Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Feminism in the "Father Book": Complicating the Emancipation Narrative in Assia Djebar's Nowhere in My Father's House

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Feminism in the "Father Book": Complicating the Emancipation Narrative in Assia Djebar's Nowhere in My Father's House

Article excerpt

But you--I am speaking to myself, like a sarcastic stranger--, where have you gotten, you who began your life through the intervention of the father, the father and his supposedly or truly beloved daughter--and who declares, suddenly, to nearly the whole world:

"Nowhere in my father's house"?

Dispossessed? Really? And what goads you into writing that? Why shout it to the four winds?

Mais vous--je me parle a moi-meme, comme ferait une etrangere sarcastique--, ou en etes-vous, vous qui avez commence votre vie par l'intervention du pere, du pere et de sa fille pretendument aimee ou reellement aimee--et qui declarez soudain presque a la face du monde :

<< Nulle part dans la maison de mon pere >> ? Depossedee ? Vraiment, et quel aiguillon vous incite a l'ecrire ? Pourquoi vouloir ainsi le clamer a tous vents ?

--Assia Djebar, Nowhere in My Father's House (1)

If the passing of Algerian novelist Assia Djebar in 2015 has been the occasion for scholars to revisit a number of issues in her extensive corpus of novels, plays, and films, then I begin by raising a question that Djebar herself asks in the passage above, taken from her final work, Nowhere in My Father's House (Nulle part dans la maison de mon pere, 2007). What compels her to publicly declare that she is "nowhere in her father's house"? This preoccupation is apparently so central that it appears as the title of this autobiographical novel retracing her childhood and adolescence in colonial Algeria.

In asking the titular question, Djebar addresses herself in the second person as a "stranger" or "foreigner" (etrangere), emphasizing the cultural estrangement caused by her personal and professional trajectory. This estrangement is directly linked to the figure of her father, who was the only native (indigene) (2) schoolteacher in the colonial school in Algeria where she began her French education, a formation that ultimately enabled her to develop her prestigious literary career. Publicly claiming estrangement from her father is thus a symptom of self-doubt, as if, writing between Paris and New York, she has no right to criticize the man who started it all. This self-doubt reflects larger tensions in Djebar's work that relate primarily to her status as an Algerian woman intellectual who writes almost exclusively in French and whose greatest literary success has been in Europe. (3)

Born Fatima-Zohra Imalayene in the town of Cherchell in 1936, Assia Djebar spent much of her life writing novels and holding teaching appointments in France and the United States. After working for the Algerian nationalist newspaper El Moudjahid during the Revolution and teaching history in Algiers after independence, she increasingly distanced herself from her home country, first because of the National Liberation Front's cultural policy of Arabicization in the domain of education, and then because of the waves of violence and political unrest that shook the country in the 1990s, resulting in the deaths of at least 150,000 Algerians. She moved to the United States in 1995, where she became a professor, first at Louisiana State University and then at New York University. Her last visit to Algeria occurred that same year, when she attended her father's funeral. Though most of her novels concern her country of origin, she is known only in certain milieus there, largely because Nowhere in My Father's House is her only novel to date to be translated into Arabic. (4) But if, as Jane Hiddleston asserts in Out of Algeria, Djebar's relationship to her homeland grew increasingly fraught and distanced over the years (181), I would agree with Mildred Mortimer that rather than continuing along this path "out of Algeria," Nowhere in My Father's House instead marks a decisive return (114).

Composing this novel of return--to both Algeria and her father--appears to have posed a significant challenge. In an interview conducted in 2006 by Daniel Simon, she stated that she was working on what she described as "the father book" and anticipated that it would be the final work in the Algerian quartet, (5) a series of novels focusing on women's experiences in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial Algeria. …

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