Modern Languages

The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture – Five Minutes with Jennifer Solheim

‘How do voices find listeners?’ To celebrate the release of The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culturewe caught up with Jennifer Solheim to discuss the representation of music and listening.

The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture argues that globalized media has allowed for efficient transmission of transnational culture, why do you think this is the case?

Artists—including writers, filmmakers, actors, visual artists and beyond—quickly adapt and innovate when it comes to the dissemination of their work, particularly those who are socially and politically engaged. So whenever a new technology becomes available, we see artists experimenting with and the mastering the new technology as a means of getting their work out in the world. For example, in the 1980s, once photocopying became readily available and more affordable, zine culture exploded. Zines were primarily distributed by hand, at DIY events, as well as by the post. Then, in the late 90s and early 2000s zine culture gave way to blogging platforms like LiveJournal and other nascent social media. Currently, Instagram, Twitter, and Soundcloud are a ready means of independent distribution. All of these media platforms make artistic work available globally, with the click of a mouse. Voices find a way. Then the question becomes, how do voices find listeners? That’s one of the central questions in The Performance of Listening.

What made you choose to focus your research on the culture of Postcolonial France?

The short answer to this is that it was the cultural work I found most compelling, both in terms of the work itself as well as the context whence it arose and arises. But there’s always an element of serendipity in research, from what we’re taught and by whom, to those we meet and the work we encounter, whether on the street, in concerts and bookstores, or in archives. In my case most of it came from personal connections and experience. For instance, I went to the Cabaret Sauvage in Paris in July 2003 with an Algerian percussionist I knew, for a fundraiser following the devastating earthquake in Algiers in May of that year. There were something like twelve DJs at the event, and we ended up dancing with a group of people we didn’t know, amongst them a woman who became and remains one of my closest friends. She is Kabyle and very much involved in the cultural associations and community, and it was through her that I met Aït Menguellet, Djura, and Idir, and saw them perform—those are the three musicians that I focus upon in the section on the book about the performance of listening in music.

How can listening across genres help us to learn more about contemporary Postcolonial France?

What an interesting question! The way I conceived the study, I was thinking more so about the fact that there are performances of listening in all kinds of artistic works – but I wasn’t thinking about literally listening across genres. Perhaps listening across genres can help to see the different strategies people use to try to connect with one another, for their stories to be noticed and heard. One thing I think of often is how many stories fall through the cracks because the narratives don’t fit neatly into recognizable categories, or because the speaker is not considered credible.

Which sources did you use when conducting your research? Did you find anything particularly surprising or exciting?

Since my work is on contemporary culture, a lot of my research was conducted by attending concerts and readings and going to cultural association events. Some of my sources came through attending conferences—Yasmina Khadra’s The Sirens of Baghdad was one of those. I remember sitting in this panel on contemporary Algerian literature and nearly jumping out of my skin, I was so excited to read the novel. Persepolis was a major part of the French cultural landscape from its first publication, and I was doing research in Paris the summer the film was released so went to see it right away, just as a point of reference, then realized pretty quickly how significant a role listening to music played in the narrative. That was an a-ha moment for me: when I realized it was not just about the representation of music or sound, but about the representation of listening and hearing and gaining new understanding about someone or some aspect of human experience as a result.

How do you think The Performance of Listening in Postcolonial Francophone Culture paves the way for further research into culture in contemporary Postcolonial France?

I hope that this book can serve as both a primer and a guide. As a primer, it’s contributing to the emerging critical body of work on Wajdi Mouawad, Yasmina Khadra, Idir, and Djura, and offering new interpretations and arguments on Assia Djebar, Leïla Sebbar, and Marjane Satrapi. In considering the current debates on cultural appropriation it’s clear that we need to approach cultural works rigorously, but also not divorce them from their historical, social, political, and other contexts. So, as a guide, my hope is that The Performance of Listening offers a methodological model for how to consider cultural works in a way that allows us to see the depth of their aesthetic value while simultaneously demonstrating the representation of marginalized experience.

Jennifer Solheim is an independent scholar of French and Francophone Studies. She received her degree from University of Michigan in French in 2011 and currently works as a freelance academic editor. You can learn more about her work at


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