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Writing National Identity: Postmemory in Contemporary France

  • Author(s): Piser, Celine
  • Advisor(s): Alter, Robert
  • et al.

This dissertation considers the recent wave of memoir-style fiction by French Jewish authors of Ottoman and North African origin in light of current debates on immigration and French national identity. These authors were raised by immigrant parents who, eager to assimilate into French society, did not focus on transmitting their heritage to subsequent generations. However, their children later attempted to reclaim their lost heritage as adults through literature that revisited their parents' immigration stories, culture, and Judeo-Spanish language. Through the narrative reconstruction of the past, these authors explore how hybrid identity functions within contemporary French society and historiography as an alternative form of French identity. By writing the Judeo-French experience into French literature and history, they revise the nationalist view of French identity to allow for colonial and non-European influences. Through this case study, this project argues that France's new multicultural demographics break down the barrier between "French" and "Francophone" and redefine what it means to be a French national. This not only allows both immigrants in France and French speakers in other countries to claim French culture as their own, but also reconceptualizes French culture to include foreign linguistic, cultural, and national elements.

The first two chapters analyze the experience of Mediterranean Jewish immigrants in Paris in the early- to mid-twentieth century. My archival research challenges assumptions about immigrant assimilation, arguing that some immigrants developed a hybrid identity that would allow them to integrate into French society without denying their heritage. Moreover, by writing their stories into French literature, they legitimized their claim to French's cultural capital. My analysis of this work thus urges the revaluation of the Francophone and Jewish literary canons.

The following two chapters turn to second-generation Jewish immigrant authors who, though raised disconnected from their ancestral pasts, attempt to reconstruct their parents' immigration narratives in order to gain access to their lost heritages. I analyze this move by reconceptualizing Marianne Hirsch's theory of postmemory, a term that describes the relationship of the second generation to the previous generation's trauma. Through narrative techniques of temporal conflation and multilingualism, these authors rethink their previously monocultural French identities, allowing them to be in conversation with their foreign heritages even as they identify as French nationals. By producing linguistically and culturally bilingual texts, these authors are attempting to alter the current, monocultural conception of French national identity to include the cultural and linguistic traditions of France's postcolonial, post-immigration population. Working simultaneously in minor and major languages, they redefine French identity as multilingual and global, not just for immigrants but also for the dominant culture.

The conclusion reconsiders the texts discussed in the dissertation through the lens of contemporary debates in France on immigration and national identity, analyzing the politics of France's controversial new immigration museum to show the relevance of these French-Sephardic literary voices to current issues of French identity and culture. While French national identity has long been based on the idea of a shared past, France's colonial legacy and diverse demographics prove that this past in fact encompasses multiple cultures, languages, and ancestral heritages. By redefining the parameters of French national identity, France's political and cultural policies can better reflect and address its diverse population.

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