When Mary Anne Lewis (French) moved into her current studio apartment, she decided to arrange her books by color. Because French publishers traditionally bind their books in white, her collection of French literature took the place of honor on the top two shelves of a large, built-in bookcase.
“These books are hardly distinguishable from one another by height or width or color, and yet they describe such incredibly different worlds in their respective sets of pages,” she says. “From the medieval Song of Roland, to seventeenth-century comedies by Molière, to nineteenth century realist and naturalist novels by the likes of Flaubert, Stendhal, and Zola, to twentieth century existentialist plays and many works of post-colonial literature spanning the African continent, the Caribbean Sea, and beyond – they span the globe and the better part of a millennium. And yet, on the shelf, all together, they look astonishingly uniform.”
The arbitrary lineup of books led her “to think about possible uniformities that might exist in the arenas of publishing, marketing, and distribution of books to and for readers, as well as their effects on the ways that these books are read. … Covers and summaries on the backs of books or inside jackets tell us why and how we should read a book, and these elements change significantly when the text is translated and launched into a new national market.”
The study of the transnational migration of texts is known as “worlding,” a term coined by one of the foundational thinkers of post-colonial studies and theory, Gayatri Spivak. “For the purposes of my project, I define ‘worlding’ as those processes of publication, edition, translation, and canonization by which a text that depends on a literary marketplace outside its country of origin passes in order to reach its eventual audience, and this particularly in an era of globalization,” Mary Anne says.
In June, she attended the Congrès international d’études francophones (aka CIEF or International Symposium for Francophone Studies), held in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, where some 350 scholars gathered to discuss the concept that informs her dissertation: “literary and cultural passage.”
The paper she presented, “La Prisonnière voyage : Une étude du mémoire de Malika Oufkir et ses passages par la France et les Etats-Unis” (or “Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail Goes Abroad: A Study of Malika Oufkir’s Memoir and its Passage through France and the United States”), is an excerpt from her dissertation. In the paper, she discusses the memoir of a former member of Moroccan royalty, Malika Oufkir, which was a best-seller in both France (published in 1999) and the United States (2000), where it was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club and appeared on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. She explored the book’s “significant life outside of Morocco.”
La Prisonnière, co-written with the Franco-Tunisian journalist Michèle Fitoussi, “tells the story of Malika Oufkir’s early childhood as the daughter of General Oufkir, second in command to the king, her subsequent adoption by the king of Morocco, and the failed coup launched by the General (her biological father) against the king (her adoptive father). This coup resulted in the General’s death and the imprisonment of Malika along with her immediate family in secret jails throughout Morocco for approximately twenty years. After almost two decades of imprisonment, Oufkir and most of her family escaped to France and the United States, and it was in France that she co-wrote her memoir. Through an analysis of cover art from the two versions, title differences, translation choices, and both French and American critiques and reviews of the book, I show how the book’s marketing and reception differ in both subtle and rather drastic ways from France to the United States. Indeed, what I found to be true in the case of La Prisonnière is that when a book moves from country to country, its marketing and reception reveals a great deal not only about the text itself but also about the anticipated audience.”
Mary Anne’s dissertation, advised by Christopher L. Miller and Edwige Tamalet Talbayev, is tentatively titled “The Maghreb Goes Abroad: The Worlding of Literature from Francophone North Africa.”
In the dissertation, she focuses on literature from the former French colonies of North Africa, specifically Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, concentrating on books that reflect significant historical moments such as the Algerian war for independence from France, the ‘Years of Lead’ in Morocco from 1972 until the early 1990s, “and my most recent example, the Arab Spring, which I am researching and writing about now,” she explains.