“South African and Northern Irish Political Prison Writing: Reimagining/Reconfiguring the Carceral Space” – Fiona McCann

On the 24th of October, Fiona McCann gave a seminar titled “South African and Northern Irish Political Prison Writing: Reimagining/Reconfiguring the Carceral Space” in which she presented her project of analysing prison writings of political prisoners from the 20th century in South Africa and Northern Ireland. The choice of these geographical areas is justified by that they have in common the implementation during the late 20th century of judicial and political means in order to reinforce oppression and crush any possible form of dissent and opposition to the government. Two discriminating laws were particularly mentioned for they had for consequence the increasing of the carceral population: in South Africa, the General Law Amendment Act, number 37 of 1963 commonly known as the 90-Day Detention Law allowing a police officer to detain a person suspected of a politically motivated crime up to 90 days without a lawyer. In Northern Ireland, a law enabling the local police force to indefinitely detain anyone suspected to participate in the IRA.

                The incarceration for political reasons regardless of whether they were guilty or not, sparked in the prisoners, both South African and Northern Irish, an urge to write about their experiences in prison. Studying various political prisoners’ writing, we can see that they share common aesthetics: assertion of agency, coming up with means of communication and the boundlessness of their imagination regardless of their agency being limited by the carceral space. Their writings do not only serve as an act of resistance to expose the cruelty of the regimes, but also as a way of showing their existence and communicating their experience. They unable the prisoners to be visible while the regime kept them away from the public and the only documentation on their incarceration was from a dehumanizing stance. The invisible expanded to the university where these writings sparked little interest as they were deemed too political to be literature. This project aims at drawing from Rancière’s argument that literature is always political for it allows a reconfiguration of the partage du sensible, renders visible what was not and gives a voice to those once considered as “noisy animals” (in Rancière’s own words), in order to shed a new light on these writings.

Finally, for Fiona McCann, every piece of writing is a political act, and subjective categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ should not be used to define what is literature and what is not. She refers to Barbara Harlow who writes in Resistance Literature that political writing is a very important part of resistance literature for the diversity of its forms invites to forsake the categories used in western literary analysis.


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