Jack Mapanje is a poet, linguist, editor and human rights activist. He was born in Malawi on 25 March 1944. This year Mapanje was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best Collection for his latest and highly acclaimed collection, Beasts of Nalunga (2007). This discusses everything from his daughter’s wedding, to the winter of discontent, the trials and tribulations facing GNER passengers, to his imprisonment under the orders of Malawian dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
Mapanje’s influence to write stems back to his childhood: “My mother would tell us little stories as children about animals and birds, which contributed to my idea of narrative spirals, which follow a typical African oral storytelling series of repetitions. Each repetition varies and is not like a replica of the one before. Each line or stanza is like adding a new bead, increasing the length and size of the story.” Mapanje’s “narrative spirals” and animal imagery are epitomised in the eponymous poem of the collection; Beasts of Nalunga, with lions, rhinoceros and hyenas mentioned amongst others.
Mapanje was writing while living under the oppressive regime of Banda’s dictatorship: “People were telling a lot of lies on the political platform, I wanted to tell some truth and give an alternative history.” In June 1985, Mapanje’s first collection, Of Chameleons and Gods (1981) was withdrawn from schools, colleges, universities, national libraries and bookshops in Malawi by a directive from Banda’s censorship board. “Of Chameleons and Gods contained surreptitious criticisms hidden in symbols taken from the African oral tradition aimed at the regime.” apanje was head of the Department of English at the University of Malawi when the authorities arrested him in 1987. He was imprisoned at the notorious Mikuyu Prison in Zomba, without trial or charge for 3 years, 7 months and 16 days. No official reason for his imprisonment was ever given, although the political nature of his writing surely contributed. “Prison was horrific, there was so much time, but with nothing to eat, no letters to write. If you tried to send a letter you could not criticise the government, the food or the prison, as they read them and would not send them. We slept on cold cement floors, with rags for blankets. There were no beds, radio or TV. The biggest problem was time; we had it, but could not use it. I used to compose poems in my head; I managed around 25 full poems, like scrolls, or spirals. Yet when I was released I could not remember them all, there are still one or two that I have never recovered.” Mapanje was released in 1991 following an international outcry by writers such as Harold Pinter, and human rights activists.
Mapanje is a senior lecturer in English at Newcastle University where he teaches a course on “Literatures of Incarceration”, teaching amongst others Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. “The students love this course because it is so relevant now, with examples of people trying to survive against the odds.” Parallels drawn by the students include Guantanamo Bay, where the practice of human rights abuses and imprisonment without trial or charge continue. How does this make Mapanje feel? “Shattered, very angry and impotent that I am unable to do anything; Irina Ratushinskaya wrote at the beginning of Grey Is The Colour Of Hope, ‘Never drop your guard, never trust them’. y advice to Guantanamo Bay prisoners now is to never give up, or the enemy has won, hold onto an idea or God. You will survive, you don’t need to suffer from any illness to die when you wake up every day and see blank walls. We used to tell stories, inventing them for each other. Sometimes they were downright lies, but if you want to survive you listen and discover that sometimes fact is more fictitious than fiction.”
The title Beasts of Nalunga refers to mysterious beasts, which appeared in a village called Nalunga in central Malawi, they killed, and maimed domestic animals and people. Many people fled their homes as a result. Beasts of Nalunga addresses human behaviour across many different spectrums, Mapanje explains, “We become beasts gradually and don’t even know it, perhaps there is a beast in me, or you. We should all at least be aware that we can be beasts. There are metaphorical beasts too; AIDS and HIV, what are pharmaceutical companies doing to eliminate the illness? They seem to be more interested in patenting their drugs.” Other beasts Mapanje mentions include “for beasts / of Nalunga are cyclic sagas / of people besotted by wars, / battles, tyrants, plagues.” Also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Prayers for Paramount Sages, another poem in Beasts of Nalunga denotes Africa’s vacuous obsession with “the tail-end of western gimmicks going: / big brother this, celebrity that, idol this, / reality that, / hand driven radios, hand / wound computers — all purporting to heal.” Mapanje explains, “I am suggesting that if it is an African problem, we should not always look elsewhere to solve problems, for the dignity and visibility to be restored to people, why don’t you start in Africa? I am appealing to the youth of Africa, to take charge and find courage. With poetry I am not suggesting solutions to problems, but I am getting people to question and re-examine what is going on. Serious poetry has a public dimension; the duty of the poet is to show hidden and invisible aspects of life.”
Mapanje’s poetry also revolves around the beauty and simplicity of everyday life, his life in exile in York, and The Taxis of North Yorkshire. What are Mapanje’s plans for the future? “I am writing my prison memoir and continuing to write poetry.” Whether the young people of Africa, or citizens of the world, Mapanje’s poetry affords us with the opportunity to question what is going on in the world around us, and lets the reader formulate their own answers of how to change it. Beasts of Nalunga is available now and published by Bloodaxe Books.