Prison Memories: Reconstructing Subjectivity in Latifa al-Zayyat’s Personal Papers

Document Type : Original Article


Department of English Language and Literature, Cairo University


The paper traces subjectivity reconstruction in Latifa al-Zayyat’s self-referential life narrative Hamlet Taftīsh: Awrāq Shakhseya [A Search Campaign: Personal Papers], first published in 1992. The paper contributes to the literature on al-Zayyat’s oeuvre by reading her narrative in light of life writing studies, focusing on prison memories and their bearings on subjectivity reconstruction. Adopting Karen Caplan’s conceptualization of ‘outlaw genres’ as an analytic tool, the paper traces the disruption of the individuated authorial presence of the autonomous subject, and the organizational patterns of autobiography proper. The paper contends that these acts of subversion are liberatory narrative strategies that emerge as a response to the subject’s experiential realities of political activism and subsequent detention. Al-Zayyat employs episodic nonlinearity, polyphony of narrative voices, and overlapping discursive modes of self-narration as experimental interventions to reconstruct a fragmented multi-vocal subjectivity, troubled in and by its unfinished becoming. The paper also discusses al-Zayyat’s unpublished prison memoir, in an attempt to imagine its location in the trajectory of her subjectivity reconstruction as an author and political activist. The paper concludes that al-Zayyat actively intervenes in the fabric of her life narrative with a collective authorial position to reconstruct her subjectivity through the negotiated co-presence of the private and public. The personal experiences of girlhood and marriage intertwine with the collective historical past of anticolonial resistance and sociopolitical struggles. The reconstructed subjectivity is, thus, manifested in a self-narrating subject actively re-formed through a pluralized ‘I,’ whose history is re-membered via self-identification with intersubjective pasts and collective memories.