Sunday, August 19, 2007

Algerian writer Assia Djebbar

Algerian writer Assia Djebbar has joined the ranks of the Academie Francaise in 2005. (For those unfamiliar with the body: it's got 40 members, the vast majority of whom are white men, not all of them writers by vocation, and their role is vaguely defined as "watching over the French language.") I remember as a kid reading (in Paris-Match, of all places) that Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman to be elected member. (In 1980. I mean, seriously!)

I love Assia Djebbar's work, and I can see how this is a huge honor for her, but it strikes me as slightly ironic (though unremarkable, perhaps) that she is now charged with protecting the language of her country's previous colonizer. On the other hand, 'francophonie' isn't going away anytime soon, and if millions and millions of North Africans are going to speak the language, then they might as well be represented in the body that produces the ultimate resource on French--Le Dictionnaire. Maybe she can get them to put the word "Beur" in it.

posted by Laila Lalami

French President Jacques Chirac has praised the Academie Francaise, the official guardian of the French language, for commitment to diversity after it named an Algerian woman for the first time as one of its so-called immortals.
The elite academy, a circle of writers and intellectuals founded in 1635, voted on Thursday to accept Assia Djebar, who has written extensively about the life of Muslim women.
"With this election, which honours her as much as our country, the Academie once again shows its attachment to diversity and dialogue of cultures," Chirac said on Friday.
Djebar, a filmmaker and author, has become one of North Africa's most widely acclaimed writers with novels such as So Vast the Prison. She writes in French and her books have been translated into many languages.
"Each of my books is a step towards the understanding of the North African identity and an attempt to enter modernity"Assia Djebbar.
"I'm not a symbol," Djebbar, 68, told Le Figaro daily newspaper.
"My only activity consists of writing. Each of my books is a step towards the understanding of the North African identity and an attempt to enter modernity," she said.
Djebbar becomes one of 40 members permitted to flaunt the green embroidered jackets, two-pointed hats and swords of France's most prestigious club.
The Academie has accepted foreigners in the past and counted writers such as Victor Hugo and Voltaire among its members.

posted by Nesreen.


1936 Born in Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, Algeria on August 4.

1957 Publishes first novel, La Soif, under pen name Assia Djebar.

1958 Publishes second novel, Les Impatients. Marries Walid Garn. Works toward advanced degree in history at University of Algiers.

1962 Publishes novel Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde.

1967 Publishes novel Les Alouettes Naives.

1969 Rouge l'Aube, a play written in collaboration with husband Garn, performed at the third Panafrican Cultural Festival held in Algiers. Publishes volume of poetry, Poems pour l'Algerie heureuse.

1977 Directs her first film, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.

1979 Directs second film, La Zerda ou les chants de l'oubli, a documentary juxtaposing French newsreels of World War I and II and Algerian women singing traditional songs.

1980 Publishes short story collection, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Marries Malek Alloula, Algerian writer, and they reside in Paris Appointed to Algerian Cultural Center in Paris.

1985 First novel of projected quartet published, L'Amour, la fantasia.

1987 Second novel of projected quartet published, Ombre sultane.

Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade: Expressing "Third World" Feminist Issues

  • Revising Colonial Constructions of History
  • Djebar revises traditional history in the novel using several techniques which successfully decenter the colonizer's version of history and make space for the participation of women in the struggle for national independence. Djebar first presents colonial history in the form of letters, diaries and published accounts of French soldiers and officials, searching through them to find places where women bubble up to the surface and their participation is recorded despite history's determination to erase their contribution and existence. In addition to finding moments in which the colonizers are forced to confront the problematic existence of women revolutionaries, Djebar presents the words of women freedom fighters themselves, translating them from Arabic to French. Recording the women's stories in sections of the novel titled "Voices," Djebar troubles the split between the spoken and the written, suggesting the limitations of traditional history and the richness of her culture's oral traditions. Considering the French invasion of 1830 and the twentieth century War of Algerian Independence, as well as adding pieces of her own autobiography, Djebar complicates the notion of linear history, presenting an alternative view of the interdependence of the personal and the national, the past, the present and the future.

  • Subjectivity and the Subaltern
  • The intellectual movements of the 20th Century, including Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, have continued the move away from the 18th and 19th century notions of the universal subject, contesting the unified "I" and replacing it with fractured, multiple subject positions. Feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Gayatri Spivak and others are interested in theorizing female subjectivity in all its diversity and multiplicity in answer to phallocentric constructions that continue to figure subjectivity as masculine and female consciousness as lack. In "Can the Subaltern Speak?", Spivak summarizes her project of constructing a new model of female subjectivity, a project Djebar takes up in L'Amour, la fantasia : "My readings are, rather, an interested and inexpert examination, by a postcolonial woman, of the fabric of repression, a constructed counternarrative of woman's consciousness, thus woman's being, thus woman's being good, thus the good woman's desire, thus woman's desire" (299). Djebar joins her own voice and life story with the stories and voices of Algerian women revolutionaries, replacing silence and the colonizer's version of history with a celebration of female experience and expression. Speaking neither for nor to her subaltern sisters, Djebar speaks with them, emphasizing the collective nature of female expression. Djebar realizes the ways in which her own story is intimately linked to the forgotten and silenced testimonies of other women: "Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when in this absence of expressions of love (love received, 'love' imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia" (Djebar 202). In telling their stories, Djebar and the women revolutionaries reclaim not only their individual and collective voices, but their bodies as well.

    Speaking the self is linked in important ways to speaking the experience of female embodiment. Sidonie Smith articulates the intersection of subjectivity and body that occurs in autobiographical projects: "When a specific woman approaches the scene of writing and the autobiographical 'I,' she not only engages the discourses of subjectivity through which the universal human subject has been culturally secured; she also engages the complexitites of her cultural assignment to an absorbing embodiment. And so the autobiographical subject carries a history of the body with her as she negotiates the autobiographical 'I,' for autobiographical practice is one of those cultural occasions when the history of the body intersects the deployment of subjectivity" (22-23). Djebar's treatment of the veil, her own escape from cloistering, and her subsequent access to academia and writing suggests that the female body is a locus of potential power, rebellion, and knowledge that threatens the status quo of male privilege: "The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: The body which male neighbors' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it, the body which, in trances, dances, or vociferations, in fits of hope and despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as desination for its message of love" (Djebar 180). The image of the dismemebered hand at the novel's conclusion suggests the connection between body and voice, subjectivity and embodied experience: "Later, I seize this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory, and I attempt to bring it the qalam" (Djebar 226).

  • Feminist Challenges to Discourses of Nationalism
  • The story of Djebar and the women freedom fighters is also the story of Algeria and the journey from colonization and subjugation to independent nation. Djebar's text refigures nationalist strategies by replacing history written by the colonizer with a history of heroic women. The re-writing of history is a common step in the project of nationalism, but most often the revised history of a colonized nation continues to be a male-centered history. By moving women from the margin to the forefront of her recreated history, Djebar documents women's historic roles as revolutionaries and makes the case that they deserve status as full citizens in the new nation they have helped to build. Danielle Marx-Scouras draws connections between Djebar's themes of subjectivity, body, voice and nationalism as they relate to Djebar's feminist political agenda: "The amputated hand symbolizes Algeria, mutilated by a history written by the hands of others (French historians, writers, artists) but, perhaps more importantly for Djebar, it also represents Algerian women amputated in their desire to write or express themselves. The dominant images of the novel -- abduction and rape -- sexualize the representation of Algeria, which becomes, in the final analysis, the female body. If it is on this body that the history of the French conquerors has been written, it is from this body that the decolonization of a people must be written -- be they men or women" (176). The nation that women have helped to make independent has a durty to recognize the issues and concerns of women's oppressions. Djebar's project seeks to "resurrect so many vanished sisters" (204), to restore them to their rightful place within the new nation, to have their voices speak and be heard as full participants in the project of decolonization and nation-building.

    Selected Bibliography

    Djebar, Assia. Vaste est la prison: roman. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.

    - - -. Far from Madina. London: Quartet, 1994. (originally published in French as Loin de Medine. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991)

    - - -. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1987. (originally published in French as L'Ombre sultane. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1987.)

    - - -. Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1985. (originally published in French as L'Amour, la fantasia. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1985.)

    - - -. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, trans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. (originally published in French as Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement. Paris: Edition des Femmes, 1980.)

    - - -. La Zerda ou les chants de l'oubli. 1982.

    - - -. La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. 1979.

    - - -. Les Alouettes naives. Paris: Julliard, 1967.

    - - -. Rouge l'aube. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.

    - - -. Poems pour l'Algerie heureuse. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.

    - - -. Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde. Paris: Julliard, 1962.

    - - -. Les Impatients. Paris: Julliard, 1958.

    - - -. La Soif. Paris: Julliard, 1957.

    Donadey, Anne. "Assia Djebar's Poetics of Subversion." L'Esprit Creatur 33:2 (Summer 1993): 107-17.

    Green, Mary Jean. "Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hebert's Kamouraska and Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia." The French Review 66:6 (May 1993): 959-66.

    Ghaussy, Soheila. "A Stepmother Tongue: 'Feminine Writing' in Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Calvalcade." World Literature Today 68:3 (Summer 1994): 457-62.

    Goodman, Joanna. "L'Ecrit et le cri: Giving Voice in Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia." Edebiyat 6:1 (1995): 1-19.

    Marx-Scouras, Danielle. "Muffled Screams/Stifled Voices." Yale French Studies 82 (1993): 172-82.

    Mortimer, Mildred. Assia Djebar. Philadelphia: Celfan Ed. Monogs., 1988.

    - - -. "Language and Space in the Fiction of Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar." Research in African Literatures 19:3 (Fall 1988): 301-11.

    - - - . "The Evolution of Assia Djebar's Feminist Conscience." Contemporary African Literature. Hal Wylie et al, eds. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents & African Lit. Assn., 1983.

    Murdoch, H. Adlai. "Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia." Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 71-93.

    Page, Andrea. "Rape or Obscence Copulation? Ambivilance and Complicity in Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia." Women in French Studies 2 (Fall 1994): 42-54.

    Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed. New York: Routledge, 1987.

    Zimra, Clarisse. "Writing Women: The Novels of Assia Djebar." Substance 21:3 (1992): 68-84.

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