In celebration of World Poetry Day this Wednesday, all this week we will be paying tribute to poets who have been persecuted or imprisoned in violation of their right to free expression.
Born in Malawi in 1944, Jack Mapanje, one of Africa’s most distinguished poets, studied in England before returning to teach at the University of Malawi.
His first collection of poem, Of Chameleons and Gods, published in the UK in 1981, was banned in Malawi in June 1985 due to its being ‘full of… coded attacks’ on the ruling dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Two years later, in September 1987, he was imprisoned without trial or charge by the Malawian government.
Many writers, linguists and human rights activists campaigned for his release, including Harold Pinter and Wole Soyinka, and in 1990 he was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Despite this international pressure, Jack served almost four years in Mikuyu prison, where he composed his second collection of poetry, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, and most of his third collection, Skipping without Ropes. He was finally released in May 1991.
Following his release, Jack wrote to PEN, stating:
I was told personally that it was the efforts and pressure from certain distinguished bodies in the UK which made my release possible. One such body is English PEN.
Jack later settled in England with his family and continues to live here today.
Between 2002 and 2004, Jack was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust and in 2007 he was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection) for Beasts of Nalunga. Other works include The Last Sweet Banana, Altar Boy at Sixty, and Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing.
Last year, English PEN was honoured to co-host the launch of Jack’s prison memoir And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night. This powerful and beautifully written book is a forceful indictment of corrupt government and its capacity to wreck lives and whole societies.
You can watch our video of Jack reading his poem ‘Swallows for my son at seven’ here. We would also recommend that you listen to this morning’s episode of ‘Start the Week’ (BBC Radio 4) on which Jack was speaking, alongside Nadine Gordimer and Richard Dowden. (To listen, please click here.)
However, undoubtedly the best way to support Jack is by buying his books! If you are interested in purchasing a copy of his incredibly moving prison memoir, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, you can do so by clicking here .