Mark Danner

Writing Darkness: Narratives of Captivity

Writing from prison is writing from extremity. Carving sentences from isolation, deprivation, emotional and physical torture, the prison memoirist struggles to describe credibly a wholly foreign world, one far outside most readers’ experience. These writers’ subjects, on the other hand, from concentration camp to gulag to penitentiary, bid fair to be considered our most representative institutions. The stories these narratives tell, harrowing as they often are, are vital to understanding modern writing and the experience of modernity itself. Our reading in this seminar will comprise both memoir and fiction and may include, among others, works by Jack Henry Abbott, Tahar ben Jelloun, Malcolm Braly, Eldridge Cleaver, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Frederick Douglass, Nawal el Saadawi, Jean Genet, Primo Levi, Naguib Mahfouz, T.J. Parsell, Manuel Puig, Varlam Shalamov, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Jacobo Timerman.


Class Requirements This is a seminar – a discussion class – which means the success of the class depends on student preparation and participation. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Participate in class discussions

*Do all reading and writing assignments

*Deliver one in-class presentation

*Deliver a final paper of 12 pages

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule Note that all classes will take place on Wednesday afternoons, 1:30 p.m. – 3:50 p.m in Olin 309. Note that class will not meet on October 12. We will schedule an evening make up session for this class.

Reading Our primary reading will draw largely from a series of narratives of captivity, some nonfiction and some fiction, which are listed below. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies, and in the edition specified, either from the school bookstore or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.

Presentations Each student will make one presentation in class on one of our books or authors, or on a subject related to our assigned reading, or on another narrative of captivity, written or filmed. Use of multimedia is encouraged. Schedule your final paper in consultation with the course assistant.

Writing Students will be assigned one final research paper of twelve pages on a text or texts and theme or themes touched on in the class. Papers should be double-spaced and paginated and should include a title page and a bibliography. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest reading two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style. The text of the Orwell essay can be found easily on the web.

Deadlines A four-sentence précis setting out an idea for the final paper is due November 9. The final paper is due December 7. Students handing in the final paper on November 30 will receive a bonus of one grade.

Office Hours I will hope to meet with each of you individually at least once during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My office is on the fourth floor of Stevenson Library. My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Grading Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, as follows:

Attendance            25 percent

Participation          25 percent

Presentation          25 percent

Final Paper           25 percent

To do well in this seminar a solid record of attendance is essential.

Required Texts

Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Blinding Absence of Light (Penguin, 2006 [2001]), 195

Malcolm Braly, On The Yard (New York Review, 2002 [1967]), 376

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (Delta, 1999 [1968), 236

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the House of the Dead (Erdman’s, 2013 [1861]), 344

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Penguin, 2014 [1845]), 190

Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (Zed, 2007 [1975]), 142

Nawal el Saadawi, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (U of California, 1994 [1983]), 204

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Simon & Schuster, 1996 [1958]), 187

Jean Genet, The Miracle of the Rose (Grove Press, 1966 [1951]), 291

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary (Little Brown, 2015), 379

T.J. Parsell, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison (Da Capo, 2007), 336

Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage, 1991[1978]), 281

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (Penguin, 1994 [1970]), 508

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New American, 2009 [1962]), 181

Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number (Wisconsin, 2002 [1980]), 164

Tentative Syllabus

August 31, 2016 – Introduction: The Narrative of Captivity. Captivity Narratives in Early American History. Slave Narratives. Prison Camps and Prisons. The Lager and Its Looming Presence.

September 7 – Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary (Little Brown, 2015), 379

September 14 – T.J. Parsell, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison (Da Capo, 2007), 336

September 21 – Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Penguin, 2014 [1845]), 190

Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Captivity and Restoration (1st World Library – Literary Society [2005]), 59

September 28 – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the House of the Dead (Erdman’s, 2013 [1861]), 344

October 5 – Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (Penguin, 1994 [1970]), 508

October 12 – No Class (to be rescheduled). Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New American, 2009 [1962]), 181

October 19 – Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Simon & Schuster, 1996 [1958]), 187

October 26 – Jean Genet, The Miracle of the Rose (Grove Press 1966 [1951]), 291

November 2 – Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number (Wisconsin, 2002 [1980]), 164

November 9 – Final Paper Precis due. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage, 1991[1978]), 281

November 16 – Nawal el Saadawi, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (U of California, 1994 [1983]), 204

Suggested: Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (Zed, 2007 [1975]), 142

November 23 – Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Blinding Absence of Light (Penguin, 2006 [2001]), 195

November 30 – Early Final Paper Bonus Deadline. Malcolm Braly, On The Yard (New York Review, 2002 [1967]), 376

December 7 – Final Paper Due.  Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (Delta, 1999 [1968), 236

Syllabus (annotated)

  1. August 31, 2016 – Introduction: The Narrative of Captivity. Captivity Narratives in Early American History. Slave Narratives. Prison Camps and Prisons. The Lager and Its Looming Presence.

    -Original “Narratives of Captivity” derived from early America, colonists kidnapped and held captive by Native Americans; specifically, see Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative

    -Quick and scary statistics: Currently, 2,220,300 adults in prison/jail in U.S./4,751,400 on probation or parole/1 in 35 adult Americans currently under some “correctional status,” that’s 2.8% of our total pop.

    -Post-revolutionary American penitentiaries were thought of as radical opportunities for rehabilitation? starkly opposes current ethos in this country

    -Blues music? imprisoned black criminals having to work off court costs

  1. September 7– Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary (Little Brown, 2015), 379

-Slahi wrote “Guantanamo” in 2005, remains in Guantanamo Bay to this day – “disappeared”? the trace of you is erased, but it’s an open secret

-After 9/11, secret movement of people to detainment w/o any legal footprint; Slahi & others denied habeas corpus by Bush admin

-Cuba = legal black hole – base under U.S. control but not on U.S. soil, and thus w/ ambiguous legal status

-Would Slahi post a threat to U.S. if freed? – in the sense  that he’ll go public about his torture – politics of fear

Walker’s presentation: Details of Slahi’s identity as public secrecy – he’s captive, yet famous & globally recognized in media. Walker shared a google search of Slahi’s name, looked closely at what articles come up that actively frame Slahi as a terrorist

  1. September 14– T.J. Parsell, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison (Da Capo, 2007), 336

-While this book was written in the 2000s, these events took place during Carter admin…? reconstruction of memories

-Who actually runs prisons? Who actually has the control? Short answer would be, the inmates themselves simply because such small ratio of # of prison staff to inmates

-What kind of people from elsewhere would excel in the prison universe? Walker says: business people

-Mark notes that, what you’re in for is part of the calculation of your respect in prison; in addition to your history, appearance is a primary determinant of respect you receive

-“having heart” – standing your ground, not being too timid or backing down too easily (see pp. 259) – is about being willing to risk your safety and well-being for sake of standing your own ground

-people in prison who rise to top are excellent at reading weaknesses in others

-when Paul & Tim get together, subverts typical ‘man-boy’ structure

-What did Tim learn? (bildungsroman): 1) love/what love is; 2) self-acceptance [of being gay]; 3) power+sexuality and power+race; 4) Perception of the power of knowledge

-Many of us noticed that Tim’s personal growth/life lessons had little to do with sociopolitics of racial tensions… Could be attributed to fact that author’s area of activism is prison rape—more of a focus on sexual identity than on racial identity

~See also~ Unsafe Behind Bars – Op-Ed by T.J. Parsell – NYTimes:

  1. September 21– Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Penguin, 2014 [1845]), 190

Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Captivity and Restoration (1st World Library – Literary Society [2005]), 59

-Mary Rowlandson – characterizing a “captivity narrative” – American colonial version is a reconstruction of a much older tradition

-also falls under “captivity narrative” – slave narrative, convent captivity, UFO captivity, sentimental novel

    -Joe: does “memoir” fit as a parameter here?

    Roman a clef

-Dichotomies? inner vs outer; captive vs free; civilized vs. savage; devout vs. heathen; dignity vs. subjugation

-puritans – Calvinist protestants came over from England via Great Migration

-Increase Mather – probably played a role in editing Rowlandson’s narrative

-Rowlandson captured during King Phillip’s War

-‘American jeremiad’

-Cohesiveness of Rowlandson’s imagery/narrative is remarkable? Walker: her tone is static, like an old photograph

-This account is a snapshot of the functioning of a highly religious mind – God imbues every page

-Jordana: had a hard time engaging with Rowlandson’s pain bcuz of the monotonality/detachment

-Important to note, material/physical conditions probably also influenced the structure of narrative

-Is her faith a means of escape from her reality?


    Frederick Douglass – Elements here too of bildungsroman

-This book has didactic tone, but remember that it had a specific point—to abolish slavery

-many consumers of this book were abolitionists/proto-abolitionists

-Taysa: Douglass’s tone is very poetic and visceral

-William Cooper

-Douglass was one of most photographed people in the 19th century… He has powerful, dignified look to him

-Sasha: Rowlandson was a much more passive character compared to Douglass, who’s quite proactive

-Rowlandson much more distant, Douglass writes with a striking intimacy

  1. October 5– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the House of the Dead (Erdman’s, 2013 [1861]), 344

-Sasha’s presentation – Russian expansion from start of 19th century; empire extending itself far northward into Siberia; vast new rail system/settlements built there using the convicts in labor camps (various dissidents to imperial regime); brutal conditions in the camps, even more so in the passage on-foot between different stations

-Mark – was a time when transportation was used as a punishment

-We tried asking Google maps how long it would take to walk from Omsk to Kolyma, it told us it was impossible

-Dostoevsky arrived in Siberia as a liberal intellectual who believed in liberalizing Russia; House from the House of the Dead represents the start of his becoming deeply nationalistic—Mark says is “first true Dostoevsky book”

-Avalon’s presentation on Petrashevsky Circle – was a literary, intellectual discussion group, generally they were all socialists and against the existence of imperial Russian peasantry/serfdom. In context of the 1840s pervasive euro anti-imperialist uprisings, Czar Nicholas I became suspicious of such a group like petrashevsky circle; Nicholas exposed the circle? mock execution? sentenced to Siberian exile; Bohdan Zaleski’s letter to Gogol

-Question arises: What to do about the problem of Russia’s political/cultural/socioeconomic imbalance

-Dostoevsky used his imprisonment as opportunity to understand stories of the other prisoners

-Mark: felt the pacing of this book was forward-moving

-Orlov’s character (pp 59): prime example of ‘having heart’… Dostoyevsky is sympathetic to Orlov because he is a murderer yet also quite human/has joy in him—counterexample is Gazin, much more cruel/contempt

-Dostoevsky’s transformation from this experience-realizes the “sages”? aka liberal intelligentsia from which he came, are really the ones who could learn a lot from labor convicts, not vice versa

-a big difference between two instances of Siberian labor camp – in 19th century, main purpose of prisoners was for Russian expansion, but more so in soviet Kolyma were prisoners sent there ultimately to die

  1. October 19– Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (Penguin, 1994 [1970]), 508

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New American, 2009 [1962]), 181

-Joe’s presentation on Varlam Shalamov (xxxx-1982)
> born in vologda & lives under bolshevik govt as a youth, forbidden from finishing primary education (father is a high profile priest)
> rehabilitation vs prison – deprivation of education as a form of imprisonment
> studies soviet law, joins student publication, in his 3rd year (1929) is arrested by Trotskyists, sent to Butyrka, sentenced to 3 yrs hard labor in Vizyka (?)
> ironic that he was sent back to Siberian region where he grew up, & left for Moscow in the first place because was forbidden from his education
> leaves prison, pursues journalism, arrested again in anti-Trotskyist activities in 1937 & sentenced to 5 more years hard labor in Siberia
> released October 15, 1951, takes him 2 years to save up to return to Moscow & there begins making headway w/ literary career

-Difference btw Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn – Kolyma tales has no cap on the suffering (Maya); whereas Solzhenitsyn’s story focuses on the small victories toward survival, like a bowl of soup (Avalon)

-Mark – Solzhenitsyn is about surviving, Shalamov more similar to “should I survive?”

-Mark – Kolyma tales has a thematic wholeness to them that distinguishes them from just a collection of stories; is also not just a memoir (“story cycle”?)

-Elena – we really just don’t know the form intended by the author – whether this is his story or other ppl’s story is irrelevant because it’s just a testimony to a captivity narrative – does captivity turn into an identity? —> irreducible humanity?

-skills that ppl had before captivity are often unhelpful after the fact

Shalamov-In many of the Tales, last sentence is a marked tonal shift/clinical departure from rest of the story. In “Condensed Milk,” last sentence is callous/mundane remark, that the speaker will now need to find a new wood chopping partner.

-Certain external factors capable of jerking the prisoners out of apathy/the march toward death

-How is suspense constructed? –How are these stories crafted?


Solzhenitsyn – born during Russian Rev; was Red Army captain in Prussia; was in/out of Ekibastuz, camp in Kazakhstan.

-Mark: Maybe next year I will assign Solzhenitsyn first, & Shalamov next… Since once you read Shalamov, you tend to get numbed to the subtleties of Solzhenitsyn.

-redemptive quality of work: traditionalist, soviet style…

-Natalie: There is also invocation of eastern philosophy, almost Buddhist or zen quality? emphasizes mindfulness, or the ‘Be Here Now’; rhythmic, meditative atmosphere;

-Elena: The little moments of resistance in Denisovich’s world, like his trowel, trying to help himself out generally; these moments are not also found in Shalamov

-What accounts for this distinct difference btw. Shalamov & Solzhenitsyn—a matter of attitude or of context?? important factors were 1) Kolyma was definitely the worst; 2) For sure there’s a generational difference, Solzhenitsyn was born into a post-Bolshevik world, but Shalamov was born a little earlier, enough to have witnessed more of the shift than Solzh.

-“A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing.”

  1. October 26– Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (Simon & Schuster, 1996 [1958]), 187

-Man is bound to pursue his own ends

-p. 15 – how people cope w. empowering death differently

-Shoa – film – wanted to depersonalize the killings -> Heim’ei’s speech appeal to SS to demonstrate courage

-Kolyma, the knowledge that one is going to die

-liminal condition of humanity, what you can be reduced to. – guilt, humanity, German’s enormous expense… What it cost him to survive

-p. 143 –> girls have position of power

-ashamed of his condition, retained his humanity, questions his sense of himself as a man.

-feels emasculated – those women are above them – p. 72

-Lorenzo p. 121 –> truly good person -clue to him I’ve alive, to survive, you need a sign the world outside is different

  1. November 9– Jean Genet, The Miracle of the Rose (Grove Press 1966 [1951]), 291

-born in 1910, went into Mettray in 1926 – no evidence that he was ever at Foutrevault, where in the novel he is ca. 30
-orphaned early in life; imprisoned a number of times in his youth for non-violent crimes—> so many that at one point he reached a mandatory life sentence
-during his time in prison he wrote a number of books; gained prominence and found allies in 1950s Paris intellectuals, who actually convinced French govt to to repeal his sentence, ultimately
-Proust influence in his writing
-the experience with his time in Mettray was an all-engulfing existence—rather than separate inner life and outer life
-p. 220 – “I love the act of stealing” — the speaker embraces and lives in a warped/perverted morality
-the morality of prison, espeicially in this book, is represented to be everything and all
-Taysa: to be a thief is to raise oneself to a masculine status
-Peymaan: “pride must be able to undergo shame” – this echoes the concept from Fish of “having heart,” the strength and will to overcome the shame of preconceived notions of morality
-Taysa – gangster mentality, the world has given me nothing, so I have to make my own rules in which I can succeed
-Jimmying locks – sexuality of crime – Maya: undeniable phallic symbolism here, very homoerotic book

Claire’s presentation: juvenile detention
colony of Mettray opened in 1839, originally based on prayer, work, silence, strict surveillance
Starting in 1880s, criticized for horrible conditions/repressive aims
youth incarceration in modern U.S.: most youth incarcerated in world; NY and NC both prosecute youth over 16 as adults
75% of youth incarceration charges are non-violent
Death penalty – in Genet, Harcamone is executed*

*the putting to death of Harcamone is a kind of sacrilege; i.e. he was a glorified figure who died on behalf of all the others… but does this contradict the charges on him of killing a 9-year-old girl
-beauty plays a large role in this hegemonic universe, whether physical literally or not… Harcamone is beautiful from the start, and by his death he has become more beautiful
-Question here of realism – what is the reality being constructed in this book, in this prison? Does it reflect something outside, or is it something else entirely?
Taysa: This book isn’t about prison, in the sense that there is NO outside world at all—all other depictions of prison always presuppose an exterior point of view. In this world, there is nothing that is not prison. Is like a dream – there is no reference to anything else besides prison. That is, until the other side is finally reached, just like waking up from a dream and reflecting on it
-analysis here of the various different parts of love – being submissive, being adored, being a master… Bulkaen is the main foreground character here
-Claire: p. 116, “I think that my love of prison is…”
-p. 264
-actual killing scene of the girl – p. 277 – “whenever I touch my eyes…”
^like everything else in the book, this is all described within the imagination of Genet
-Harcamone – “he was an emanation of a power stronger than himself”
-Mark: Love and Power might be the two dominating topics of this book
^power is derived in an inflected beauty
-Chloe: page 200: characterizes how Genet finds such beauty in very grotesque people and situations

  1. November 16– Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number (Wisconsin, 2002 [1980]), 164

-Mark: I heard about this book through my prof. Robert Cox in college, who gave me the NYTimes installments to read as they came out
-This book caused great deal of controversy, was denounced by many ppl including Reagan; parts of U.S. diplomacy certainly supported the dirty war, including Kissinger just upon leaving office
-“Los desaparecidos” in Argentina, Latin America during 1970s – ongoing “dirty war” in which supposed enemies of the state were being kidnapped, & was not acknowledged in public/media
-powerful account of: 1) euphemisms;
2) torture;
3) inside view of the right wing in the 1970s, who considered themselves vanguards against worldwide “terrorism”;
4) antisemitism
-Timerman of the belief that military coup was necessary, but also important to implement civil measures against terrorist activity
-Important dynamic: terrorism breeds counter-terrorism
-Maya: Márquez emphasized the solitude of Latin America; this notion of solitude complements the situation in 1970s Argentina of the extreme silence/isolation/helplessness of the gente
-Avalon: p. 50-52: choice to stay “out of politics and stay alive,” or to be silenced/alone.
-Patrick: the pattern of the totalitarian mind: p. 94-95 – oversimplification of a complex reality; parallel (minus violence, as of yet) to our own current Trumpian political climate
^another parallel: the language of conspiracy, transforming reality to fit your agenda/suspicions

Peymaan’s presentation, on justice and truth-telling:
-Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
-in 1990 – President Menem, despite opposition, tried to shape national memory via his pardon
-photography is arguably a more effective way of reshaping memory—humanizing
-“Ants used to come in and out, and I would watch these ants because they were coming in and then going out into the world. They were walking across the earth, the outside world, and then coming back in again, and watching them I didn’t feel so alone.” -Ledda Barreiro
^page 5 in Timerman: leaving the peephole ajar, “What a sensation of Freedom!”
-Gustavo Germano, “Ausencias (Argentina)” ( photos show a tenderness & reality upon the absence of loved ones from life
-Joäo de Carvalho Pina, about operation Condor & its victims
-Erica Canepa, “The Remaining” – explores the physicality of the Argentinian prisons; for example, the limited sight looking through a cell keyhole
-it’s not necessary to be traumatized/ruined to remember the past, and to remember that the trauma did occur

  1. November 23– Final Paper Precis due. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage, 1991[1978]), 281

– Timerman vs. Puig – biggest difference = Timerman is non-fiction, Puig is fiction
What is real in Puig? – Latin American leftist movements; the academic psychoanalytical references (Freud, etc.); the films;
– Walker: The use of footnotes as an added texture to the narrative here is something quite radical/something I haven’t seen before

– The compartmentalization of the narrative:
1. Central Dialogue
2. Film narratives
i. Cat People (1942)
ii. Nazi propaganda film [Paris Underground (1945)]
iii. [Racecar Driver]
iv. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
v. [Gilda]
3. Warden/Molina transcript
4. Surveillance report
5. Internal monologue
6. Final dream
7. Footnotes

– What is the use of the footnotes?
Walker: It is an act of the author to educate the reader, a la Limony Snicket
Natalie: In a book with otherwise no narrative voice at all, this is a way of providing that voice,     a quasi-scientific voice. Also, it is important and transgressive to provide objective (?) fact in a     context that represses/excludes references and fact

– If you had to tell someone who hadn’t read this book what the theme was, what would you say?
Patrick: about the romance between Molina and Valentín
Natalie: about having to take sides, between characters, taking political sides,
Walker: the medium is the message
Taysa: about masculinity, about the femme fatale

– Natalie: by falling in love with each other, molina and valentin free themselves of repression from sexual/gender structures; as well, by engaging in their cinema escapism, they somewhat manage to transcend the reality of their captivity – in a similar way, the novel is free from structure of a single distinct narrative format

– Mark: Its also worth saying that not only does the discussion of repression/freedom pervade sexuality, but also political repression..
This book is preoccupied with broadening the definition of freedom

– 60, 70% of the book is made up of these films… Why?
Ariel: many of the films subjects include themes of self-realization

– p. 59-63, when Molina and Valentin kiss… and then Molina says “You have to give me all the information… for your friends…”
-Taysa: Valentin gave up his old idea of manhood for a new one, and Molina gave up his old self-denial/deference for a new role as agent

-La Historia Oficial (1985):

  1. November 30– Early Final Paper Bonus Deadline. Nawal el Saadawi, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (U of California, 1994 [1983]), 204

Suggested: Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (Zed, 2007 [1975]), 142

-Chloe’s presentation on the femme fatale in film noir:
-femme fatale a frequent and powerful character role in noir film (films in KOTSW)
-Cat People (1942): cat people = bridge btw expressionist style and film noir; internal feelings/    darkness of characters externalized via lighting effects; “Lewton Bus” technique; psychological     sexual horror: castration anxiety, female frigidity;
-Molina – power of the femme fatale’s sexuality over the public
-I Walked with a Zombie (1943): voodoo magic vs. tropical fever dream; eastern vs western     medicine; eroticism of the defenseless woman
-the idea of the femme fatale is somewhat internalized by Molina, he wants to embody it

-there is a performative nature to being human, we behave in accordance with certain roles/identities, sexual or otherwise (Molina)—>  what is even the difference between

-the whole novel is kind of a seduction of Valentín

-Maya on Puig: the way the book was written implies staging opportunity… the emotions/subtext is evoked through multiple forms of narrative

-Taysa’s presentation Feminism in Egypt
-in ancient Egypt, gender roles were relatively more equal; confinement of women to the home     cited as something that came from West
-Egyptian Feminist Union (1923-1939)
-Egyptian Feminist Party (1942)
-1952: Army seized control & ousted King (British puppet), Nasser regime began—> all political     parties incl. feminist went
-El Saadawi reawakens feminism in 1970s with Women and Sex, receives much backlash
Current Egyptian Feminism: both muslim feminist movement, and a secular movement
-Islamic feminism: rooted in deep faith – rather than get to the same point as men, goal should     be to get to God, views wearing the hijab as a woman’s choice and something liberated
-Secular feminism: interprets the Quran as giving more rights to men than women; quite similar     to third wave feminism in the u.s.; is indebted to el Saadawi
-street harassment in Egypt is a major issue; marital rape is still legal

-at the bottom of Saadawi’s writing is a deep commitment to women’s liberation; Memoirs from the women’s prison is also a book that is a picture of autocracy, and the role of writing in it

-Elena’s presentation on Nawal el Saadawi
-born in 1931 in Kafr Tahla, Egypt
-from a mixed-class situation; father was from a higher-class background than mother
-does not view the veil, or FGM as a choice
-“I cannot believe in a God who is not just”… thinks religion is inextricable from politics
-“Plastic surgery is a postmodern veil” – Saadawi equates nudity with the veil
-was arrested in 1981 for her controversial writings, was imprisoned for several months
-left Egypt and traveled Europe & U.S. to teach, returned to Egypt in 1995
-the head of the Mubarak regime has been removed since 2011, but “the body is still there”…

-her political technique: insisting on her way until she gets it, asserting the law as it is written until it is realized

-fathia is kind a doppelgänger, alter ego of Saawadi – Fathia uses the hoe, Saawadi uses her pen (although she could have used the hoe, too, as she is from peasant-ish background)

-Avalon: passage on p.174, news that Sadat died, the reaction to it: the secular and the religious coming together, female solidarity

-ppl in Middle East hate us bcuz we support the autocrats in charge there

-Taysa: passage on 133: focus on body and the female body, her cat-like fingernails, the strength of the body in a state that could imply weakness,

-p. 183-184: the women banging on the prison bars

-Saawadi’s “ego”? She has a self-empowerment/self-assertion that is noticeable and effective

  1. Monday, December 5– Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Blinding Absence of Light (Penguin, 2006 [2001]), 195

-Patrick’s presentation on creation/operation of Tazmamart prison

-background King Hassan and the Coup d’etat

-Hassan survived assasination attempt twice

-Tazmamart cells – 5 ft high, underground, each prisoner assigned own guard for life
-58 prisoners, 18 guards—two bunkers; total of 35 prisoners died throughout 18 years in operation
-Nancy Touil, American journalist
-Gilles Perrault, Notre ami le Roi

-What kind of book is this? Fiction? Memoir? Truth?

-Jelloun – this is a nonfiction novel, but perhaps some fictional liberties taken; and either way, this story takes place largely in Samir’s own mind

-Patrick – is likely that most of the prisoners were not entirely aware they were performing a coup, they were convinced in thinking they were under threat

-Joe – we are all very much outsiders to this kind of experience, so we can’t have authority over whether this is real or not; distinction btw experience in the testimony and perhaps what the rest of us would consider reality

-Mark: prisoners must insist upon preserving the mind, while the body is taken away from them; this implies a divorce between thoughts and physical experiences

-Walker: this book was so different than others we’ve read, specifically in that it seemed so profoundly foreign/unlike anything else; almost read like a science fiction book

-First three pages – introduce some prevalent themes, the displacement of one’s senses & suspension of one’s mental experience; the existence of and personally becoming into darkness; living vs being dead underground

-Patrick: how much was Jelloun actually the author of this account – we don’t know that Samir didn’t create those images/poetry himself

-Elena: p. 43, Samir vowed for his story to be passed on; this book is a kind of truth in that it is a record/account

-Taysa: another way to say this is, the author has performed a translation of Samir’s book

-Walker: p. 111, the recitation of Camus; reveals both the vanishing of samir’s memory of the text, but then also his consistent retrieval of the words in the Stranger

–    ^ To that end, this is part of what is at heart of this account: necessary for self-preservation to suspend time in only the present, not identifying with any past time or future time; but also, the narrative still includes more concrete markers of time (i.e. deaths of other prisoners)

-Elena: p. 78, discussion of his mother and her steadfast/unambiguous character

  1. December 7– Final Paper Due. Malcolm Braly, On The Yard (New York Review, 2002 [1967]), 376

-Return to America, a “slice of life” in American prison

-Prison representing failure – a failure of life vs. A moment when prison itself is life

-Different from memoir, in that it doesn’t really go deeply into memories/psyche of a singular character

-The story is the story of what is happening in American prison – i.e., their story of prison is the story of all the characters

-Relationship between Juleson and Chilly

Juleson – pencils & books

Chilly – Kind of attractive

-p. 92 – cigarettes stolen – done simply because he can–> power dynamic

-question of who really runs the prison, rather than just presiding over it

-Agon – decision not to lock up

-possible to love someone who is a boy, even if they are characterized as being a girl?

-Chilly’s self realization – “that he can love somebody,” vs self-destruction; don’t be vulnerable – you will be destroyed, will suffer

  1. December 14–Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (Delta, 1999 [1968), 236

-Cleaver rose to prominence in 1960s as a leading African American intellectual/political revolutionary, & specifically as minister of information for the Black Panther party
    > Soul on Ice was a best-seller when published in 1968, was NY Times book of the year, was used as a guidebook by left-l    leaning radicals in civil rights movement
    > It was after incarceration in 1958 that Cleaver converted to Nation of Islam; left it in 1963     when Malcolm X did
   > Cleaver’s lawyer Beverly Axelrod helped get him published while still in prison—> led to     support/acclaim from other American intellectuals/writers, like Norman Mailer
-Mark: this book is meant to be a provocation; if you have a problem with some/all of it, I recommend you go back through it
-Remarkably resonant of BLM
-This book belongs in the top of the list of prison literature
-Taysa: cultural appropriation by white women of women of color that we currently see – it’s interesting/important to track the history of this

Selected Narratives of Captivity

Jack Henry Abbott, Within the Belly of the Beast

Alexandre Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Eugenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind

Alexander Solzhensityn, The Gulag Archipelago

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the House of the Dead

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales

 Malcolm Braly, On the Yard

Marquis de Sade, Letters from Prison

John L’Heureux, The Shrine at Altamira

George Jackson, Soledad Brother

Miguel Pinero, Short Eyes

Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

 Jean Genet, The Miracle of the Rose

 Nawal el Saadawi, Memoirs From The Women’s Prison

 Nawal el Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

e.e. cummings, The Enormous Room

Xavier de Maistre, Voyage Around My Room

 Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary

Jack London, Pinched

Tadeuz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen

  1. Bruce Franklin (ed),Prison Writings in 20thCentury America

Francois Bizot, The Gate

Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga

Breyten Breytenbach, Confessions of an Albino Terrorist

Henri Alleg, The Question

Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist

Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy

Kang Chol-hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Rithy Panh, The Elimination

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Primo Levi, A Man’s A Man

Martin Luther King Jr., Letters from the Birmingham Jail

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

Mehdi Zana, Prison No. 5: Eleven Years in Turkish Jails

Billy Hayes, Midnight Express

Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café

Mahmoud Saeed, Saddam City

Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Blinding Absence of Light

Russell Banks, The Relation of My Imprisonment

Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive

Sonallah Ibrahim, That Smell and Notes from Prison

T.J. Parsell, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

Chris Abani, Kalakuta Republic

 Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman

John Cheever, Falconer

Bobby Sands, One Day In My Life

John Fowles, The Collector


The Glass House

Short Eyes

The Kiss of the Spider Woman


The Shawshank Redemption

Escape From Alcatraz


Blood In, Blood Out

Midnight Express

Cool Hand Luke


The Great Escape

American History X

Dead Man Walking

Caged Heat

Grand Illusion

In the Name of the Father

Birdman of Alcatraz

The Green Mile

A Prophet

Midnight Express

A Man Escaped


Starred Up

Stalag 17

Lion’s Den

The Hill


Bridge Over the River Kwai


The Grey Zone

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich