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Reading Revolution
Shakespeare on Robben Island
Shakespeare's work gives hope and inspiration to the political prisoners held on apartheid South Africa's infamous Robben Island.
"Somehow, Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us." —Nelson Mandela

The prison authorities on apartheid South Africa's Robben Island strictly censored the reading materials inmates received from the outside world. Yet, the prisoners cleverly managed to smuggle political literature disguised as religious texts, into their communal cells. The works of Shakespeare resonated deepest amongst the inmates for their anti-colonial and anti-apartheid inspirations, as much as for the power and beauty of their words. Through the memories and biographical accounts written by former political inmates including Nelson Mandela, Reading Revolution evocatively depicts the power of these great works. We see how words can inspire the human spirit, light up the intellect, and free the reader to travel the world. The book, with nearly fifty pages of four-color illustrations, ignites once more, a reading revolution, to stir up the imagination in a South Africa whose democratic transition seeks to consolidate power from above, while being increasingly contested by insurgent protest from below.
Reviews

  • “Ashwin Desai troubles dominant narratives about Robben Island in this magisterial work. He offers fresh perspectives, attentiveness to previously neglected voices, and a range of difficult questions about the legacies of South Africa’s struggle stalwarts in the post-Mandela era. And he’s a damned good storyteller.”
    —Verne Harris, Head: Memory Programming, Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory at the Nelson Mandela Foundation

    "Reading Revolution is nothing if not a testament to the power of the printed word to transport individuals beyond the dismal confines of their immediate environments to a place in which the construction of new spaces, and the forging of new futures, can be imagined, debated, planned and realized."
    Insurgent Notes

    “Besides the multiple ironies Desai uncovers and the moving and horrifying stories, what shines through this book is the passion for learning among the prisoners, from a simple longing to read and write so there was no need to ask for help with precious private letters to and from loved ones, to serious study for matric, undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Reading was a means of keeping sane, as well as a means of self-improvement, and those with knowledge taught others, often while they were working in the quarry. There could be few better tributes to the power of the written word.”
    —The Witness

    “There have been literally hundreds of books written about the apartheid period in South Africa, both by outsiders and those who fought and suffered under the system. Reading Revolution provides a unique perspective on the anti-apartheid struggle and a fascinating insight into how literature can sustain resistance and keep hope alive, as well as fundamentally changing lives.”
    —Review 31

    “We owe much to Desai for bringing forward one in which reading, imagination and political ideals could go hand in hand…. Robben Island has simplified into legend, but Desai’s glossily illustrated book brings the daily achievements of those prisoners to life again. Their vision and fortitude reminds us of what is missing from our world of patronage, cronyism, greed and corruption.”
    —The Mail and Guardian

    “Reading Revolution is a poignant and insightful look at the books Robben islanders loved, in particular the plays of the Bard that they were drawn to during their long, enforced sojourn on Robben Island. It’s a story crying out to be made into a film…. This is a beautifully presented, unusual and carefully crafted book and several new and surprising facts about beloved icons are brought to light. In doing so, Reading Revolution records a part of the biographies of the founding fathers of the new South Africa that will now rightly go down in posterity. It strikes an extraordinary, utterly un-donnish and altogether beautiful note in a rather cluttered and uneven symphony of struggle historiography.”
    —Terence Pillay, Daily News

    “In his typical provocative style, Ashwin Desai carefully, yet critically presents a fresh perspective on the education of political prisoners on the island. His book is even more relevant today when the narrative of Robben Island, and that of the broader struggle against apartheid, have become highly contested within the context of building a new South Africa. He does more than just presenting the often glorified picture of prisoners toiling in the quarries which were also used for their education. He assists the reader to navigate through the complicated terrain of hunger for education during a time when education was denied to a large section of the South African population. He shows how Robben Island’s prisoners triumphed against adversity by using passages from Shakespeare, an unlikely source of revolutionary political education in the context of the struggle for liberation. I hope this book serves as an inspiration to more writers to write about the multi-layered history of this world-renowned island, whose prisoners’ experiences imbued humanity with a sense of hope.”
    —Sibongiseni Mkhize, chief executive of the Robben Island Museum

    “In Reading Revolution, one cannot help but thinking about the present as one pages through the past. The struggles, the ideals, the dreams that course through the pages somehow does not gel with what is present day South Africa. And then one reads the final chapter. Here Ashwin Desai vividly stitches the past into the present. And here lies the power of the book, because its not just another story that sees to use the history of Robben Island as a backdrop to redemption but as a critique and spur to renewed activism.”
    —Marcus Solomon, Prisoner Number: 369/64, Robben Island 1964–1974

    “Ashwin Desai’s Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island comes crucially at a time when textbooks and libraries are being destroyed in South Africa. Political circumstances can inspire reading cultures just as much as they can inhibit them, demonstrating their contradictions. By the time that apartheid was unravelling, political prisoners had turned Robben Island prison into a university and a library. Many arrived as illiterates and left as book collectors, often leaving behind some of their prized literary possessions to fuel the reading revolution they had started…. [Desai] weaves a compelling narrative about Shakespeare’s reception and audiences on the island, and about reading more generally in apartheid’s most forbidding jail.”
    —Archie L. Dick, University of Pretoria

    Praise for We Are the Poors

    “Ashwin Desai’s We Are the Poors is one of the best books yet on globalization and resistance. Its secret is that barely mentions globalization, and instead weaves together richly told local stories that bring this grand and bland subject vividly to life.”
    —Naomi Klein

    “One of South Africa’s leading activist intellectuals has produced a remarkable book detailing growing resistance to neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa. Desai gives a moving picture of desperate conditions in post-apartheid South Africa, where things have not changed for most of the people. But this is also a stirring account of a courageous fightback, the fight that is being globalized as we challenge corporate globalization.”
    —Dennis Brutus

  • “Ashwin Desai troubles dominant narratives about Robben Island in this magisterial work. He offers fresh perspectives, attentiveness to previously neglected voices, and a range of difficult questions about the legacies of South Africa’s struggle stalwarts in the post-Mandela era. And he’s a damned good storyteller.”
    —Verne Harris, Head: Memory Programming, Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory at the Nelson Mandela Foundation

    "Reading Revolution is nothing if not a testament to the power of the printed word to transport individuals beyond the dismal confines of their immediate environments to a place in which the construction of new spaces, and the forging of new futures, can be imagined, debated, planned and realized."
    —Insurgent Notes

    “Besides the multiple ironies Desai uncovers and the moving and horrifying stories, what shines through this book is the passion for learning among the prisoners, from a simple longing to read and write so there was no need to ask for help with precious private letters to and from loved ones, to serious study for matric, undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Reading was a means of keeping sane, as well as a means of self-improvement, and those with knowledge taught others, often while they were working in the quarry. There could be few better tributes to the power of the written word.”
    —The Witness

    “There have been literally hundreds of books written about the apartheid period in South Africa, both by outsiders and those who fought and suffered under the system. Reading Revolution provides a unique perspective on the anti-apartheid struggle and a fascinating insight into how literature can sustain resistance and keep hope alive, as well as fundamentally changing lives.”
    —Review 31

    “We owe much to Desai for bringing forward one in which reading, imagination and political ideals could go hand in hand…. Robben Island has simplified into legend, but Desai’s glossily illustrated book brings the daily achievements of those prisoners to life again. Their vision and fortitude reminds us of what is missing from our world of patronage, cronyism, greed and corruption.”
    —The Mail and Guardian

    “Reading Revolution is a poignant and insightful look at the books Robben islanders loved, in particular the plays of the Bard that they were drawn to during their long, enforced sojourn on Robben Island. It’s a story crying out to be made into a film…. This is a beautifully presented, unusual and carefully crafted book and several new and surprising facts about beloved icons are brought to light. In doing so, Reading Revolution records a part of the biographies of the founding fathers of the new South Africa that will now rightly go down in posterity. It strikes an extraordinary, utterly un-donnish and altogether beautiful note in a rather cluttered and uneven symphony of struggle historiography.”
    —Terence Pillay, Daily News

    “In his typical provocative style, Ashwin Desai carefully, yet critically presents a fresh perspective on the education of political prisoners on the island. His book is even more relevant today when the narrative of Robben Island, and that of the broader struggle against apartheid, have become highly contested within the context of building a new South Africa. He does more than just presenting the often glorified picture of prisoners toiling in the quarries which were also used for their education. He assists the reader to navigate through the complicated terrain of hunger for education during a time when education was denied to a large section of the South African population. He shows how Robben Island’s prisoners triumphed against adversity by using passages from Shakespeare, an unlikely source of revolutionary political education in the context of the struggle for liberation. I hope this book serves as an inspiration to more writers to write about the multi-layered history of this world-renowned island, whose prisoners’ experiences imbued humanity with a sense of hope.”
    —Sibongiseni Mkhize, chief executive of the Robben Island Museum

    “In Reading Revolution, one cannot help but thinking about the present as one pages through the past. The struggles, the ideals, the dreams that course through the pages somehow does not gel with what is present day South Africa. And then one reads the final chapter. Here Ashwin Desai vividly stitches the past into the present. And here lies the power of the book, because its not just another story that sees to use the history of Robben Island as a backdrop to redemption but as a critique and spur to renewed activism.”
    —Marcus Solomon, Prisoner Number: 369/64, Robben Island 1964–1974

    “Ashwin Desai’s Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island comes crucially at a time when textbooks and libraries are being destroyed in South Africa. Political circumstances can inspire reading cultures just as much as they can inhibit them, demonstrating their contradictions. By the time that apartheid was unravelling, political prisoners had turned Robben Island prison into a university and a library. Many arrived as illiterates and left as book collectors, often leaving behind some of their prized literary possessions to fuel the reading revolution they had started…. [Desai] weaves a compelling narrative about Shakespeare’s reception and audiences on the island, and about reading more generally in apartheid’s most forbidding jail.”
    —Archie L. Dick, University of Pretoria

    Praise for We Are the Poors

    “Ashwin Desai’s We Are the Poors is one of the best books yet on globalization and resistance. Its secret is that barely mentions globalization, and instead weaves together richly told local stories that bring this grand and bland subject vividly to life.”
    —Naomi Klein

    “One of South Africa’s leading activist intellectuals has produced a remarkable book detailing growing resistance to neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa. Desai gives a moving picture of desperate conditions in post-apartheid South Africa, where things have not changed for most of the people. But this is also a stirring account of a courageous fightback, the fight that is being globalized as we challenge corporate globalization.”
    —Dennis Brutus