Mapanje (Jack) Archive

Scope and Content

Personal papers of Jack Mapanje including correspondence, press cuttings, books and draft manuscripts relating to his time as a political prisoner in Malawi, the campaign for his release and the publication of his poetry.

Administrative / Biographical History

Jack Mapanje was born in Malawi in 1944, growing up in Kadango village in the Mangochi district. He attended school at Kadango, Chikwana Mission, and Zomba Catholic Secondary School before attending the University of Malawi where he was awarded a B.A. degree and a diploma in Education. He then studied for an MPhil. in English and Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. In 1975, Jack returned to Malawi, teaching in secondary schools before becoming a lecturer in the Department of English at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. He returned to the UK to study for a Ph.D. in Linguistics, which he was awarded from University College London in 1983, and then resumed his post at the University of Malawi, where he eventually became Head of the Department of English.

Jack first started to write poetry from despair at the political situation in Malawi; his first collection, Of Chameleons and Gods, was published in the UK in 1981 by Heinemann. The collection was critically acclaimed around the world, but withdrawn from circulation in Malawi in June 1985 by the government of dictator Hastings Banda. In September 1987, Jack was arrested and detained without charge or trial in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi. During his imprisonment, Of Chameleons and Gods won the Rotterdam Poetry International Award in 1988, and Jack was subsequently also awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 1990, recognising his fight for freedom of expression. Despite an international campaign by numerous writers, linguists, and human rights activists, including Harold Pinter, Wole Soyinka, Susan Sontag, and Noam Chomsky amongst others, Jack was not released until May 1991, and was given no explanation of his detention. During his time in prison, he wrote his second collection of poetry, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1993), and much of his third, Skipping without Ropes (1998).

After leaving Malawi with his wife and children, Jack settled in Britain, where he has lived ever since, and has held numerous prestigious posts in universities, the first of these being a fellowship at the University of York in 1992. He was later an Honorary Visiting Professional Fellow in the School of English at the University of Leeds, where he taught a degree course between 1993 and 1996, and edited the collection Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing (2002) based on this course. Jack held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Leeds Trinity University from 1999–2001, and has since held a post as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Literatures of Incarceration at Newcastle University. Most recently, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bedfordshire in 2015 and has held a Visiting Professorship post in the Faculty of Arts at York St John University.

Jack has collaborated extensively with charitable trusts and foundations since his release, and worked with the BBC, returning to Malawi to film a documentary with them in 1994. In 2002, his poem 'Seashells of Bridlington North Beach' was broadcast by Julian May on BBC Radio 4 as part of National Poetry Day, and in October 2004, he was a castaway on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. Jack was also Poet in Residence at The Wordsworth Trust, based at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Cumbria, from 2002–2004. In 2006, he collaborated with the newly-founded Bilimankhwe Arts on After Mikuyu in partnership with Ovalhouse, and collaborated with them again in 2008 for a rehearsed reading of his play The President's Tobacco at The Young Vic as part of International PEN's Free the Word! Festival at London's South Bank.

Throughout his career, Jack has written and edited several books of poetry. Prior to his arrest, he co-edited two collections of African poetry, Oral Poetry from Africa: an anthology (1983) and Summer Fires: New Poetry of Modern Africa (1983). Since his release, he has co-edited The African Writers' Handbook (1999) and edited the oral literature journal, Kalulu. In 2002, he was awarded the African Literature Association (USA) Fonlon-Nichols Award for his contribution to African poetry and human rights. He selected and edited the poetry of David Rabadiri in An African Thunderstorm & Other Poems (2004), for which he also wrote an introduction. Jack published two further collections of his own poetry in the 2000s, The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New & Selected Poems (2004) and Beasts of Nalunga (2007), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Poetry Collection of the Year. In 2011, he published his memoir And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, and has published a further poetry collection, Greeting from Grandpa (2016).

Access Information

Access restrictions apply to parts of this collection in accordance with the United Kingdom's Data Protection Act 1998 and Freedom of Information Act 2000. See individual items for further details on where these restrictions apply. Where restrictions do not apply, access is open to bona fide researchers; appointment in advance and proof of identity required. Please see for further details.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by Jack Mapanje in 2016.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make published use of any material from Newcastle University's Special Collections must be sought in writing from the Special Collections Librarian (email: ) and from the copyright owner if appropriate. The library will assist where possible with the identification of copyright owners, but the responsibility to obtain copyright clearance rests with the user.


No further accruals expected.

Related Material

Jack Mapanje was interviewed by 'Poetry Spotlight: Poets and their Poems' in 2016. The interview can be found at .


Geographical Names