The Not so Good Earth

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  • Topic: Nawal El Saadawi, Woman, Egypt
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Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(2): 162–174 (2005)

A Journey to Prison of Two Young Women, Lemona and Firdaus
RAISA SIMOLA University of Joensuu, Finland

In prisons, there are short-term and long-term prisoners, guilty and innocent people. Common to all of them is, however, that they have come to prison. Prisons generally have a shortage of material goods and shortage of positive external stimuli. But one thing is not lacking there: time. And time is the thing that prisoners in different ways try to shorten. For example, they start making journeys of the mind, mental journeys. What are the events and factors that caused my journey to prison? The roots of European prison literature go back a long way. In Africa, prison literature is much younger; this is not only because written literature there is quite recent but also because the prison institution has been spread in Africa by the white colonialists. Last century has been the ‘golden age’ of prison literature: “the twentieth century has produced as many prisoners and prison writers as in the entire previous history of man” (Davies 1990: 7). The prison writing of political prisoners has been viewed as the greatest menace to society: “One written word in the political cell is a more serious matter than having a pistol. Writing is more serious than killing.” (Saadawi 1991: 73.) In this paper I deal with two works of prison fiction. The first, Lemona’s Tale (1996), was written by the Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa (1944–1995) and the other, A Woman at the Point Zero (first published 1975) by the Egyptian Nawal elSaadawi (1931–). Both writers have also written their own prison memoirs, documentary works (Saro-Wiwa: A Month and a Day. A Detention Diary, 1995; Saadawi: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, 1986). Thus, in this respect, they are similar. However, one comes from Nigeria and the other from Egypt, one is a man, the other a woman. When we read their fiction texts next to and overlapping each other, what is the image that results?

LEMONA’S TALE
Lemona’s Tale is a monologue by a 52-year-old woman in the Port Harcourt prison a day before her execution. Lemona’s story consists not only of immediate actions, which make the prison journey, but it becomes a reduced autobiography. Or in other words: no less than an (auto)biography is needed for telling why Lemona came into the prison.

A Journey to Prison Lemona starts telling her story from the very beginning, from her birth: she was the only child of a poor single mother. Due to a lack of money Lemona has had to leave the school and give up her “first dream”, her plan to become a nurse. Lemona’s tale is not only a story of coming into prison but of giving up the dreams as well. Lemona’s dominant features include a kind of passivity, a defenceless attitude, becoming an object of events. The earliest incident originates from her school times. Someone had broken Lemona’s water pot, and when the culprit remained silent, the teacher decided that Lemona was to blame and he gave her six strokes. I held myself and refused to cry although I was hurting badly. And all that day at school, I refused to say a word to anyone. I would not answer questions in class, and there was not a tear in my eye. – The story eventually got to my mother, and she questioned me as to what had happened. I refused to answer her questions and maintained a stolid silence thereafter. (13) The next incident of keeping silent happens when Mrs. Mana becomes furious after having learnt about the relationship between her husband and Lemona. “Deep down inside me, I hurt, and hurt badly too. But you would not have guessed it from my face. I did not utter a word throughout her tirade.” (30) Mrs. Mana pours all her rage on the underage Lemona while the primary culprit, Mr. Mana, quietly disappears into his room. Without a word, Lemona leaves her workplace. It is also illuminating that people usually pick up Lemona like a thing; the Scottish John Smith even...
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