Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin et al, eds., Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
Winifred Woodhull, Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization and Literatures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Simplistic explanations of feminism are increasingly rare thanks to the formidable body of feminist scholarship produced since the 1970s. Many writers, however, still define Francophone literature as writing in French produced outside of France. Similarly, the designation “Maghrebian literature” implies that North Africa is the geographical site of production. Yet because of the increasing mobility characteristic of the second half of this century, much Maghrebian literature is actually produced in France.
By crossing the artificial boundaries erected by patriarchal nationalism, feminists transcend borders and create links among women who identify primarily in terms of gender and sexuality, thus establishing alternative imagined communities that foreground their experiences as women. Analyses of Francophone or Maghrebian feminisms, then, must encompass the social hybridity and nomadism inherent in today’s literary productions lest they imprison their subjects in geographic or cultural frames too narrow to do justice to the complexities of the texts.
In this light, Postcolonial Subjects and Transfigurations of the Maghreb are equally ambitious and timely projects. The former addresses the writing of contemporary Francophone women whose cultural roots lie outside of France, while the latter examines recent writing in French about the Maghreb while exploring the historical and theoretical contexts that gave rise to oppressive representations of North African femininity.
Postcolonial Subjects, a collection of 19 essays by various Francophone women from former colonies, highlights gender as a meaningful category of textual analysis and cultural production. The articles are only superficially linked by the “postcolonial and Francophone women” umbrella, as their authors analyze the works of writers from Canada (Acadia and Quebec), Guadeloupe, Algeria, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Vietnam and Haiti. Not surprisingly, most chapters focus on just one writer since it is challenging to compare the experiences of, say, Antoinine Maillet, an Acadian of French ancestry who speaks and writes in her own native French variant in a country where the “colonizer’s language” is English, with those of Algeria’s Assia Djebar, for whom French is “the language of the enemy.” Clearly, the two writers feel quite differently about French, although both are “Francophone.”
Writers’ relationships with French constitute one of the unifying themes of this collection. The designation of all the writers as post-colonial is more tenuous, since people of French descent have no more right to settle in North America than do those of British descent, both groups being colonizers who dispossessed the natives. Gender, that nebulous, highly permeable and protean category, becomes the study’s only common matrix. For this reason, the six articles on Canadian writers belong in this collection because they argue convincingly for the need to inscribe the experiences of women, especially women from the “losing” side (between the French and British), in Canada’s case.
Other articles discuss the work of writers from North Africa (Djebar), sub-Saharan Africa (Aminata Sow Fall, Mariama Ba), Vietnam (Kim Lefevre), the Caribbean (Myriam Warner-Viyera, Simone Schwarz-Bart and Maryse Conde), and the Middle East (Andrée Chedid, Evelyne Accad and feminist writers in Arabic, such as Emily Nasrallah and Nawal as-Sa‘adawi). The collection is divided into sections dealing with women’s position in social, familial and political history, border crossing and the post-colonial condition. The introductory and concluding chapters articulate the need to hear each woman’s individual voice and to re-inscribe the variety of experiences into our understanding of issues relating to contemporary women.
While Postcolonial Subjects features analyses of women writers from various Francophone provinces and countries, Transfigurations of the Maghreb explores representations of North African women as well as gendered representations of North Africa. What makes this book exceptional is that, while focusing on North Africa, feminism and decolonization, it examines works by male and female authors of both French and African origin covering the period from 1950 to 1980, i.e., during the war of liberation and the decades following independence.
Woodhull examines the works of Kateb Yacine, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Nabile Farès, Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar, but also those of J. M. G. Le Clézio, Marie Cardinal and Evelyne Sullerot. Bringing a fresh critical perspective to some of the best-known and most-examined texts (Yacine’s Nedjma, Khatibi’s Maghreb Pluriel and Djebar’s Fantasia), she devotes the first half of her work to an examination of the impact of politically motivated readings of the texts they are “interpreting.” She argues that, to advance their own agenda, these readings have superimposed their own power configurations and ideologies upon the particular configurations with which the authors were grappling. Chapter One, “Recasting the Colonial Gaze,” shows how such interpretations screen out the very voices and bodies of struggling women. For example, Woodhull’s reading of Nedjma shows that even the most progressive cultural texts of the mid-1950s and 1960s have focused on the tropes of femme sauvage and a feminized Algeria in this early revolutionary novel, overlooking the subversive nature of Nedjma the woman.
Chapter Two, “Wild Femininity and Countermemory,” explores how post-structuralist readings have obscured North African writers’ internal counter-ideologies. A shift occurred after 1968 from historically grounded readings to post-structuralist interpretations that focused on Algerian literature’s ability to destabilize meaning in the dominant discourse. Woodhull argues that this shift has encouraged an essentialist and orientalist image of “women” that obliterates the material and subjective realities of Muslim North African women. Consequently, a burgeoning North African feminism was overshadowed in literary interpretations by the assumption, common among French theorists, that poetic language itself is a gendered/sexual political discourse that subverts discourses of domination. When one feminizes language in this manner, individual women become irrelevant, regardless of their own radicalism.
No analysis of the post-colonial condition is complete unless it addresses the border crossings so characteristic of the collapse of metropolitan centers. Woodhull devotes the second half of her book to an exploration of exile and textual nomadism, exposing the shortcomings and hypocrisy of contemporary theories of nomadism, which fail to distinguish between the foreignness of valued political dissidents, such as the Bulgarian intellectual Julia Kristeva, and that of “undesirables” such as Maghrebian migrant workers. As in the first part of the book, Woodhull seeks to understand how the politics of representation continually convert intractable differences into manageable objects of knowledge, grouping the multitudes of others into a single gendered opposite and re-inscribing regressive notions of female identity, race and national culture. In another chapter, “Exile,” Woodhull considers how exile and nomadism (actual and symbolic) have figured in post-structuralist theories. She attempts to show how such theories remain oblivious to the reality they are supposedly analyzing. Woodhull takes Kristeva to task for her systematic dissociation of foreignness from social inequalities, for “ignoring the foreigners whose foreignness, unlike her own, sparks hostility and violence in France” (p. 92). Woodhull then juxtaposes these theories with the treatment of exile in the work of Beur writer Leila Sebbar, whose Maghrebian, Caribbean and East European protagonists challenge representation as they redraw France’s cultural map.
In the final chapter, “Out of France,” Woodhull shows how the conciliatory French fiction of the 1980s still exploits the Maghreb in an effort to fill the post-1968 cultural void. Her analysis of Sebbar’s Shérazade illustrates the continuing insatiable Western hunger for an alluring East, as well as Maghrebian women’s awareness of contemporary guises of Orientalism and their strategic rejections of exoticization.
Though different in approach, composition and focus, each of these books is valuable in its own way. Woodhull’s Transfigurations of the Maghreb is a rigorous engagement with various contemporary scholars’ readings of language, gender and subjectivity in the works of Maghrebian authors. It spans the colonial and post-colonial eras, critically dissecting the ways that “femininity” has been exploited, misrepresented, effaced or foregrounded — by colonizer and colonized alike — in the dynamics of oppression, resistance, agency and subjugation. Woodhull problematizes reductionist Marxist, post-Marxist and post-structuralist interpretations of literature and mourns the rupture since the 1970s between theory and praxis among French intellectuals who initially criticized the system. Although her work proves that academic writing can adequately address the plight of marginalized social groups, her scholarly style makes it unlikely that many members of such groups will read it and feel empowered. Similarly, given her focus on misreadings of well-known texts, Woodhull does not introduce the reader to lesser-known works. This is unfortunate because they have a lot to tell us, and Woodhull could have combined theory and practice more effectively by creating space within her work for voices marginalized by hegemonic discourse.
Postcolonial Subjects may be more accessible to readers who appreciate the practical effects of political dissidence but who are not necessarily fluent in the intricacies of post-structuralist theory. It is an extremely valuable collection that significantly enriches contemporary scholarship on Francophone feminism outside of France. Particularly valuable are the articles analyzing lesser-known writers such as Vietnam’s Kim Lefèvre or the Ivory Coast’s Véronique Tadjo. My only reservation is that the editors relegate Native Americans to a subaltern status by suggesting that the experiences of French Canadian women unproblematically qualify as post-colonial.