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This review is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

A MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing, edited by Jack Mapanje (Heineman African Writers)

`In Mufulira, for the first time, I found myself suffering the indignities of the colour bar.' `Now is the time; / To violate the eleventh commandment / For today's pain is tomorrow's / imminent comfort / Now is the time / Yes it is the time.' These two sentences, written respectively by Kenneth Kaunda in 1962 and South African praise poet Mzwakhe Mbuli in 1984, open and close Gathering Seaweed and tell us much about the writing it collects. Politicians, activists, writers and ordinary people made into writers by their experiences contribute to a body of writing which is notable for its directness, clarity and urgency and which is surprisingly understated as often as it is passionate.

The anthology stretches from mid-twentieth century struggles for independence to the present and is organised into five sections: `Origins', `Arrest, Detention and Prison', `Torture', `Survival' and `The Release'. It collects the work of around sixty writers including Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nelson Mandela, and Breyten Breytenbach. The most chastening aspect of Gathering Seaweed is that the majority of it was written after the colonial period when, as Mapanje points out in his uncompromising introduction, in country after country `variants of colonial legislation [...] were extended to sustain African leaders' programmes of corruption, nepotism, imprisonment, exile, torture and elimination of political dissent.' Mapanje also gathers writing from countries such as Egypt and Morocco.

The book's divisions work well and allow common experiences of harassment, incarceration and ...

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