Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 232-264
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Reversing the Sentence of Impossible Nostalgia:
The Poetics of Postcolonial Migration in Sakinna Boukhedenna and Agha Shahid Ali
Shaden M. Tageldin
La nostalgie future me lasse. Ce corps petit et tourmenté s'effiloche. Au lieu de vous conter mon histoire, je vous parle de l'absence; je vous dis mes manques, mes creux et mes songes. C'est parce que ma vie est ailleurs et que cet ailleurs est fissuré par la tristesse ordinaire que je m'accroche—et vous avec moi—aux pans de la folie et du rêve. Alors suivez-moi et renversez la phrase.
—Tahar Ben Jelloun, La Réclusion solitaire 1
[Future nostalgia tires me. This small and tormented body is fraying. Instead of telling you my story, I speak to you of absence; I tell you my lacks, my hollows, and my dreams. It is because my life is elsewhere, and this elsewhere is fissured by ordinary sorrows, that I cling—and you along with me—to the tails of madness and of fantasy. So follow me and reverse the sentence.]
I begin with these words from Tahar Ben Jelloun's La Réclusion solitaire, a novel that explores with lyric sensitivity the profound traumas of the North African migrant experience in France, because they provoke. Provoke us to rethink, through the mind of the postcolonial migrant, the syntax of nostalgia and its "cure." For here nostalgia is a longing not for the simple past, but for the past reconstituted and futurized, a past restored to an imagined pre-colonial, pre-exilic integrity and relived, elsewhere. By its very temporal and spatial impossibility, such nostalgia wears its sufferer's body and [End Page 232] story into scraps of absence: scraps that only a counter-story, as Ben Jelloun's narrator suggests when he challenges us to "follow [him] and reverse the sentence," can tell.
If we cling to the tails (and tales) of madness and dream and follow the logic of Ben Jelloun's narrator, if we fly the arc of the reversed sentence to reread the literature of postcolonial migration, where do we land? On a tentative conclusion: What is specific to the nostalgia of the postcolonial migrant is not that it yearns for a futurized past (or an anteriorized future), but why and how it does so. In The Future of Nostalgia—an original and acutely perceptive theorization of the psychological dynamics and ethical possibilities of longing—Svetlana Boym argues, rightly, that "[n]ostalgia is not always about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective," thereby making of "la nostalgie future" a universal exilic condition. 2 Indeed, it is not the retrospective/prospective motion of nostalgia that distinguishes the longings of the postcolonial migrant, but, rather, the phenomenon of overreach: a two-way hyperextension towards "home," mandated by colonization's presence in the past and past-tense in the present, that draws and quarters the postcolonial migrant's history, geography, language, identity. For the home for which the exiled subject might (under normal conditions) long becomes, under the imprint of colonial history, already a site of dispossession, a home whose residents cannot feel at home. Thus the postcolonial migrant's nostalgia for "home" must reach both deeper into the past and farther into the future to retrieve (or conjure up) the longed-for object: deeper into the past because it must retrieve a time before colonization when the stay-at-home subject felt "at home" in his or her land and self (however illusory that feeling) and farther into the future because only there can the longing for "home" be consummated, the present "home"-in-exile being a space and a time that continue to deny the migrant's inclusion.
By reversing the sentence of story and history—by doing violence to the orders of space, time, being, and language—the writer of postcolonial migrant experience seeks (if one listens to Ben Jelloun's narrator in English) to "reverse the sentence" of...