Postcolonial Passages: Assia Djebar & Lyone Trouillot
“Postcolonial Passages,” with Assia Djebar and Lyone Trouillot, appears in PEN America 7: World Voices. This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.
ASSIA DJEBAR: Lyonel Trouillot’s last novel, Bicentenaire, has not been translated, but it’s a great pleasure for me as an Algerian writer to engage in dialogue with Lyonel. His book describes the celebrations that go awry on the eve of the third centennial of Haiti’s independence. This could have happened in Algeria, not two hundred years after independence—the country isn’t that old—but it could have well taken place in the 1990s, thirty years after independence. And the demonstrations could have ended up the same way.
Of course, we’re not here to discuss political history. We’re writers, fiction writers, and I think our comments will have to do with how we write about violence—with urgency—both as it’s taking place and after it has taken place. One of the things that brings us together is the fact that we both use the language of the former colonial entity. However, the violence that occurs on the street afterward has nothing to do with the colonial power.
LYONEL TROUILLOT: For me, language is a secondary issue, whether I write in Creole or in French. Language is the heritage of colonization. We got it in a less than desirable fashion, but it remains with us. Unfortunately, few benefit from and enjoy the wealth that bilingualism between Creole and French could entail. I would like there to be free expression in both Creole and French, so that Creole could be a language of prestige and of writing, which is not the case today. On the other hand, I would like my countrymen to be able to freely express themselves in French and not have the current situation, in which only a hundred thousand people in a population of eight million are capable of using French.
It’s the text that chooses the language. I’ve decided to write a text in French, and the text decides to be written in Creole, and vice versa.
DJEBAR: For me, language is not a question of minor import. I do write in French and I only write in French. I speak an Arabic dialect and I have a memory of Berber, but I don’t speak it. My ancestors spoke it but it was lost. Now there is a renaissance of Berber, and my mother tongue is Arabic, and I have a great deal of affection for Arabic. But I studied in French because I lived in Algeria under the French colonization. At the time, France was a secular country, but I was always referred to as the Muslim French woman, and that’s what appeared on my identity card. I did learn to write in Arabic, but only sections of the Koran.
I do believe that language is extremely important and I wish, as Lyonel says, that many people in Algeria could be bilingual and even trilingual. But my experience is that people in Algeria who express themselves in French do so without taboo, and when they discuss questions about love or sex, they do so without any internal barriers. On the other hand, those who write in Arabic are affected by the religious shadow, not to mention that most of the books have a religious connection. The level of teaching Arabic in my country is not the same as the level of French. Ten years ago in my country writers were murdered not so much because of the content of their work but because they were Francophone.
TROUILLOT: I still think it’s important to distinguish between the social situation inside a society, and literature and writing and the function of a language inside a society. Today I would have to say that the language and the texts written in Creole are much more capricious, with a much greater thematic variety, and the poetry written in Creole has much more fantasy than what is written in French. This has to do with the historical age of the society.
I would also like to talk about fetishism in a language. This is not a question of the language itself. The fact that there’s more thematic liberty, more freedom for subjects in French among Algerian writers, doesn’t have to do with the wealth of the French language or the poverty of Arabic. But rather it has to do with a question of historical development. Language is a tool and domain for the writer, but if we look at Haiti, for example, thirty years ago, we could see that many of the Creole writers were addressing political issues. Why? Because Duvalier was using French as the language of exclusion so it was logical that they would pick Creole as a language of opposition. It was a historic need. That is not the case anymore. Now Creole language writers have a much wider selection of themes.
DJEBAR: When I started to write novels and fiction in French, I found that French allowed me to follow the female body from the outside, something that the Arabic language didn’t permit me to do. This was not a question of it being twentieth-century French or French from Marie de France; that’s how it worked for me. I found that the female body moved with French. Ten years ago, when violence broke out over a period of two or three years, I had a lot of good friends who were killed because of the French language—French teachers who were murdered. The only way I could achieve a balance was by using the French language in memory of the victims of intolerance, and I would agree that French, as Lyonel said, is a domain. Right now I could say that I’ve established a dialogue with many of the great Arabic writers. For example, I’m working on Ibn Hazm’s book The Ring of the Dove, which was written in the eleventh century. I can say that I’m tapping the richness of Arabic to continue my trajectory in French.
TROUILLOT: One of the sources of happiness in Haiti—Haiti is a country with a lot of unhappiness, but it does have some flickering moments of happiness—is that the writer in Haiti today is really free to pick his language, unlike in the French Antilles, where Creole writers are pushed into a corner. Haitian writers who live and write in Haiti today write in French and Creole, going back and forth. We have assumed bilingualism without any trauma, and I think that’s very positive.
We can compare the island of Manhattan to the island of Haiti: We both think we’re the center of the world, but a writer in Haiti is content to write for two thousand readers.
DJEBAR: That’s enough. We don’t have that in Algeria.
TROUILLOT: That’s why I find the situation of my confreres in Guadeloupe and Martinique so interesting: If they have a literary dispute, it has to be dealt with by the publishing companies in Paris, whereas if we have a literary dispute we can handle it in Port-au-Prince. That gives us a certain degree of specificity. Our literature is not aimed at other people’s market. That gives us a certain degree of solitude, but it also gives us authenticity.
DJEBAR: In Algeria, we have a population of thirty million, which is substantially more than Haiti. Twenty million of those are French speakers, and nevertheless, despite that, we don’t have an authentic publishing industry for people who are writing in Algeria in French. Young writers who write in French in Algeria are writing for someone else, for another market. And whenever your motivation is to write for another market, you fall prey to a certain exoticism. For example, right now, if a Muslim woman in France is writing for Gallimard or any other publishing house, they want her to discuss why a Muslim woman would or wouldn’t wear the veil. The question is how you feel as an individual, and if you have two thousand readers who feel the same way you do, that’s enough to continue your literary path.
TROUILLOT: It’s true that when you come from countries like Algeria or Haiti that were victims of colonization and are currently searching for themselves and developing a being, there is a tendency to try to reduce the reality of those countries to a reality of violence. I reflect violence in my work because one writes with one’s gaze. But it would be a mistake for a New York or a Parisian reader to view this violence as a sort of new exoticism. Violence is one aspect of the reality of my country—a country where one lives, one makes love, one drinks, one sings. I say this both to you as the reader and to me as the writer, so that I will not replace cocoa trees with cadavers.