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The Chaâba Writes Back : « Mythological » Representations of the Postcolonial African Immigrant in France

Jennifer T Westmoreland

« Le mythe ne nie pas les choses, sa fonction est au contraire d'en parler; simplement, il les purifie, les innocente, les fonde en nature et en éternité, il leur donne une clarté qui n'est pas celle de l'explication, mais celle du constat ... »

The Barthian « mythe, » specifically the ideas articulated in his article entitled « Grammaire Africaine, » provide a clear departure point for examining the use of the language in the French media during the decolonization of Algeria in the late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties. In this essay, I use the concept of « le mythe » to discuss the ways in which the French press has continued to promulgate a certain image of the immigrant « other » through the use of specific, veiled terminology from the second half of the twentieth century up until the present era.

I begin with an overview of the lexicon used by the French media in the nineteen fifties and sixties to neutralize or normalize the consequences of colonization, namely the Algerian revolution. From this, I move into a discussion of how the immigrant « writes back » by engaging with the dominant discourse in mid to late twentieth century fictional narratives. To support my project, I rely on the semi-autobiographical texts of two African authors, Le gone du chaâba by Azouz Begag and Le docker noir by Ousmane Sembene. Rather than dismiss the dominant discourse of the colonizer, these two authors engage with it and transform this vocabulary into a tool for identity formation and social advancement. This process is often problematic, as it involves adopting the language of the colonizer only to subvert it in support of one’s own agenda.

As Assia Djebar states in L’amour, la Fantasia, the French language is simultaneously an asset and a detriment to the colonial subject, or in this case the African immigrant, as he attempts to define his identity in a foreign space. The ways in which the narratives of Begag and Sembene address the use of French do not stray from this model. In fact, they support Djebar’s claim that language functions as a double edged sword, capable of establishing myth as « natural » and simultaneously used as a tool to cut through this construction to support the self identity formation of the potscolonial African immigrant.

This project fits in nicely with my larger research interests which include issues of diaspora and identity within the Francophone postcolonial context. My primary area of study is Francophone Caribbean literature written by women. Specifically, I focus on the maternal relationship and problems surrounding identity formation within the Francophone Caribbean female narrative. This project supports these topics, since it examines how the postcolonial subject is represented in France and how he/she constructs his/her own identity beyond these boundaries by both engaging with and subverting the dominant discourse.

Questions for the panel entitled Representing Black European History :

  1. How have black writers (fictional and nonfictional) come to be represented in France ? How is their work « packaged » and marketed to broader European and American audiences ?

  2. What elements of the African immigrant’s experience have been remembered in the construction of a « comprehensive » immigrant history in France ?

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