Making a scene

Making a scene

In France there is an entire genre of writing that, filled with good intentions and benevolence, introduces the most diverse and/or difficult subjects to children. The genre is, I believe, older than the “For Beginners” or “For Dummies” series widely available at whatever English-language bookstore survives near you (“Pour Les Nuls,” the French branded their version). As with these series, the presumption is that everything and anything can be “explained to children” (expliqué aux enfants). Philosophers, writers, scholars of all sorts have thus volunteered to explain all kinds of things from Auschwitz to Islam, from racism to culture by way of climate change and even, in Jean-François Lyotard’s notable contribution, “the postmodern” (Le postmoderne expliqué aux enfants). There is, moreover, a subgenre, an improved version of sorts, where such things and many more can be explained to young girls, or, as these titles have it, “expliqué à ma fille” (“explained to my daughter”). And since French does not really distinguish between “girl” and “daughter,” a plausible, if not entirely idiomatic, translation of the phrase could be “explained to my girl.”

It would be neither fair nor quite accurate, however, to translate such popular titles as “X mansplained to my girl” (many of them have, in any case, been written by women), nor even, if more pertinently in the context that is ours, “whitesplained.” And yet, one cannot help but wonder about the effect a book would have that dramatically shifted the target audience and, à la Neruda, proposed to explain a few things (“explico algunas cosas, I explain a few things”)—only to adults this time, secure in their rights and privileges, their entitlements, as citizens.

I am thinking of a book that would interpellate, literally address and call upon its readers, engage them in a less asymmetric dialogue, not so much after the manner of “my girl.” (For this book would, to begin with, be written by a girl or daughter, “une fille issue de l’immigration,” as the French also have it, along with those who like to think that immigration produces and reproduces, that it produces children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren even). Who would dream of this? Who would dare tell adults, tell the French (those secure in their rights and privileges), tell them to their faces that they might need to have a few things explained to them? Who would think of altering in this way, dramatically altering, what Nahum Chandler calls, in his X—The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought, the “possible horizon of interlocution”? Well, politicians (and a few well-meaning academics) do it all the time, of course, casting their audiences as benign imbeciles in need of explanations (or of secrecy) on a number of things.

Anyway, you get the point. Imagine, in any event, a proximate case. Imagine (should you need to) being told: “You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill . . . except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you” (Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric). Imagine your body being explained to you by one among those so casually referred to by their “color,” those so often spoken to in the collective, as a collective, as bodies out of place, or as children, indeed, and described (to summarize) as “problems”? For we all know, do we not, that race—I mean, immigration—is a problem in need of solution. And so is Islam, yes? The religion of Islam . . .

Among the many, all-too many, books that, screaming into the void, persist in trying to explain a few impossible things, Houria Bouteldja’s is the only one I know that, in its very form, spectacularly stages a different kind of interpellation. (Rankine, for her no less spectacular part, turns the interpellation within, as it were: “Who do you think you are, saying I to me? You nothing. You nobody. You.”). Whites, Jews, and Us interpellates us, an “us” it hails as its reading audience, in the manner of Franz Kafka’s favorite books (as explained to his friend Oskar Pollack on January 27, 1904):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that Bouteldja makes a scene, a scene true to Kafka (as read by Seloua Luste Boulbina in Le Singe de Kafka). She makes a scene, wakes us up, and writes a book that ought to affect us like a disaster, like the disasters she recalls and announces. Bouteldja performs a remarkable gesture. She does so precisely when she addresses us (“who, us?” you will rightly ask, for the answer is in fact near, “closer to you than your jugular vein,” as the Holy Quran puts it) in a dialogic manner, turning to us where we are but do not want to be, daring us to respond—to a girl? To a problem? The few things Bouteldja explains (explains to us, addressing us, as adults, as Whites and as Jews, who may or may not admit to being who and where we are, what we are) makes us into addressees. Partners for peace.

Bouteldja speaks to us like one of those books we need, one of these books that wake us up with a blow to the head.

Needless to say, there has been neither dialogue nor acknowledgment, in France or elsewhere, with regard to this remarkable gesture. There has been widespread condemnation and, yes, whitesplaining. In droves. Yet, Bouteldja undoubtedly initiates a dialogue, a different kind of dialogue, with no condescension, no unilateral, pseudo-parental pedagogy from on high. She makes instead a gesture of equality. She extends an invitation to a conversation mano a mano, on the basis of a profound disagreement, a true différend, to invoke Lyotard again.

What is it, then, to which we are called upon to respond? Or rather, who is she, who are they, who call on us to respond, to enter into dialogue? Bouteldja herself is, of course, one important addressee and we should in fact feel obligated (politeness demands it) to respond to her, to speak directly to her. But she also proposes, in a beautiful and poorly translated sentence, that, late as it is (the bell may be already tolling), we (that is, for her, vous, you), “vous soyez obligés de nous envisager.1

Having been interpellated, having heard the bell or the call, we might find ourselves under an obligation. We are, in fact, obligated. To what? To give, grant, or recognize in our interlocutors (the “we” that speaks in and through, and with, Bouteldja) a face, un visage. We are obligated to look them in the face (not after the manner of the délit de faciès, the French version of racial profiling), and see them, envision them, think about them. We might consider, then, the possibility of telling them, telling you, Houria (if it is our turn to speak, that is, and I am very far from certain that it is), what it is we think of your proposals, not so much of your stance as of the trajectory from which and of which you speak. For you tell us, right at the outset, that “I draw my experience and my sensibility from the history and from the present of the Maghrebian, Arabo-Berber-Muslim immigration. It is from this trajectory that I express myself, c’est de cette trajectoire que je m’exprime.”2

Along this complex trajectory (trajectory and not perspective), some of us might even find ourselves, recognize ourselves. We might propose walking a few steps with you, reminisce that we have sometimes been there with you, close to you. Or we may gain from acknowledging that we are walking on the same stage and that we better have something good to say to you, to respond to you. I know you said many things that I like a lot, others that I do not yet know what to do with. You might have to explain a few more things to me, to us.

But wait. Perhaps you do not have to. Perhaps I need to read you again. I think I will do that, and begin by thanking you first of all, for the explaining you have already done. It cannot have been easy. Yes, I think I will do that, I will read you again, do that before asking you more questions, much less answer them for you; before asking you, as we have so many times (for centuries, really), to do all the work of explanation, the work of translation; before asking you, in other words, to do all the labor for me. For us.