Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Life As Literature

Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Life As Literature


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ISBN-13: 9781783162062
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 06/15/2015
Series: University of Wales Press - French and Francophone Studies Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Amaleena Damlé is a research fellow in French at Girton College, University of Cambridge. Gill Rye is professor emerita and associate fellow at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London.

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Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France

Life as Literature

By Amaleena Damlé, Gill Rye

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 The Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2588-9


Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Introduction

* * *


At the beginning of the new millennium and into the second decade of the twenty-first century, women's writing in French continues to be a fertile field of study for both teaching and research in the UK, the US, Canada, Europe and beyond. The first texts of the so-called 'new generation' of young French writers of the 1990s – Christine Angot, Nina Bouraoui, Marie Darrieussecq, Virginie Despentes, Ananda Devi, Marie NDiaye, Marie Nimier, Lorette Nobécourt, Amélie Nothomb – have expanded into mature bodies of work, and some exciting new authors, worthy of wider interest, have come to the fore, such as Chloé Delaume, Claudie Gallay, Anna Gavalda, Véronique Olmi and Laurence Tardieu. Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France takes stock of the first decade of the new century, identifying and exploring its key trends and issues. While some of the themes and literary techniques appearing in the 2000s expand upon what has gone before, others take altogether different directions and forge new ground.

It might be thought no longer necessary in the third millennium to privilege the work of female writers. The point of much feminist literary analysis may well have been achieved and women authors are now arguably an integral part of the mainstream. Yet it is our (feminist) position that the study of writing by women offers crucial – and unparalleled – insights into women's lives, experiences and creativity, as well as into their perspectives on a range of issues. By means of overviews, comparisons and single-author or single-text readings, this collection of essays critically analyses the ways in which women writers are responding to and reflecting upon women's experiences in a rapidly changing world. As the title implies, and for reasons of coherence, the volume focuses on the work of authors who live and work in metropolitan France, rather than considering a wider body of literature written in French. It does, however, include the work of writers who have migrated, who are of mixed race, or who only partly live or work in the metropole, thus reflecting the composition of multicultural twenty-first-century France.

While the rationale behind this volume is to explore themes and strategies raised in writing, the two chapters immediately following our introduction relate in different ways to the interrelated and important issue of readership. Lynn Penrod's chapter reminds us of the role of translation in canon-formation. Likewise scholarly work: although, as editors and contributors, we do not claim to identify the classics of the future, it is nonetheless part of our aim to bring particular authors and works to the attention of a wider public. Diana Holmes's chapter focuses on popular, best-selling literature and, although there is some crossover between best-sellers and titles considered to be literary, her recognition of the success of middlebrow works in France is a salutary reminder that the experimental texts which often attract scholarly attention are not always commonly read by non-academic readers. As the chapters in this volume disclose, reading literature of all kinds encourages us to think, evaluate and imagine, and thus shapes our social and cultural values.

In the handful of years that precede and succeed the turn of any century, a charged atmosphere tends to prevail, on the one hand characterised by a sense of crisis and precarious hurtling towards uncertain futures, on the other curiously, inevitably, intermingled with hope, excitement and the opening out of new horizons. The vibrancy of this ambient turn-of-the-century flux gives rise to important critical debates and a rich seam of artistic endeavours that engage with the immediacy of the now and project themselves into realities to come. But it also provides an opportunity to look back, to take stock of the past, to reconsider our relationship to the historical events that have structured, and continue to inform, our political, social and cultural lives. This panoramic perspective can only have been magnified by our most recent turn of the century, the threshold into not only a new century but a new millennium.

In this sense, the return to history that Colin Davis and Elizabeth Fallaize (2000: 13) identify in their consideration of French fiction in the 1980s is amplified in the twenty-first century. The legacy of the Second World War and the Algerian war of independence continue to be central themes in French literature more broadly, and they are increasingly being taken up in women's writing. This is a significant new development: since the explosion of published writing by women in France in the 1970s, authors have tended to focus on the creation of individual female voices (Cixous 1975; Cixous and Clément 1975), to explore female subjectivity and family relations through psychoanalytical perspectives (Cardinal 1975) or to harness the specificity of female experiences such as adolescence, sexuality, marriage and motherhood within sociocultural contexts (see, for example, the early work of Annie Ernaux), rather than to look back to collectively experienced historical events. However, as Nathalie Morello and Catherine Rodgers (2002: 36) observe, this recent return to history carries a particular gendered inflection in female-authored works, in which the historical is inextricably bound up with the personal. In the twenty-first century, new perspectives are being brought to bear on historical events and their intervention in private lives and personal identities. Lucille Cairns identifies in this volume an emerging body of work that voices the experiences of the wartime enfant caché (hidden child) in contemporary Jewish women's writing, that not only illuminates the socio-political implications of Vichy collaboration, genocide and exclusion, but also raises intimate questions about childhood, gender and trauma and, importantly, about testimony (see also Cairns 2011). Bearing witness to the past, as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub's (1992) influential work has shown, enables the communication of traumatic experience and a healing process in which the reader participates.

What is particularly striking about this recent trend is the now relatively advanced age of authors producing first-hand accounts of this period in history and of their encrypted secrets of the past. This revisiting of past traumas after a prolonged period of time is also visible in another body of work, signalled by Susan Ireland in this volume, that speaks of the wounds borne by the harkis, the Algerians who worked for the French army during the war of independence, which have been until recently shrouded in silence. In such works, testimony is filtered through members of a new generation, who bear witness not only to their parents' untold stories, but to the impact on their families who carve out differently oriented, gendered accounts of the past. Testifying to historical events in the twenty-first century is thus opened out beyond the immediacy of the first-hand witness experience, mediated through time, memory and a sense of haunting that now carries through to future generations.

Alongside this increasing tendency to revisit the past, women's writing in French in the first decade of the new millennium continues, in the vein of previous work by authors such as Cardinal, Ernaux, Danièle Sallenave, Leïla Sebbar, Paule Constant and Sylvie Germain in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, to be firmly committed to exploring the dynamics of its present social, political and economic realities. Over the last half of the twentieth century, French society has undergone massive social transformation and diversification, yet religion, race and immigration remain particularly charged areas in the twenty-first century, evidenced most recently by the killings in Toulouse which dominate the news at the time of writing. The roles that religious and cultural signs, symbols and clothing play in French society have been hotly debated over the past decade, culminating in the 2011 ban on Islamic face veils. The twenty-first-century French state continues to pride itself on a secular stance, but one that may arguably eclipse the particularity of ethnic, cultural and religious identities and disavow deeply entrenched and deeply problematic attitudes towards difference and minority groups. These embedded and often internalised attitudes towards difference are underscored in Andrew Asibong's contribution to this volume, where the staking out of racial identity in a short story by Marie NDiaye is complexly bound up with negotiating false selves, blank recognition and negative hallucination.

The French state's desire to uphold the republican logic of universalism that assumes all citizens to be the same and equal, and minimises the recognition of difference, has obvious implications for the questions of sexual difference with which this volume is particularly concerned. The relationship between universalism and equality with regard to women's position in society re-emerged with vigour in the French political sphere, with the parité (equality) debates of the late 1980s and 1990s (Célestin, DalMolin and Courtivron 2003). This led to a new equality law focused on representation in June 2000, less than a year after the introduction of the Pacte civil de solidarité (civil partnership) law, which arguably set the new millennium in France off on a path to rejuvenate existing gender and sexual politics. Feminism has gained a renewed sense of activity and activism, with groups such as Mix-cité, Les Sciences-Potiches se Rebellent, Les Pénélopes, Ni Putes, Ni Soumises and Chiennes de Garde leading the fights against economic and legal discrimination, harassment and violence against women. Such groups have also begun to integrate their work into broader issues, including domestic parité, as well as international concerns such as globalisation or the situation of women within fundamentalist cultures (Célestin, DalMolin and Courtivron 2003: 7). This would seem to suggest that French feminism in the twenty-first century has begun to address multilayered concerns and to engage with questions of composite identities. Yet issues such as domestic pariténonetheless still tend to be problematically inscribed within a heterosexist logic.

Gay and lesbian rights have increasingly come to the fore over the last decade in the French political sphere, and their visibility has perhaps been enabled by the election of the openly gay Bertrand Delanoë as mayor of Paris in 2001. But more political work is required to achieve equality and agency for individuals who identify in a spectrum of non-heterosexual positions, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-, queer or other, and to recognise the changing dynamics of relationships beyond heteronormative patterns of the couple and/or the family. Same-sex marriage has yet to be legalised, for example, and until 2009 transexuality was still pathologised as an illness. Here French feminist theory and women's writing would seem to be advancing important work, forging new discourses that articulate a range of gendered positions and sexualities. Feminist and queer theorists in the English-speaking world who have formulated gender and sexuality through poststructuralist or postmodern perspectives may have taken longer to filter through to French feminism (evidenced by the fact that it took fifteen years before Judith Butler's otherwise hugely influential Gender Trouble (1990) was translated and published in France). Yet over the last decade, the influence of such thinkers (Butler; Grosz 1994; Braidotti 1994, 2002; Haraway 1991, 1996) can be discerned in the French context and would appear to be generating new French feminisms. Virginie Despentes's feminist manifesto, King Kong théorie (2006) (King Kong Theory), is a prime example here: rather than searching for authenticity or an arguably essentialist difference, in the manner of feminist manifestos of the 1970s, this text is more preoccupied with multilayering, diversity, hybridity and transgression. Beyond the category of femininity, radically non-essentialist queer perspectives are mobilised in the work of authors such as Anne Garréta, for example, whose moves beyond conventional feminism are analysed in Owen Heathcote's contribution to this volume.

The family still occupies a prominent position in female-authored texts in the twenty-first century, with questions of mothering that reveal deep-seated assumptions about gender continuing to take centre stage. Yet, changing family practices (single-parent families, multiple family configurations post-divorce, single-sex parenting, group parenting), as well as new reproductive technologies (IVF, artificial insemination, surrogacy), availability of contraception and abortion, and increased adoption possibilities, have all contributed to the reshaping of family patterns (Rye 2009a: 15–16). In particular they have allowed for new configurations of the sedimented relationship between femininity and mothering by creating opportunities for choice and control over mothering decisions. In twenty-first-century women's writing, narratives of mothering (Rye 2009a) have emerged which increasingly take on the mother's perspective rather than the previously dominant daughter's view, thus lending a further agency to motherhood. While some are concerned with the intimacy and positivity of the mother–child bond, others reveal more ambivalent attitudes and the darker side to mothering. Natalie Edwards's contribution to this volume highlights one extreme of this tendency in its consideration of fictional mothers who have committed infanticide and whose voices we carry an ethical injunction to hear for what they reveal about the desperate situations they find themselves in, but also for what might be disclosed about contemporary attitudes towards mothering and female identity.

However, in twenty-first-century women's writing, consideration of family relations is no longer entirely focused on the figure of the mother. Representations of fathers, as well as fathers as narrators, have come to the fore, as evidenced by Lori Saint-Martin's chapter in this volume. Such narratives often signal a desire to reconnect, from the father's or child's perspective, in a world where family relations are increasingly estranged. Elisabeth Roudinesco's (2002) polemical study of the family 'in disorder' analyses, through a variety of theoretical perspectives, the evolution of the concept of the family in the contemporary climate, tying familial estrangement into the demise of patriarchy and the rise of the feminine. While Roudinesco calls for the symbolic reinvention of the family, Marie-Claire Barnet astutely insists upon the plural form – families – that would adequately reflect the realities of new postmodern 'tribes' in twenty-first-century France, rather than reinstate the sacrosanct ideal of 'the' family (a concept which has arguably not been as stable in the past as Roudinesco wants to argue) (Barnet 2007: 13). In its engagement with different elements of family life beyond the ambivalent mother–daughter relationship, women's writing in the new millennium thus suggests that family might be productively viewed as an ongoing 'practice' rather than a unified, or unifying, construct.


Excerpted from Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France by Amaleena Damlé, Gill Rye. Copyright © 2013 The Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Notes on contributors

Part One: Women’s Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Trends and Issues
1. Women’s Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Introduction
      Amaleena Damlé and Gill Rye
2. What ‘Passes’?: French Women Writers and Translation into English
      Lynn Penrod
3. What Women Read: Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Best-seller
      Diana Holmes
Part Two: Society, Culture, Family
4. Vichy, Jews, Enfants Cachés: French Women Writers Look Back
      Lucille Cairns
5. Wives and Daughters in Literary Works Representing the Harkis
      Susan Ireland
6. (Not) Seeing Things: Marie NDiaye, (Negative) Hallucination and ‘Blank’ Métissage
      Andrew Asibong
7. Rediscovering the Absent Father, a Question of Recognition: Despentes, Tardieu
      Lori Saint-Martin
8. Babykillers: Véronique Olmi and Laurence Tardieu on Motherhood
      Natalie Edwards
Part Three: Body, Life, Text
9. The Becoming of Anorexia and Text in Amélie Nothomb’s Robert des noms propres and Delphine de Vigan’s Jours sans faim
      Amaleena Damlé
10. The Human-Animal in Ananda Devi’s Texts: Towards an Ethics of Hybridity?
      Ashwiny O. Kistnareddy
11. Embodiment, Environment and the Reinvention of Self in Nina Bouraoui’s Life-Writing
      Helen Vassallo
12. Irreverent Revelations: Women’s Confessional Practices of the Extreme Contemporary
      Barbara Havercroft
13. Contamination Anxiety in Annie Ernaux’s Twenty-First-Century Texts
      Simon Kemp
Part Four: Experiments, Interfaces, Aesthetics
14. Experience and Experiment in the Work of Marie Darrieussecq
      Helena Chadderton
15. Interfaces: Verbal/Visual Experiment in New Women’s Writing in French
      Shirley Jordan
16. ‘Autofiction + x = ?’: Chloe Delaume’s Experimental Self-Representations
      Deborah B. Gaensbauer
17. Beyond Antoinette Fouque (Il y a deux sexes) and Beyond Virginie Despentes (King Kong théorie)? Anne Garréta’s Sphinxes
      Owen Heathcote
18. Amélie the Aesthete: Art and Politics in the World of Amélie Nothomb
      Anna Kemp
      Amaleena Damlé and Gill Rye

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