- Coming Home: Exile and Memory in Sebbar’s Le silence des rives
Leïla Sebbar occupies a unique position in francophone Maghrebian literature. The daughter of an Algerian father and a French mother, she writes about Maghrebian immigrant society in France, identifying herself as a “croisée,” a hybrid at the intersection of Occidental and Oriental cultures. The Franco-Algerian novelist who spent her formative years in Algeria and her adult life in France uses writing to recreate the world of marginalized immigrants in order to lessen her own personal sense of exile. In a collaborative text on exile, an exchange of letters with the Canadian writer Nancy Huston, she writes:
Je suis là, à la croisée, enfin sereine, à ma place, en somme, puisque je suis une croisée qui cherche une filiation et qui écris dans une lignée, toujours la même, reliée à l’histoire, à la mémoire, à l’identité, à la tradition et à la transmission, je veux dire à la recherche d’une ascendance et d’une descendance, d’une place dans l’histoire d’une famille, d’une communauté, d’un peuple, au regard de l’Histoire et de l’univers. C’est dans la fiction que je me sens sujet libre (de père, de mère, de clan, de dogmes . . .) Et forte de la charge de l’exil. C’est là et seulement là que je me rassemble corps et âme et que je fais le pont entre les deux rives, en amont et en aval.
I am there at the crossroads, serene at last, finally in my place; for I am a croisée seeking a connection; writing within a lineage, one that is always the same. It is tied to history, to memory, to identity, to tradition, and to transmission, by which I mean the search for ascendants and descendants, seeking a place in the history of a family, a community, a people with regard to History and the universe. It is in fiction that I feel that I am a free subject (free of father, mother, clan, dogma) and strengthened by the burden of exile. Only there do I muster body and soul to span the two banks, both upstream and downstream.
Writing to connect herself to past and future communities, seeking “ascendants and descendants,” she situates herself and her protagonists within a Mediterranean geographical and cultural context. In this letter to Huston, Sebbar’s indirect reference to the Mediterranean that spans both French and Algerian shores anticipates the title of her eight novel, Le silence des rives (1993), a text depicting a day in the life of an Algerian immigrant in France who, as death draws near, returns through memory to the other shore, the Algeria of his childhood. In this novel, as in her previous work, exile, the legacy of the French colonial venture, means physical displacement, the emigration to France of economically disadvantaged Maghrebians, and results in psychological dislocation, fractured Maghrebian identity due to cultural marginalization on foreign soil. [End Page 125]
A cultural hybrid, Sebbar shares common ground with Edward Said who, as a Palestinian-American scholar and critic, is also positioned at the crossing between East and West. They share this cultural space and have similar perspectives on Orientalism, a concept both view as a projection of the Westerner’s fantasy—the colonial myth of the Other. In his reflection on a life in exile, “The Mind of Winter,” Said delves into the meaning of such an experience, the gains and losses to the individual. Reminding his readers that the canon of modern Western culture is in large measure the achievement of exiles, émigrés, refugees, he states that their successes are undermined by a great sense of loss.
Said defines exile in terms of pain: “Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home” (49). He explains, however, that plurality of vision compensates, at least in part, for the psychological dislocation:
Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of...