Johanna Sellman on "Autobiography and Independence"
Autobiography and Independence: Selfhood and Creativity in North African Postcolonial Writing in French
Reviewed by Johanna Sellman
Abdelkebir Khatibi, a Moroccan writer and sociologist, published his first novel La Mémoire Tatouée: autobiographie d’un décolonisé (“Tattooed memory: an autobiography of a decolonized man”) in 1971. As disclosed by the title, the novel is not entirely fictional. A novel and at the same time an autobiography, the book tackles questions of selfhood in a postcolonial context. Many literary critics as well as Khatibi himself have turned to psychoanalysis when exploring this work. In contrast, Debra Kelly, author of Autobiography and Independence: Selfhood and Creativity in North African Postcolonial Writing in French (2005) largely passes over psychoanalytic questions in favor of an approach that attends to the ways in which the writer creatively theorizes subjectivity through writing, in both form and content. Commenting on the title of Khatibi’s book, one of the eight autobiographical works that she analyzes, Kelly writes: “It is perhaps truer to say that the subject becomes decolonized through the writing strategies utilized and through which the position of the subject in relation to his life and to History becomes clearer to the narrator. These strategies reveal a profound commitment on the part of the author to both a politics and poetics of writing.” In Autobiography and Independence Kelly takes seriously the writing strategies and experimental forms employed by North African writers as a form of resistance to dominant discourses—both colonial and nationalist —and as a way to establish an individual subjectivity embedded in larger political and historical frameworks. It is the proliferation of innovative autobiographical works in postcolonial North Africa that inspires her inquiry.
Autobiography and Independence delves into the lives and works of four major North African authors who write in French, Mouloud Feraoun, Albert Memmi, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Assia Djebar and systematically engages in close readings of two autobiographical works of each author. In the vein of both feminist and postcolonial studies, Kelly critiques the “cult of individualism” that characterizes some of the foundational works of western autobiography and follows in line with the poststructuralist critique of the unified nature of the author. Yet, “identity” remains a salient category in her study and she argues that the positioning of each writer vis-à-vis his or her community is profoundly marked by ethnicity, gender, and class. The origins of the four authors under consideration span the Maghreb. Mouloud Feraoun and Assia Djebar are from Algeria, Abdelkebir Khatibi is Moroccan, and Albert Memmi is from Tunisia. All of the writers were educated in French and with the exception of Feraoun, pursued university studies at prestigious Paris universities. The subjectivities that emerge from their writing deal explicitly with the issue of using French as a language of expression. All four authors theorize their potential and limitations as intellectuals in relation to their communities. By writing autobiographical works, they posit their individual lives as relevant to a broader experience while remaining attentive to the problems engendered by representation. The authors theorize their selfhood through creative narrative forms that respond to complex political and social realities.
Kelly’s focus is thus on both the political and the aesthetic dimensions of the works in question. In place of Philippe Lejeune’s autobiographical pact, which has gained a privileged status in French studies, Kelly applies to autobiography the criteria outlined by Elizabeth Bruss for the analysis of postcolonial francophone literature. Bruss defines three criteria for autobiographical writing: truth-value, act value (personal performance), and identity value. In her definition of autobiographical writing, Bruss prioritizes the contextual over the formal features of autobiography. Perhaps what is most compelling in Bruss’s thought is that in style and form, she does not distinguish autobiography from fiction. To be sure, the four writers analyzed by Kelly go to great creative lengths to write a place for themselves in the world. Even though she uses the conventional term “autobiography” in her writing, Kelly prefers the term “autobiographical discourse” for the self-writing projects of Feraoun, Memmi, Khatibi, and Djebar, which implies that although the works themselves do not hide the relationship between the “I” of the text and the “I” of the author, the reader cannot be sure without consulting outside sources.
Kelly criticizes some French critics’ writing on North African autobiography who point to the collective character of the works, a precarious line of thinking that uncritically accepts the notion that there is no place for the individual outside of colonial intervention in Muslim and African societies. “The ‘I,’” she writes “does not necessarily ‘represent’ a ‘we’, but is often a vehicle to explore the relation between the ‘I’ and that ‘we.’” In line with Barbara Harlow’s concept of resistance literature the collective is invoked for strategic purposes to achieve common goals. Feraoun and Memmi, writing mainly in the 1950s and ‘60s, deal with this productive tension which is inherent in positing the individual experience as representative, especially when the individual experience is that of an intellectual elite, however humble the origins. Khatibi and Djebar, whose works largely date to the 1970s and ‘80s, go to greater narrative lengths to play with the boundaries between the “I” and “we” and between first and third person narration.
As Kelly’s argument unfolds in the course of five chapters, she follows a chronology that suggests that with the passage of time, the writers increasingly make use of experimental writing strategies to express the relationship between the individual and his/her historical, political, and social setting. Chapter One is a general but in-depth discussion of the theoretical underpinnings and debates over the study of postcolonial self-writing in the Maghreb. Chapter Two examines the life and writing of Mouloud Feraoun, a Kabyle school teacher in colonial Algeria, who both follows and breaks with the tradition of “ethnographic writing” by including his own life in his fictional works. The intersection of individual and collective histories is perhaps most shatteringly present in his Journal (1962), which relates an eyewitness account of the Algerian revolution. The work never reached completion since Feraoun was assassinated by French nationalists shortly before Algerian independence. Chapter Three looks at the works of Albert Memmi, a Tunisian of Jewish origins, who throughout the course of his literary and critical career, became known as “the philosopher of duos,” an epithet that refers partially to his influential work The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957)and to his attention to the ways in which identities are formed through reciprocal relationships. Kelly sees one of Memmi’s autobiographical works, Le Scorpion (1969), as a pivotal work in North African autobiographical writing through its transitions to polyphonic and experimental discourses to express the place of the individual. Finally, Kelly tackles the diverse writings of Assia Djebar who in her series of autobiographical works develops forceful and complex strategies to uncover unwritten histories that include the stories and voices of women.
Kelly’s work is an impressive survey of the writings of four accomplished North African writers and more generally of theoretical thought on autobiography in postcolonial contexts. This review does not do justice to the author’s extensive and in-depth close readings of the eight autobiographical texts, analyses that do not shy away from the complexities and idiosyncrasies of each work. Without losing focus, she continuously invites the reader to consider the place of these creative autobiographies within a broader corpus of autobiographical expression. She provides an adept discussion of the polemic around the possible influences of the Arabic written tradition on these works, though her book does not engage with contemporary experimental autobiographies written in Arabic in the Maghreb, some of which display similar preoccupations and strategies of narration. Although she clearly justifies her choice of four writers who write in French, her contextual grounding raises questions of how her discussion could be enriched by bringing writers such as Moroccans Abdelkader Chaoui and Mohamed Berrada into dialogue with the writing strategies of the autobiographical discourses outlined in her book.