Last year, the young sociologist and writer Kaoutar Harchi published "Comme nous existons" (As we exist), her fifth book, an autobiographical account that describes the violence of society against racialized people; but also the memoirs of a young girl with Algerian origins in France.
What made you decide to study sociology? What were you looking for in this discipline?
I became interested in sociology without really knowing what was behind it. It just looked like something that was flickering. It talked about “class”, “power”, “society”. These words, I remember, were like lanterns in the night: it attracted me in an irresistible way. And when I approached it, I discovered a real weapon. Weapon to think, to understand, to defend myself, but also to attack.
What made you decide to choose the notion of literary value in a colonial and postcolonial situation for your thesis?
I would simply say that my starting point was a form of questioning about the existence of what is called “French literature” and what is called “Francophone literatures”. I did not understand why men and women who wrote the same language, the French language, were separated, distinguished from each other. Why could these writers not inhabit the same symbolic space? Why were some recognized as universal when others, on the contrary, were referred to something as problematic as “culture”, “identity”. My intuitions proved to be more than fruitful as I was able to expose through the book “Je n’ai qu’une langue, ce n’est pas la mienne” (Fayard, 2016), the fundamentally racialized and racializing character of French literature. Or, if I were to put it another way, its white dimension, and its function as a producer of white political imaginaries. Basically, when I spoke of French literature, I was speaking of French society itself, since the two are inseparable.
What did this thesis work teach you?
This thesis work has changed my intimate relationship with literature, but even more so with writing. I was able to free myself from the romantic hold that literature always tries to exert on its readers. Little by little, I reversed the relationship and dominated it. It was no longer her who crushed me with all her weight, it was me who perceived her flaws, her limits, her conservatism, her sexist and racist aspects. So I have an ambivalent relationship with literature: I find it admirable and detestable at the same time.
In what way is literature colonial in your opinion?
French national literature (in the middle of the 19th century) played a fundamental role in the process of justifying the colonial enterprise. In its name, cities populated by men and women were described as empty, deserted, as lands to be taken and inhabited. But these cities were not without people. It is just that the literary eye did not perceive them, did not recognize them as human people. It is in this sense that literature is colonial: it has served power and reinforced its legitimacy to destroy entire nations.
What made you want to tell your story in this latest and most personal novel, “Comme nous existons”?
In my life as a writer, I have often been confronted with the racism, sexism, and class contempt that deeply structure the French intellectual and artistic worlds. So much so that when I wrote fictional stories, and therefore acted subjectively, I was often limited to my appearance, as if I could not imagine, master the abstract, as if I could only testimony or talk about the reality of life. Intellectually, this made me grow because I lived this singular experience of being perceived and recognized as an object and not as a subject of discourse. A strong position that the symbolic and material order refuses to grant to any member of sexual and racial minorities. And what may appear to be a point of arrival initially turned out to be a point of departure for me. This autobiographical narrative in which I speak of this central experience: knowing that we are dominated and also knowing that we can be free. “As We Exist” is therefore a narrative of the self where the I who speaks has not been invited to do so but decides to do so anyway.
Today, many articles, books, studies, or podcasts are breaking down these orientalist and post-colonial clichés. What do you notice in the new generations of students at Sciences Po? What do you wish for them?
One thing is certain: the racial question, which has long been a forbidden issue, is gaining legitimacy and importance. This is the fruit of the colossal work of men and women who have devoted their lives to revealing the political nature of racism. What I always wish for my white students is that they stop ignoring race and work for a world where their comfort is not built on the discomfort of others. What I wish for my racialized students is that one day they will be able to ignore race because then it will no longer exist and their comfort will be full. This is what I wish for each and every one of them, to be among those who will invent a better world. And in the same way, I wish for my students to stand with women to fight patriarchy as I wish for my female students to show sisterhood among themselves to fight that same patriarchy.