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Writing against Mourning: Memory in Assia Djebar’s Franco-graphie

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 January 2019


In this article, I provide a new reading of Djebar’s Le Blanc de l’Algérie as being antimourning. I argue that in the face of institutionalized amnesia and excessive commemoration, Djebar’s refusal to mourn her dead friends institutes a politics of antimourning that seeks to reckon with the larger memory and history of silenced political murders in Algeria. Rejection of mourning enables remembering and empowers feminist engagements with the past. Rather than being another al-Khansā’—the Arab dirge poet who composed elegies for her slain brother, Ṣakhr—Djebar sees herself in Polybe’s footsteps. In offering this new argument, I aim to steer scholarly conversations to antimourning as a condition for healing in postcolonial contexts. Conscious of the centrality of language in Djebar’s writings and in her larger Maghrebi context, I have developed the undertheorized concept of Franco-graphie, which I propose opens up a new space to conceptualize violence and amnesia in writings that emerge from postcolonial, multilingual contexts, and their contested legacies.

© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 Although this quote is from Djebar, Assia, Ces voix qui m’assiègent: en marge de ma francophonie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999), 31 CrossRefGoogle Scholar , it first appeared in the postface of Oran, langue morte (France: Actes Sud, 1997), 372.

2 This prevalence of one meaning of langue in scholarly readings of Djebar’s statement is the rendering of Oran, langue morte by Tegan Raleigh as The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry (New York and London: Seven Stories, 2006).

3 Due to space constraints, I decided not to include passages from the French original text in the body of the paper. Most of the passages from Le blanc de l’Algérie are from this translation: Assia Djebar, Algerian White: A Narrative, trans. David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager (New York: Seven Stories, 2000). Unless the source cited is in English, all translations from the Arabic and the French are mine.

4 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” On Freud’sMourning and Melancholia,” eds. Leticia Glocer Fiorini et al. (London: Karnac, 2009), 43–65.

5 Djebar, Assia, Le blanc de l’Algérie: Récit (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), 75 Google Scholar .

6 Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004), 22 Google Scholar ; eds. Eng, David L. and Kazanjian, David, Loss: The Politics of Mourning (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 34 Google Scholar .

7 Jenny Murray paraphrases Benjamin Stora’s work to argue that excessive commemoration consistently foregrounds the same stories and consequently leads to the exclusion of the ones that diverge or disagree with official discourse on martyrdom. Consequently, as I show later in the article, Djebar’s reactivation of a multiplicity of memories and oral testimonies about the same events or actors unsettles the state-sanctioned, dominant narratives about the Algerian past. See Murray, Jenny, Remembering the (Post) Colonial Self: Memory and Identity in the Novels of Assia Djebar (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 132 Google Scholar .

8 Djebar writes in Le blanc de l’Algérie: “[t]he writer once dead, his texts not yet reopened, it is around his buried body that several different Algerias are being sketched out” (14). The intellectuals’ dead bodies become loci of contestation between conflicting legitimacies, which, in one way or another, continues to be a source of legitimation and political continuity after death.

9 Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 34.

10 Ibid., 26.

11 After rejecting the categorization of her fiction writing under francophonie, Djebar identifies herself as a writer who practices franco-graphie, which is the result of all the languages, spoken or not, that were sedimented in her experience as someone who grew up in the colonial context. Djebar states explicitly that “I most often hear the voices that surround me—those of the characters in my fiction—in Arabic dialect or even in Berber, which I don’t understand very well, but whose hoarse respiration and breath inhabit me from immemorial times.” Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 29.

12 Ibid.

13 Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie, 13.

14 Le blanc de l’Algérie is divided into four sections: La langue des morts, Trois journées, La mort inachevée, and Écrire le blanc de l’Algérie. The first section announces the topic of the book and the significance of the individuals Djebar is commemorating in her text. In this section she reconstructs the last day of their lives as well as their funerals. The second section, however, is dedicated to authors, intellectuals and politicians, men and women who passed away for different reasons since the struggle for independence up until the start of the civil war in 1990s. The third section continues the author’s reflections on the processions of death of the Algerian intellectuals. The fourth section, Écrire le blanc de l’Algérie, furthers the novelist’s interrogations around death and language. It is in this fourth section that she develops her idea about death as a work in progress.

15 Benjamin C. Brower, A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844–1902 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), x.

16 Šukys, Julija, “Language, the Enemy: Assia Djebar’s Response to the Algerian Intellocide,” Journal of Human Rights 3.1 (2004): 115 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

17 Quoted in Stora, Benjamin, Algeria, 1830–2000: A Short History (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), vii Google Scholar .

18 Ashour, Omar, The De-radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (New York: Routledge, 2009), 176 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

19 Whitley, Andrew, Human Rights Abuses in Algeria: No One Is Spared (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), 39 Google Scholar .

20 Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 31.

21 Calle-Gruber, Mireille, Assia Djebar, ou, La résistance de l'écriture: regards d’un écrivain d’Algérie (Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001), 112113 Google Scholar .

22 Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie, 261.

23 Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri, “Acting Bits/Identity Talk,” Critical Inquiry 18.4 (1992): 795 Google Scholar .

24 Šukys, “Language, the Enemy,” 119.

25 Ricoeur, Paul, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 400 Google Scholar ; “[t]he work of mourning definitively separates the past from the present and makes way for the future.” Djebar seems exactly invested in refusing this separation before the past is read and understood. We reject a work of mourning that would sever the present from an unknown past to supposedly enable a futurity that, experiences have proven, requires forgiveness and an a priori disposition to relieve the perpetrators from their responsibility. Mourning in this context can be a second entombment of the dead, which Djebar rejects.

26 Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie, 13.

27 Myers, Linda, The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story (San Francisco, CA: Wiley, 2009), 17 Google Scholar .

28 Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie, 29.

29 Ibid.

30 Djebar, Algerian White, 229.

31 Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 26 Google Scholar . Italics from the source.

32 Djebar, Algerian White, 35.

33 Ibid., 110.

34 Ibid., 36.

35 Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie, 42.

36 Djebar, Algerian White, 36–37.

37 Murray, Remembering the (Post) Colonial Self, 132.

38 Stora, Algeria, 1830–2000, 30.

39 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1963), 272.

40 Ibid., 275.

41 Houari Boumediene’s real name is Mohamed Brahim Boukhrouba. Despite his status as a cofounder of the FLN, many people have ambivalent feelings about his post-independence legacy. After deposing the first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, in 1965, he ruled the country until his mysterious death in 1978.

42 An important number of the FLN’s influential cadres lived in Oujda (Morocco), where they organized resistance against the French during the Algerian war. It also is important to bear in mind the porousness of the borders between the different North African countries, which made Maghrebi unity a reality at the time. Once Morocco and Algeria achieved their respective independences, however, the former comrades in arms made opposite choices regarding which international bloc to join in the midst of the Cold War. While Morocco sided with the Western, capitalist bloc, Algeria adopted a socialist model and de facto joined the Eastern Bloc. The protracted consequences of these early ideological disagreements still poison the Moroccan-Algerian relations today. This Moroccan-Algerian shared memory remains suppressed due to the two countries’ failure to resolve their shared past.

43 Djebar, Algerian White, 125–26.

44 Ibid., 126. Translation modified.

45 Ibid., 126.

46 Ibid., 127.

47 Ibid., 124–25.

48 See for example Mullen, Jenny, “‘ Le devoir de mémoire’: The Poetics and Politics of Cultural Memory in Assia Djebar’s Le blanc de l’Algérie ,” France’s Colonial Legacies: Memory, Identity and Narrative, ed. Fiona Barclay (Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 2013)Google Scholar ; Khanna, Ranjana, Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830 to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)Google Scholar ; Schneider, Annedith, “Mourning in a Minority Language: Assia Djebar’s “Algerian White ,” Journal for the Study of Religion 19.2 (2006): 4152 Google Scholar ; Hiddleston, Jane, Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria (Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2006)Google Scholar .

49 Djebar, Algerian White, 17.

50 Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 75–76.

51 Djebar, Assia, Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (Paris: Fayard, 2007), 285286 Google Scholar .

52 Saunders, Rebecca, Lamentation and Modernity in Literature, Philosophy, and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), xiii CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

53 Ibid.

54 Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 75.

55 Ibid.

56 Djebar, Algerian White, 230. Translation modified.

57 Ibid., 47.

58 Gana, Nouri, Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 137 Google Scholar .

59 Quoted in “Memory in Literature.” Accessed July 9, 2018.

60 Djebar, Algerian White, 105. Italicized in the original.

61 Fanon, Frantz, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove, 1965), 117 Google Scholar .

62 Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 118.

63 See Derrida, Jacques, The Politics of Friendship (Boston/New York: Verso, 1997), xi Google Scholar . Interestingly, Derrida evokes the differential nature of grief depending on the cause of death and the relationship the living have with the dead. According to this Derridian proposition, both friendship and enmity determine how the dead are mourned.

64 See Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 118. It is very interesting to note that Fanon distinguishes between natural deaths after an illness, which still elicit the traditional mourning, and the death of the mujahidin, whose death is celebrated through “cries of joy that salute the death of a moudjahid [sic] who has fallen on the field of honor.”

65 McDougall, James, “Martyrdom and Destiny: the Inscription and Imagination of Algerian History,” Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa, eds. Ussama Makdisi and Paul Silverstein (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 63 Google Scholar .

66 Waṭṭār, Al-Ṭāhir, al-shuhadā’ ya ‘ūdūna hādha al-usbū‘ (Algiers: Maṭābi‘ al-Ḥizb, 1980)Google Scholar .

67 Kwaku Akyeampong, Emmanuel et al., Dictionary of African Biography (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 157 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

68 Djebar, Algerian White, 150.

69 Ibid., 155.

70 Ibid., 104.

71 Ibid., 159–61.

72 Hiddleston, Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria, 54.

73 Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent, 28.

74 Ibid.

75 Ibid., 29.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid.

78 Djebar, Assia, So Vast the Prison: A Novel, trans. Betsy Wing (New York: Seven Stories, 2011)Google Scholar .

79 Ibid., 161–62.

80 Djebar, Algerian White, 162.

81 Sarah E. Mosher, “Shooting the Canon: Feminine Autobiographical Voices of the French-Speaking World.” (PhD diss., The University of Arizona, 2008), 148.