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A stepmother tongue: "feminine writing" in Assia Djebar's 'Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade.'

Ever since I was a child the foreign language was a casement opening on the spectacle of the world and all its riches. In certain circumstances it became a dagger threatening me.

Assia Djebar, Fantasia

The question of women's bodies and women's sexuality is a highly loaded one. It has implications both for politics--that is, for the relations of power and control that govern a society--and for literature, or the production of verbal constructs that in some ways reflect and in some ways help to create those relations.

Susan R. Suleiman, The Female Body in Western Culture

In Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade Assia Djebar repeatedly states her ambivalence about language, about her (self-) identification as a Western-educated, Algerian, feminist, Muslim intellectual, about her role as spokesperson for Algerian women as well as for women in general. Particularly striking is Djebar's use of aphasia and silence, which she paradoxically employs as means of expression and of resistance against the forces of a male societal structure, forces which traditionally are said to promote both aphasia and silence as lack of expression in women. Furthermore, Djebar's specific employment of language as connected with the (female) body inevitably leads to questions concerning constructions of the female body by and within discourse as well as the construction of discourse by the body, and it leads to questions about difference, sexuality, and about what French feminists have called ecriture feminine.

In this context we must ask ourselves how concepts such as that of a "feminine language" or ecriture feminine can be used on behalf of feminist politics. Do they exist as strategic constructs? Who uses these feminist strategies? How does ecriture feminine connect with a specific identity and self-image of a female member of society? In what way does a "feminine language" reflect the experiences of women in different cultures? What are the difficulties and limitations of positing a "feminine language?" In this essay I examine these questions as they relate to Djebar's Fantasia.

Djebar herself writes as what Linda Hutcheon has called the "ex-centric," and "to be ex-centric, on the border or margin, inside yet outside, is to have a different perspective . . . since it has no centering force" (in Kauffman, 151). In Djebar's novel the polarities of, for example, subjugation and resistance, sound and silence, often merge and collapse. Her fiction is decentered, but she also avoids the pitfalls of simply making the marginal another center and therefore merely reversing instead of undoing binary oppositions. Thus, in Fantasia the marginality of a "feminine language," associated in the text with the female body and bodily drives, is emphasized and at the same time problematized, maintaining its marginality, its "difference." French, the original language of the novel and the language of colonization, is, moreover, both used to generate discourse--an act of empowerment--and questioned regarding its appropriateness for and appropriation of self-expression of the colonized. Thus, Djebar is undercutting the power formation of her own discourse while simultaneously creating discourse for empowerment.

Djebar's concept of "difference," I believe, is always provisional and plural, deliberately contradictory within itself. In this I find Djebar pursuing similar goals--and facing similar problems--as her French colleagues, particularly Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray (and, to some degree, Julia Kristeva), who are perhaps the best-known advocates of a so-called feminine writing, l'ecriture feminine, in the United States. Both Irigaray and Cixous have been criticized for essentializing woman in their theories of ecriture feminine.[1] However, these writers do not claim to posit the "Truth" and "essence" about woman, as I see it, but rather seek to re-metaphorize the body, as does Djebar in Fantasia. They are aware, I believe, of constructing and at the same time "deconstructing" their own assertions about a feminine "essence." Their aim is to open up new discourses on "femininity" and the body, and to position themselves and respond to what in The (M)other Tongue has been called a "mother-based fiction" (10) in order to promote feminist politics.[2]

Assia Djebar's Fantasia is, I believe, a good example of a "mother-based fiction." Mildred Mortimer points out that "Djebar uses oral history to give voice to surviving heroines, the porteuses de feu of the Algerian revolution, and allows them to tell their own stories" ("The Fiction of Djebar and Sebbar," 302), and she does so without constructing these stories as "truthful" accounts of the war.[3] By deliberately blending fiction and experience, fictionality and language, and especially by gendering writing (ecriture) as male and orality (kaalam) as female, moreover associating the former with French and the latter with Arabic,[4] Djebar creates subtle and complicated links between the "feminine" spheres of oral languages and the "male" domain of writing.

The very strategy of fusing his-story and her-story, the mixing of written narratives by men and oral accounts by women, simultaneously emphasizes the differences between "male" and "female" and undoes the male/female binary. Telling women's stories through men's instrument of writing enables Djebar to create a female voice while at the same time destroying it (or rather, destroying the orality that defines this female voice in the first place). Therefore, Djebar's method is inherently paradoxical: it blurs the boundaries of the spoken and the written by emphasizing, precisely through writing, a language that is imagined to be spoken. The language that results from this technique disrupts the logic associated with patriarchal discourses and offers an alternative "logic" of simultaneity and paradox which can be used for feminist purposes.[5] In this sense, Djebar's writing can be called a "feminine language," a "(m)other tongue," or ecriture feminine.

Theories of an ecriture feminine remain highly debated (even among the pioneers of these ideas themselves), and one must distinguish carefully between their use as positing "essential truths" about feminine writing and their use as political strategy to further a variety of feminist goals. A "feminine language" is employed, for example, to disrupt and question, as Ann Rosalind Jones stresses, such fundaments of patriarchal thought as "the modes through which the West has claimed to discern evidence--or reality--and a suspicion concerning efforts to change the position of women that fail to address the forces in the body, in the unconscious, in the basic structures of culture that are invisible to the empirical eye" ("Writing the Body," 361; my emphasis).[6] The invisible structures mentioned by Jones are closely tied to the notion of an unconscious and repression. These Freudian models may be serviceable for feminist politics--albeit male--in that they emphasize impediments: those moments when one cannot see the ways in which one is identified, categorized, and classified within the discursive practices that dominate one's environment.

In a system that is shaped by masculinist practices, and in which women often have internalized many of those practices (and thus are "unconscious" of them), can we at all recognize the ways in which we might be subjugated--or liberated? What if we, as women, cannot recognize certain oppressions because of power structures that encourage repression of the very knowledge of our oppression? What, to continue this line of thought, if we inadvertently perpetuated an oppressive system that stifles not only ourselves but others as well? Luce Irigaray's almost paranoid concerns in Speculum of the Other Woman are particularly illuminating when it comes to questions of liberation politics and self-identification for women. She provocatively asks, "What if I thought only after the other has been inserted, and introjected into me? Either as thought or as mirror in which I reflect and am reflected?"

In Fantasia Djebar expresses concerns about difference, sameness, and appropriation similar to those voiced by Irigaray in Speculum. Djebar asks: if Woman is defined as Other, can she then speak? Can she express herself and her specifically female experiences? And if so, whose language, whose voice is she using in doing so? For Djebar as an Algerian woman, the question of Otherness and appropriation becomes doubly acute in the light of colonization, and especially in connection with her French education. On the one hand, Djebar's French education enables her to escape the fate of her Algerian sisters, that of cloistering, and it provides her with the means of stepping out into the public, into the male and the colonizers' sphere, by enabling her to write--moreover, to write in French.

On the other hand, however, Djebar's French education also alienates her from the female sphere of the harem. Her ambivalence becomes clear at several points in Fantasia: "Never did the harem, that is to say, the taboo, whether it be a place of habitation or a symbol, never did the harem act as a better bar-tier, preventing as it did the cross-breeding of two opposing worlds" (128). This barrier, this wall of protection from an appropriation through colonization, is what Djebar feels is missing from her French-oriented upbringing.

Djebar's autobiographical description in the first chapter of Fantasia already conveys a mixture of pride in and fear of Europeanization, both enabling and stifling: "From the very first day that a little gift leaves her home to learn the ABC, the neighbours adopt that knowing look of those who in ten or fifteen years' time will be able to say 'I told you so!' while commiserating with the foolhardy father" (3). The very fact of Djebar's French education blurs her Algerian identity with that of herself as French intellectual. Thus, Djebar experiences herself as caught, as she puts it in Fantasia, amid "this bastardy, the only cross-breeding that the ancestral beliefs do not condemn: that of language" (142).

Furthermore, Djebar's education complicates her identification as woman as well. It uproots and separates her from her confined female relatives. The transformation from childhood to adulthood, marked by the sexual maturity of the body, becomes a crucial aspect for the possibilities of self-identification and self-expression. In Fantasia this issue is emphasized through the connections drawn between language and desire, between language and the body. Again there is ambivalence. Djebar writes:

While the man still has the right to four legitimate wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to express desire before all that is left for us is sighs and moans: French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards God-the-Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the pagan idols--mother gods--of pre-Islamic Mecca. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours' and cousins' eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love. (180)

The female body and language are constructed as powerfully interconnected in Arabo-Islamic writing, as Fedwa Malti-Douglas argues in Woman's Body, Woman's Word (3-10). In metaphorically returning to the harem, predominantly a female sphere, Djebar is inevitably confronted with storytelling linked to the female body. She becomes "a sister to Shaharazad," the cunning narrator of the Thousand and One Nights who skillfully manipulates discourse by mediating words through her body and who mixes sexual and narrative desire.

Djebar's position, however, is more complicated than that of her fictive sister Shaharazad, because in telling her story, Djebar chooses a language that is foreign to the very story it is to convey. Fantasia is full of contradictory moments concerning this issue. "The language of the former conqueror" offers the female narrator in one of the autobiographical passages of the novel "its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers,'' but these flowers are also described as "the flowers of death--chrysanthemums on tombs!" (181). Again, Djebar expresses her reservations about having had the so-called privilege of learning "the other language," which is both the medium of expression that empowers her by allowing for the deployment of discourse while at the same time tying her into a system of the non-Arabic discourses of the colonizers, in which the self-expressions of the colonized are mutilated and the speakers subjugated by learning to express themselves only through the desires of the Other. French is questioned in Fantasia as an adequate medium for expressing Arab experiences.

This dual issue is further complicated by the fact that, even within her own culture, woman is already the Other. In Fantasia the Arab woman is therefore doubly subjugated: in her own culture as woman, and by the French both as woman and as object of colonization. In this context, Cixous's "Write your body, your body must be heard" becomes problematic ("Medusa," 250). Cixous implicitly addresses only white, literate, middle-class women. In Arab countries, where women are often "illiterate" and where female modes of expression are dominated by oral traditions, how can the trope of writing be successfully employed to express the self and the bodies of these women? Moreover, if writing is embedded in or is dominated by discourses of the hegemonic Other, as Irigaray so aptly observes, how can one not belonging to the dominant group find modes of expression that reflect the specificity of one's own experiences, one's own desires, one's own body?[7] In Fantasia the autobiographical passages of the novel emphasize, in particular, Djebar's awareness of her own contradictory role as a Western-educated, Muslim, female Arab intellectual attempting to recreate the voices of her Arabic ancestors. Djebar asks: "Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when in this absence of expressions of love (love received, 'love' imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia" (202).

Some passages in Fantasia also convey the paradox of using French, the language of subjugation, to convey experiences that are said to be narrated in Arabic. Djebar voices her concerns explicitly--"To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin" (156)--yet she also emphasizes the playful and imaginative aspect of using French to convey self-experience: "Autobiography practiced in the enemy's language has the texture of fiction" (216). I believe that by foregrounding the dual nature of her use of the French language, Djebar purposely creates and undoes contradiction in her novel. The act of translating Arabic into French, moreover, transcribing kaalam (the female) into ecriture (the male), puts Djebar in the position of an interpreter who has the power of eradicating clear-cut boundaries. Using the French language to tell us, as readers, that we are actually hearing Arabic is not necessarily an act of appropriation, as one may assume at first reading; on the contrary, it becomes a means by which we are made aware of the existence of Arabic in the novel through French. This kind of "translation" is a disruptive and very effective practice. Nicole Ward Jouve points out in White Woman Speaks With Forked Tongue:

For many bilingual women . . . translation is an activity by means of which the "natural" bond "meaning-language" can be transgressed. It is a state of continued suspension, allowing, in Walter Benjamin's words, "the post-maturation of the foreign speech, the birth throes of one's own speech." The process is therefore eminently "feminine." When you translate, the absolute status of nouns, the "Name-of-the-Father" is shaken. Exchanges between words are no longer "full," that is guaranteed by the law of the Father, the law of significance. Identities cease to be stable. You escape from definition, from the law which rules and partitions women, which prevents femininity from coming into being. (28)

Though Jouve is referring in this quotation to linguistic translations, I find her comments nevertheless valid for the kind of "extended translation" employed by Djebar in Fantasia. Djebar's specific use of French in the novel is an act of transcribing her native Arabic into a disruptive language, one that defies the "proper name" or the "Name-of-the-Father." In this, Djebar is creating a "feminine language," expanding the borders of what has been defined by and within feminist discourses as ecriture feminine.

Linking language to the (female) body is another aspect of ecriture feminine that is crucial for Djebar: Arabic, for example, is described in Fantasia as "oral": it is open and fluid, flirtatious and sensual. Pronouncing a word such as hannouni (my little liver) becomes an experience directly affecting the body: "Sometimes my lips form it silently, awakening it; sometimes it is exhumed by a caress along one of my limbs and the sculpted syllables rise to the surface, I am about to spell it out, just once, whisper it to be free of it, but I refrain" (81). Language is here connected with the physical, yet the physicality of spelling out, sculpting, and expressing is both desired and resisted in the text simultaneously; it must at once be revealed and remain a secret, because there always seems to be another presence lurking in the background, the one of the "foreign word" that distorts desire and expression.

The influence of language on the physical body, highlighted in such passages as the above, becomes even more pronounced when connections between the specifically female body, voice, and writing are revealed. Djebar writes in Fantasia:

. . . The need is felt to blot out women's bodies and they must be muffled up, tightly swathed, swaddled like infants or shrouded like corpses. . . . The voice, on the other hand, acts like a perfume, a draft of fresh water for the dry throat. . . .

When the hand writes, slow positioning of the arm, carefully bending forward or leaning to one side, crouching, swaying to and fro, as in an act of love. When reading, the eyes take their time, delight in caressing the curves, while the calligraphy suggests the rhythm of the scansion. (180)

Writing and reading Arabic become physical, erotic experiences that are associatively linked to a curved and dancing female body which has escaped its confines. It is precisely for this reason that in Fantasia the female body is disembodied, transformed into liquid, scent, sound, or silenced, paradoxically, in order then to speak and relate back to its own physicality. Djebar writes, "Love ought not to give rise to meretricious words, ostentatious demonstrations of affection. . . . I decided that love must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and gestures" (27). Here, silence becomes a powerful means of resisting a colonization of one's language and one's body; silence defies the imprint of the Other: "The message from 'The Other' is sometimes pregnant with desire, but has lost any power of contamination by the time it reaches me. Once passion has been expressed in writing, it cannot touch me" (59; my emphasis).

Again, however, Djebar's text is ambivalent. In a chapter of Fantasia titled "Aphasia of Love," seduction and resistance are interwoven, even at the level of the body: Europeanization is not merely repressive in appropriating the Other, but also productive (and therefore seductive) in providing the Other with power. This duality becomes clear in such passages as the following: "I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem like my gift cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized in its way" (127).

Still, this "European" experience of moving freely in the male sphere also marks the domination by the colonizer. The Arab girl is uprooted from her own culture, whose customs nevertheless remain the standards by which she assesses her new situation: "I suffered from misunderstanding.... I discovered that I too was veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body just like that of a Western gift, I had thought it to be invisible, in spite of evidence to the contrary" (126). Similarly, aphasia, in Djebar's novel, should not be read merely as an involuntary loss of the ability to speak, but instead as a deliberate method of protest against the "inherent fault of the European education: verbosity, an indiscreet compulsive longiloquence in [the] preambles to seduction" (126).

The resistance to a complete assimilation of self-definition, cultural identity, and desire becomes especially clear in the encounter of the (Europeanized) Arab woman with "the doubly opposite sex," the Frenchman. In Fantasia this relationship is marked by a power struggle in which "the only possible eloquence, the only weapon that could reach me was silence.... Refusal of speech was both the starting point and the end point of our relationship" (127). Silence (conventionally seen as an effective means of maintaining the status quo in which "tradition" is used as a powerful tool for subjugation) is here redefined: the aphasia concerning sexuality/textuality can be read in Fantasia as a rebellion in which the female Arab speaker refuses to use the specific discourse of the French colonizer (a discourse that allows for love matters to be spelled out) by retreating to silence, to the traditions of her own cultural background, in which love is not verbalized. This silence is an affirmation of Arab traditions, in which the lovers, as we are told in the novel, out of decency and respect for each other, do not even verbalize each other's names, let alone love.

Interestingly, the aphasia in matters concerning love literally inscribes itself on the body of the speaker: there is not only a "loss of the faculty of speech" (125), but, moreover, the whole body turns physically numb, becomes unresponsive to the spoken (or written) word, which loses its communicative power, its power to affect, to arouse, to signify. This subversion of the French language, a "frigidity" concerning the French word, is thus achieved directly through the speaker's body, and through sexuality.

In Fantasia silence is not, however, simply proclaimed as protest. Silence, imposed onto women and enforced and justified by "custom" and "tradition," is also damaging and stifling, as Djebar illustrates when she re-creates the voices of her Arabic sisters, who narrate their experiences of rape and violence during the French-Algerian war of independence.

To say the private, Arabic word 'damage', or at the most, 'hurt':

'Sister, did you ever, at any time, suffer "damage"?'

The word suggesting rape--the euphemism....

One or other of the matriarchs will ask the question, to seize on the silence and build a barrier against misfortune.... Rape will not be mentioned, will be respected. Swallowed. Until the next alarm. (202)

Djebar shows that, by giving name to woman's plight or voicing protest--in other words, by unveiling woman's situation and making it public--woman becomes guilty and is stigmatized by Arab society: "To refuse to veil one's voice and to start 'shouting,' that was really indecent, real dissidence. For the silence of all the others suddenly lost its charm and revealed itself for what it was: a prison without reprieve" (204).

In writing the Arab women's voices, and in rebelling against childhood taboos, Djebar, for example in Fantasia, therefore makes French her accomplice; she calls it her "stepmother tongue" (214). Thus, French loses its role of the strictly paternal, superimposed language of colonization. In Fantasia Djebar's French sentences are transformed into a "feminine language", an ecriture feminine. This "feminine language" remains stolen, manifests that it is "accompanied by bloodshed! A language imposed by rape as much as by love" (216), but nevertheless makes itself heard. Djebar's ecriture feminine re(dis)covers woman; it voices the protest of Arab women, it escapes the confines of the harem, it gives body to the oral accounts of women, it inscribes woman's unspoken name. In short, it "does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters" (204).

Purdue University

1 In this respect I find Diana Fuss's essay "Essentially Speaking: Luce Irigaray's Language of Essence" as well as Naomi Schor's "This Essentialism Which Is Not One" invaluable.

2 Feminists may ask why it is at this particular moment in our history and culture that questions about a "feminine language" or ecriture feminine gain significance, and how and to what end do these concepts find their way into the variety of feminist discourses.

3 Djebar's skepticism about and critique of "truthful" story-telling is not picked up by Mortimer, who seems to be less interested in the problematic issue of "giving voice" to the Other or narrating history as "Truth" than in looking at the enabling aspects of recording these voices. I see, however, that Djebar is foregrounding in her novel the buried female voices within Algerian history as fictive constructions instead of as "objective" historical sources.

4 The difference between writing (ecriture) as male and French-dominated and orality (kaalam) as female and Arabic is pointed out by Mildred Mortimer in Journeys Through the French African Novel (150) and in "The Fiction of Djebar and Sebbar" (301-2).

5 The language in Fantasia can well be compared to the kind of communication that Kristeva has associated in Revolution in Poetic Language with the prelinguistic, the presymbolic, which she calls the "semiotic": a language not yet fixed by the Law-of-the-Father.

6 It is in this, in an emphasis on theorizing the unconscious, in stressing what cannot be easily discerned and is therefore often overlooked, that I see the strength of French feminist thought. The constructs of sexuality and the body as sites of repression maintain crucial positions within such theorizing.

7 One possibility of coping with this problem is, as Cixous and Irigaray demonstrate in their writing, to re-metaphorize the body by metonymically linking language to the female body. They create a kind of body language that should be taken figuratively rather than literally; it is employed to reconstruct the body rather that to encage it in traditional norms. Diana Fuss points out in "Essential Speaking": "Defining women from an essentialist standpoint is not to imprison women within their bodies but to rescue them from enculturing definitions by men. An essentialist definition of 'woman' implies that there will always remain some part of 'woman' which resists masculine imprinting and socialization" (99-100).


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SOHEILA GHAUSSY holds an M.A. from the University of Hamburg and is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at Purdue University. Her essays on such writers as Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Malek Alloula have appeared in Frauen in der Literaturwissenschaft.
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