Bouraoui, Nina (1967–)
Franco-Algerian novelist Nina Bouraoui (daughter of an Algerian father and a French mother) was considered a prodigy by many of her contemporaries. She wrote her first novel, La Voyeuse interdite (1991; The Forbidden Vision, 1995), at the age of nineteen; it was later published by Gallimard, one of the most prestigious French publishing houses. Her subsequent books, dealing with themes of sexuality and identity in an Algerian social and cultural context, have made her one of the best-known of contemporary North African novelists.
Born in Rennes, in Brittany, Bouraoui moved to Algeria in 1970, where she lived until 1980 with her family. During one summer in France, her mother announced that they would not go back to Algeria. This constituted a first emotional and cultural fracture and sharply marked Bouraoui's memory. Later on, she moved to Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates where she attended Francophone educational institutions. These frequent relocations gave her an impression of exile, which led to questions of identity and affected her later writing. After graduating from high school, she went to Paris to pursue university studies.
Lonely and ostracized from Algerian society as a child, she found refuge in writing at a young age. Writing became her means of exploring and expressing her emotions, as well as a way to escape being trapped between Algerian and French cultures: "I was a wild child, introverted and solitary, and I started to write about myself to compensate for the loss of the second language, so that others would like me, so that I could find my space in this world. Writing is my real country, the only one in which I can exist, the only land that I control," Bouraoui said in a 2004 interview with Dominique Simonnet for L'Express. Today, her output is impressive considering her young age. Her most famous works are La Voyeuse interdite, L'âge blessé (1998; Blessed age), Garçon manqué (2000; Tomboy, 2007), La Vie heureuse, and her latest, Mes mauvaises pensées (2005; My impure thoughts).
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Bouraoui is known for her tortured and introspective style. Combining autobiography, poetry and fiction, she writes as a painter might paint, with short sentences, fast rhythm, and small strokes. Often described as a wounded, solitary, and violent novelist, she confesses many fears—of darkness, of height, of emptiness, of solitude—which all surface in her writing. Her texts also bear the narrative and stylistic influences of modernist French writers like the symbolist Charles Baudelaire and the feminist and nouveau roman author Marguerite Duras. Like Baudelaire, she writes poetry that combines softness with violence and monstrosity, grotesque and sublime. Carcasses and distorted characters are one of Bouraoui's common leitmotifs. Even love seems to be absent; sex is associated with death and love with pain. Baudelaire once said that love meant the loss of innocence and wrote in Les Fleurs du mal that to make love was to harm. Similarly, in La Vie heureuse, Bouraoui compares screams of sexual bliss to the ones of someone who is being murdered. The author justifies her style thus: "I am a female voyeur; nothing escapes me, neither odors, colors, or breaths. I steal certain details from reality and propel them into another reality: that of my characters. I oscillate between the true and false, between reality and illusion." The result creates the appearance of dysfunctionality and disorganization. Her words surge, a stream of consciousness similar to that of the nouveau roman of the 1950s. As a result, time is never linear or continuous. Bouraoui lures the reader into her retrospective thoughts and confuses her audience as she moves from present to past and past to present without transitions or textual indications. The work of Bouraoui is never serene.
Le Jour du séisme (1999; The day of the earthquake), and L'âge blessé, much like her other novels, combine fiction, reality and memories. Bouraoui has admitted to often not knowing what is real and what is fictional. La Voyeuse interdite is inspired by Bouraoui's life, by imagination and by authentic testimonies of the sexual tensions felt by both women and men in Algeria. In order to express women's displacement and unwanted presence, she creates Fikria, who witnesses the gender separation and anonymity that women face in Islamic society. And yet her personal experience in Algeria clearly inspires the novel. Her character identifies with the subdued and socially desolate inside life she describes. She explains that she is a clandestine spectator of a city to which she is forbidden access. Separated from society, she remains inside behind curtains and doors. Bouraoui also mentions in Mes mauvaises pensées that early in Algeria she had noticed men's gaze on her and her body. Ostracized and lonely, she experienced then a life of segregation and difference because of both her Franco-Algerian culture and her gender. In L'âge blessé, the protagonist almost drowns at the end of the novel, exactly as Bouraoui did during her childhood. Garçon manqué is a direct narration of the encounter of her Algerian father and French mother, which once again reveals the clear interrelation between the author's real life and her fictional characters. In her writing, the "I" is autobiographical.
Bouraoui's books are marked by multiple recurring themes. Exile, identity quest, gender issues and sexual ambiguity, and death constantly surface in her texts. Le Bal des murènes (1996; The dance of the morays) takes place in a cemetery and the main character is this burial ground's guardian. Every night, this character forecasts a premature departure and orchestrates her death: "I can see myself leave halfway in my construction, I desert my path…. I will leave before I age." Her work overflows with images of death and ghosts of prisoners once tortured by sadistic executioners. Even La Vie heureuse, which could forecast a happy story, starts with this sentence: "Klaus Noma died from AIDS today," and one of the protagonists suffers from cancer.
Name: Nina Bouraoui
Birth: 1967, Rennes, France
Education: University in Paris
- 1991: Wins Prix du Livre Inter for La Voyeuse interdite
- 2005: Wins Prix Renaudot for Mes mauvaises pensées
Men, a Source of Pain and Discrimination
In her novels, Bouraoui also highlights men as a source of oppression and despair. Men gaze, judge, and condemn, accentuating the exclusion women face everyday. Men are described as carnivores and carcass eaters. Their gazes are sharp, like razors (L'âge blessé). They fragment and distort the female body and reduce women to a set of sexual features and body parts. In L'âge blessé, the protagonist almost drowns in an attempt to run away from men and their gaze, an event that symbolizes men's responsibility for women's oppression. Bouraoui offers a critical commentary on the way women are oppressed and perceived as sexual objects in a society governed by Islamic laws. She insists on the lack of communication that exists between men and women and denounces the difficulty of being female in a patriarchal society.
As a result of male sexual stereotyping and obsession with the female body, Bouraoui's characters tend to develop an ambiguous sexuality. They reject their femininity, adopt androgyny, and have unclear sexual preferences. In her perspective femininity and masculinity often become blurred. The very title of her novel Garçon manqué (Tomboy) reveals the confusion experienced by the characters. In her novels, women are stripped of their stereotypical feminine and exotic characteristics. The mother of Le Bal des murènes does not like her children and embodies the anti-mother. She is repulsed by her children's skin and nudity. "It is obvious, she does not like me," says the main character. Interestingly, the only male character of Le Bal des murènes, one who traditionally would proudly flaunt his masculinity, dreams of becoming a woman. His description of himself reveals a desire for femininity or bisexuality: "I am aware of the fragility of my body," he says, "I, too, would like to bleed"; "My sex, I feminise it and I become coquettish. I feel like a girl." Men put on makeup and wish to become similar to their mothers. Bouraoui here transgresses the traditional norm and reverses the usual gender portrayal and hierarchy found in North African literature, in which girls may disguise themselves as men in order to succeed in society.
Bouraoui's work also reveals a fascination with and attachment to Algeria. She often admits that her novels are long declarations of love, to "life, to Algeria, to France and to writing." However, Bourouai displays more than just nostalgia for Algeria. In Le jour du séisme, the country is destroyed by an earthquake, which symbolizes the social and political fractures and civil wars that have torn Algeria apart. "My land is trembling. It protests." The imagined physical devastation epitomizes the social and cultural destruction from which Algerians have suffered. Bouraoui presents a land and citizens united in their pain. The fictional earthquake is an accusation against those who have divided society, including the colonizers who have transformed the land and its heritage: "The earthquake takes my childhood place. It transforms…. It covers under another land, foreign and unnecessary."
Bouraoui's contributions to Algerian, Maghrebi, and the wider Francophone literature have been numerous. With other Maghrebi women writers such as Malika Mokeddem, assia djebar, and Eliette Abecassis, Bouraoui indicates a shift, a revival of a female voice in postcolonial North African literature. As she places women and sexuality at the center of her concerns, she offers a social and cultural commentary on Algerian society from a feminist perspective and establishes new themes, moving away from the traditional colonialist exoticism and romanticism. She offers scenarios of chaos that allow for new social configurations and demand the abolition of female passivity. By asserting her complex sexuality and by playing on the bisexuality of her characters, she revolts against the traditional Islamic image of genders. She creates protagonists whose deprivation—whether based on a dark historical past in Le Bal des murènes, social segregation in La Voyeuse interdite, identity and sexual quest in Poing mort (1992; Dead fist) and La Vie heureuse—incites them to dream of a world where they could openly live their differences, whether sexual or cultural. She creates a possibility for the construction of a society that would allow women to be heard, seen, and ultimately valued.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
The perceptions of Bouraoui's work have been generally positive since her first publication. La Voyeuse interdite sold 140,000 copies and was awarded the Prix du Livre Inter in 1991; Mes mauvaises pensées won the Prix Renaudot in 2005. Her exceptional talent and style have been praised by many critics. She has been considered one of the leading storytellers of Algerian origin. Many doctoral theses and books have been published on her literary production. Yet because of her alternative ideas about sexuality and her largely autobiographical characters' tendencies toward autodestruction, she has become a controversial figure in the literary world. Additionally, because she often portrays femininity as a fault or disadvantage, Bouraoui is sometimes seen as a misogynistic writer.
Bouraoui is still a young writer and most of her work has yet to be translated into English. Her receipt of two prestigious awards testifies to her talent, but it is too early to assess her ultimate legacy at this point. However, it is reasonable to say that Bouraoui will remain a valuable witness of the Maghreb and a strong female voice in Francophone literature, particularly because of her style, the attention given to North African literature from a postcolonial perspective, and the interest in the increasing tensions in Islamicate societies.
Agar-Mendousse, Trudy. Violence et Créativité: de l'Ecriture Algérienne au Féminin. Paris: I'Harmattan, 2006.
Berrada, Gouzi. "Nina Bouraoui: Confidences d'une 'anarchiste ordonnée.'" Afrique Magazine 81 (May 1991): 18-19.
Chikhi, Beïda. "Nina Bouraoui: Point Mort." Journal of Maghrebi Studies 1 (Spring-Fall 1993): 97-99.
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Fernandes, Martine. "Confessions d'une Enfant du Siècle: Nina Bouraoui ou la Batârde dans Garçon Manquéet La Vie Heureuse." Contemporary Women Writers 45, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 67-78.
――――――. "Je suis dans la guerre d'Algérie: La Métaphore Cognitive de la Guerre dans Garçon Manqué de Nina Bouraoui." In Les Femmes Ecrivent la Guerre, edited by Frédérique Chevillot and Anna Norris. Grignan, France: Editions Complicités, 2007.
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Simonnet, Dominique. "Ecrire, c'est retrouver ses fantômes." L'Express (31 May 2004).
Van Zuylen, Marina. "Maghreb and Melancholy: A Reading of Nina Bouraoui." Research in African Literatures 34, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 84-99.
Vassallo, Helen. Wounded Storyteller: Illness as Life Narrative in Nina Bouraoui's Garçon Manqué. London: Oxford University Press, 2007.
WORKS BY BOURAOUI
La Voyeuse interdite (1991; The Forbidden Vision, 1995).
Poing mort (Dead fist, 1992).
Le Bal des murènes (The dance of the morays, 1996).
L'âge blessé (Blessed age, 1998).
Le Jour du séisme (The day of the earthquake, 1999).
Garçon manqué (2000; Tomboy, 2007).
La Vie heureuse (Happy life, 2002).
Poupée Bella (Bella doll, 2004).
Mes mauvaises pensées (My impure thoughts, 2005).