The Last Of The Sweet Bananas: New And Selected Poems
Because he was a radical poet-his first book of poems was banned-JACK MAPANJE was imprisoned without trial or charge by the dictator Hastings Banda of Malawi for nearly four years. The themes of his poetry range from the search for a sense of dignity and integrity under a repressive regime, incarceration, release from prison, exile and return to Africa, and reconciliation with torturers, to the writer in Africa and the continuing African liberation struggle in a hostile world. His poems are lifted up by a generosity of spirit and irrepressible humor that helped sustain him through his prison ordeal.
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I haven’t read a lot of poetry, especially modern poetry. However, some of the stuff I have read ranks alongside my favourite novels in terms of the depth of response they produce in me. ‘The Last of the Sweet Bananas’ contains very large excerpts from four of Mapanje’s books and a few new (in 2003) poems. The four books chart Mapanje’s feelings about his home country, firstly the hope after Malawi’s independence from the British Empire, then the disappointment watching an autocratic dictator (Hastings Banda) take control, and finally the bitterness of his own imprisonment without charge and his forced exile to Britain. I though the first two collections (‘Mau’ and ‘Of Chameleons and Gods’) were good, the third (‘The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison’) was excellent, but it was the fourth (‘Skipping Without Ropes’) that really blew me away. In that book Mapanje expresses the bitterness of his 4 years in jail, recalls the fates of friends and political figures ‘accidentalised’ in the prisons by the Banda regime, and writes about his new life in Europe. I think it is the way in which Mapanje switches focus from a brutal prison and murderous regime in Malawi to the twee streets of York (a city I know very well) and Norway, then back to observe genocides in Rwanda and the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria. As he does this, you are always aware of the identity of the writer, providing a continuity between very different situations and parts of the globe, reminding the reader that all these things exist in one world, and that one world bears a collective responsibility. Without reading works like Mapanje’s, it can sometimes be difficult (for me, anyway) to remember that a Malawian prison and the Bridlington seaside can both be on the same planet at the same time. His writing is angry and direct, and he is bitter and judgmental. This is a wonderful collection. If you can’t get your hands on the whole thing, I would suggest trying to get ‘Skipping Without Ropes’, but really, all of these books are worth experiencing.
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