Practising History in Theory: Assia Djebar's Quatour Algérien

Seth Graebner (Harvard University, USA, Kaddi Ayyad University, Marrakech, Morocco)

In attempting to remap the boundaries both of postcolonial criticism and of cultural studies in general, many critics have turned to history to help contextualize the expressions of cultures placed in minority status. It has often proven possible to demonstrate how literature not ostensibly concerned with history in fact intersects with other discourses of postcolonial culture to form a historiography evidenced in minority expressions at once "academic" and popular. What happens, however, when we apply a similar critical perspective to literature, which openly proclaims its interest in history?

Such is the case of Assia Djebar, whose work focuses self-consciously on intertextuality and the writing of history, and on autobiography and the recording of memory. Almost all of the many critics considering Djebar since her publication of Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980) and L'Amour, la fantasia (1985) have noted her rereadings and rewritings of history. Instead of belabouring the existence of a historical discourse in Djebar's work, this paper retraces some of her historian's footsteps in the Quatour Algérien, to reconsider the ways in which she produces an oppositional reading of primary sources. Focusing on two of the four novels in the Quatour, L'Amour, la fantasia and Vaste est la prison (1995), it argues that these rereadings provide an essential context for the inscription of the female voice in general and of her own autobiography in particular in contemporary Algerian writing.

Djebar's work demonstrates that the postcolonial condition is a complex intersection between theory and practice, bringing ostensibly marginal cultural expressions into the center of critical interest. This intersection between theory and practice becomes especially compelling when we analyze work which explicitly thematizes both, as it remaps postcolonial cultural boundaries.

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Last modified: 7 May 2001