Saturday, August 7, 2021

WITMonth Day 7 | Identities | Thoughts

I am precisely halfway through Nina Bouraoui's Tomboy (translated from French by Marjorie Attignol Salvodon and Jehanne-Marie Gavarini), not only practically in page count, but at the novella's shift in location. This seemingly semi+-autobiographical work (the main character is named Nina Bouraoui, and like the author is the daughter of an Algerian father and a French mother, first growing up in Algeria) opens in Algeria, and then moves to France; I have paused reading just at the onset of the "Rennes" section. The book is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of the most obvious is how it is making me contemplate identity and authorship.

From the onset, Tomboy makes a point of discussing identity. It's an integral part of the book, one I imagine I will discuss in more depth once I actually review it. For now, the part that struck me was that this novella - half of which takes place in Algeria, written by an author who is clearly blurring the lines between her own experiences and that of her narrator, explicitly discussing the feeling of being neither here nor there (neither Algerian nor French) - was published in the US under a series titled "European Women Writers". While Bouraoui's author blurb makes a point of emphasizing her origins (see my above description of the author/Tomboy's narrator), there's something a little off-putting in how the book's meta-narrative places Bouraoui firmly in the French camp. She is a European author! Perhaps a European author who struggles with her identity, but still.

Author identity and origin is something that I personally find fascinating (maybe it's my own history that drives this...?), but it can often feel like a game in which we cherry-pick identities and definitions for our own means. Do immigrant writers represent countries and cultures left behind, or those new homes they have embraced? Refugee writers? Those who comes from multiple backgrounds all in one, who shuffled around during childhood, whose families have always fallen across borders? Can identities be mixed and contradictory and all-encompassing?

I began to think about other authors who similarly straddle different identities. I thought of Scholastique Mukasonga, whose Igifu I finished reading just before starting Tomboy. Mukasonga is framed as a French Rwandan writer, but of her four books translated into English so far (which you, dear reader, should absolutely read, immediately, right now), none are particularly French. France features in parts, yes, as do other countries, but her work strongly centers Rwanda and a Rwandan Tutsi identity. Yet Mukasonga lives in France and has done so for decades. Is there any identity I can choose as a reader that will not be an imposition of sorts?

It rarely matters, not in any way that means something to my life. But even something silly like the #WITMonth Bingo I came up with (which I increasingly find flaws with) seems to suggest clean-cut author/book identities. Am I able to check off the "North African" box by reading Tomboy, belonging as it does to the "European Women Writers" series? And of course this question of identity extends to other fields as well - how do I reconcile the gendered nature of WIT with my desire to include non-binary writers? Identities can also shape how I interpret a work as a reader, whether I want it to or not.

Identities are, of course, complicated things. This is something I've wrestled with many times over the years, in regards to different aspects of my own life. It's something I imagine I will continue to wrestle with, as my own contradictory self-identities continue to clash and change and grow. And regarding the authors that I read, I think that the simplest course of action is to acknowledge that there is no single answer. Women writers in translation are often defined in all sorts of ways that seem most likely to "succeed", simply by virtue of their general marginalization in the larger literary landscape. Herta Müller is German and Romanian by turns, depending who you ask. Scholastique Mukasonga is "French Rwandan". Nina Bouraoui can write an entire book about an identity somewhere between France and Algeria while being neither (fictional? autobiographical? neither?) and still be classified as a European writer. What are the identities of writers whose homelands no longer exist? Who are we to determine them? In a world that does have increasingly blurred borders and identities (whether nationalistic, linguistic, gendered, or otherwise), what does it mean to even define these concepts?

I doubt I'll have answers to these questions any time soon. I'm not sure I would even want to, to be honest. I suppose I just need to keep reading and thinking...

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