Narrative behind bars

Although the narratives I work with were not written during incarceration itself, they do comment on the importance of prison texts. In the introductions adorning each narrative, the writers highlight how they were compelled to write: ‘me urgía’ [it beseeched me] (Doña, 1978: intro); ‘quería reviver una historia […] silenciada’ [I wanted to relive a silenced history] (García, 1982: intro); ‘me desasosegaba’ [I was anxious to] (O’Neill, 2003: intro). Their experiences of prison are contained within narrative, categorically intertwined with narrative. For the political prisoners under Spain’s Francoist dictatorship, the significance of narrative is both personal and political, both during incarceration and after release. 

Whilst behind bars, the inmates sought solace and support through stories and texts. In their communal experience of prison they shared the stories of their pasts, families, and friends. For the women separated from society and forced to endure the brutalities of the Francoist prisons, the act of storytelling constituted ‘un alivio’ [a relief] (Doña 1978: 225) for the women. It allowed them escape from their imprisonment, but more importantly, it provided the inmates with the opportunity to work through and excise the traumas of their detentions, often accompanied by severe physical and emotional torture and sexual abuse. 

The prisoners, however, did not just rely on oral narratives but also written texts, to provide them with relief, support, and escape. Throughout Una mujer en la guerra de España [A woman in the war of Spain], Carlota O’Neill references a myriad literary works that she uses to explain her emotions, escape the prison walls, and evade her solitude, including García Lorca and Dante. Similarly, prisoner Soledad Real describes the significance of literary texts for the inmates who organised ‘la lectura collective de libros’ [collective reading of books] (García, 1982: 141) and ‘una especie de biblioteca ambulante’ [a sort of moving library] (Ibid: 189). For the prisoners, reading these texts constituted a vital means for distracting and providing emotional and moral support. The books were prohibited by prison authorities, and any woman found with them during the surprise searches would be punished in solitary confinement.

Reading materials additionally provided a form of socio-political support for the inmates. Imprisoned for political reasons by a fascist regime, the prisoners believed that WWII would put a stop to the spread of fascism across Europe, and with an Allied victory, Francoism would fall. Following the passage of the Allied forces thus gave the inmates a political lifeline for survival. New arrivals brought in information about current affairs and the war and packages from family and friends contained smuggled news items. Real explains that messages were passed ‘Ya en un bocadillo, ya en un tuvo [sic] de pasta de dientes o en una cazuela de doble fondo’ [in a sandwich, in a tube of toothpaste, or in a double-bottomed saucepan] (García 1982: 104). Information became a lifeline for the inmates which they clung to clandestinely through smuggled messages. 

Alongside news about current affairs, political pamphlets and paraphernalia were also shared amongst prisoners. These constituted contraband materials and any prisoner found with texts pertaining to political parties was subject to extreme levels of punishment. However, the inmates fought against the prohibition of political reading materials smuggling in, reproducing, and even writing their own pamphlets and newspapers. These were particularly important to the inmates as they allowed them to keep up to date with party activism and maintain their political beliefs and subjectivities. For female prisoners who were categorically and legally denied political status by the Francoist dictatorship, access to these materials and the political subjectivity it provided was a means of reaffirming and constructing a politicised female subjectivity. 

Narrative behind bars thus provided a great degree of personal and political support for prisoners segregated from society through both the brick walls and barred windows of the prison building and the censoring and prohibition of materials by Francoism. The prisoners fought against the banning of narratives in order to ensure their own survival. Narratives within prison provided means for this survival – emotionally, personally, and politically. Limiting access to written materials is an attack on these levels of support, akin to the brutalisms of authoritarianism. 

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