Rupert Mann: Retelling Pentridge Stories

Every little bookworm dreams of becoming a writer one day without knowing what it takes to become one. Rupert Mann was one of them. Having read the encyclopedia of world mythology by the age of ten, little Rupert tried writing his own stories with a dream of “seeing the book he authored on a shelf alongside other books he admired.” Little did he know that his dream would come true 20 years later.

Rupert Mann Pentridge. By Wendy Joy Morrissey
Rupert Mann by Wendy Joy Morrissey

Ten-year-old Rupert wrote his own stories, but in his debut book named “Pentridge: Voices from the Other Side,” he retold 15 different stories of former inmates and guards from Pentridge Prison which was located in Melbourne, Rupert’s hometown. As a curious and inquisitive boy, Rupert passed by the walls of this prison occasionally and wondered what was inside. Growing up, Rupert realizes that a prison bears history and identity of the place it is located. When asked the reason why he chose this specific place, he answered “I suppose, being born in Melbourne, the prison chose me.” In his teenage years, Rupert wandered around abandoned Pentridge and explored its cells and halls, then he knew that Pentride was a profoundly “powerful historic place.”

After having spent some years abroad, Rupert came home only to find out that most part of Pentridge had been demolished in its way to to be rebuilt as a housing development. What led Rupert to create this book was that the new owners tried to understate the history of Pentridge in fear of people seeing it as a dark or haunted place. He knew that he had to stand up for this place that he was drawn to since he was little, so he reached out to former inmates and guards and asked them to be photographed at Pentridge and tell their stories.

“We can’t know the past, really, but we can try to make sure that the stories we tell about them, the history, is accurate. Otherwise, the stories of the developers and the public relations team would prevail,” Rupert said.

Bringing former prisoners to the place where they were locked up, let alone making them speak about their stories in this particular place, sounded like a delicate job. When his subjects were brought back into Pentridge, the reactions varied, he said. Some people walked around the halls in silence while others confidently pushed the doors and climbed over things to look around. Rupert recalled the experience, “It was like watching people walk back into their past, and hear them retell those stories in the places they happened.

Starting out with taking photographs of the prison and portraits in 2008, it took six years to research, conduct interviews and write down the stories, and, additional four more years to find a publisher, editing, designing and finally, publishing the book. According to Rupert, writing this book sure was not an easy task especially when the new owners of the development wanted to keep him and the former prisoners out. Regardless of the challenges, Rupert made it. “Pentridge: Voices from the Other Side” was finally published on December 2017 by Scribe, a Melbourne based publisher, after taking almost a decade for preparation.

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Prisons generally bear the most intense stages of human experience and the whole idea of Pentridge is to record the history and memories of/inside it in images and written works. Rupert believes, “Prisons are places where we can read the story of the society that uses them. By looking at who was locked up there and why, we can read an inverse history of ourselves. Prisons, and the history they represent, is valuable and rich.”

“Strange animal” is what Rupert describes his book as it includes photographs, interviews, memories, history and arguments. As a long-term Yangon resident, Rupert knows that Myanmar has a lot more stories to dig in and a great literature scene to deliver a book like his to public. To those who want to write something like his “strange animal”, Rupert encourages, “You have to find something that fascinates you. Thank of a place or idea that is meaningful to you, that gives you a sense of excitement when you think about it,” and he continues, “Then ask yourself how you can tell that story, convey those ideas in a way that will be true to yourself and the subject. And once you have an idea, work on it regularly. Even if you have breaks between working on it, keep at it.”

Finally getting published his decade-long effort, he is excited for the book to be read by people; the wonderful stories of resilience and misery. What make this book standout are the stories of his interviewees, which are also supported by powerful photographs. Rupert is feeling extremely honored to put this book together and share it with the world.

More about Rupert, Pentridge prison and stories inside the walls can be read at www.pentridgeprison.org

Theingi Lynn

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