Assia Djebar, 1936-2015

The mischief, 1958.8.1155

The mischief, 1958.8.1155

One of the most fascinating figures in French-Algerian literary history of the last 50 years, Assia Djebar, died on February 6 2015. Fatma-Zohra Imalayène, under the pseudonym of Assia Djebar, wrote frequently on feminist and anti-colonial themes. Born in 1936 in Algeria, Djebar moved to Paris in 1955, and wrote her first book (La soif, translated in English as The mischief) in 1957. After the Algerian War, she contributed to the journal El Moudjahid, about which we have previously written. She then wrote Les Impatients (1959), Les enfants du nouveau monde (1962) and Les alouettes naïves (1967). These were followed by L’amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre Sultane (1987), Loin de Médine (1991) and Vaste est la prison (1995).

In 1999 she wrote her doctoral thesis, Le roman maghrébin francophone, entre les langues et les cultures : 40 ans d’un parcours : Assia Djebar 1957-1997, as well as her Ces voix qui m’assiègent : en marge de ma francophonie (9008.c.1435). While her works were translated widely into more than twenty languages, it wasn’t until 2014 that her 2007 novel Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (C203.c.526) became her first to be translated into Arabic.

In 1996, she was a visiting fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 2005 she was elected to the Académie française, the fifth woman elected to that body, and the first writer from the Maghreb. The Cambridge connection is augmented by the fact that one of Djebar’s translators into English was David Kelley, a fellow at Trinity and member of the French Department, who “translated the North African writer Assia Djeba and brought her work, White Algeria [sic], to general audiences”, according to his obituary in the Guardian. The University Library’s copy of Algerian White stands at 645:33.c.200.74.

Among the more important critical works about Djebar in the UL are the proceedings from a conference held at the Maison des écrivains in 2003: Assia Djebar, nomade entre les murs (738:47.c.200.306).

The University Library didn’t begin to actively collect Djebar’s work until relatively late in her career. The first works by her in the UL are in English translation: The mischief (1958, 1958.8.1155), Women of Islam (1961, 1962.7.2697), A sister to Scheherazade (1988, 9000.c.869) and Fantasia (1985, 9000.c.868). It wasn’t until 1995 that we began to buy her works in their original French: Loin de Médine (1991, 1995.8.2076). Subsequently, we acquired her works more consistently. However her obituaries have revealed several gaps in the books we hold, which we will hopefully fill over the next few months.

In 2002, Djebar was presented with an honorary degree from Concordia University in Montreal, and the speech introducing her can be read here. Her biography at the Académie française is here, and the obituary from Le Monde is here.

Josh Hutchinson

Edit: Jean Khalfa has drawn our attention to this memorial letter that Djebar wrote in memory of David Kelley:

Autant que l’ami et le traducteur, c’est le poète – dans sa façon de brûler ta vie, dans tes vers que tu me récitais, dans tes aquarelles – qui me manquera […]

Trinity College restera pour moi un lieu habité par ta longue silhouette, par ta voix ardente de poète anglais. Tu es, pardon, tu as été, tu demeures pour nous, – pour tant de grands écrivains français (Ponge, Tardieu et Jacques Réda, entre autres) et pour nous, les francophones, l’incomparable intercesseur.

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