The meaning of exile

Interview with Abdelkader Djemaï, by Soeuf Elbadawi

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« Beyond all considerations that one might have, writing is a craft. Masons build walls, bakers bake bread, carpenters make windows… and writers write books. Like the others, they can do their job anywhere. What matters is knowing how to write, not whether or not the writer is an exile ». This is where our interview starts, as the author of the excellent 31, Rue de l’Aigle* refutes any confusion with regard to the ambiguous relationships literature often maintains with the notion of exile. Algerian, based in France since 1993 for reasons we can easily guess at, he is currently preparing the release of his next book.

Can you be considered a writer in exile?
More a wandering writer. In France, I have continued the writing I began in Algeria. The circumstances simply mean that I am here. What does it mean being in exile? Is it writing in another place than one’s own country in geographic terms? Can you be in exile mentally, literarily, culturally? The question also needs to be asked, as I still have within me the same things I had back home. I don’t think I have lost them en route, or become cut off… I have perhaps even gained something. The fact of being on the other side, if I can put it like that. Far from the source. I am fifty years old too, which means that I am probably more than half way through my life. At twenty, it is possible to think of oneself in exile. But at a certain age, I think that you fill yourself with the murmurs of the world. You of course tell yourself that you are a citizen of the world.
What distinguishes wandering from exile?
Wandering… tries to overcome geographic limits. Frontiers. Exile doesn’t! Exile presupposes that you have come from a precise place to another. You can wander in your own country and prolong that wandering. Exile has too strong a political, cultural, or psychological connotation. In wandering there is freedom. You are confronted with yourself and others. To wander is to be sure to find something. People. Experiences. Exile is a withdrawing into the self. If exile manages to be fecund or creative, so much the better. But if it is constraining, sterile, dries you up, it’s not worth it. If we must talk about exile, I don’t like it to be funereal. Mortified. Think of the great artists who came to France, to Europe. The great writers. Picasso, etc. Their exile allowed them to produce a formidable, fantastic body of world. But an exile that inhibits, that alienates, or makes people stupid, no! For me, exile ought to be an opening up to the world.
In order to exist, African authors are often forced to come and find their readership in the Western capitals for reasons that, amongst other things, are economic. It would appear that a form of dissidence vis-a-vis the social and political reality of the country of origin is often necessary to engage this readership, however. Hence the suspicion that sometimes threatens the very concept of a literature of exile…
I don’t see why I should torture myself… to be accepted. We come from under-developed or developing countries. It’s up to us to get by, to avoid becoming demagogic, populist, or focusing on the sordid. We are in a situation that needs acknowledging, that has to be taken on board, which is not an excuse for diminishing ourselves or for slipping into that ‘denigration of the self’ kind of literature. If the writer falls into the trap of producing tear-jerking literature, a literature of hysteria… it is his/her fault. I believe that an author ought, not necessarily be careful, but ought to respect his/her work, to try to be demanding on him/herself. And to avoid being manipulated. The same goes for his/her responsibility.
There is said to be a myth of exile. It would seem that some authors highlight certain dramas that sell better than others in order to invent paths likely to bring them recognition. In an article in the newspaper Libération, Sala Guemriche** asked how many people in privileged positions have fabricated reputations as grass-roots resisters before the onlooking sympathetic Parisian publishing world?
The situation Algerian writers find themselves in has to be recognized as quite specific. That ought not be dissimulated. The majority of Algerian writers were forced to leave their country. There were writers who were killed. Obviously, one shouldn’t play the martyr or hero. We musn’t give way to a persecution obsession. But an author’s work is his/her justification. I don’t know whether people pass themselves off as resistance fighters or not. What is certain is that a writer’s value also comes from his/her sincerity. You quickly realize when a book is not sincere. Writers must be honest with themselves, musn’t cheat with their lives, with what is happening in their own country, and especially musn’t cheat with what they do, what they produce. There is of course a circumstantial, an occasional literature that is linked to current affairs. But will these books survive? Peace will come one day in Algeria, in Cuba, or elsewhere. And the question is there: are you a writer with the laws, the demands that that entails once again, or are you an acrobat, a demagogue, a tap dancer. I have written six/seven books. I was writing before the troubles in Algeria. I didn’t suddenly become a writer. At least, I believe not, modestly. I don’t know what I have written is worth, but in any case, I am a writer. The events didn’t make me.
Writing is said to lead to a kind of internal exile…
It is true that being in exile is not just being in a specific geographic situation, being in a territory delimited by borders. A writer is already in exile with the self because he/she has a world that is specific, is his/her own, belongs to him/her, a world he/she works, sculpts. It is necessary for writers to feel that they are in exile… from something. Otherwise it’s not worth writing. Exile is that uncomfortable zone that nourishes the writer. Happy people don’t write, I don’t think. People write because there is something wrong. What, I don’t know. If you knew, you wouldn’t write. I mean happy people would write postcards. ‘I am on holiday, the food is good, full stop’. You write because there is a small stone in your shoe. A writer is born from constraint.

*31, Rue de l’Aigle was published by Editions Michalon in 1998. It is the tale of the revolting cynicism of a mysterious police force based in a discrete villa in a country without a name, which could have existed under any dictatorship in the world. A condensed version of human horror. A must.
** Salah Guemriche, journalist-writer, spoke out in an article published on 2/12/97 by the French newspaper Libération against the supposed engagement of certain Algerian intellectuals whom he describes as « Virtual reality Rushdies« , « the golden youth« , or « Sales reps in exile« , who enjoy inventing a « personal mythology » at the expense of the real victims of fanaticism. He denounces commissioned literature, written by the pretenders to the masquerade of the laurels of exile, under the aegis of « publishers in search of a humanitarian label » and before the eyes of a « neo-Algerianist » pseudo-critical corps.
///Article N° : 5339


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