Olivia Snaije conducted the following interview over email with the poet Samira Negrouche, whose work appears in WWB’s January feature.
Olivia Snaije (OS): You once told me that living in Algeria requires a lot of energy, because of the political and socio-economic situation. Presidential elections are coming up in April and Abdelaziz Bouteflika is running once again. Do you see any change coming, any sense that Algeria can pull itself out of its current paralysis?
Samira Negrouche (SN): Although everything is relative, I think one can say in all objectivity that to live in Algeria requires a strong capacity for resistance and very strong resilience. In particular because of uncertainties and never-ending expectations and the difficulty of not being able to plan ahead nor build anything.
We are three months away from the end of this presidential term and still don’t know if there will be a fifth term, if elections will be postponed, if the constitution will be changed, or if there will be a last-minute change of script, which wouldn’t surprise me. I could very well imagine someone new emerging on the scene. There is, however, something boiling over at all levels; a change is necessary and vital, even if the profound change that we need might not be immediate.
We missed a historic turning point at the end of the 1990s; there was something that could have been rebuilt in a society that was traumatized but also ready to move mountains. There were and still are powerful feelings of disappointment and injustice. Today, we can at least hope that a chapter will end, that things will move and open up, in order to build conditions for real change in the coming decade.
Because I think it’s essential to build something on my land, I can’t see anything more meaningful than writing poetry.
OS: How much does this situation of paralysis affect your poetry, as if one might have inhaled, but not yet exhaled?
SN: The word that comes to mind is spasmodic. There is a feeling of lurching and breathlessness. We were stunned by the 1988 riots and continue to be so to this day. We are still in mourning because we haven’t yet been able to honor those who sacrificed themselves and that part of ourselves that imploded, which is now lost.
So, what to do with all of this in a poem? Nothing, especially not right away.
First, accept and understand that what was interrupted has meaning, and must be explored. This is the meaning of our souls carved by the violent winds of life and circumstances. And with time, distance, and a little more maturity, when emotions are a little less raw, one can try to divert the mechanisms of violence—all violence—and try to transcend them into the shape and music of language. To translate breath into music and then into poetry and to begin again until the disaster within emerges from its own tragedy and touches on something more important. It’s a lifetime of work.
OS: Because the situation in Algeria is so difficult and complex, with crushing social taboos, does this lend itself particularly to poetry?
SN: It’s the sensation of violence and helplessness that pushes you to go further, but also the injustices of history and lack of remembrance. Everything is so nonsensical that it can make you want to dig deeper. Obviously not everyone harbors this desire and not everyone responds, given that arts-related professions are not particularly valued in our country.
But some things are more powerful than the purpose and come from our innermost depths. As far as I’m concerned, I can only respond to this emptiness of meaning by a perpetual search for an artistic and poetic form. Perhaps working in a molecular biology lab would have been as exciting . . . let’s say that in my circumstances and because I think it’s essential to build something on my land, I can’t see anything more meaningful than writing poetry.
OS: In your poetry you write about other Arab countries in the Mediterranean area. Do you have a sense of living in several places at the same time, whether geographical or linguistic?
SN: I don’t have the feeling that I live anywhere besides Algeria, even if I am able to adapt very quickly and develop bonds with people and places very far from my geographical and cultural context. This isn’t superficial; I learned from the Algerian ordeal to recognize and be very attentive to unjust scrutiny of the “other,” especially when the other is weaker and going through trying times.
I wrote seven fragments in Seven Little Jasmine Monologues with seven cities in the Arab world in mind, including Algiers, as a form of solidarity, a way of drawing the outlines of an ordeal that we are going through together, the outlines of which I recognize. But there is no uniformity. What we call the Arab world can only have a meaning in the future if it is considered in its cultural, historical, and linguistic plurality. And this isn’t contradictory to our ties and our kinship.
Borders are often very violent places, and it’s up to us to decide if we erect walls that separate us or if we reinvent them as places where we can come together.
OS: You were recently in Croatia (also on the Mediterranean) for the launch of a book of writing from the Maghreb. What were some of the aspects of the social fabric there that you noticed, and were there some shared experiences with yours—a past with a civil war, and a wish to isolate the Croatian language etc.?
SN: I felt a real closeness to the Croats—they have a dignity, silence, and courage that I recognize, but also a determination and strength to reconstruct. I would like us to find these traits once again—traits that have often been part of Algerian society too.
The memory of the war is still very strong, especially in the older generation, and you can also sense the fear of loss, as though a part of oneself were suspended; I felt particularly sensitive to this. One episode of this trip marked me. Our flight to Dubrovnik was canceled because of weather conditions, so we traveled there by bus. It was a very moving trip, because we crossed Bosnia and Herzegovina. We should remember these rifts—they didn’t happen by chance but were the result of long-time neglect.
Borders are often very violent places, and it’s up to us to decide if we erect walls that separate us or if we reinvent them as places where we can come together. If we can give ourselves the means, borders have the potential of being rich, humanly and materially.
OS: Although the Arab Spring was largely unsuccessful, it has been said that it helped break a general culture of fear for writers. Would you agree?
SN: The Arab Spring revealed the Arabs to the world and to themselves; they are neither homogeneous nor resigned and silent societies. It’s too bad that these hopes have been quashed. There is an entire world in between revolt and social justice, and even more so in societies that have been silenced for far too long; but this isn’t a reason either to accept the Establishment nor to provoke revolts that are premature. These societies have paid a heavy price and I hope they will be helped in the future to rebuild themselves with true respect for their aspirations and cultural richness.
As for authors, many have taken the path of exile and have expressed themselves openly, sometimes speaking out in anger at the failure of the modern world to defend the values of democracy. In extreme situations, some shout, while others become mute. Time will tell if this freedom of speech, whether perceived or real, will translate into strong works that can truly nourish and accompany the searching and questioning of our fellow citizens, near and far.
OS: Attitudes toward women in general in the world have been a focus this past year. Do you feel this has affected your own creative work, as well that of other writers and poets in the Arab world?
SN: These are questions that I have always been sensitive to; I have always been aware of the inequality and injustice toward girls and women, so I have been following the news and the debates with great interest.
In some circumstances, a woman’s very presence in the public space is fragile and is often questioned. In order to protect themselves and be able to remain in this public space, women avoid bearing witness and “victimizing” themselves further. The point that is often heard is, if you don’t want to be threatened or assaulted, then stay home . . . I’m not sure if the events over the past year have had an effect on the work of Arab women writers; probably not, but people might be more attentive to what they have written.
What happened in Western countries is interesting because there is a new threshold of public debate revealed, even in so-called enlightened countries and so-called progressive circles. Predatory mechanisms are still strong, the difference being that in these countries, the legal and social situation has progressed, so a path has been opened to go further in terms of social justice. No doubt this brings comfort to those who aren’t yet there and helps them move forward and speak more freely.
Skeptics might say things are the same everywhere—it’s easy to criticize a desire for transparency and progress. But no, it’s not the same everywhere. There are multiple realities and layers of injustice that need to be unveiled. Women’s movements are stirring in other areas of the world, particularly in India, where you can see the beginnings of a large-scale movement. The world seems to be upside down, but it is moving in the right direction, so it’s no wonder that the forces of inertia are getting increasingly aggressive.
[Djamal Amrani] helped me to mourn and laugh at the same time, to search for gentleness within the rubble.
OS: You have said that you often go back to the writing of your friend the late Djamal Amrani. Has your relationship with him changed and evolved since his death—do you perceive or interpret the conversations you had differently now?
SN: I often reread Djamal Amrani, his writings on torture and his poetry, which is daring and deep. Meeting him was vital to me. Paradoxically, he helped me to mourn and laugh at the same time, to search for gentleness within the rubble. I could go on and on about this. Our relationship was and remains very strong; it brings strength to who I am and to the path I am forging, and to the feeling that our common tragedy—the one that took Tahar Djaout, Youcef Sebti, and many others away from us—is a responsibility that anchors me. This anchor is a pillar and, at the same time, it’s liberating. Djamal handed me his testimony, which I knowingly and freely accepted.
OS: What are you working on these days, and what would you like to focus on over the next year or two?
SN: I’m working on the proofs of Quai 211, partition à trois axes (Quai 211, a Score on Three Axes), a book that will be published this spring. It’s the fruit of a collaboration with the violinist Marianne Piketty and the lute-player Bruno Helstroffer. We’re still working on our performance, which we hope to present to a wider audience over the next two years. Otherwise, I’m working on a few translations and on a new manuscript, and I’ll be on an artist’s residency with the choreographer and Senegalese dancer Fatou Cissé. And I hope to go on some unexpected and exciting trips . . .
OS: Have you ever considered writing a novel?
SN: I might; it’s a very tempting exercise!
Born in Algiers and trained as a doctor, Samira Negrouche is a poet and translator with a keen focus on interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists and musicians. She created Quai 2I1 in 2018 with the theorist Bruno Helstroffer and Bâton/Totem in 2016 with the graphic artist Ali Silem. She has also collaborated with the violinist Marianne Piketty and saxophonist Lionel Martin. Negrouche has published six poetry collections and several artist books, including A l’ombre de Grenade (2003), Le Jazz des oliviers (2010) and Six arbres de fortune autour de ma baignoire (2017), and Quai 2I1, partition à trois axes, forthcoming in 2019.
Translated from French by Olivia Snaije.
Read Samira Negrouche’s “Minus One” and “In the Shadow of Grenada,” translated by Marilyn Hacker
Read WWB’s January 2019 feature, Francophone Poetry from Algeria
Read WWB’s January 2016 feature, The Arab Spring: Five Years Later