Research in African Literatures 35.4 (2004) 149-159
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Hearing Voices, or, Who You Calling Postcolonial? The Evolution of Djebar's Poetics
It has been almost half a century since a timid but determined student at the prestigious Ecole Normale in Paris decided to sit out the compulsory final exams in order to manifest her support to the nationalist war then being waged in Algeria, her birth country. For this audacity, biting the hand that was feeding (or taming) her since she had been admitted on a state scholarship, she was to be punished with being barred from ever graduating. Only the personal intervention of one General de Gaulle overturned the decision. By the time she graduated, Assia Djebar had published La soif (Julliard 1956), a novel undertaken, she said, to pass the time. This was not her first. She had already tried her hand earlier at a "thick and fat manuscript, a sort of historical novel on the war" that she gave up, she says, because she did not quite have the necessary breadth for such an ambitious project. Real history intervened. Newly married to a young nationalist wanted by the French police, she was soon on the run. Many years later, with Ces voix qui m'assiègent (1999), a confident writer takes the full measure of her craft. Mapping the birthing of a considerable oeuvre, she articulates in this rich collection a poetics predicated on a fully gendered engagement with history that wears its ethical imperative on its sleeve, and insists we do likewise.
These essays were first presented in May 1999 as a doctoral dissertation, "Le roman maghrébin francophone. Entre les langues, entre les cultures: quarante ans d'un parcours: ASSIA DJEBAR 1957-97," under the direction of Jeanne-Marie Clerc at Université Paul Valéry (Montpellier, France). Somewhat rewritten, with modified or reshuffled parts, the book came out within weeks, in two simultaneous editions. The first one, with Les Presses de l'université de Montréal, was soon after awarded the prize for best collection of essays from the scholarly Canadian journal Etudes françaises. It bore a double title, Ces VOIX qui m'assiègent, in large, black capital letters, with VOIX printed twice as large and twice as bold on a warm golden-beige cover that reproduced the shiny undulations of sand dunes. Readers familiar with the Djebarian corpus will immediately think of the exiled, disappeared queen of Vaste est la prison, "Tin-Hinan, ensevelie au ventre de l'Afrique" (150), swallowed up in the belly of Africa, with whom disappears the primal writing of an entire continent. A discrete subtitle follows in much smaller lower case letters, caesural punctuation included, . . . en marge de ma francophonie, a typographical pause clearly meant for a Canadian francophone readership. The second, published in Paris with Albin Michel, used only the first half of the title, in sober lowercase letters on the soberly traditional buff white, as it did on the first inside page. The doubled-up title does not appear until the second inner page. Both versions, however, are textually identical, down to the pagination.
The project was birthed by the valiantly serendipitous effort of Canadian scholars who had lamented to Dejbar that her critical works were hard to find, thus diminishing the full measure of her achievements. This has included locating as well a variety of forewords and lectures delivered all over the world, sometimes...