restricted access Enduring Grief: Autobiography as "Poetry of Witness" in the Work of Assia Djebar and Nazim Hikmet
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Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 159-172



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Enduring Grief:
Autobiography as "Poetry of Witness" in the Work Of Assia Djebar and Nazim Hikmet

Azade Seyhan


In the brilliance of this desert, in the safe harbor of writing in quest of a language beyond languages, by trying fiercely to obliterate all the furies of the collective self-devouring in oneself, finding "the word within" again that, alone, remains our fertile homeland.

—-Assia Djebar

He who invokes history is always secure,
The dead will not rise to witness against him.

—-Czeslaw Milosz

I. Poetry of Witness

Critical interest in the growing body of exilic literatures has necessitated another reexamination of the generic status of autobiography. Writing outside one's language and geography requires a contract between spaces, temporalities, and cultures. By convention, it is the autobiographical "I," be it part of a "real" referential system or a literary one that does not necessarily aspire to transparency or reality but can mimic it, that negotiates this contract. 1 Writers of exile have pushed the limits of autobiography by transforming the voice of the traditional subject into a multivoiced expression of their communities in exile, philosophical meditations on loss and memory, or the (auto)biography of a particular geography. Postcolonial theory has [End Page 159] undeniably brought about a paradigm shift in our reading of modern literature(s) and contributed significantly to the rising popularity of Cultural Studies as a discipline. In a similar vein, exilic writing or what I have elsewhere called "writing outside the nation," positioned both within and without national borders and postcolonial discourse, has crossed disciplinary boundaries in its quest for mapping dislocation, cultural fragmentation, confrontation with foreignness, and, ultimately, the translation and understanding of the foreign (other). 2 These tropes of exile find their most poignant and distinctive expression in the voice of the displaced "I." Taking into account this polyphonic idiom and interdisciplinary imagination of modern autobiographies of exile, some critics opt for the term "autobiographical voices" that suggests a dialogic connection between the "author" of the autobiography and her family, community, and ancestors. 3 Notions of identity, family, and native territory shift and demand reformulation, as increasingly larger numbers of people move across borders and histories.

Most contemporary forms of exilic writing bear the impress of social and historical upheavals that have precipitated major demographic transfers. As a nongeneric genre that resists classification and conclusive definition and captures the fluid nature of personal recollection, transition, and dislocation, autobiography has become a preeminent venue of expression for diasporic voices. The ever expanding domain of autobiographical writing and the steadily growing interest in exilic and other forms of (auto)biography have brought these into the focus of disciplines ranging from literature, history, and philosophy to anthropology, ethnography, sociology, social work, and even science. Michael M. J. Fischer, an anthropologist, who has written extensively on the reflexive storytelling capacity of autobiography, argues that "autobiographical screenings of science"—that is, scientists' autobiographies—not only echo the collective voices of a scientific community (the sum of its theoretical and empirical efforts) and its specific social and cultural terms but also become important means of explaining science and offering a hermeneutic account of multiple perspectives in scientific procedure. 4 With regard to the use of autobiography in anthropological research, Fischer considers the cross-cultural fluency of ethnic autobiographies and autoethnographies an indispensable tool for sketching out "cultural and social terrain where traditional social theory is blind or archaic." 5

The interest in the sociological dimensions of exile and ethnicity has led to the incorporation of autobiographical narratives as heuristic tools into the fields of social science research. Such narratives no longer represent [End Page 160] the voice of a singular self but are registered as conversations between one or more narrators in a larger social and communal context. Autobiography has often been defined as a form of self-translation. Writing about one's culture in exile or as member of a minority group within a dominant culture requires a labor of cultural translation in the...


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