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The sonnet may not have been invented in Africa, but our poets write beautiful sonnets everyday. Novels may not have been invented in Africa, but our novels are some of the most beautiful ever written. 

We do have inventions of our own, though. African writers have always played with form and style and content in a bid to create new ways of writing and new objects for the literary market.

Over the next five weeks, I will do weekly features of literary forms that emerged out of the African context—literary inventions that could not have appeared anywhere else.

This week’s feature takes us to a Nigerian prison cell in the late 1960s. 


The Prisonnettes


Prisonette. Sounds cute, right? Don’t be fooled. It means something quite dark.

Stuck in solitary confinement—from 1967-1969—without any means of writing, Soyinka had to create verses that were short enough to be memorized until he found a scrap of paper on which to write them. That’s how the prisonette was born.

Here is how he describes it:

“the form was quite arbitrary, something short enough and as self-containing as possible to remain in the head until, at night-time or in a slack moment of surveillance I could transfer it to the inside of cigarette packet or an equally precious scrap of salvage.

Prisonnettes are made up of any number of cinquains or five-lined stanzas, the first of which is often a single word or a short phrase. Imagine a super-intense haiku that sits somewhere between an incantation and a maxim.  Each prisonnette captures a scene, but because Soyinka is so economical with words, the image appears with such mystical intensity— a quick flash and then disappears.

Soyinka dedicates the prisonettes to his jailer.

“The prisonettes,” he writes “are dedicated to all who participated in the two-year experiment on how to break down the human mind.”

Two years in solitary confinement—long stretches of time in complete darkness with no one to talk to—will do things to a man’s mind.

Cut off from everything, Soyinka’s only sense of the world was through sound. He compared it to being buried alive. His mind was pushed to the limit. From his cell, he’d hear cries of men being led off to execution, the scraping sound of their chains, the sound of the soldiers’ boot as they led the men away. 

These prisonettes, along with other poems in the collection titled, A Shuttle in the Crypt, is Soyinka’s attempt to think and write from a place of deep darkness. This, in a sense, accounts for the dark imageries conjured.

Random selection of Prisonettes: 

Death alike
We sow. Each  novel horror
Whets inhuman appetites
I do not
dare to think these bones will bloom tomorrow.

Embraces you and I
A twilight cone is
The silent junction of the grey abyss

The quest
Is all, endless
The home-coming
Before the gathering of the outward crest.

Fiction? Is truth not essence
Or Art, and fiction Art?
Let it rust
We kindly borrowed his poetic license.


Image: malik ml williams via Flickr

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

5 Responses to “Literary Things Invented by African Writers | Wole Soyinka’s Prisonettes” Subscribe

  1. Denine July 17, 2015 at 3:20 am #

    I strongly beeilve that the content of a written work should be able to determine its worth, among other things. Surprisingly, I just concluded work on a paper that treated this topic and it still marvels me to realize, that today, many of the so called best sellers albeit been poorly written, go at the same price with monumental works of literature like Soyinka’s. Its a very appaling thing to discover. And in Africa, the case isn’t any different. All the same, I do beeilve that given the extreme sensibility, not mentioning the obvious historic and poetic audacity found in Soyinka’s The Man Died , one shouldn’t find it any hard (as to) deciding whether G.E.J.’s My Friends and I should go at the same price with the other. I beeilve the later work also holds its own in many ways. Yet truth be told, quality we’re aware, does come in variations just like human minds, admittedly. Even so, this unnecessary indifference and contempt we bring with us when deciding on literature, surprisingly, is suddenly lost when we have to decide on lesser things like fashion and even, daily necessities. Yet we’d hardly give in to this. I think my point is clear. If we can tell and agree that a piece of Ankara costs so and so due to the quality of its fabric, then a piece of writing with an undeniably quality-content should be able to hold its own, worth-wise. Period.


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