In Shawshank Redemption, a 1994 movie based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) spends 19 years in prison (all the while protesting his innocence) and strikes an unlikely friendship with fellow convict Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman).
One of my favourite lines from the movie by Andy to Red is:
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Those weighty words set the perfect background for the AMKA Literature Forum held on May 27 at the Lang’ata Women Maximum Security Prison library with the group members and the inmates who, in Andy’s words, were busy living.
The multi-ethnic group of 20-odd inmates (or clients, as the wardens referred to them) delved into the literary discussions of various unpublished works brought by AMKA with the fervour and intellect that one could not have imagined was lying behind prison walls.
“That is just a bunch of words,” said one of the inmates in reference to a poem that had just been read which had also left everyone’s heads reeling because of its ambiguity.
Femininity. Sex. Marriage. Single motherhood. Family. Feminism. These topics were uncovered in the texts and dissected with an unprecedented meticulousness.
Tessy Aura’s poem, a revolutionary feminist piece performed in spoken-word format, particularly excited the room, as it spoke many truths to the numerous forms of discrimination that all the women present identified closely with.
Sample a few lines from it:
Whether I am dressed like I follow Prophet Owuor,/ Or rocking a mini skirt/ My dress is obviously your choice!/ So tell me!/ What parts of me should I keep uncovered,/ For you to treat me with the respect that I deserve.
And, if my only wealth is a man,/ Then, whose wife do I have to be,/ To gain not only access to but ownership of this land
HAD TO SAY SOMETHING
I sat next to J, who was clutching a notebook that was hosting her hand-written poem. J had beautiful handwriting that reminded me of my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s. J had beautiful eyes hidden behind her square-rimmed glasses. She smiled shyly whenever I glanced her way. My journalistic curiosity boiled in my stomach and moved all the way up to my throat. Suddenly, I had to say something.
“What are you in here for?” was the question that had been nagging my mind from the minute I sat next to her. It lingered on my lips and threatened to burst out. It was also the question that Andy, in Shawshank Redemption, asked Red one day.
But instead, I asked her whether she wanted to read one of her poems.
I read the title: African Woman.
I read the poem to the end. Felt the defiant tone ringing throughout the poem. Saw how carefully she had crafted the rhymes of the poem. Saw how rhythmically the words blended to form the perfect symphony.
Beautiful words, I thought.
She did not want to read the poem.
“Why not? Are you afraid?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” she said. She clutched the book tighter, bringing it closer to her chest.
“Do you know that the fear of public speaking is greater among people in the world than the fear of death?”
I hoped to ease her discomfort. It worked. She loosened her grip on the notebook a little.
“Maybe next time.”
Later, she would learn that AMKA wanted there to be a next time.
This was the first time that AMKA held a session at the prison library and the group hopes to have similar events every other month.
Several unpublished texts were read in the session. Joan Thatiah, author of Things I Will Tell My Daughter, was the featured writer. She read an excerpt from her book and offered insights into the often misunderstood world of self-publishing.
Inspired and grateful were some of the words that the women used to describe their experience at the forum.
AMKA executive director Lydia Gatiriria termed the visit as successful. She said: “The women here are very well-educated and love to read. There are many creative writers at the prison who also have stories to tell, so we are hoping we can replicate what we do at the AMKA forum and offer them opportunities to work on their writing and be published.”
In the next joint AMKA-Langata Women’s Prison reading at the end of August, unpublished works written by the inmates will be discussed. If the first such reading is anything to go by, then it will be nothing short of mind-blowing.