restricted access Leur pesant de poudre: Romancieres francophones du Maghreb (review)
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Leur pesant de poudre: Romancières francophones du Maghreb, by Marta Segarra. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997. 237 pp. ISBN 2-7384-5095-4.

The title of Marta Segarra’s study of French-language women’s writing from the Maghreb comes from a remark made by the Algerian novelist and [End Page 216] playwright Kateb Yacine. In his preface to Yamina Mechakra’s La grotte éclatée ( 1979; Algiers: ENAL, 1986), Kateb observes that “à l’heure actuelle, dans notre pays, une femme qui écrit vaut son pesant de poudre” ‘at present, in our country a woman who writes is worth her weight in gold’ (8). Segarra’s wide-ranging analysis of contemporary French-language women’s writing from North Africa and the Maghrebian community in Europe demonstrates that while beginning with the 1980s, the number of publications by women has increased, their works are only recently receiving the critical attention they merit.

The explicit goal of Segarra’s study is to analyze a series of structures and themes shared by the novels under consideration. This project will be of great value to students of French-language North African writing because not only are the most widely recognized women novelists studied (for example, Assia Djebar, Leïla Sebbar, and Malika Mokeddem), but Segarra also draws examples from novelists who might be unfamiliar to readers residing outside of Europe and North Africa (for example, Marlène Amar, Fatima Bakhaï, and Hafsa Zinaï-Koudil, to name just a few). In the first nine chapters, Segarra concentrates on eliciting the common themes that link many of the narratives produced by Maghrebian women novelists. In this section of her study, the author provides numerous examples from a range of works for each of the topics studied. In the second part of Leur pesant de poudre, Segarra examines three works in greater depth according to a dominant theme of that particular novel. The three authors and their works which are treated to an in-depth analysis are: Assia Djebar’s Loin de Médine, Leïla Houari’s Quand tu verras la mer, and Hélé Béji’s L’oeil du jour.

Segarra’s project is especially useful as an introduction to the entire corpus of women’s writing from the Maghreb and the Maghrebian community of Europe for scholars and students alike. The breadth of her thematic analysis covers an extensive range of concerns, and introduces readers to many of the critical approaches commonly taken in regards to French-language women’s writing from North Africa. In the first nine chapters, readers will encounter the following thematic discussions of the corpus of Maghrebian women’s writing: the use of the French language and its problematics, the tension between writing and oral expression, memory and anamnesis, the oppression and/or liberation of the female body, the woman’s gaze—both active and passive, parental ties, privileged feminine space, identity and narrative structure, and the self in opposition to the Other. In this first section of Segarra’s study, readers will find the bibliographic references to important critical studies of Maghrebian writing and postcolonial fiction to be especially useful. Segarra’s analysis strikes a balance between close a textual reading of the novels at hand and an introduction to several trends in current postcolonial studies.

As Segarra explains in her introduction, the corpus of works examined has been established according to one basic criteria: novels written in French by women from Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia, mainly from Muslim backgrounds and belonging, therefore to “une aire culturelle bien déterminée” ‘a well-defined cultural area’ (7). Unfortunately, this approach is [End Page 217] somewhat dangerously “globalizing,” and is even at risk of being interpreted as “essentializing,” as the author herself admits (8). Segarra’s point of departure is simply to evaluate those thematic concerns shared by women writers from the region. Therefore, the reader of Leur pesant de poudre finds grouped together novels that are of unequal literary quality and aspirations (a case in point: Farida Belghoul’s outstanding novel Georgette! compared with Fatiha Boucetta’s self-indulgent Anissa Captive); works of fiction are grouped together with self-declared autobiographies, and narratives...