The history of French literature is full of acclaimed writers who wrote from prison: Madame Roland, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet. The 20th century is particularly rich in texts from and about life behind prison walls. Indeed, in Surveiller et punir, Michel Foucault posits that the prison is one of the hallmarks of modernity because of the way it reconfigures, reimagines and redeploys the power of the state. In 20th-century France, which saw a violent transition from a colonial to a postcolonial period, the prison also represents a lens through which to consider the changing power of the French state as it continued to both confine and circulate bodies in post/colonial geographies.
In its conspicuous gender segregation, the prison is also an interesting place from which to interrogate the intersections between gender norms, sexuality, and state regulation. If practices within prison walls are highly codified in gendered terms, crimes and their punishments are also highly gendered by both the judicial system and the public who learns about them. And release from prison forces former inmates to face all sorts of challenging situations informed by gendered embodiment.
This panel seeks to highlight literary texts from and about incarcerated people, paying special attention to the role of gender and/or colonization and decolonization as they are thematized in the texts, and as they allowed for this type of textual production in the first place. What does literature have to say about the experience of incarceration? Why do incarcerated writers turn to fiction to document their experiences or to otherwise express themselves? Why is a French reading public so hungry for these accounts?
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