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.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the House of the Dead
In 1849, a young writer faced a firing squad in retribution for revolutionary activities aimed at overthrowing the tsar. Mercifully for himself and for subsequent world literature, Dostoevsky was unexpectedly reprieved by the intervention of Tsar Nicholas (who had cleverly orchestrated his pseudo-execution). In lieu of a death sentence, Russia’s greatest writer was exiled to a prison in the frontier town of Semipalatinsk in Siberia for four years of hard labor. He afterwards spent six years in Siberian exile. In Notes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky records in fictionalized form the friendships he forged with criminals and political dissidents during this decade of exile from St. Petersburg.
Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
Charged with killing a Christian baby in order to perform the Sabbath ritual, Yakov Bok (aka Menahem Mendel Beilis), languished in prison for many months awaiting trial. His persecution was a classic cover-up, stemming from corruption at the highest bureaucratic levels, and was motivated by the same anti-Semitism and political apathy that led to the pogroms. Yakov learned much during his incarceration, including Spinozan metaphysics and the meaning of forgiveness. He decided in the end that “there is no such thing as an apolitical man, especially a Jew”.
Gramsci, Prison Notebooks
Deservedly, Gramsci’s notebooks are the most famous record of incarceration on this list and a Marxist classic. Ironically, this most political of all writers did not compile his prison notebooks with an eye on publication. He rarely describes the actual conditions of his incarceration, and instead focuses on politics, culture, how to write for eternity, and (in his letters to his wife) the upbringing of his beloved son, Delio. Prison for Gramsci was the space without which he could not have attained his present immortality. The brutality of the modern state was in his case a blessing in disguise, in spite of his own personal suffering.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Foucault argues that the relocation of public punishment from the scaffold to the prison is paradigmatic of modernity. Modern societies hide their criminals instead of displaying them, as did ancient and medieval cultures. In place of retribution for retribution’s sake, modern institutions pay lip service to rehabilitation. But, in Foucault’s view, the rhetoric of rehabilitation does not make the modern prison more beneficial to the criminal than older modes of punishment. Foucault explains why the modern carceral system is even more insidious than its premodern counterpart.
Reza Baraheni God’s Shadow: Prison Poems
This list began with the medieval Persian prison poetry of Mas’ud Sa’d Salman of Lahore. It ends with poems composed in the same language and for some of the same reasons a millennia afterwards. Reza Baraheni’s prison poems, documenting three months of solitary confinement in 1973 in a prison in Tehran, were first composed in Persian and later translated by the author. Both the English and Persian versions are masterpieces of literary reflection. When the prisoner closes his eyes, his memory “rises like an inscription from the depths of time”. Recalling the fate of his fellow inmates, the poet prophesies that “Future archeologists / will remove the firing squad’s last bullet / rattling in the empty skull like a peanut”, and thereby confer immortality on his deceased comrades. Even after the 1979 Revolution, Baraheni was deprived of the right to work and dismissed from his post at the University of Tehran. Unlike most prison poets, he was eventually released. Baraheni now resides in Canada.