Dwelling on identity and a sense of belonging through literature

In a context heavily marked by displacements, literature represents a unique way to understand the multiple impacts of such circumstance. Meritxell Joan Rodríguez, a Catalan researcher at the University of Barcelona (Spain), takes us on an identity journey through the literary works of two women of Maghrebi origins, who have grown up in Europe whilst inheriting an experience of migration.

Meritxell’s doctoral dissertation seeks to explore the multiple roles of the writing exercise: firstly, a way of exploring identity constructions, secondly its dimension to create a sense of belonging and finally, its potential to activate political undertakings.

In this article, Meritxell shares with us more details about her work and what has motivated her to get on this identity journey.

 

In an ever-increasingly interconnected world, defining identity, whether it is individual or communal, proves to be quite complex, if not almost chimerical. Among the elements that contribute to such a statement, two deserve to be highlighted in particular: firstly, it is about the criss-crossed social fabric of a large part of contemporary societies, due to countless displacements of population. Secondly, it deals with the linguistic and cultural exchanges that unfold in various ways, as results of such context. Paying close attention to these two facts is, I believe, of utmost importance in order to rethink the way identity has been conceived, until very recently. So far, the concept of identity has been based on static parameters as well as on the borders of nation-states, giving those a particularly subjective and significant meaning. Literature represents a unique tool to carry out an alternative analysis, as it enables to tackle the topic of displacement and identity by moving beyond the coldness of figures and statistics. By giving a voice to those who, somehow, have experienced migration, the writing exercise enables to tell another story, by focusing on its consequences.

 

The neighbourhood in which I grew up, L’Hospitalet de Llobregat (Barcelona), was shaped by people claiming affiliations to many different parts of the world. As a daughter of a father born in Catalonia and a mother who migrated from southern Spain to Catalonia in the sixties, I have gone through acute phases of identity interrogations while living in several western countries, and visiting many others. This had led me to embrace languages and cultural codes that were not ‘mine’ to start with. Writing a Masters dissertation about identity constructions based on migration movements has helped me to better delve into my process of personal questioning. Currently, I continue to undertake such process through my doctoral dissertation. In this framework, I focus on two women who have both experienced migration and who decided to dwell on their consequences via the literary milieu. Najat El Hachmi (born in 1979) and Dalila Kerchouche (born in 1973) have Maghrebi origins but grew up on the Northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, respectively in Catalonia (Spain) and France. Their literary careers hold similarities, much like their life coordinates: both started publishing autobiographical accounts, then moving towards fictions in order to further explore the topics introduced in their first books.

 

Najat El Hachmi was born in a Berber region of Morocco and settled in Catalonia when she was 8, following a process of family reunification. In her first published work, Jo també sóc catalana [I am also Catalan] (2004) she writes, in Catalan, about how it was to grow up in a multi-layered in-between, made up of several cultural traditions and languages, within a society that was not used to the kind of difference that El Hachmi and her family epitomised. She addresses the text to her son, who will also have to figure out how to juggle the different elements that shape his subjectivity, connected to the different cultural spaces with which he interacts. Dalila Kerchouche was born in France in a harki camp. During the Franco-Algerian war, the term ‘harki’ would refer to those ‘Muslims’ – as they were called by the French administration – who fought on the French side. The label ended up also being used for the families of the combatants, who inherited from the stigma that accompanied this denomination: both the Algerian people and the French community considered the harkis traitors. The fact that they were put in camps, at the margin of their new society, encapsulates this ‘punishment’. In 2003, Kerchouche published Mon père, ce harki, coinciding with the publication of other texts written by children of harkis. In this first work, she recounts her process of dealing with the harki inheritance, which led her to visit the different camps where her family had lived and had left for good when Dalila was only one.  

 

For both authors, the literary space represents the terrain in which to come to terms with the multiple elements that compose their subjectivities. While they write in a language that is not the language of their parents, El Hachmi and Kerchouche manage to express how they feel about the in-between they inhabit. The writing process has particularly helped to provide nuanced reflections, both from an autobiographical and a fictional perspective. Both authors have had to learn how to navigate the fact that, on one hand, they are seen as ‘immigrant’ and ‘harki’ in Europe and, on the other hand, they are encouraged to identify themselves as Moroccan/Berber and Algerian in the family circle. Their works lead us to value palimpsest-like identities: one can always reinvent identity by writing over the one that had been given in the first place as well as adding to it affiliations that were not part of their native cultural tradition. Such conception ultimately favours social cohesion, as such an understanding of oneself and one’s own plural and changing subjectivity help us to see one’s place of birth as an element that is not determinant in any definition of identity. It also simultaneously encourages us to try to understand the plural identities of others living within our community which may be different to our own. Therefore, the relationships of belonging inside our societies get transformed. 

 

El Hachmi says that she writes ‘to overcome [her] own barriers, to navigate amongst memories […] to feel more free and to get rid of [her] own cloistering, made of designations of origin, of fears, of often-truncated expectations, of constant hesitation and abysses of pioneers exploring new territories’. Her ultimate goal is to blur the boundaries of labels that pigeonhole people and communities. Kerchouche started writing to ‘talk to [her] father’, whose silence on his participation during the war – tied to the conflict’s terrible consequences – pushed her to undertake what she calls her ‘harkeological quest’. At the beginning of it, she writes ‘harki’ in lower case, as she feels the ‘honte’ (embarrassment) of being affiliated to the harki universe. However, she eventually embraces her harki legacy, which gets translated in the way she ends up spelling the word – with a capital H: ‘Harki’, like ‘Honour’.

 

In their fictions, the authors draw from their personal memories but they also collect the memories of their relatives and people that were part of their lives whilst growing up. El Hachmi and Kerchouche inscribe these experiences – transmitted to them orally – within their written compositions, which respectively circulate in the Catalan and the French contexts. Because of that, their books aim at opening a dialogue with the national discourses that define Catalonia and France as hermetic and well-defined constructions: indeed, those discourses do not tend to consider the plurality, in identity terms, that the authors and their characters represent. Both authors retrieve the oral memories of others who are somehow tied to their particular selves – either by blood tie or by the fact that they have similar experiences in the world as the authors do – in order to inscribe their experiences within the national discourses of both Catalonia and France. That is why, through their works, El Hachmi and Kerchouche are not only strengthening bonds of belonging within their original communities but they are also constructing counter-narratives that problematize the hegemonic historical discourses that silence many voices, like the ones they incorporate in their texts.

 

Thus, writing is conceived like a tool of self-exploration as well as it becomes a political artefact: indeed, it favours the reflection about each individual’s identity and raises the questions on how to improve social cohesion by working on a sustainable management of the diversity that is, today, undeniable.

Migration, citizenship / Europe & Northern Africa