny to democracy. Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s revolutionary poet, used the prison experience to create many works of poetry, and declared that he became a true “poet of the people,” only after his long imprisonment.

Born in 1902, Hikmet spent two thirds of his adult life in Turkish prisons and in exile in the USSR. In 1938, Hikmet was convicted on a charge that military cadets were reading his poems, and sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison for inciting the army to revolt. A few years later, at the age of forty while incarcerated in Bursa Prison, Hikmet began his masterwork Human Landscapes from My Country—an epic novel in verse about Turkey’s history and its people. He had initially envisioned it as a 10,000-line poem. “I’m writing fifty lines a day. It will be finished in six months,” he wrote to a friend in 1941. However, the poem kept growing, and he kept revising it. In 1944, he wrote: “I pass my days in uninterrupted work from 8.30 am to midnight, and I am happy.

Landscapes is proceeding full speed ahead. It’s getting longer and longer, but what can I do? Life is so various, people and their lives so curious, and I am so greedy, so eager to put it in one book, that I can never call an end to it.” The final manuscript which he spent five years writing and revising in his prison cell, is a 17,000 line majestic epic that takes on nothing less than the entire history of Turkey and its people in the twentieth century. The personal life of the imprisoned poet and the history of modern Europe marked its boundaries.

The central motif of Human Landscapes is a journey, an odyssey. It begins with one man at Hayder Pasha Railway Station, Istanbul in Spring 1941 at 3 pm. Hikmet who was also a screenwriter and playwright uses film and stage techniques to fan the story out from the man on the steps. The man and the other people the man sees – a range of Turkey’s peasantry, and Halil, a poet and political prisoner who is on his way to jail – board the train’s “third class car number 510.” We learn the life stories of each character as the train passes the countryside and makes its many stops before reaching Ankara:

Halil thinks of his handcuffs as he reads his book:

“Handcuffs, we’ll beat your steel into plowshares.”

And he finds this idea so well phrased that he’s sorry he doesn’t know the art of writing poetry measured or otherwise.

-- from Human Landscapes from My Country

by Nazim Hikmet

In Book Two, another man sits in Haydar Pasha Station’s café at 6.38 pm on the same day. He and a different cast of characters, all middle and upper class, board an express train also headed for Ankara. Hikmet uses his cinematic techniques -- pans, zooms, freeze frames, jump cuts, dissolves, flashbacks, and flash-forwards -- to render the stories of both sets of travelers. The trains are a symbol of freedom and a literary device that gives Hikmet great mobility. The places the trains pass trigger memories and events in history for many of the characters, and allow Hikmet to discuss his various political concerns. They allow him to be light and fictional, and enable him to move freely through rural and urban life, as well as through time:

A man sits on the steps of the platform …

He may have to kill a man. He isn’t sure. They didn’t say in the letter. But his land “with such and such boundaries and of such and such dimensions

—as the public record will show—

has been encroached upon by Ahmet’s son Bekir …

There’s a chance he’ll kill Bekir with an axe, but for now, there’s no chance he’ll understand why he’ll kill Bekir …

-- from Human Landscapes from My Country

by Nazim Hikmet

Book Three is anchored in place and time; it is set in a prison and hospital on the day of the journey. It offers the reader a respite before Hikmet takes flight again in Book Four, in which he discusses natural, national, and global history through descriptions of the migration of birds, radio waves, and mail.

Hikmet’s long detention was essential to the creation of his opus. In prison, the Istanbul intellectual, celebrated national poet, and pasha’s grandson was exposed to the Turkish peasantry for the first time. They were an inspiration for the characters in his epic, as well as his audience. As he wrote Human Landscapes, he would read it to his fellow inmates who would offer criticism and ideas for revision. This interaction and collaboration with his audience makes the epic a social poem, as well as a joint fiction. Though written in captivity, and perhaps because of it, Human Landscapes from My Country is a monumental work of the imagination, and an unparallelled writing accomplishment.

In Cuba, I endured a thousand adversities because the hope of escaping and the possibility of saving my manuscripts gave me strength

from Before Night Falls

by Reinaldo Arenas.

Reinaldo Arenas is best known for his memoir Before Night Falls, which he wrote on the run—as a fugitive in his native Cuba. Born in 1943, Arenas was a Cuban peasant, an illegitimate child who did not know his father. He joined the rebel peasant revolution as a teenager, to help overthrow the Batista regime and install Fidel Castro in power. In 1965, at the age of twenty-two, Arenas won second prize in a national literary contest in Cuba, for an unpublished first novel.

In Celestino Before Dawn, a young boy sings the tale of his sexual and poetic awakenings. The novel sold out a week after publication, and Arenas was promoted and heralded as the voice of the Revolution, by some of the giants of Cuban literati including Jose Lezama Lima. His second novel Hallucinations, a fictionalized account of the life of a heretical Mexican friar, was snubbed by Castro’s arbiters of culture, and had to be smuggled abroad for publication. In granting the Prix Medicis award for ‘best foreign novel of the year in 1969,’ the French body called Hallucinations “a brilliantly inventive, comic novel written by a Latin American Gorky.”

In 1970, Arenas was sent to work in the sugar mills as part of Castro’s improbable goal of a ten million ton sugar cane harvest, and to write a book praising the experience. Instead, Arenas wrote a furious indictment against Castro’s experiment, which was also smuggled out of the country for publication. His wretched experiences in the sugar cane mills led him to feel contempt for the official or visible history of Cuba. He conceived the idea of writing a “Pentagonia” – a set of five novels -- about the secret history of Cuba. Each of the five novels or “agonies,” as he called them would depict the life of a poet, who would live, write, suffer, and die, only to be reborn in the following novel.

The first novel, about the poet as an unrestrained child, had already been written and published as Celestino Before Dawn. The second volume in Arenas’ pentagonia, The Palace of the White Skunks, was written while he was working in the sugar mills, and smuggled out of Cuba in 1972. The most biographical of Arenas’ novels, it tells the story of a sexually ambivalent young boy, Fortunato, who is raised in a house of frustrated women, a tyrannical mother, and savage grandparents. Fortunato joins the rebels (as Arenas himself did as a teenager) and is soon captured by the Batista regime, tortured, and executed. The sad, troubled lives of Fortunato’s family are written with lyrical empathy, while the political story is rendered in a fractured, schizophrenic, staggered tone to convey the madness of totalitarianism.

The third novel in Arenas’ pentagonia, Farewell to the Sea, was written while he was coming under increasing surveillance by the authorities. He was already in trouble for smuggling his two previous novels abroad. He wrote the first draft of Farewell to the Sea in 1969, giving each chapter as he finished it, to a trusted friend for safekeeping. Afraid that the authorities were about to discover the manuscript, the friend destroyed it. Arenas sat down to rewrite the work and completed a second version by 1972, which he hid under the roof tiles of his house. That version was confiscated by the secret police when he was sent to prison in 1973 on trumped up charges of seducing minors. Arenas, a homosexual, was found guilty of “ideological deviation and counter-revolutionary activities”—for his sexual preference, literary aesthetics, and smuggling his unauthorized novels abroad. He was sent to various prisons, and forced labor camps for the rehabilitation of homosexuals.

When Arenas was released in 1976, he was faced with the task of writing Farewell to the Sea for the third time. In Before Night Falls, Arenas writes: “Now I had to rewrite my novel once more, but I had no typewriter, no paper, and no place I could work. Someone made a collection, thanks to which I was able to live for a few days at the Colina Hotel, facing the University of Havana. A secret police agent showed up at the Colina carrying an envelope under his arm. He told me that I had not been completely honest with him, and showed me the novel (the second draft of Farewell to the Sea) that I had hidden under the roof tiles. All I could say was that I did not even remember it, that it was worthless, and I had no interest in it whatsoever. To have to leave the manuscript in the hands of State Security enraged me so completely that I promised myself to write the novel again, no matter how.” Arenas did rewrite the novel, and it was smuggled out of Cuba in 1974 while he was being held in the notorious high security El Morro prison.

Farewell to the Sea tells the story of Hector, a poet who no longer writes, who goes on a six day vacation to the beach with his wife and infant son. Hector has survived Castro’s forced labor camps, married a “simple” woman, and fathered a child to avoid being punished for his homosexuality. The poet and his wife are unable to communicate with each other, and Hector has an affair with a young boy he meets at the beach. Yet, the couple is bound together by need, their joint victimization by the system, and their child.

The novel is split in two. The nameless wife narrates the first half as she considers her husband, her life, and most memorably the sea. “I allow these silences,” the wife says of her marriage “… Now that the fundamental problems are solved – house, food, car, salary – we can devote our full efforts to making life intolerable. We could wipe each other out once and for all with an honest look, but following tradition we poison each other slowly, methodically.” Of her own loveless, diaper-washing life, she says: “Sometimes, mornings, when you already know exactly what you will do all day, and you know how the day will end, and what the day after that will be like, and all of them—at those moments when, still lying in bed, you see your skin look almost transparent in the glow, you see your body somehow parked, utterly given up, between the sheets, you conclude, Everything is futile, everything is just absurd and futile…Then, for a few seconds, there is such desolation that I don’t even have the spirit to bear it, to get out of bed, I don’t even have the strength to go on thinking about the desolation, I am empty, without memory, waiting from moment to moment—once more, once more—for the end.”

The imprisonment of writers continues unabated to this day. Worldwide, the threat to authors and female writers has unfortunately not diminished," according to PEN International.

Copyright(c) Gail Vida Hamburg

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