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  • Living and Literary Bodies in Maïssa Bey's Hizya
  • Siobhán McIlvanney

'SITUATED' REPRESENTATIONS of the female body have played a fundamental role in the writing of the francophone Algerian author Maïssa Bey from her first publication, Au commencement était la mer in 1996, to her most recent, Nulle autre voix in 2018. Bey's texts focus over-whelmingly on the portrayal of the pernicious effects of the patriarchal and religious norms surrounding female corporeal (non)expression in post-Independence Algeria. Bey's first publication is a visceral cri de cœur—or cri de corps—in which the depiction of the protagonist Nadia's extreme bodily experiences cannot be extricated from their patriarchal situatedness: having been abandoned by her lover, Nadia undergoes a backstreet abortion on her own, and is then stoned to death by her own brother at the text's conclusion. In Nulle autre voix, Bey's protagonist murders her husband after years of physical and emotional abuse. Given Bey's pronounced emphasis on the formative influence of socio-historical context, the existentially immanent term 'lived' rather than the more transcendent 'living' could be construed as more appropriate to describe the bodies she presents. These bodies exist in a dialectical relationship to the world around them in that they continually endeavor to push against social conventions in order to discover new sites that facilitate female expression. Bey's bodies are always already situated, and subject to the particular material constraints of their physical and social environment—what constitutes their bodily 'facticity.' Bey's emphasis on 'lived bodies' goes beyond—or indeed unifies—the previous feminist binary of sex and gender, and reflects, or more accurately inflects, the body as described by Iris Marion Young, positing a physical body that exists in a specific socio-cultural context:

The body as lived is always enculturated: by the phonemes a body learns to pronounce at a very early age, by the clothes the person wears that mark her nation, her age, her occupational status, and in what is culturally expected or required of women. The body is enculturated by habits of comportment distinctive to interactional settings of business or pleasure; often they are specific to locale or group.1

If the category of 'sex' has traditionally been perceived as immutable and fixed, as existing prior to 'gender' in a neutral realm devoid of culture, history, geography, etc., for Bey, the embodied female self makes sense only when read within her environment, and that self is portrayed as never 'neutral.' For [End Page 69] Simone de Beauvoir, as for Bey, "le fait est que tout être humain est toujours singulièrement situé."2 Indeed, Bey's text emphasizes Algerian women's quasi-prepartum 'enculturation,' in that the body is portrayed as always historically situated, always constituted in relation to culturally specific norms and mores, to what Young refers to as "gender structures" (24). In the context of the contemporary Algerian society portrayed in Hizya, the male obsession with the female body is shown to obfuscate individual differences, with the quintessential component of femaleness described in terms of a dystopic gestation: "Mais oui, le MAL est là! Où? En moi! Il est là, oui, là, niché à la racine de mon être femme. Il est en moi, il est en nous, en chacune d'entre nous."3 In an existential rigidification of Beauvoir's famous opening line in Le deuxième sexe, II, "On ne naît pas femme, on le devient," we read in Hizya: "Surtout quand on naît femme" (107, original emphasis). As Toril Moi makes clear, to be born female does not per se result in exposure to an intransigent and predetermined set of social norms—that is biological determinism—but does produce a (mutable) relationship between biology and social conventions: "To deny that biology grounds social norms is to deny that the existence of two biological sexes justifies any specific socio-sexual arrangements, be they heterosexist or not."4

This article focuses on Bey's Hizya (2015) and presents it as the crystallization—albeit a somewhat ambivalent one—of Bey's thinking around the postcolonial, oppressed female body as seen through the eyes and mind of...


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