Silence is death: if you say nothing, you die, and if you speak, you die. So speak and die.
These are the famous words of the Algerian novelist and poet, Tahar Djaout, born in 1954 and assassinated in 1993, relatively early in what has come to be known as Algeria’s brutal ‘black decade’. During the 1990s Algeria suffered from what some people have called a ‘civil war’, with successive violent attacks by Islamists against intellectuals, writers, teachers, journalists, and women not thought to be sufficiently abiding by Islamic doctrine. Djaout was among the first victims, silenced because his novels and poetry represented secular free thinking, were written in French, and celebrated Berber culture and history. Having worked on francophone postcolonial literature and theory since I was a graduate student, I’ve been familiar with Tahar Djaout’s work for quite some time. It was in 2012, however, that I came across one of his lesser known works, his posthumously published narrative Le Dernier été de la raison [The Last Summer of Reason], and it was this discovery that really brought home to me the high stakes of francophone writing over the last 30 years or so.
The protagonist of Le Dernier été is Boualem Yekker, a bookseller trying to make a living under an extremist regime reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan (though evidently referencing the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front). Since books are conceived as dangerously distracting from religious ‘Truth’, Yekker’s trade falls out of favour, he is vilified and stoned, his books are ultimately burned and his shop closed down. This startling narrative, together with more research into Djaout’s broader thinking and his own fate, gave me an inkling of the troubled status of literature in Algeria during the ‘black decade’, of the crucial importance of the critical questioning it invites, and the scale of the suspicion it generates in those intent on bolstering their power through oppression and fear.
Since 2012 I’ve been exploring perceptions of the place and power of literature in the former French colonies of the Maghreb, and I’ve found that this is a subject that deeply troubles many of the most challenging and sophisticated writers to emerge in recent decades. It is in Algeria that the atrocities committed against writers were the most excessive, but in Morocco too, during what are known as the ‘years of lead’ under the reign of Hassan II, intellectuals, poets, and dissenters of many kinds were imprisoned or saw their works banned. What is it about literary creativity that is conceived to be so threatening, then, and what does this suspicion mean for writers and writing practices? My book seeks to answer these questions by analysing a series of works in which literature itself is held up for scrutiny. In some of these, the central protagonist is a writer, historian or journalist, who experiments with literary form in a challenge to official and reductive versions of national culture. Others investigate literary writing about Arabic culture in French, and in one case the main character is a translator who invents a notion of bilingual writing that also promises an ethics of dialogue that directly resists dominant notions of a monolithic national or orthodox Islamic culture, and of Arabic monolingualism. Some works contain scenes of reading where contact with other communities and histories alters the characters’ knowledge of the present in enriching and thought-provoking ways.
My project also asks some broader questions about the place of this kind of literature in the critical arena. Can this generation of francophone North African writers, from 1980 to the present, still be conceived as ‘postcolonial’? Several decades after independence, they sometimes seem more preoccupied by contemporary forms of authoritarianism and the rise of religious extremism than with the legacy of French colonialism. Nevertheless, francophone writers, by virtue of their choice of language, remain products of the colonial system, and continue to reflect on the ways in which the colonial past is responsible for contemporary tensions.
At the same time, though, they are quite resistant to being determined by the postcolonial nation. Moreover, if they transcend national borders in their creative intermingling of French and Arabic languages and cultures, many also reach more widely and explore the transnational history of the Mediterranean, or the impact of various new forms of ‘global’ culture. A repeatedly found reference point in these works is the vast compendium of the Thousand and One Nights, a uniquely rich repository of fragments of different cultures from across the Arab and Islamic world, and one which, moreover, is also an extraordinarily complex laboratory for literary theory. If in the Nights, story-telling is a tool for challenging injustice, it is also a layered form capable of questioning its own apparent premises, just as the writers I read in my book reassess the role, status, and form of literature in the contemporary North African context.
Finally, might this transnational, dialogic and self-questioning form of writing be an apt example of what recent critics conceive as ‘world literature’? ‘World literature’ might not necessarily be associated any longer, as it was for Goethe, with universalism, with an international canon speaking to all nations and cultures, but with the travel and transformation of literature across borders, as well as with cultural dialogism in both content and form. The Kenyan intellectual and writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o argues that postcolonial literature is a particularly apt example of world literature, because it is ‘a product of different streams and influences from different points of the globe, a diversity of sources, which it reflects in turn’. It is in part perhaps this kind of openness and diversity, and the concomitant critique of national culture, that has caused some of the North African works I read to be met with such hostility at home. But it also seems to me, together with the ability to question itself, a significant aspect of the literary and critical value of this vibrant and provocative corpus.