A Prison Literature Reading List, Medieval and Modern

Rebecca Gould is finishing her dissertation on Persian prison literature in Columbia University’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.

Prisons have nearly always been spaces of constraint, especially for writers. That freedom, coercion, imagination, and resistance are viscerally evoked in texts concerned with incarceration ranging from the eleventh to the twenty-first century, and in Russian, Italian, Persian, and countless other languages, suggests that there is a coherent genre of prison writing extending across world literature, albeit largely pertaining to the modern period.

As with slavery, first-hand accounts of prisons in antiquity are non-existent, records of medieval prisons are rare, while documentations of modern prisons abound. Is there a lesson to be gleaned here about the specific contours of modern political life? Or is the seeming paucity of premodern prison literature merely a consequence of our having chosen to define “prison” in terms of the contemporary institution familiar to us all but hidden from public view? If the modern writer is necessarily opposed to coercion from the state, then the prison may justly be claimed as literary modernity’s primary armature.

Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier: Mas’ud Sa’d Salman of Lahore.

Published in 2000 by an Indian publisher and recently translated into Persian, this is the first study in any language of the first prison poet in world literature, Mas’ud Sad Salman of Lahore (d. 1121). Sharma includes translations of the Lahore poet’s poems which vividly convey the poet’s daily life in prison. We read of his longing for his family, his nostalgia for his hometown of Lahore, of his sojourn through three different fortresses, of being chained to walls and discovering grey hairs on his head, and of reproaches directed by the poet to his patrons and jailors. No other book in English enables the reader to experience incarceration in the medieval world as intensely as this one.
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