I’ve always found Djebar’s works compelling, and even though at the time I was also working on other things, I kept coming back to her. The combination of her focus on the broad scope of Algeria’s troubled history, together with highly intimate reflection on her personal life, means that her work is engaging to the reader on different levels at the same time. I was also fascinated by the ways in which her different texts work together and interact with one another, so that a proper understanding of what she’s doing really comes only when you’ve got to grips with everything she wrote. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to do a single-author study as I thought publishers were moving away from that kind of thing, but I ended up writing it all the same because I loved Djebar’s work.
2. What is the main argument of the book?
I called the book Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria because I was focusing on the way in which the texts depict the author’s preoccupation with her country, even though latterly she lived in the US and France. Djebar explores various moments in the history of Algeria but she also evokes a sense of non-belonging, and her characters are also often fugitives who question the notion of a secure origin or homeland. At the same time, I wanted to situate Djebar in relation to postcolonial theory and contemporary philosophies of subjectivity and community. I argued that she set out to challenge the idea that national culture provided a specific identity, and showed how her characters represent instead a diverse, plural Algeria while also emphasising the importance of genealogy and of dialogue across different groups and periods.
3. What marks Assia Djebar out as being ‘one of the most important figures in North African literature’?
I’d say it’s a combination of the intellectual sophistication, the historical scope, and the formal inventiveness of her writing. Djebar is a great writer because she asks important questions about ethics and politics; she also seeks to uncover the blind-spots in our documented knowledge of Algeria and to reveal the deceptiveness of colonial as well as nationalist ideology; and her writing has a poetry and linguistic sophistication that is quite unique. Her importance in France was recognised when she was elected as a member of the Académie française in 2005, and she has received a lot of attention in Europe and in the US. In Algeria, her status is a little more uneasy, as for some she is a truly valuable monument in Algerian culture while others see her as somewhat distanced from contemporary life there. Nevertheless it’s clear that her work is of huge international significance.
4. Do you believe her work still has the same significance today, when many such writers describe themselves as ‘post-post-colonial’?
The meaning and significance of the ‘postcolonial’ is something that has been endlessly theorised and discussed. Whatever one thinks of the term, it seems to me to be entirely misguided to suggest that ‘postcolonialism’ is over. It is the legacy of colonialism that created contemporary Algeria, and the shape of the new regime is very much influenced by its difficult beginnings during the War of Independence. I don’t think Djebar would describe herself as ‘post-post-colonial’, as this would signal that something of that legacy was no longer relevant. At the same time, though, I think that Djebar is also still relevant because she didn’t write exclusively about French colonialism and its aftermath, but also about political tensions affecting Algeria in particular during the 1990s (for example in Le Blanc de l’Algérie or Oran, langue morte). And these might tell us something about the rise of Islamism elsewhere, as does her work on the origins of Islam in Loin de Médine. Finally, it would be reductive to assume that the significance of a writer is determined by her political timeliness. Djebar’s work is enormously important because of its extraordinary poetic quality and because of its philosophical depth.
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