“Fugitive Without Knowing it”: Language, Displacement and Identity in Assia Djebar’s Autobiographic Narratives

Lobna Ben Salem


If in Edward Said’s words, “everyone lives life in a given language; everyone’s experiences therefore are had, absorbed, and recalled in that language” (Out of Place, 1999: 217), a writer who chooses to write in a language other than the mother-language is inevitably a victim of  displacement. In a geography-decentred world, being linguistically out of place is usually accompanied with a physical displacement, issuing into a problematic interplay between language, self and identity. In Assia Djebar’s autobiographic narratives, the role of the written word is made more complex, not only because Djebar is a Muslim woman, but also due to the conflict between her oral ‘maternal’ Arabic/Berber language, and the written ‘paternal’ language which is French. Djebar has a complex relationship with these two languages in and between which she lived; two languages that worked in tandem, but also Othered each other in a shifting myriad of experiences and forms of being and becoming. This paper aims at discussing the intersectionality of language, identity and displacement. It starts with the view that the written word separates the writer from her maternal language, and her expression in French has become a source of anxiety. Knowing that her association of language and home underlies her double displacement both linguistically and geographically, how does Djebar come to terms with the anxiety of a double exile? At what point was she able to proclaim that writing in “the enemy’s language” heralds the self’s plurality, positionality, alterity and uniqueness. What role has the autobiographic genre played in this self-fulfilment? The paper postulates that linguistic hybridity is the only possible venue for Djebar when it comes to escaping the alienation inherent in her expression in the enemy's language. The integration of orality in Djebar’s (written) autobiographies allows the author to surmount her linguistic exile, to properly mourn the loss of the maternal tongue, enhancing a linguistic and cultural reconciliation.

Keywords: Linguistic exile- female collective memory- displacement - Algeria- French language

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