Okay, I’m nowhere near the middle of grad school, but “early grad school crisis” doesn’t sound nearly as interesting. “Mid-first year grad school crisis,” perhaps? Semantics aside, I came into grad school thinking that I was going to study the French eighteenth century and focus specifically on women writers and protofeminism during that period in an attempt to avoid the white male literary canon. I mean, I’d already written an entire Wikipedia page on protofeminism, so continuing to study it shouldn’t be too difficult, right?
After TAPIF and City Year, fast forward to a fellow French student’s presentation on the role of silence in the eighteenth century and how the absence of voice or sound can speak volumes. I loved his presentation, but when he told me that he was looking for more women writers to include in his dissertation, I found myself in a moral crisis. He had, albeit very unintentionally, pointed out a problem I’d been struggling with for weeks and had been trying to avoid confronting: there just aren’t that many women writers in the 1700s. Plus, they’re all white and privileged. I’m not noting their race or social status as something negative, but as something that I can’t relate to.
If I was going to chuck eighteenth century studies out the window, then, well, clearly that was the end of my grad school career. I’d been telling everyone that I was going to study women writers in the eighteenth century, and now I’d lied to all of them. Good thing I had an office to hide in while I contemplated, what am I going to study now?
I thought about the number of women writers I’ve studied in French. It’s about as sad as you can expect:
1) Colette, 2) Maryse Condé, 3) Nathalie Sarraute, 4) George Sand, 5) Marie de France, 6) Madame d’Aulnoy, 7) Olympe de Gouges, 8) Émilie du Châtelet, 9) Claire de Duras, 10) Simone de Beauvoir, 11) Madame de Staël, 12) Assia Djebar.
And then the number of women of color: 1) Maryse Condé, 2) Assia Djebar.
This is the total amount of women writers I’ve studied over the course of eleven years of taking French in school. Eleven years. And how many men have I studied? Probably five times the number of women, aka too damn many. You know what’s even sadder? That, in my first list, I studied the last eight women, from Marie de France to Assia Djebar, during my senior year of college and my first semester of grad school. Literature survey courses, or any other French class that doesn’t focus on putting women on the syllabus, clearly don’t give a hoot about women, much less WOC.
Toning my saltiness down. A few weeks after my moral crisis, I read Assia Djebar’s L’amour, la fantasia. The novel consists of autobiographical and historical chapters, and Djebar intertwines the story of her own linguistic colonization alongside European and Algerian accounts of France’s occupation. Despite the fact that learning French gives her liberty from the harem and the veil, she also slowly loses touch with her maternal languages of Arabic and Berber. As the book progresses, Djebar realizes that she can reclaim her female and Algerian identity by using French as an act of resistance. By writing in the colonizer’s language, she subverts its power by telling the stories of Algerian women that would have otherwise remained buried but are now immortalized for France to read and learn about the suffering they wrought upon colonized peoples.
For me, Djebar’s struggle with French is reminiscent of Derrida’s thought “Je n’ai qu’une langue, ce n’est pas la mienne” (I only have one language, it is not my own) in his book Le monolinguisme de l’autre (The monolinguism of the other), and it led to the realization that I could focus on postcolonial studies because they resonate more personally with me.
This article, while focused on Britain, about sums up my moral crisis about being a POC in French academia: “Unfortunately, what we see is largely white men interpreting the dusty work of other white men.” France, and whoever teaches/studies its history, is equally culpable with erasing its colonialism. I’m not here for that, so regardless of whatever area of postcolonial studies I end up focusing on, I’ll to find a way to work in intersectional feminism. I mean, who doesn’t want to destroy heteropatriarchy? Books by feminists of color, such as How We Get Free by Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor and Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed, embody exactly what I eventually want to do: use my personal experiences as a woman of color to simultaneously empower other women of color and take down racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic white men. Men have had far too much power for far too long, and it’s time to put an end to that.
But that can wait until I finish hibernating from this snowstorm of 12-19 inches, 35 mph winds, and -1 degree lows.