- Freedom from Oneself:Artistry and the Postcolonial Woman Artist in Nina Bouraoui's La Voyeuse interdite
In some ways, Nina Bouraoui's La Voyeuse interdite, tells a familiar story.1 In recent years there has been a high demand for books, films and documentaries that promise to lift the veil on Muslim women's oppression and, in certain respects, Bouraoui's novel fits this bill.2 Evoking the suffering of a young Algerian woman under a vicious Islamic regime, La Voyeuse interdite provoked outrage in its French readership and attracted praise for its author's perceived courage. Since publication, literary critics have responded in a similar vein, reading the text as an exposition of the lives of Algerian women and imagining the author to be "speaking out," as a woman, on behalf of her suffering sisters.3 This article will argue that, although some aspects of Bouraoui's novel conform to such readings, others strain vigorously against them. Specifically, I shall suggest that, in this novel, we may perceive a demand to be read not as a woman, but as an artist. Being a woman and being an artist are at odds with each other in the oppressive world of the novel—one that privileges the creative power of women's wombs over that of their imaginations. But this tension between being an artist and being a woman is, I shall suggest, duplicated in a field of reception that (in its desire to read postcolonial women's writing as politicized testimony) foregrounds the gendered and racialized body of the author. Bouraoui's voyeuse does not simply aspire to the position of porte-parole whose power lies in her ability to voice personal and shared experience. Instead, I shall argue, Bouraoui's protagonist covets the impersonal and disembodied subject position of supposedly "masculine" artistic traditions. It is this subject position that postcolonial women writers are most often denied, not only by patriarchal narratives, but also by the reflexes of postcolonial criticism. Who is it, I shall ask, that censors the gaze of Bouraoui's voyeuse? [End Page 237]
"Postcolonial Women's Writing" as a Way of Reading
Writing by non-white or non-Western women is liable to be read through the lens of what has come to be known as "postcolonial women's writing," "minority women's writing" or, in the context of French studies, "francophone women's writing." Such instability of terminology is suggestive of the difficulty of naming the group of writers that concerns me here. Are they to be defined in terms of their perceived ethnicity, race or nationality, their perceived relationship to the French language, their perceived engagement with "postcolonial" thematics or a combination of these? And if so, which combinations? But perhaps the most important word here is not "ethnicity" or "nationality," but "perceived." The writers whose work is grouped together under the rubric of "francophone," "postcolonial" or "minority" women's writing may differ from each other in terms of class, ethnicity, nationality, and how they situate themselves in a postcolonial context, but what they share is a field of reception that, for various reasons, perceives them as Other to an equally unstable idea of white, western identity. I take my cue here from Nicholas Harrison who has described "francophone writing" as a mode of reading.4 According to Harrison francophone writing, "not only groups certain texts in terms of their real or supposed characteristics but also implies a certain approach to reading and criticism, or a certain 'author function.'"5 With this in mind, I will use the terms "postcolonial women writers" and "postcolonial women's writing" to refer not to groups of writers or writings with essential qualities in common (though they may well share common features), but to those that tend to be read through the lens of postcolonial studies. In other words, my use of the term "postcolonial" is intended to say less about the writers it designates, than it does about the reflexes of those doing the designating.
So what are these reflexes? To begin with, there is the (often more implicit than explicit) expectation that postcolonial women's writing can be read as a cultural document. Harrison...