Skip to content
Join us on October 29 for the Words Without Borders Gala honoring Edith Grossman. Tickets on sale now.
from the January 2019 issue

“I Write in French to Tell the French I Am Not French”: Algerian Francophone Poetry

Algerian Francophone literature is, one could say, a child of the twentieth century. It has its origins both in the struggle for independence—gained in 1962—and in Algerians’ determination to recount their own collective history and individual histories with the tools and resources of the French educational system, with its literature, past, and poetry, imposed on Algeria when it was a colony of France. Algerian-French literature remains lively today, post-independence, even as schooling is primarily in Arabic, albeit a standard Arabic (literary or journalistic) distant and different from the local spoken dialectal language, and still excluding Tamazight, which was and is the original language of Algerians of Berber/Kabyle origin.

A distinctive Algerian Francophone poetry emerged in the 1930s, first with the publication of the poetry collections of Jean Amrouche (1906–62), the son of Kabyle parents, village children who were French-educated. He was a poet-editor pioneer who some critics considered a generation unto himself. Amrouche’s mother, Fadhma Aïth Amrouche, wrote a remarkable autobiography, Histoire de Ma Vie, also in French and while in her eighties, which gives an unprecedented picture of a transition from village life to life in another language.

A group of important poets born in the 1920s, notably Mohammed Dib, Kateb Yacine (who declared: “I write in French to tell the French that I am not French”), and Jean Sénac, began to write and publish poetry, fiction, and plays just as the movement for independence was growing. Thus Algerian Francophone poetry was largely outside, and in contrast to, the post-World War II movement in French poetry of disengagement from political causes and particularized or ethnic/community histories in favor of linguistic experiment. While metropolitan France struggled to recover from World War II and the occupation, and began to enjoy a renewed economic prosperity, the Algerian War (1954–62) raged. Those French poets who continued to practice a poetry of engagement and find it necessary were, by and large, those who had enlisted themselves alongside the Algerian people’s struggle, including Charles Dobzynski, Franck Venaille, and Louis Aragon. For Aragon, Algeria was one source of his remarkable mélange of poetry, fiction, and history in homage to Arab Andalusia, Le Fou d’Elsa (1962). 

The Algerian poets themselves published in samizdat journals during the war; those who were able to publish collections did so thanks to editors in France sympathetic to their cause: this was the case for Sénac, Mohammed Dib, Malek Haddad, and others. After 1962, books and anthologies of Algerian poetry in French appeared in both countries, notably Espoir et Parole, edited by Denise Barrat, Diwan algérien: la poésie algérienne d’expression française, edited by Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, and Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie algérienne, edited by Jean Sénac. (A bilingual Poems of Jean Sénac, translated by Katia Sainson and David Bergman, was published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2010.)

In this issue, we are presenting three poets of what seems like three different generations, even though one age difference is only a decade’s. It was from Samira Negrouche that I first heard about Djamal Amrani, and learned his story: an activist in the Algerian liberation movement in his early twenties, he was tortured, imprisoned, and exiled. He wrote a book, Le Témoin, that may be juxtaposed with Henri Alleg’s La Question as testimony and indictmentHis later career was that of a diplomat and cultural broadcaster in Algeria, who in part distinguished himself by demonstrating a notable generosity to younger poets. He left a considerable body of work that is still difficult to find outside Algeria except in anthologies.

Although Habib Tengour was born only twelve years later than Amrani, the latter was an adult partisan during the war of independence, and the former observed it as a child—who came to France with his family at the age of twelve in 1959. Tengour, an anthropologist, has gone back and forth between France and Algeria for his entire adult life, as a writer, as a student and an academic, and as someone whose extended family, too, lives on both shores. He is also a “passeur” of poetry: he edited and prefaced the complete poems of Mohammed Dib, and he co-edited and introduced with the American/Luxembourgeois poet Pierre Joris a 700-page English language anthology of North African poetry, translated from Arabic, French, and Tamazight, from the pre-Islamic poets to oral poetry to literary contemporaries. He currently edits a series of collections of contemporary poetry in or translated into French for an Algerian publisher, Editions Apic. His own poetry is sometimes lyrical, sometimes harshly or playfully satirical, and sometimes surreal, often with a strong narrative. It has been translated into English, German, and Italian. 

Algerian women writers, like their French counterparts, have privileged prose forms over poetry, the most notable Francophone example being Assia Djebar, the pseudonym of Fatima-Zohra Imalayène (1936–2015), for whom Habib Tengour’s poem in this issue is an elegy. Imalayène was the first Arab writer, and the fifth woman, to be elected to the Académie Française in 2005, though she, too, wrote and published poetry in her youth, which appeared in anthologies published during and immediately after the war. Another exceptional poet is the brilliant Anna Gréki—like Jean Sénac, a “Roumi,” an Algerian of European origin. Gréki’s work appeared in anthologies, and one collection published soon after Algeria’s independence, but she died in childbirth in her thirties. 

Samira Negrouche is in every way another exceptional woman. She is part of a new generation of Algerian poets born after 1970; she is trilingual and her life is rooted in North Africa, as is her work, which grows from the French language in all its expressions. She delights in collaborations with practitioners of other arts—painters and sculptors, with whom she has created installations and performance pieces, musicians and dancers, with whom she has imagined and performed collaborations. Her poetry sometimes mirrors the processes of musical or sculptural creation; often limns the city of Algiers, where she lives, with all its historical echoes; and dares an eroticism not often expressed by Maghrebin poets of any gender. 

Francophone writers from the Maghreb—Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria—have modulated the landscape of French writing for decades, and are eloquently present today, from Tahar Ben Jalloun to Leïla Slimani, Abdellah Taïa, and Nina Bouraoui. As a reader, I can only hope that the lyrical strength and pertinence of the poets among them will draw more readers—French, North African, others—to North African writing, and back to poetry itself as a source of human communication, unexpected but useful information, and readerly pleasure in the French-speaking world and in translation. 

© 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.

Read more from the January 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.