Last fall, Algerian novelist Rachid Bouxerroub won the Assia Djebar prize for Best Fiction in Tamazight for his novel Tislit n’oughanim (The Bride of Reeds).
The Bride of Reeds is a reference to the small puppet-like toys young girls make from little reed sticks, dress up, and play the bride. Bouxerroub says the name seemed fitting for a story he centred around Fafuc (pronounced Fafush), a young woman in post-independence Algeria who had no control over her own destiny, like an inanimate doll, until she rebelled.
At the time of the prize, November 2015, Tamazight had not yet been declared “official” by the state — that constitutional amendment came in January 2016. If these languages’ new status has one effect, it will be to ease the production of literature in Tamazight, and new structures like the soon-to-come Tamazight Academy might even support this.
When I met with Bouxerroub and asked what the Assia Djebar prize had concretely changed for him, he said that “winning the Assia Djebar prize was very important. Being linked to the name of such a significant literary figure was wonderful, and on a personal level it motivated me to pursue writing. Concretely, I now have easier access to publishing houses and the media, and I have secured the means to publish my second novel next April. Tislit n’oughanim will also be translated into French and Arabic, this will give the novel a national dimension, and as an author, I will reach a wider audience.”
Algeria is a nation of polyglots. Aside the chaos created by the mismanagement of the nation’s linguistic assets, for literature it means that domestic translation for national consumption is very much sought after. Many authors, the well- and the lesser-known, have been and are translated by Algerian publishing houses from Arabic to French, French to Arabic, and Tamazight to French and Arabic. A multilingual dance both ancient and current.
THE BRIDE OF REEDS
In Tislit n’oughanim, the majority of characters are women, it is they who narrate the story. This situation echoes rural Algeria post war of independence when most men were absent, injured or had been killed. Fafuc begins a life like that of a reed doll: she is orphaned of both mother and father, and has little other choice than to follow the rules ordering village life. It is when she is ousted from her husband’s home and forced to abandon her son that she becomes determined to reclaim the most basic human agency.
Who were the women who inspired Bouxerroub?
“First, it was my mother, may she rest in peace. Secondly it was the situation of Kabyle women in rural Algeria just post-independence. The majority of women at that time were widowed; they saw all manner of misery, and suffered from the harshest of socio-economic and socio-cultural conditions.”
Throughout this story set in the ’70s in a small village, then later in the city of Tizi Ouzou, making characters cross into urban scapes, Fafuc denounces many abuses (arranged marriages, confinement, social violence). When asked how natural it was, or not, to speak in the voice of a woman, Bouxerroub said, “I think it is very natural to speak as such. I lived through and felt the intensity of my mother’s suffering, of my sisters and of all the women of our village. Today, through this novel I feel I have released all the hurt my mother experienced, something she couldn’t do herself in the past because of the constraints of morals and traditions. The origin of my inspiration is both experience and reality. I was a child during the ’70s; I used to have an elephant’s memory and I’ve kept an enormous amount of memories from that period.”