Lit & Found: Ahmed Naji & Mona Kareem Talk Prison Literature

As Mona Kareem writes in her introduction to this interview with Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji for The Millionshe has been many types of writer already: “an anonymous blogger, a cultural journalist, a music and arts critic, a novelist, and now a memoirist as well,” whose recent book — Rotten Evidence, translated to English by Katharine Halls — re-invents the genre of “prison literature.”

In part, Naji said:

I’ve noticed that many writers of prison literature tend to act as voyeurs, captivated by the diversity of people they find themselves with. Prisons and detention centers are spaces where people from different classes and backgrounds are forced to live together, so the writer meets the people he will usually never encounter.

But writers often tokenize these individuals, sharing their stories and secrets without their consent; this really bothers me. Often when political prisoners write about their experiences and label other inmates as “drug dealers” or “thieves,” just because authorities have given them these labels. It’s ironic because these same authorities might label the political prisoner as a “terrorist,” yet their fellow inmates wouldn’t call them that.

This is just one example of the ethical issues that can crop up in prison literature. I chose not to follow this path, not just because it conflicts with my own writing ethics but because it’s unfair to the people I lived with for over a year. More importantly, my goal went beyond simply writing a dramatic story or appealing to the reader, I wanted to create something that truly examines the concept of prison on a global scale, encouraging us to think of alternatives.

Read the whole, beautiful conversation at The Millions.