Making ghosts perceptible: Literature and post-colonial memory in Algeria

Yale’s Jill Jarvis discusses the role of literature in “decolonizing” memory in Algeria and the intellectual journey that ultimately led her to North Africa.
Jill Jarvis with examples of Algerian art

In 1830, France forcibly and violently colonized Algeria, keeping it as a territory until 1962, when the North African nation gained its independence following one of the longest and most intense decolonizing wars of the 20th century. Until then, however, Algeria was the European nation’s closest colony and, legally, at least according to France, part of the French nation state.

In her recent book “Decolonizing Memory: Algeria and the Politics of Testimony,” Yale professor Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role played by Algerian writers in this process of “decolonization.” She explores how a group of writers forged a new “historical memory” and nurtured political resistance. By analyzing their works alongside political, judicial, and social texts from Algeria’s national liberation war, as well as its later civil war, Jarvis makes the case for literature’s capacity to rewrite history and dispute state authority to arbitrate justice.

In an interview, Jarvis, who is an assistant professor of Francophone literature and culture in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, discusses the ways that literature helped Algeria move out of the entrenched “memories” of French colonization, and her own intellectual journey that led her to the North African country in the first place. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

In your book, you explore the process of “decolonizing memory” in Algeria. What does it mean to “decolonize” memory?

Jill Jarvis: When I teach a class about decolonizing memory, I show photographs of dust that, in February 2021 and 2022, fell all over Europe. This eerie red dust, as it turns out, was radioactive. I ask if my students know why this dust is radioactive. Well, it turns out that it is radioactive because the French detonated 17 nuclear bombs in Algeria beginning in 1960. The impact of that radiation continues today; radioactive dust still emanates from the Sahara, from those nuclear bombs, whose effects are absolutely indelible. In this sense, even the sand itself has been occupied by colonial occupation. So, in a very palpable way, decolonization is nowhere near over. I also ask the students, why don't we know about this? If you start to think about the blank spots in our own memories that are the legacy of imperial ways of knowing — of the control of colonial archives, of the fact that the desert itself was framed as a kind of empty zone, where these things were justifiable, permissible, and even deemed necessary — you get a feel for the scope of the problem and for what decolonizing memory could possibly mean.

Decolonizing” is not an imperative, an instruction, or a claim to actually be doing decolonizing, but really a way into the questions. If anything, decolonizing memory is something like a description of how I think aesthetic works — which I use broadly to include literature and film — create networks that enable memory to move out of the entrenched and naturalized habits of mind that are the legacy of European colonial violence. In my use of the term, I take note from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s book “Decolonizing the Mind” and an essay by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization is not a synonym for other forms of social justice. It's really about the sovereignty of unceded Indigenous land. Decolonization has not yet happened; decolonizing is a completely unfinished project.

What inspired you to focus on Algeria in particular?

Jarvis: This book is really the culmination of something like 15 years of reading, learning languages, getting grants, following hunches. I lived in France when I was a small child because my dad, who’s from a working-class family in Idaho, happened to get sent on a religious mission to France and learned French. When I was 2 years old, he got a job in Avignon, in Southern France, teaching English as a second language to students, many of whom were Moroccan and Algerian. This is how I learned French. Then when I was in college, I majored in religious studies, and I was really interested in working out my own tensions with religion. I focused especially on South Asia, on Buddhism, on Islam. I [then] spent two years studying in Sri Lanka, which has endured around 400 years of European colonization. So I was living in a daily way with the realities of colonial violence, the post-colonial state, and ethnic and linguistic tensions that had been complicated by colonialism.

Later, when I was getting an M.F.A. in fiction writing in New York, I happened to take an incredible course on the politics and poetics of translation. I had this incredible mentor named Bella Brodzki who gave me a book by Assia Djebar, “L’amour, La Fantasia,” which sparked something. It just brought a whole bunch of things together; it led me to start learning Arabic, because I could tell that the French itself was so permeated by something else. I watched “The Battle of Algiers” for the first time, and I started to realize, too, that Derrida and Camus, and all of these supposedly French philosophers were actually talking about Algeria, not France, or were actually Algerian. Later, while getting my Ph.D. at Princeton, I started applying for grants and I finally got to go to Algeria. And I kept going to Algeria.

How did your experiences in Algeria shape the book?

Jarvis: I remember being so struck by the cityscape of Algiers. It was dominated by this enormous monument called the Maqam Echahid, which is the monument to the martyrs of the Revolution that shadows the entire city. Living there taught me a lot about the very material and daily ways that the state has taken up building national memory in the wake of the anti-colonial war, an effort made literal by that monument. And I was also there in the decade after the civil war in the 1990s, a period called “the black decade.” The traumas of the violent civil war were so palpable, but were also so muted and mysterious and treacherous. The problems of memory just felt so vivid and complicated from the minute I set foot in Algeria. I just started following those paths and finding the writers who were grappling with those questions.

In the book, you write that “literature provides what demographic data, historical facts, and legal trials cannot.” What does literature offer that is distinct?

Jarvis: The literature that I’m writing about directly experiments with testimony to create space for justice claims and to register crimes that have not come to qualify as crime in any kind of legal space. After the Shoah, after Rwanda, after apartheid, there have been different forms of juridical efforts to grapple with state-sponsored violence and genocide. That has never happened for the violence that Algeria’s colonization entailed. The works I study create space for things that existing juridical and dominant narrative frameworks just don’t.

Literature has a really different relationship to evidence — to what is verifiable — than demography, historiography, and law. Literature, by definition, moves in the space of what cannot be verified. There isn’t evidence and it’s not about what can be proven, which puts it in touch with the genre of testimony. Testimony has both legal and religious histories, but legally it’s intrinsically related to the law, spoken before a kind of authority, as in a court of law, and subject to all of these regulations. You swear an oath. It’s not fiction, but nevertheless points to the fact that testimony has this sort of intrinsic relationship to fiction. No one really knows for sure what a witness saw; testimony asks to be believed, for some kind of leap of faith. It’s inherently unverifiable: “I was there, I saw, I experienced, I know, believe me.” Literature supplements these other forms of knowing with that kind of a claim and that’s profoundly important.

I love your assertion that literature can “make ghosts perceptible.” Your book, in its own way, also revives long-forgotten or suppressed voices. How does your teaching participate in this process? What has it been like to bring these ghosts into the classroom?

Jarvis: I’m teaching a seminar right now “Decolonizing Memory,” which deals more broadly with Africa and the politics of testimony. I let literary works and films create space for ghosts and hauntings in the classroom. It's painful and intense and raises a lot more questions than answers. And I learn so much from the students in my classes and the graduate students I work with. In fact, everything in the book is something I have taught and thought through with the students, and their insights have changed how I read.

This semester I taught the seminar in which we started and ended with that radioactive dust. Again, that unsettling experience of not knowing about the nuclear bombs is a starting point for the work that we do together. This palpable not knowing is because things have been systematically disappeared from memory. And so we ask: how do we account for the absence of knowledge and memory? The literary works and the films actually help to answer the question.

Which works of literature do you explore?

Jarvis: We read and watch so much, beginning with Assia Djebar’s “L’amour, La Fantasia,” the novel that I mentioned started everything for me. As they read, the students learn that between massacres, epidemics, famines, and all other colonial violence during the late 19th century, about one-third of Algeria’s 3 million inhabitants were killed. That absence, that radical destruction, haunts Djebar’s novel in this really profound way; in some ways, it is trying to account for these ghosts, these absences. In the novel a narrator wrestles with the problem of how to piece together an account of all of those ancestors who have been so violently erased from historical record. She confronts the silencing and actually quotes all of these 19th-century French generals and writers, bringing them into the literary text and confronting the problem of how to animate this [period] and how to find traces of all of those who've been lost. She doesn’t try to reanimate all of her lost ancestors. She sort of listens, transcribes, translates. She talks directly to the dead and in the poetics of the text there is a repetition of different sounds that, if you read them out loud, evoke the verb “to scream” (crier) in French. This cry or scream starts to echo through the text and generates a subterranean clamor that is underneath the lines of Djebar’s prose, as if there are ghosts in there crying out. These stylistic devices create a kind of phonic haunting.

In the middle of the novel, an unbearable — but terribly non-fictional — scene takes place: the author reconstructs from archival records a massacre in which the French round up an Indigenous tribe and chase its people into a cave and set the cave on fire in an act called an enfumade. The only written records of these massacres are the ones left by the generals and the military officers themselves, so Djebar reconstructs the events through their records. And as you read, you come to realize that the screams and cries that have been echoing through the lines are anticipating this moment in the text. The novels itself is haunted sonically by the screams of those who are lost in this horrific murder.

The text doesn’t provide access to them. It doesn’t try to imagine from their point of view. It marks that loss and grapples with it. The text itself is sort of a prayer to be haunted and to let those voices arrive, insistent and disturbing from another place and time, like ghosts. And then the question is: how do you reckon with that which history has, to quote Avery Gordon, “rendered ghostly?” Those are the questions the novel activates. Every work we study in the course raises such questions, in different forms.

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