- Approaches to Teaching the Works of Assia Djebar ed. by Anne Donadey
EDITED BY ANNE DONADEY
Modern Language Association of America, 2017.
x + 188 pp. ISBN 9781603292962 paper.
When the immortelle Assia Djebar—as members of the illustrious Académie française are known—passed away in 2015, she left behind her more than a half-century's worth of path-breaking work, primarily novels, but also essays, film, theater, and criticism. Already in her lifetime, the Algerian writer had come to be revered as a major figure of Francophone letters and of postcolonial women's writing. If the somewhat lighter tone and themes of her first novel, La Soif (1957), once inspired comparisons with Françoise Sagan's coming-of-age tale Bonjour tristesse (1954), Djebar has since come to be associated with aesthetic and structural experimentation, thematic complexity, and multilingualism. At once deeply personal and historically engaged, her novels and films are often intensely hermetic, so much so that uninformed readers may founder in incomprehension and surrender, unwittingly depriving themselves of the joy of a eureka moment with Djebar.
This collection of essays devoted to Assia Djebar's work is thus a most welcome addition to the MLA's pedagogically focused "Approaches to Teaching World Literature" series. Here, the Francophone Algerian writer finds herself in the company of Orhan Pamuk, Nella Larsen, and Anton Chekov, among others. In keeping with the series format, the volume is organized into two parts: "Materials" and "Approaches." Part I, written by editor Anne Donadey, consists of a brief essay including a biographical sketch and a section titled "Editions, Translations, and Secondary Sources." Part II begins with a helpful introduction by Donadey, which explains the rationale and structure of the "Approaches" portion of the volume while laying out some of the challenges of teaching Djebar's novels and film. "Approaches" is subdivided into four parts: "Historiographical Approaches," "Interdisciplinary Approaches," "Teaching Assia Djebar in Dialogue," and "Cultural and Linguistic Contexts." The volume is rounded out by an afterword by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—a longtime friend and sister-traveler of Djebar's—who reminds us that despite Djebar's longtime association with Francophone literature, "her most important stance is against identitarianism" (157).
The contributors, all of whom are women, range from assistant professor to professor emerita, and they teach in a variety of institutional settings, from the small liberal arts college to the large research university. Their approaches to the genre of the "teaching essay" are necessarily varied. Some offer concrete tools, such as examples of pre-reading activities, in-class assignments, discussion topics, and suggestions for papers and projects, framed by meta commentary on how students have typically approached a text and how their ideas and analyses have changed as a result of this approach. The essays by Guyot-Bender, Mortimer, De Raedt, Bourget, and Rice are among the most useful examples of this "how-to" genre, with the cowritten text by Abdo and Bobroff emerging as especially successful in combining practical advice and intellectual reflection. Other essays, however, take a slightly more sidelong approach to the genre, modeling (rather [End Page 264] than explicating) textual analyses, contextualization, and comparative gestures (see Boutaghou, Lachman, and Rahman, for example).
It is not surprising that the hermeneutic and pedagogical imperatives that emerge from this volume might be summed up as seeking to make Djebar's work accessible without papering over the work's fundamental inaccessibility. Another, unexpected but equally delightful, through-line is the volume's determination to emphasize literature qua literature. This desire is palpable, implicitly, in all the texts, but explicitly so in Elsayed's essay when she refers, rebukingly, to "the tendency to read historical fiction from other parts of the world as historical documents" (51) and also when Abdo and Bobroff remind us that "a piece of literature is not simply a window onto the real world, a way for us to gain knowledge about the veiled and exotic Other" (55). The collective mission of these nineteen readers of Djebar is condensed into a single declarative sentence in Spivak's afterword: "Literature is not evidence but an instrument for...