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Redefining Self and Others in the Works of Two Francophone Women Writers*
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Redefining Self and Others in the Works of Two Francophone Women Writers*
Marie Cardinal , Assia Djebar , Algeria , female body , language , memory
  • Introduction

    When Algeria waged a war to win independence from France, Algerian‐born French novelist Marie Cardinal (1929‐2001) and native Algerian French writer Assia Djebar (1936‐ ) passed through the wounds and traumas of sexuality, gender, and nationhood. Although the ethnic and national backgrounds of these two writers are distinct or opposite when placed in the political spectrum, they both share the common inner conflict of bi‐cultural identity, and consequently suffer from loss of origin. Marie Cardinal, a pied‐noir1 born to a life of privilege in colonial Algeria, and Assia Djebar, a descendant of the conquered and educated in French style, cannot but be placed between French and Algerian cultures, the colonizer and the colonized. In the respective novels of these two francophone writers, Algeria is initially presented as a paradise of freedom, but is later experienced as the site of conflict between body and mind, in which the heroines suffer from patriarchal and colonial oppressions and polarized gender politics in either French bourgeois society or Islamic culture in Algeria. In Cardinal’s The Words to Say It (Les Mots pour le dire 1975), Algeria symbolizes both (re)birth and death for the female protagonist, and in Djebar’s So Vast the Prison (Vaste est la prison 1995), the author explores her memory of Algeria and its history through life experiences of Algerian women in the past and the present. In these two autobiographical novels, Cardinal and Djebar interweave their respective personal stories with those of other women, thus representing multiple realities of women’s lives as a counter‐discourse against the oppressive ideology of both French colonialism and Islamic patriarchy. To these two writers from the Maghreb2 , biculturalism (and bilingualism for Djebar) is a major preoccupation in their works. Cardinal’s self‐awareness of biculturalism renders her autobiographical fiction full of what postcolonial theorist Françoise Lionnet calls “a collective body politic” (24). The focus of both Cardinal and Djebar on (post)colonial Algeria has brought great attention to readers.

    The Words to Say It is the most famous novel of Marie Cardinal. It won the Prix Littré in 1976 and has been translated into 17 languages.3 Phil Powrie in his “Background” as preface to Les Mots pour le dire shows that this novel’s success is mainly due to its topics related to gender issues, women’s struggle to control their own bodies, and women’s relationship to language in a patriarchal culture (x). This novel addresses the seven‐year experience of an unnamed female narrator/protagonist undergoing psychotherapy for her madness. Her Freudian analysis emphasizes the free association that functions as a critical catalyst to make a pertinent point about the core of her repressed, painful memories. However, Cardinal’s novel is not an advertisement for indoctrinating female experience into the socio‐symbolic order by male doctors. This paper does not examine the protagonist’s trauma and writing from the perspective of psychiatry, which Cardinal detests. The Cardinal heroine often harbors distrust of her analysis by the analyst she calls “the little doctor:” “Freud was the puppeteer! They [Freudian psychoanalytical formulae] were his thick strings operating the little doctor” (162).4 The narrator’s cure from madness is attributed to the unnamed male analyst only because he helps her retrieve repressed unconscious memories. This study focuses on how, through disclosing her unconscious, Cardinal’s protagonist redefines her female body, sexuality, language, and difficulties of the mother/daughter relationship in patriarchal culture. This paper also examines how Cardinal articulates the painful struggle of women for autonomy and female agency and reconfigures their roles in society and relationships with men.

    Assia Djebar is the most prolific writer in contemporary francophone Maghrebian literature. Her Algerian quartet has particularly gained a wide international readership. The third volume of the Djebar quartet, So Vast the Prison addresses the struggle of Algerian women for selfempowerment and their worldview related to history, language, and men. This novel is the most obvious autobiographical work in the Djebar quartet. For both Cardinal and Djebar, autobiographical fiction is a life writing project that links the individual experiences of writers to diverse forms of expression of other women’s lives. Such a link not only offers the two novelists a better understanding of “Who am I as a woman” living in two cultures between France and Algeria, but also shows their non‐Eurocentric worldview.

    Critics who regard Djebar’s use of the colonizer tongue to represent Algerian realities and its women as lacking political consciousness and selling out to the West may fall short of further understanding Djebar’s literary endeavor to heal Algeria’s postcolonial/national wounds.5 Bilingual conflict occupies a major place in Djebar’s identity quest. However, precisely because of this linguistic contradiction, Djebar’s writing is viewed as a “minor literature” by Pamela A. Pears, who contends that a minor literature, according to Deleuze and Guattari in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, must come from a major language in spite of contradictions and difficulties. Pears argues that Djebar’s choice of writing in French fits one of the characteristics of a minor literature insofar as her writing shows a type of “impossibility but necessity of choosing to write in a major language” (126). Pearce affirms that authors of minor literature “cannot not write; they cannot write in French, but they cannot write otherwise” (126). Thus, Djebar’s mere act of writing in the colonizer tongue to advocate female subjectivity in defiance of Islamic fundamentalist rule is sufficiently political, and being a female writer makes her autobiographical works a double transgression of Islamic patriarchal society that views the silence of women as a virtue. This paper explores how Djebar creates a polyphonic discourse to write a collective autobiography6 to bring Algerian women once veiled and silenced to a political space for a voice of their own.

    Both writers focus on the awakening of women’s bodily affective responses to male oppression in authoritarian culture. This study examines how their writings create a bodily discourse that creates a new female self‐awareness related to language and history.

    1Pied‐noir (French meaning “black‐foot”) is the name given to French settlers in Algeria before independence in 1962.  2Maghreb (adj., Maghrebian; from Arabic meaning “West”) is a word referring to the region of Northwest Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  3See Phil Powrie’s background information on Marie Cardinal’s literary success in Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour le dire, ed. Phil Powrie, London: Bristol Classical P, 1993, ix.  4All quotations of Les Mots pour le dire are taken from the English translation The Words to Say It, trans. Pat Goodheart, London: Van Victor & Goodheart, 1993.  5Marnia Lazreg describes Djebar’s work as “oblivious to the constraints of the war” (200), and Shaden M. Tageldin notes the opinion of Ahlām Mustaghānimī, an Algerian woman author writing in Arabic, who implies that the delusion in Djebar’s writing is that the French can redress Algeria’s postcolonial wounds (98). Whereas Lazreg’s criticism of Djebar’s writing seems ill‐founded because her reading of Djebar’s works is limited to her earlier novels that mainly focus on female adolescent sexuality, Mustaghānimī’s commentary addresses an issue that Djebar herself consciously scrutinizes with a critical eye on her own writing in her politically‐charged Algerian quartet. In So Vast the Prison, for example, when facing the bloodshed of Islamic extremists, Djebar examines her despair and inner conflict of writing in French about the sufferings of her people and states straightforwardly: “Erase my writing” (341).  6I borrow this term “collective autobiography” from Mary Jean Green. In “Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska and Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia,” Green holds that while Djebar’s first‐person narrator of the autobiography joins her voice with that of other Algerian women, “the novel becomes collective autobiography as she finds their story to be her own” (963).

    Marie Cardinal: Rewriting the Female Body and Selfhood

    The Words to Say It opens by describing the narrator’s medical treatment by numerous male gynecologists in France for her abnormal hemorrhaging. They either advise her to undertake hysterectomy to resolve her bleeding, disregarding her desires to keep her reproductive organs, or see her bodily disease as a symptom of hysteria that should be treated at a sanatorium, with no intent to discover the real causes of her physical problems. She feels “raped” (6) by male doctors each time they use steel instruments to examine her intimate body parts. Under the violence of the male gaze at female bodies, the traditional male‐dominated medical system highlights women’s helplessness. In relating to the analyst nightmares about being attacked by men at night, the narrator singles out women’s fear of rape as the ultimate proof of women’s vulnerability: “The knife . . . the finger . . . my fear . . . my mother’s fear . . . other women’s fears . . . fear of death which wasn’t merely physical?” (255). The narrator comes to realize the imbalance of power between men and women, claiming that the fear women inherit from each other is not fear of the penis symbolized by knife and finger, but “fear of male power” (268). By reflecting on the notion of gender and female sexuality in the name of patriarchy, the narrator describes unreservedly what it means to be a woman and points to reproduction as the only social role left to a woman:

    Cardinal does not mean that women’s bodies of themselves limit women’s freedom because their meaning is formed by culture. Nancy Lane holds that “Cardinal mistrusts what mothers have become under patriarchy” (161). Cardinal insists that it is the sexual and political economy defined by men that has made the meaning of reproduction so negative for women.

    Cardinal’s writing is plain and realistic, based on material reality about women’s daily life and experiences to which many (women) readers affectively relate, thus achieving a great level of emotional intensity. Elaine Martin observes, “The overall structure of the novel parallels the ebb and flow of the emotional turbulence depicted” (210), inviting readers to help complete the text. Even the fragmented language simulation with which the split protagonist strives to express herself produces a strong effect of questioning and challenging the male system. Such a narrative makes Cardinal not a writer with absolute authority to represent and speak on behalf of women, but an individual, like any one of her female readers, encouraging women to take part in textual production and creation. Colette Hall indicated in her article “‘She’ is me more than ‘I’: Writing and the Search for Identity in the Works of Marie Cardinal” that what makes Cardinal’s autobiographical fiction distinct from male writers’ autobiographies is her “awareness of a community of women” (68), particularly her quest for identity related to others.

    The aggressive male gaze is a major concern in the writings of both Cardinal and Djebar on women’s lives. Whereas Djebar uses the camera as a tool to re?appropriate the male gaze at female bodies to empower women to see and be seen, Cardinal recalls the camera her father held to disclose a secret long buried in her memory regarding the male gaze at the female body. In Cardinal’s novel, the narrator’s major traumatic memories are closely associated with each of the parents. The father once filmed his then 15? to 18?month old daughter while she was urinating. The “eye” of the camera through which the father looks at her body entails an invasion of her privacy, consequently resulting in her sexual repression. In expressing her discomfort of the male “eye/I,” the little girl hit the father. The male gaze of the father who was then already divorced from the narrator’s mother traumatized the narrator, leading eventually to her hallucinations in adulthood. Her psychological wounds are even more aggravated when she seeks in vain for consolation from her mother, who not only rebuffs her discomfort, but scolds her in return, inflicting an even harsher punishment upon the heroine. To the mother, under men’s authoritative “eye,” women should be denied the right to speak “I” for themselves.

    Cardinal’s protagonist undergoes a long incubation period prior to the onset of trauma?induced symptoms. Her abnormal menstrual bleeding begins in her twenties. Yet, the most terrifying event can be traced back to puberty when her mother tells her in detail how she attempted to abort her in a violent way in the middle of her divorce. The mother makes her confession on a noisy, dirty city street in Algeria while educating her on menstruation hygiene related to female sexuality and pregnancy. The mother’s advice, which is intended to protect the daughter, leads eventually to antagonism toward her husband and the fetus she then carried. However, not until analysis does the daughter begin to understand the violence her mother has done to her with her failed abortion, to which the daughter refers as “beastliness.”7 Prior to that analysis, the narrator’s failure to grasp what it means to be an unwanted child, rejected and unfairly treated by her mother, indicates her lack of knowledge regarding the underlying feature of her psychological and physical disturbances, and thus constitutes significant loss and trauma. Feeling undesired and abject, the narrator writes with resentment:

    The incomprehensibility of her mother’s words that have tormented her unconsciousness thus results in her belated madness, which for the narrator is an escape from touching the long?buried, repressed wound from painful childhood. The daughter’s childhood is painful because she is eager to gain her mother’s love, but her desire is continually unfulfilled. Her frustration causes a mental split between the desire to be a good daughter to please her mother and the desire to rebel and act contrary to her mother’s prohibitions and imposing wishes and values. Marilyn Yalom observes, “Ultimately the daughter must reintegrate the mother into her psyche if she is to achieve that kind of inner harmony that we call sanity” (59). In seeking a more authentic self, the daughter requires a new language to hear and identify the maternal voice before reintegrating the mother into her psyche.

    As coming to terms with maternal repression preconditions the daughter’s (re)writing motherhood and daughterhood as stories not yet fully symbolized, the narrator must acquire further understanding of the tragic asymmetry of the two voices separating mother and daughter. For the narrator to make sense of her madness, she must first examine her mother’s madness. “To find myself, I must find my mother and strip away the mask and penetrate the secrets of my family and class” (66). Only after she undertakes this examination by returning to and rewriting the mother is she able to say, “Today, I know she was unaware of the harm she did me and I no longer hate her. She was discharging her madness onto me; I was the sacrifice” (135). While Cardinal’s novel draws upon a mother’s malevolence and a daughter’s casting of guilt on the mother for her mental breakdown, critics also remark that the only three male characters (analyst, father, husband) that are relatively absent in the story are ironically key figures on which the heroine’s identity and existence in the symbolic order are based.8 However, many regard this novel as a discursive strategy to assert female identity, as Carolyn A. Durham remarks that any interpretation of Cardinal’s analysis as traditionally Freudian is superficial because her writing “rediscover[s] and reclaim[s] the originary female story on which the subsequent his?story of psychoanalysis has been written” (216). The writer’s portrayal of her protagonist’s life struggle to make conscious that which is buried in the unconscious, is based on redefining the heroine’s relationships with the larger social, economic, and political implications of family and class structures. Therefore, by examining her mother’s past, as a pied?noir and a divorced woman taking a very complicated role in this fatherless family and living in a Catholic, Franco?Algerian bourgeois culture, the narrator thus understands that “in some respects she [her mother] was also a victim” (272) of patriarchal imposition in its oppression of female bodies, desires, and language.

    The narrator’s depiction of her mother is not malevolent throughout the entire story. She later comes to understand her mother’s sexual and social oppression and explains with empathy why her mother, after divorce, dated other men but never remarried. Her unwillingness to remarry was not only because of her religion, but also because of a fear of male power. Under the sway of patriarchy, the mother is repressed as much as her daughter by religious rigidness and the chauvinism in their pied?noir family and thus forced to conform to socio?cultural norms. “Sadly, I realized that my mother was in that dungeon too” (244), says the narrator recalling her change in attitude toward her mother. She realizes that women, including herself and her mother, inhabit an “ancestral mansion or cottage,” to use Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s phrase, owned and built by men. Her mother is therefore not to blame for her complicity with the paternalistic colonial order, of which she, too, is a victim. For the narrator to speak of herself as “I,” she must first separate from her mother’s unfavorable “eye” upon her, then represent her, even to the point of attacking her, before she can acquire a full understanding of her mother’s oppression related to cultural, ethnic, and historical inscriptions of women in authoritarian patriarchy. Colette Hall remarked in her book, Marie Cardinal, that the mother in Cardinal’s work is “not a naturally wicked personage, but a fabrication of our culture” (45; my translation). Writing about the mother is to return to her and ultimately transcend her. By the end of the story, the protagonist’s “I love you” at her mother’s grave metaphorically creates “a transcendent place of symbolic,” according to Elaine Martin (210), where the narrator’s quest for her mother’s love is symbolically fulfilled and her reconciliation with her mother is ultimately made. The narrator utters these three words:

    Cardinal’s literary appeal in The Words to Say It is grounded in her emphasis of relational subjecthood in female solidarity that seeks women’s individual and collective quest for identity and liberation from oppressive societal restrictions. In search for words to speak the unspeakable, the narrator takes a positive view of writing with the plural self ― I, madness, and the mother. The words the mother had spoken to the narrator about her abortion had once been like “mutilating swords,” greatly hurting the narrator and leading to her repression and madness. Yet, through rewriting her split self and experience of oppression interwoven with those of her mother, the narrator has ultimately come to terms with her mother’s violence and found a new self?definition in writing. Thus, the “mutilating swords” thrown through her body by her mother’s violent words that had once been the instrument of the narrator’s repression and oppression eventually become the instrument and product of her emancipation.

    On a personal level, writing is a necessary reaction for Cardinal’s narrator, though belated, to a series of crippling events in her life and, on a political level, it becomes the only force to break the constraints from an oppressive social system and to open new vistas. Words, like swords, can kill but can also function as tools for creating a new self and a different future. Cardinal is concerned with the relationship between language and women’s writing and material conditions. However, in exploring the female self and sexuality related to society, the narrator first faces the grim reality that language mutilates women’s bodies and lives. “Nothing protects my hole,” she protests. “In our vocabulary, the words which designate this particular part of the female body are ugly, vulgar, dirty, coarse, grotesque or technical” (259). Here, the narrator‘s recognition of words indicates that the male?invested nature of the French language devalues the female body. Cardinal uses two entire pages in one lengthy paragraph to literally and realistically describe a woman’s everyday life occupied with nothing more than serving a man and caring for children (262?63). As the narrator questions the masculinist system that restrains women, she becomes increasingly aware of the power of language which, to her, can be an ally or enemy. After developing her discursive power through writing, she is rejuvenated by expressing herself in a newfound universe:

    Helene Cixous has advocated, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” that “Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, rhetoric, regulations, and codes” (342). Similar to other contemporary French female theorists examining femininity and the female body, Cardinal empowers her heroine with a personal voice when describing female bodily sensations and, thereby, addresses a larger issue of the cultural and political realities of womanhood. Important to note is that the language Cardinal attempts to create in her writing is not a new one that disregards socio?symbolic order, but rather a political discourse based on good relationships with various family members ― the microcosm of society. Cardinal’s heroine states:

    While seeing the close relationships between family members as a necessary step for women to go beyond private life to public sphere, Cardinal puts an emphasis on the importance of relatedness and connectedness with others.

    Autobiographical writing for Cardinal has a curative power of renewing and redefining one’s selfhood and identity. In recovering from her madness to write about it, the narrator is thus self?empowered. Taking up the pen ― a tool Assia Djebar also uses to challenge the colonial and monolithic systems in Algeria ― enables the Cardinal heroine to transform her personal suffering and agony into discourses of power that not only seek psychological reality about herself, but also the socio?political reality of France and particularly Algeria, to which she refers as her motherland and her “real mother” (88). The last chapter of the novel contains a very short sentence ― “A few days later, it was May ’68” (296) ― that succinctly places a historical marker in the novel. The novel’s conclusion of a single line declares the writer’s firm belief that the personal and the political are inseparable just as her individual emancipation and Algeria’s national liberation are closely intertwined. For Cardinal, redefining the self is linked to re?inscribing her self?awareness into the geographical and historical body of Algeria. The image of blood in this text is fused with both the protagonist’s psychosomatic agony and Algeria’s struggle for independence from France. “The anarchy of blood,” 9 as the narrator calls her abnormal uterine bleeding, literally represents her physical chaos and figuratively signifies her strong resistance to the Eurocentric hegemony of France that upholds organization and order and disavows all defiance and disorder. In resistance, the narrator’s abnormal hemorrhaging and madness act as the lines of flight, a concept explored by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, which allow her to flee the closed space allotted to women by paternalistic structured society. Cardinal’s novel is not an account of her personal desperation, but rather a collective, political enunciation of women who strive to escape gendered oppression to seek their selfhoods. Lyn Thomas and Emma Webb make a just remark that Cardinal’s writing of her personal experience of oppression is seen as “a political act which would empower women through the exploration of their marginal status and exclusion from public discourse” (29).

    In their comparative readings of the works of these two authors, numerous critics take a positive view of Cardinal’s representation of Algeria’s agony during the War of Independence with the narrator’s illness. However, Marie?Paule Ha questions Cardinal’s embrace of her birthplace and regards her writing as a colonialist text in contrast to Djebar’s “text of resistance,” Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (L’Amour, la fantasia 1985), to which Ha only briefly refers without detailed discussion. By employing the contrapuntal reading strategy of Edward Said, Ha argues that Cardinal not only omits the exploitative power relation between the pieds?noirs and the Algerians in her narrative, but also “depoliticizes the colonized’s struggle for independence by framing the historical events in a romantic tale of passion” (210). However, while strategically criticizing Cardinal’s narrative omission of her family’s colonial past, Ha glosses over the significant parallel between the mother/daughter and France/Algeria that Cardinal emphatically shows to be the core of her writing. Though the daughter eventually comes to terms with her mother who, due to her fear of sexual difference, was in complicity with masculinist colonial order, the narrator attacks strongly the repressive French patriarchal system. Algeria’s turmoil weighs heavily on Cardinal: “for French Algeria, it was the same humiliating and shameful agony” (88), laments the protagonist. Cardinal’s narrative challenges the duality of the colonizer and the colonized, casting doubt with bitter sarcasm on the colonizer bestowing condescending charity to the colonized: “What I was taught did not correspond to what I saw. Charity, good habits, hygiene, manners! I understood that there were two ways of living, our own and theirs. In our life, I never succeeded, and on the street, which drew me to it, everything seemed easy” (134). The mother’s desire to murder the fetus, which culminates in the daughter’s mental breakdown, allegorically signifies French soldiers killing Algerians during the war. The narrator shows her vehement antagonism toward French violence upon her birthplace which “lived out its agony” (87), as the war has left in Algeria “bodies disemboweled, genitals cut off, fetuses hung up, throats slashed” (88). The narrator’s painful hemorrhaging physically embodies Algeria’s agony. This explains why the narrator begins suffering from insanity at the outbreak of the Algerian war, when she and her mother are exiled from their birthplace back to France. The narrator states, “the Thing took root in me permanently when I understood that we were to assassinate Algeria. For Algeria was my real mother. I carried her inside me the way a child carries the blood of his parents in his veins” (88). In her comparative reading of the works by Cardinal and Djebar, Laurie Corbin approves of the two writers’ concretization of “the effects of the colonization of Algeria in showing the female body torn apart by the violence between the two countries” (152). Corbin’s argument expresses support for Cardinal’s resistance to any monolithic systems such as patriarchy and colonization.

    Writing about the female body predominates in the literary corpus of the two authors. Whereas Cardinal’s protagonist has found the words to revolt against cultural tyranny and gendered oppression, Djebar’s narrator re?appropriates the male gaze and (re)writes the life stories of Algerian women from a feminist perspective to produce a polyphonic discourse for her Maghrebian sisters.

    7In the French text, Cardinal’s heroine calls the violence in her mother “la saloperie” (Les Mots pour le dire 171), a rather foul word which means filth, trash. She explains that the violence her mother has done her is due not to her mother’s attempts to murder her, but to both her mother’s unfulfilled desire to have an abortion prohibited in Catholicism and her hatred of the daughter.  8In “A Womb of One’s Own: The Metaphor of the Womb?Room as a Reading?Effect in Texts by Contemporary French Women Writers,” Phil Powrie suggests that the heroine’s identity is to some extent molded by three male characters. In addition to the analyst and the father, the husband, who is almost written out of the book, plays an ironically important role in validating the heroine’s new identity as a writer after he reads the manuscript of the novel (202). Likewise, Lucille Cairns also indicates that the husband’s approval of the heroine’s literary talent constitutes in her a fundamental sense of self (283).  9I translate “l’anarchie du sang” (Les Mots pour le dire 81) as “the anarchy of blood.” The first four pages of Chapter 5 in the original French text, where this phrase “l’anarchie du sang” appears, have been omitted from the English translation.

    Assia Djebar: Women’s Memory and Voice

    Assia Djebar’s So Vast the Prison begins with a bodily, sensory depiction of the female narrator’s awakening from her memory that has been repressed for 13 months in her unconsciousness toward her unfulfilled love story. In the first part of the novel, readers are informed that Algerian women, among themselves, call their husbands l’e’dou, the Arabic word for “the enemy,” a rather antagonistic word implying the segregation between men and women. More importantly, it is in the hammam ― a community bathhouse ― that the narrator hears a woman refer to her husband as such. The hammam becomes a private space for sequestered women to share their feelings and freely express their thoughts, which would otherwise be dismissed in paternalistic discourse. Cheref Abdelkader indicates that the hammam is a space similar to what Homi Bhabha calls “in?between spaces” of negotiation that are momentarily beyond the politics of polarity, thus offering “a secret solace” to women enclosed in a harem (98). Likewise, for the narrator it is only in her parents’ home ― a relaxing place and a refuge for her ― that she is able to reminisce on an illicit relationship that she has mentally suppressed. The narrator does not find a secret solace for her unfulfilled marriage and brief love affair until one sunny day when she awakes from a siesta while lying on a divan in her father’s library, as if the siesta created a temporal in?between space, a transitional moment where the unconscious breaks through like “an earthquake”10 into her conscious mind. Interestingly, it is also on a divan in the analyst’s office that Cardinal’s narrator is able to recall her repressed, painful memory. For both female protagonists, unconscious memory is harmful, and if denied, becomes poisonous and deadly. Djebar’s narrator states: “my sleeping woman’s body, released and abandoned, rid itself inexorably of the poison instilled inside it for thirteen months” (25).11 To heal the wound caused by traumatic memory, both writers share their unconscious memories with readers until they become conscious, thus making possible their liberation. “Ever since this afternoon’s awakening, I am free of influence, I am myself, full of emptiness, available and tranquil, starving for the outside and serene” (22?23), says Djebar’s narrator. The awakening from the repression plays a crucial role in her life because it helps her recognize the absence of affection and fulfillment in her own marriage. She feels such a heavy burden of Islamic traditions and prohibitions in marriage that she eventually initiates a divorce from her husband and leaves the other man she calls “the Beloved,” in sharp contrast to l’e’dou, to proclaim her own independence and selfhood.

    Domestic violence is predominantly tolerated in Algerian society. Catherine Lloyd notes that Algerian debates on violence are related to three categories: social, political, and absolute violence.12 Each form of violence is generated from toleration of domestic violence within the family. Yet, according to Lloyd, people in Algeria see domestic violence as a “trivial topic” and have not thought to raise it as a problem (454). In So Vast the Prison, the narrator’s husband verbally insults and physically strikes her to the point of blinding her with a broken wine bottle when she confesses to him about her relationship with the Beloved. Although the husband’s brutality toward his wife for her “misconduct” may appear legitimate in Algerian patriarchal culture, what concerns Djebar are the gendered discourses about power, domination, and social space. The narrator’s husband epitomizes Algerian patriarchal hegemony because he cannot tolerate his wife’s circulation in public spaces to see and be seen. In Djebar’s quartet, the issue of domestic violence is previously addressed in the second volume, A Sister to Scheherazade (Ombre sultane 1987). In this recurrent episode, Djebar clearly shows that the problem of domestic violence must not be tolerated and that women must defy men’s gaze and control over the female body. In “Reappropriating the Gaze in Assia Djebar’s Fiction and Film,” Mildred Mortimer argues that the husband’s brutal beating ostensibly rests upon his furor toward his wife’s deviation, but she is actually punished for “daring to review her life and redefine it” (222). Women’s struggle for self?assertion in resistance to paternalistic control is a major subject in Djebar’s work. This thesis embeds Djebar’s reconfiguration of women’s history.

    In contrast to Cardinal’s protagonist suffering from mental and physical disturbances caused by her trauma haunting, Djebar’s narrator experiences sensational bodily pleasures by remembering a futile romance in the past. Similar to “an interior monologue,” as Jenny Murray describes the novel’s first part (99), So Vast the Prison is filled with descriptions of sensations in the afternoon sunlight that the narrator’s nap produces in her body. Djebar manages the passage of time and the impossibility of love by focusing on the narrator’s agency as salvation through scrutinizing her affect. The concept of affect has multiple connotations related to not only mind and body, but also volition and cognition. According to Brian Massumi, “These could be seen not as binary oppositions or contradictions, but as resonating levels. Affect is their point of emergence, in their actual specificity, and it is their vanishing point, in singularity, in their virtual coexistence and interconnection ― that critical point shadowing every image/expression?event” (33). Massumi further declares that this vanishing point is “not of the categorical, but of the unclassifiable, the unassimilable, the never?yet felt, the felt for less than half a second, again for the first time ― the new” (33). At the vanishing moment of awakening from a siesta, Djebar’s narrator perceives feelings unrecognizable to her, beyond her mind and body, and these autonomic sensations create in her a strong sense of rebirth. At this singular moment of emergence, the narrator attempts to clarify the unclassifiable, different feelings:

    The unconscious affects that produce sensory perceptions suddenly come from oblivion back to the conscious mind, creating a desire in the narrator “to relive childhood, or rather to be finally fully alive” (36). The description of the narrator’s self?analytical reflections is closely associated with her visual perception of the Beloved, such as his face and appearance, and the way she wants to be seen. Subversively, it is rather the narrator, a Muslim woman, who glances at a man and represents him in her narrative. Through the female gaze and the effects of sensations in the narrator’s body, Djebar restores women’s sense of self to challenge masculinist discourse in Islamic society, which keeps women cloistered from the sunlight, unable to see the outside world, and rids them of their selfrepresentation.

    The role of the female gaze in the protagonist’s life is so crucial that it is further reiterated in the third part of the novel, which recounts the writer’s experience as a filmmaker in her first film, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1978). This prizewinning film on the everyday lives of Algerian women was never shown on Algerian television because officials deemed it disrespectful of Algerian manhood. In the film’s first shots, a handicapped Arab man sitting in a wheelchair is watching from a distance his wife sleep in a cave?like room; and he is unable to enter. This image of a disabled man gazing at his wife sleeping is replete with irony. Although it first appears that a man is watching his wife, it is actually another woman ― the female filmmaker ― who is looking at him look at an Arab woman. In this image lies the impotent desire of a paralyzed man for a female body. The female protagonist of the film breaks the silence and rejects the devouring gaze of her husband: “I speak, I speak, I speak . . . I do not want you to see me . . . truly!” (306). Here, the man is immobilized in his wheelchair and confined to interior space, but by contrast, the woman is capable of circulating in exterior space and begins to speak and proclaim her right to “look at others, at what is outside” (306). To see the outside world means to be re?created. Cixous thus claimed in Veils, “To see! We want to see! Perhaps we have never had any other will than to see?” (16). Djebar uses a camera to show that a woman’s body that is free from the eyes of men is unsubordinated to them and free to reclaim its autonomy. As “a symbol of resistance,” according to Jane Hiddleston (103), the camera testifies to women’s corporeal rebellion. Filmmaking manifests a discursive power to interpret and see anew for Djebar, who defines filming as “the flickering instant of birth” (205). Djebar uses the camera and colonizer language as revolutionary, political tools to empower Algerian women to express themselves to challenge patriarchal legacies. The moment Djebar says, “Action,” she shares self?empowerment with all of her fellow sisters, even those sequestered underprivileged ones. The filmmaker affirms:

    Djebar’s political discourse, expressed through her camera lens, shows her refusal of the collective resignation of women living in invisibility, and her attack on Islam’s polarized politics of gender and sexuality, which denies women subjectivity and self?affirmation. Whereas Cardinal uses the camera in the scene of a father filming his daughter urinating as a tool to disclose male voyeurism, Djebar utilizes the camera to break the silence in defiance of men’s dominating gaze and to represent women’s realities from a female perspective.

    Djebar’s memory of her personal life is closely connected to the history of her female family members and eventually to the collective memory held by her Maghrebian sisters, together forming a genealogy of Algerian women. Jeanne?Marie Clerc indicates that the individual “I” that Djebar uses in her writing always refers to the collective “we” of her fellow Algerians (432). This interconnection between the personal and the collective helps the author escape her interior monologue to open up a historic and social discourse. Amongst all Djebar’s memories of women’s lives in her homeland, her mother is particularly important to her. The journey the mother undergoes attests to women’s courage and wisdom in confronting colonial authority when she went alone to visit her only son in France, where he was imprisoned for his political involvement during the War of Independence. Her grief for the loss of her family suffering from Algeria’s turmoil became even more aggravated when French soldiers broke into her house to search the place and ripped up her book of the noubas ― a form of poetry set to songs, retained as part of the classical music of the Maghreb. The French soldiers destroyed the mother’s manuscripts of noubas in Arabic for fear that this unrecognizable writing contained a mysterious message of nationalist complicity. Colonial violence inflicted on the colonized is clearly shown here in its annihilation of the native culture. The mother and daughter both feel an ineffable sadness for the French colonialist erasure of Algerian ancestral legacy. For the mother, writing the poetry and music of the noubas in Arabic is the only way to transmit from woman to woman the heritage of Algerian oral culture, similar to the daughter writing in French as an essential tool to preserve unwritten history and the memory of her people and country.

    Thus, writing in So Vast the Prison is a political act rather than an individual esthetic quest. Hafid Gafaiti remarks that Djebar’s politicized commitment in writing appears as an “asceticism” deeply rooted in quotidian reality that affects personal and collective transformations (817). However, aware of the paradox of representing in colonizer tongue Algerian reality and history, Djebar expresses her concern of French writing and her sense of loss in alienation from the Berber and Arabic heritage of her family because she does not write in Arabic just as her mother did for the noubas. Consequently, Djebar becomes conscious of her permanent condition as “a renegade”:

    The Algerian born Djebar, because of her French education, becomes a fugitive similar to Zoraide. In Don Quixote, the Algerian princess Zoraide contrives to free a Christian prisoner whom she falls in love with and to whom she secretly writes a letter in Arabic, telling him that she has converted to Christianity and wants to flee with him from her father’s sequestration. Forced into exile, the Arab princess lives a nomadic life as a fugitive, negotiating between two languages and cultures. In evoking Zoraide, Djebar reinforces the ancestral continuity by blending historic accounts and her autobiography. She regards the story of Zoraide ― “the first Algerian woman to write” (172) ― as “the metaphor for Algerian women writing today, among them myself” (173), thereby inviting readers to reflect on the indissoluble linkage between Algerian women in the past and the present. However, the writer raises a difficult question about gaining “the simple mobility of the bare body” at the expense of connecting with maternal heritage, thus obliging readers to rethink whether freedom is the price worth seeking. Some argue that Djebar expresses uncertainty and pessimism about her French writing, but others assert that she holds firmly to her standpoint of bilingualism and biculturalism as a means to aspire to difference and tolerance.13

    In her reinvention of feminine genealogy, Djebar underlines the characteristics of nomadic exile shared by all generations of Algerian women. In addition to Zoraide, the author calls for inspiration from the Tuareg princess Tin Hinan. This legendary princess led her tribe to flee from her homeland when it was invaded by foreign Arab invaders. In exile, Tin Hinan carried with her the written Berber alphabet as a symbol of her ancestral heritage. The nomadic life continues in the younger generations when Djebar’s narrator unknowingly makes her own daughter “the latest fugitive” (329) when she requests her daughter to reject the job offered her in Algiers and advises her to work in France instead, for fear that a daughter in Algeria would marry a man whom she would call l’e’dou. Through nomadic life experiences characterized by women in historic accounts, ancestral legends, and the present, Djebar implies both a female tradition that Algerian women become fugitives in one way or another, moving between different places and cultures, and their desires to exist outside the Islamic systems of rigidness and sequestration.

    Whereas the quest for freedom is an over?simplified concept for these fugitives to conceive, the novelist cautiously responds to the notion of freedom: “Freedom is far too vast a word! Let us be more modest, desiring only to breathe in air that is free” (329). What matters to the author is reconstructing the history of the Algerian people and nation to redistribute the roles of its cultural identity. The first step to achieve that goal is to write. This accounts for Djebar’s emphasis on the archaic writing that Tin Hinan carries with her into exile. The writer thus laments for Algerian women: “The women, forgotten ones because they have no writing” (348?49). Despite the French language, Djebar’s act of writing embodies the struggle of Arab women for a collective entity in Algerian history and a new status in Muslim society. Djebar’s endeavor to speak for her people marginalized in colonial and authoritarian domination testifies to Gayatri Spivak’s later modified assertion that the subaltern as female can indeed speak.14 When facing Muslim fundamentalist violence Djebar continues her literary involvement as a politicized declaration to recover that which history has forgotten. For Djebar, writing articulates a political discourse of resistance against any type of violence.

    The “Yasmina” segment demonstrates the author’s efforts to speak for victims of violence. Under the terror of extremist fundamentalism in the 1990s, four armed terrorists brutally kill a young female Algerian teacher, Yasmina, on her way to drive her Polish female friend to the airport. The armed men are fake police officers searching for people to harm and foreign women to kidnap. To rescue her foreign friend, Yasmina courageously defies the fake police “in the name of the sacred duty of hospitality,” as the narrator puts it (354), and the Polish woman survived. Yasmina’s “sacred duty of hospitality” echoes pied?noir Jacques Derrida’s notion of “pure hospitality” ― a categorical imperative that says “yes to who or what turns up . . . before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant . . . whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female” (77). Whereas Derrida’s pure hospitality of welcoming the other unconditionally may not be achieved in a violent world, Yasmina’s rescue undoubtedly redefines kinship. Djebar regards Yasmina’s solidarity with and total commitment to watching over the Polish woman as another means of showing others an absolute welcoming, in contrast to Islamic extremists’ total exclusion of the other.

    As a historian, Djebar unearths not only the hidden zones of the past, but the present realities obliterated by nationalist officials to show that both her country and its women are victims in fratricidal conflict. However, how can writing represent unspeakable violence? In facing blind violence, Djebar feels frustrated with the inadequacy of the French language to convey any type of physical pain and mental suffering inflicted upon her fellow Algerians. “Write, the dead of today want to write: now, how can one write with blood?” (357), asks the author pointedly. Djebar’s repeated question “write how?” utters a simultaneously angry and mournful cry of Algerians over the incomprehensible deaths during the era of civil unrest where those who were once tortured by the French become torturers of their own people. In the final chapter, “The Blood of Writing,” Djebar’s language becomes poetic and uncertain about the future of her troubled homeland, wondering whether writing can bring any justice for victims:

    “Bitter Algeria” is severely deformed, similar to Yasmina’s mutilated body dumped in a ditch. Whereas the writer identifies poetic language as “a possible solution,” as Jenny Murray suggests (129), to overcome the difficulties of bearing witness to brutality, Djebar realizes the impossibility of severing her ties with Algeria. For Djebar, writing remains the only means through which individual and collective transformations are possible. The author specifically points to women’s “voice, hand, and eye” as the physical sites of existence to redefine the ability of the wounded body to affect and empower. When courageously facing current violence, “Yasmina, who every day of her last year carried the kalam in her hand” (355), strove to represent Algerian women’s realities. In the first volume of the Djebar quartet, the novelist used this Arabic word kalam ― an instrument of Koranic writing ― to symbolize women’s discursive re?appropriation of male power. In this third volume, Yasmina’s legacy of resistance and female solidarity enables Djebar to renew the existence of Algerian women from “Fugitive without knowing it” to “Fugitive and knowing it midflight” (359). By remembering Algeria’s wounds, Djebar uses the kalam as a discursive agency to rewrite the stories of her Maghrebian sisters into history.

    10In the original French text Djebar uses “un seisme” (Vaste est la prison 22), which means “an earthquake,” to describe the resurfaced memory. However, in the English translation, “un seisme” is translated as “a disaster” (So Vast the Prison 22).  11All quotations of Vaste est la prison are taken from the English translation, So Vast the Prison, trans. Betsy Wing, New York: Seven Stories P, 1999.  12According to Catherine Lloyd, social violence refers to social conditions of rapid change where institutions such as the family and education are profoundly affected, political violence is bound up with struggles around central and local power, and absolute violence is based on the dehumanization and purification of society in the form of ethnic and religious violence (454).  13Critics hold different views of Djebar’s position as an exile in her bilingualism and biculturalism. For example, Valerie Orlando concludes that “Djebar herself is unable to answer” whether the freedom she gains is worthwhile(139); but Fatima Ahnouch asserts that “For Djebar, writing aspires to an openness, to tolerance, to that which is foreign, and to difference, with no fear of compromise” (795).  14In her renowned article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak first declared that the subaltern cannot speak. However, in her revision, Spivak admits that her previous declaration “was an inadvisable remark” and maintains that “All speaking, even seemingly the most immediate, entails a distanced decipherment by another, which is, at best, an interception. That is what speaking is” (2206?07).


    The autobiographical works of these two authors are on the borderline between text and life, linking personal stories to sociopolitical issues. Each of these authors rewrites a self in pieces and shows a different way of surviving oppression. Although the critical attack of Cardinal on the question of language in regard to social control over the female body does not appear as complex as the one Djebar encounters in her upbringing of plural languages, questions of representing in words women’s realities and cultural identities remain equally crucial preoccupations of these two writers. While Marie Cardinal utilizes words to come to terms with her mother and survive the violence of France against her “real mother,” Assia Djebar uses the French language to represent life of Arab women in Algeria and eventually comes to recognize the pain and deception that come with her choice of language for writing. In an “Afterword” to Maghrebian Mosaic, Mildred Mortimer describes writers of multiple cultures as being in an “in?between” position that “at its best promises biculturalism and at its worst results in rootlessness and despair” (307). Such a description fits well with Cardinal and Djebar because both try to keep the North African culture of their origin from clashing with the European culture in which they find themselves. Despite their sense of rootlessness and despair, the two authors stress the importance of “the words” and “the kalam,” which also means “word,” as essential instruments for women to break silence and explore their marginalized condition, and eventually reinscribe their personal life stories with women’s collective life experiences into public discourse.

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