The Next Chapter

Jordan Tannahill recommends three books written about captivity

The playwright and columnist talks about No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout.
Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning, playwright, author and theatre director from Ottawa. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on Nov. 23, 2019.

Jordan Tannahill is a playwright, filmmaker, author, theatre director and The Next Chapter columnist. Tannahill won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for drama for Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom and wrote his debut novel Liminal in 2018.

The Ottawa-born and U.K.-based Tannahill recently took part in the Extinction Rebellion protests earlier in 2019. He was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 15 hours. The experience got him thinking about freedom and resistance.

He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three books that explore captivity.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, translated by Omid Tofighian 

No Friend but the Mountains is a nonfiction book by Behrouz Boochani. (Jason Garman, Amnesty International, Anansi International)

"Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer activist who fled Iran seeking asylum. In 2008, he was human smuggled in a leaking ship from Indonesia to Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. The boat was intercepted and he was brought to Manus Island which was the immigration detention centre designed to stymie the flow of asylum seekers into Australia. 

The book is a testament of the human spirit's power to overcome and resist a system that seeks to crush it.

"He was kept on Manus Island for months and months and wrote a harrowing account of his imprisonment there. He wrote the entire book through WhatsApp messages that eventually made their way to his Farsi translator in London. This is a great theme throughout captivity literature — the means of writing these texts dictate the content of the texts. The book is a testament of the human spirit's power to overcome and resist a system that seeks to crush it."

Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan writer and academic. (Penguin Classics,

"This is seen as one of the first novels written in Kikuyu, which is a Kenyan language. Thiong'o was incarcerated following the 1977 production of his play, I Will Marry When I Want. Devil on the Cross is an astounding work of captivity literature and he wrote it entirely on prison-issue toilet paper. 

The act of writing becomes a chronicle for his own mental isolation.

"This book makes one think about the material circumstances of his act of writing, particularly in relation to the psychological and physical deprivations of his captivity. It creates a sense of urgency and it's also an extreme meditative act. He's completely deprived of any sort of outside news or outside stimulation. The act of writing becomes a chronicle for his own mental isolation."

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

Amanda Lindhout is a Canadian humanitarian, public speaker and journalist. (Scribner, Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"This is a bit different than the other books because it was written post-captivity. She was kidnapped in 2008 while in Somalia with an Australian photojournalist named Nigel Brennan. They were held for 15 months and tortured. Lindhout was raped and they both converted to Islam as a means of survival. It's a harrowing account of survival. 

It's a harrowing account of survival.

"What connects for this book with these other works is this imaginative space that is described as 'The House in the Sky,' or the mental place she would escape to when enduring physical and psychological trauma. It is this tranquil spiritual place of oneness that enabled her to survive her ordeal in captivity." 

Jordan Tannahill's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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