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World Book Day: Women's lives in the mirror of their men

Categories: North America, Algeria, Canada, France, History, Literature, Women & Gender

There are so many men in a woman's life, from the first to the last one: «father, grandfather, son, brother, lover, husband, boss, colleague»…Some are present, others are forgotten, some are gone, others are still mysteriously there, captivating or suffered, changing, staying, transforming; and, pieced together, their portraits and contributions will depict better than she could herself, the woman crossing their road, in intimate and intricate stories, heartbreaking and inspiring, funny and modest, introspective and shedding light on historical and social backgrounds.

First on my discovery list was Denise Bombardier [1], a journalist, novelist, essayist and media personality from Quebec, well known for her outstanding reporting and often scathing sense of humour. In «Nos hommes» (1995) she writes, as quoted [2] in Nicole Savard‘s literary blog [Fr]:

Les hommes sont, dit-elle, des êtres qui nous inspirent sur chacun d'eux, chacun d'eux étant la facette de ce qu'est un autre. De plus, l'homme est cette personne qui nous révèle à nous-mêmes, nous les femmes. Ils sont un peu ce que nous voulons qu'ils soient: amoureux, amants, fougueux, touchants, amicaux, professionnels, séducteurs, parfois cruels, et souvent terrifiés par le pouvoir qu'exerce la femme sur eux. Enfin, ces hommes sont à l'image de ce que la femme veut, croit ou “désespère d'être”.

Men, she says, are beings who inspire us about every one of them, each being the facet of another one. Moreover, man is this person who gives us women a new awareness of ourselves. They are in some way what we want them to be: in love, lovers, hot-headed, friendly, professional, seductive, sometimes cruel, and often terrified by the power a woman exerts on them. Finally, these men are a picture of what a woman wants to be, thinks she is or «has lost all hope of being».

Camille Laurens [3] [Fr] represents a controversial trend in French literature, called «autofiction [4]», combining autobiography and fiction. In 2000, she published «Dans ces bras-là» («In those arms»), which earned her the Femina prize, a book ballerines ou converses loved [5] [Fr]:

Les hommes. Quel sujet ! Passionnant. Je regrette d’avoir été une femme en lisant ces lignes. J’aurais aimé être masculin pour mieux comprendre ce qui se passe dans le ventre des femmes face à nous, mais je suis fille, je ne fais qu’aquièscer au chemin chaotique et amoureux de l’héroïne. Car il y a toujours une histoire d’amour avec un homme : qu’il soit père, grand-père, fils, frère, ami, amant, mari, patron, collègue.

Men. What a topic! Gripping. While reading these lines I was sorry I was a woman. I would have loved being a male in order to better understand what is going on in the bellies of women facing us, but I am a female, I just aquiesce to the heroine's chaotic path through love. Since there is always a love story with a man – whether he is a father, grandfather, son, brother, lover, husband, boss, colleague.

But my favorite is no doubt My Men by Malika Mokkedem [6], an Algerian writer established in France, where she studied medicine and long practised as a nephrologist, before deciding to dedicate her time to literature.
The daughter of an illiterate, formely nomadic family of South Algeria, she succeeded in wrestling her independent life against the heavy traditions of the time and her family, and through the sheer power of her determination, became what she irrepressibly craved to be. She writes [Fr]:

I left my father to learn how to love men, a continent still hostile, because it is a foreign one…. I made myself with and against them. They embody everything I needed to conquer, in order to attain freedom.

La muse agitée, the blogger of the Vallauris bookshop, is enthusiastic [7] [Fr]:

Voici le « carnet de bal » de Malika Mokkedem, qui déroule le fil de sa vie comme on ouvre un tiroir aux souvenirs. Y sont rangés son enfance de petite fille algérienne qui compte moins que ses frères et à qui on demande d’être la plus transparente possible, son adolescence de jeune fille qui trouve dans les livres et l’instruction une porte ouverte à la liberté, une jeune femme avide d’amour, indépendante et déterminée, une femme construite avec ses blessures, sa culture, sa rage et son besoin viscéral de reconnaissance.
Les hommes de sa vie sont ceux qui ont compté et l’on soutenue, ceux avec qui elle a bataillé, contre qui elle a dormi, pour qui elle a fait l'amour. Leurs traces intimes imprègnent de forces conjuguées et de déceptions cuisantes la vie de l’auteur. […]

This is Malika Mokkedem's «dance card», unwinding the thread of her life as you would open a drawer of keepsakes. Kept there are her childhood as a little Algerian girl who matters less than her brothers and is asked to be as invisible as possible, her teenage years as a girl who finds in books and learning an open door to freedom, a young woman eager for love, independent and resolute, a woman built out of her own wounds, her culture, anger, and deep-rooted need of recognition.
The men in her life are those who mattered and supported her, those against whom she battled, next to whom she slept, for whom she made love. Their intimate marks imprint the author's life with joint strengths and bitter disappointments. […]

Le livre se lit comme un récit de vie, un témoignage, une confidence, une sorte de gifle à l’ordre établi, l’ignorance et la servitude, une vérité toute crue qui n’accuse pas mais enveloppe l’avenir d’un espoir encourageant pour les femmes algériennes. […]

The book reads as a life-story, a testimony, a confidence, a kind of slap in the face of established order, ignorance and bondage, a raw truth that does not indict, but rather wraps the future in a cheering hope for Algerian women. […]

This obstacle race facing women leads us to great Algerian novelist Assia Djebar [8], who is also a translator, filmmaker and a professor of Francophone literature at New York University, one of the few women ever accepted into the Académie Française. Among her most famous works and memorable reads are L'Amour, la Fantasia (1985), and Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (2002). On his blog Le bateau libre, literary critic Frédéric Ferney points [9], about her latest book Nulle part dans la maison de mon père («Nowhere in my father's house», 2007) [Fr]:

Le titre sonne comme une dénégation et un aveu, il tient sa promesse.
Grandir, est-ce apprendre à désobéir? Et comment grandir sans (se) trahir? Comment être fidèle à soi sans renier les siens? Assia Djebar a cette phrase: “Se dire à soi-même adieu” que chacun est libre d'interpréter comme il veut.

The title sounds both like a denial and an admission, it does not fail to keep its promise.
Does growing-up mean, learn to disobey ? How can you grow up without betraying (and betraying yourself)? How can you stay faithful to yourself without disowning your people ? Assia Djebar has these words: «Bid oneself farewell», which everybody is free to understand his own way.

What brings together most of French-language Algerian writers is their style, their rich and vivid, energetic and never starchy handling of language, as well as the audacity of their subjects. So, finally somehow drifting from women's destinies, I feel compelled to end this short round-up with the entrancing books of Yasmina Khadra [10] (a pen name for a man, to avoid military censorship during the Agerian civil war), whose Wolf Dreams (1999), The Swallows of Kaboul (2002) The Attack and The Sirens of Baghdad (both 2006), among others, aim to «give the readers in the West a chance to understand the core a problem that he usually only touches on the surface [that is, fanaticism].

More about this fascinating writer on these blogs : Un oeil sur la planète [11], and Cocola's [12] [Fr].