Literary Zone

Malawian writer Jack Mapanje

26 October 2020 at 15:39 | 2346 views

Jack Mapanje (born 25 March 1944) is a Malawian writer and poet. He was the head of English at Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi before being imprisoned in 1987 for his collection Of Chameleons and Gods, which indirectly criticized the administration of President Hastings Banda. He was released in 1991 and emigrated to the UK, where he worked as a teacher.

The child of Nyanja and Yao parents, John Alfred Clement ("Jack") Mapanje was born in Kadango Village, Mangochi District, Malawi. He received his BA in education from the University of London and worked for a time as a lecturer in Malawi before returning to the UK to study linguistics at University College, London in the early 1980s.

He subsequently became head of the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Malawi.

During the rule of President Hastings Banda, Mapanje was jailed without charge in 1987, apparently for publishing his poem collection Of Chameleons and Gods.The collection obliquely criticized Banda’s government, and the "chameleon" of the title refers to the disguise of personal voice Mapanje deemed necessary in order to mount a criticism of the politics at the time. The book received no official ban, but was "withdrawn from circulation". Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his release. Its protests included a reading of selections from Of Chameleons and Gods outside the Malawian High Commission in London by UK Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Mapanje was also awarded the 1990 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award during his imprisonment, which carried a US$3,000 cash award. PEN’s president, US novelist Larry McMurtry, stated that "the point [of the award] is to generate enough heat so Mapanje gets out of jail". Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and UK playwright Ronald Harwood also campaigned for his release.

Mapanje was held for three-and-a-half years before being released in 1991. After his release, he was told he needed to reapply for his previous professorship at the University of Malawi. After a lengthy delay in his application, he instead emigrated to the UK. He wrote a memoir about the experience, And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, which was also adapted into a play.

After arriving in the UK, Mapanje was awarded a fellowship at The University of York. He later became a visiting professor at Leeds University. He also taught creative writing in prisons.

In 1994, he returned to Malawi with BBC2 to make a documentary.

Chameleon politics
He is credited for applying the term "chameleon politics" to describe a political environment where politicians switch parties and forge alliances without transparency or notice in rapidly changing political environments where party switching, floor crossing, and coalition formations are rampant.The notion is described in his 1981 book, Of Chameleons and Gods.

Of Chameleons and Gods, 1981
On the Interpretation of Aspect and Tense in Chiyao, Chicheŵa, and English. University College London Ph.D. thesis, 1983
The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, 1993
The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New and Selected Poems, 2004
The Beasts of Nalunga, 2007
And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night – a memoir. Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2011

1988 Rotterdam Poetry International Award
1990 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award
2002 African Literature Association (USA) Fonlon-Nichols Award