Department Research Seminar

Presenters:  Ryan Schroth, Nevine El Nosséry, Paola Villa


Nation, Narration, Belonging: (Re)Writing the Queer Past in the Work of Rachid O.

 Ryan Schroth

 This talk examines the queer (re)writing of the past that exists in the literary work of Rachid O., the first Francophone Moroccan author to publicly come out and discuss his personal experience growing up gay in an Islamicate society. Ryan will argue that, while fundamentally reshaping personal and political ties to home, family, and nation, this queer (re)writing also produces a new form of queer belonging that is not predicated on the myth of stability, but rather on the heterogeneous, diffuse, and mutable potential of queer power. He will discuss the narrative and textual constraints that limit the purview of heteropatriarchy within O.’s writing, and the ways in which these limitations give rise to a novel literary trope: the happy queer childhood. Ultimately, O.’s work recasts Western Orientalist stereotypes, challenges forms of domestic North African nationalism, and offers up new ways of reading and writing the global queer canon.


Leila Sebbar’s photo-texts: postcolonial counter-memories

 Névine El-Nossery

 You taught me language; and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you,

For learning me your language!

                                                      The Tempest, 1.2.363-5

 The dismantling of colonial empires more than six decades ago did not preclude its impact in postcolonial spaces and subjects. One of its residues could be its persistence in telling the History of the colonies from one side, the side of the colonizer, perpetuating a version that dispossesses indigenous populations from their own history. This is why Chimamanda Adichie, the very famous Nigerian writer, warned us from the dangers of a single story, which “robs people of dignity,” and Aimé Cesair’s Une tempête was an anticolonial retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which revised the position of Caliban by replacing the story in a specific cultural location, and yet maintain the integrity of Otherness.

Faced with time’s ravages as well as her father’s silence, and attempting to challenge the disproportion between the images of violence from the French and the Algerian camps, Leïla Sebbar’s photo-texts aim to decipher the past through words and images, thus restoring stories that were not delivered to her from her most “Algerian Algeria.

In this presentation, I will demonstrate that the almost encyclopedic work that Sebbar undertakes in Mes Algéries en France (2004), Journal de mes Algéries en France (2005), and Voyage en Algéries autour de ma chambre (2008) serves to create “places of memory” or better counter-memories that refute hegemonic colonial discourses and stand against any attempt to forge an authoritarian history. These hybrid spaces that inhabit an “in-between” reality (Bhabha) serve as a response that destabilizes colonial fixity and rigidity by telling a familiar story from an alternative perspective. I will then show that the blend of photo-textuality points out that memorial recovery must necessarily pass through the personal and the collective, refuting on one hand Susan Sontag’s view that denies the existence of collective memory, and surpassing on the other hand the concept of “postmemory” coined by Marianne Hirsch. Sebbar’s use of photography also interrogates the notion of forgetting that the French orientalist thinker Ernest Renan posed as necessary to the construction of national identity. Her project resists thus cultural amnesia, calling into question our relationship to representation, since the textual fragments and above all the images have the ability to create, alter and disrupt the memories that we hold as individuals and as a culture, confronting the danger of visual media’s saturation in contemporary society.

Finally, I will argue that memorial reconstruction of the past is only possible through fragmented and unfinished narratives, which in turn reflects the fragmentary nature of the world.


“Falling Down a Stairwell”: Complex Narrative Planes in Italo Calvino and Francis Ponge

 Paola Villa

 In a short essay called “Le sorti del romanzo” (The Fate of the Novel), Italo Calvino writes:  “There is Thomas Mann […] he understood everything, or nearly everything about our world, but looking at it from an extreme nineteenth century banister. We look at the world falling down a stairwell.” This presentation focuses on the epistemological implications of Calvino’s stairwell and of its structural cognates in the work of Francis Ponge.

From a topological perspective, a stairwell represents a good approximation of a Riemann Surface for multivalued functions.  For instance, given a singular point of origin for the logarithmic function, it is possible to map all the multiple values of the independent variable at corresponding points on the various sheets of the complex plane avoiding the ambiguities that one would encounter mapping the same values on a simple plane. In this simplified case of the staircase, one goes around the axis (the singular point of origin) and comes back to the same point on the surface but on a different stor(e)y. 

The same concept can be applied to ordinary language. To avoid the ambiguity when trying to describe our own thoughts, one should map such description on different planes that preserve a clear connection to the common origin while separating the subject experiencing the thought and the thought itself.

Through the analysis of Calvino and Ponge’s texts (in particular “The Spiral” and “The Count of Montecristo” for Calvino and “Notes pour un coquillage” and “La Mounine ou note après coup sur un ciel de Provence” for Ponge) this presentation traces the emergence of a new non-Euclidean rhetoric that aims at a fundamental restructuring of the relationship between the author and the text and between language and phenomena.

Link to our box account where individuals have posted materials for their respective seminar presentations.