Nina Bouraoui, Autofiction and the Search for Selfhood

by Rosie MacLachlan (Author)
Monographs VIII, 174 Pages


The motif of the ‘identity quest’ features strongly in much contemporary French women’s writing, but nowhere more so than in the work of Nina Bouraoui. Author of numerous books since 1991 and winner of the 2005 Prix Renaudot, Bouraoui persistently explores the question of self-expression in her work, experimenting with a variety of self-representational modes and emphasising the importance of language to the construction of her sense of self.
Considering the textual identities produced through Bouraoui’s work in the period 1999–2011, this book examines how self-referential writing can represent a crucial act of resistance to a number of contemporary problems, including race, gender and social isolation. Using the work of Monique Wittig and Judith Butler to theorise the transformative potential of the literary text, the author proposes autofiction as a uniquely unrestricted space, which for writers such as Bouraoui may provide the only medium through which to formulate a coherent and manageable sense of self.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Seeking Selfhood in the Textual
  • Part I Acts of Resistance: Rewriting Gender and Sexuality
  • Chapter 1: Garçon manqué: Resisting Language as Violence
  • Chapter 2: La vie heureuse: Reappropriating the Self
  • Chapter 3: Poupée bella: Textual Escape
  • Part II Recovering from Loss: The Textual Return to Algeria
  • Chapter 4: Le jour du séisme: Broken Land, Broken Childhood
  • Chapter 5: Sauvage and Mes mauvaises pensées: Coming of Age in Algeria
  • Chapter 6: Sauvage and Mes mauvaises pensées: Leaving Childhood Behind
  • Part III Writing for Others? Relational Identity and the Textual Encounter
  • Chapter 7: Poupée bella and Avant les hommes: Escaping Isolation through Reading
  • Chapter 8: Appelez-moi par mon prénom: Textual Relations
  • Chapter 9: Nos baisers sont des adieux: Resolving the Quest
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This study began life as a doctoral research project at Trinity College Dublin, and I am grateful to the Claude and Vincenette Pichois Research Award for funding my time there.

My thanks also go to the many mentors and colleagues who have provided support for this project over the last six years. In particular, I am grateful to Simon Kemp for originally introducing me to Bouraoui, among many other things, to Johnnie Gratton for his inspiring supervision at Trinity College, and to Shirley Jordan and Heather Ingman for their encouraging and supportive examination of my original thesis.

With regards to the present work, I am grateful to each of the readers of the manuscript for their detailed and helpful feedback, and to all at Peter Lang who have assisted the publication process.

Throughout my work on this project, I have been blessed with love and support from my wonderful friends and family, and today, as every day, I am thankful to them. In particular, this book would not have seen the light of day without the patience and support of Eloise McInerney – not to mention her invaluable attention to detail on aspects of English, French, and the placement of commas. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →

Introduction: Seeking Selfhood in the Textual

For a long time I struggled to communicate with other people. I began to write, to speak, and to love at the same time, when I was a child. Born of a French mother and an Algerian father, I spent the first fourteen years of my life in Algeria, a country whose language I did not speak. I was a feral child, reserved and solitary, and I began writing about myself in order to make up for this missing second language, to make myself love other people, to find a place for myself in the world. It was a form of identity quest. Writing is my true country, the only place I truly live in, the only land that I can master.1

Nina Bouraoui has described her writing as a form of identity quest. A Franco-Algerian writer of mixed parentage, Bouraoui’s early life was characterised by a series of identity problems, incorporating her ethnic background, her gender and sexuality, and a persistent sense of geographical displacement. Having begun her career as a novelist in the 1990s, around the turn of the millennium Bouraoui began to explore her problematic sense of self in her own work, experimenting with a variety of autobiographical and fictional models of self-representation over a twelve-year period. As the above statement, taken from a 2004 magazine interview, explains, Bouraoui’s childhood in Algeria caused her to feel culturally dislocated; her inability to speak the local language prevented her from communicating and identifying with other children. At the same time, as her books reveal, the young Bouraoui struggled to fulfil the conventional gender roles expected of a girl in Algeria, behaving instead as a ‘tomboy’, ← 1 | 2 → and growing up to identify as gay. From a situation of relative loneliness and detachment from those around her, therefore, Bouraoui’s motivation to write about herself appears to stem from a need to recover from this period of silence, an urge to connect with others, and, through writing, to find a place for herself in the world.

In recent years, increasing numbers of women writers have turned to ‘autofiction’, a form which blurs fiction and autobiography, in order to explore the creative reproduction of their sense of self through the literary text. In Bouraoui’s case, this development seems to have been prompted by a specific urge to overcome lived identity problems which had seen her partially excluded from the full social world. Rather than merely retreating into the only space she feels capable of mastering, however, Bouraoui’s engagement with writing is apparently also motivated by a desire to better fit in, to be able to communicate with others, and to find a place for herself in the real world. If writing is, as Bouraoui suggests, the only place in which she can truly feel at home, autofiction emerges as a vehicle for the discovery of the self, through which the writer can construct a textual persona capable of resolving difficulties relating to her identity.

Introducing Bouraoui

Bouraoui was born in Rennes in 1967. The second child of the mixed-race marriage between an Arab Algerian man and a white French woman, Bouraoui spent the first thirteen years of her life in Algeria, before suddenly moving back to Brittany at the end of the 1970s. As she describes in Garçon manqué [Tomboy], the mixed-race Bouraoui family were never made to feel welcome in post-colonial Algeria. Mounting racial tension, culminating in verbal and physical attacks on her white mother, ultimately contributed to the family’s decision to leave, abruptly, for a holiday with their maternal grandparents from which they would not return. After this, the family lived in Switzerland and Abu Dhabi, and at the age of nineteen Bouraoui moved to Paris, where she lives to this day. Bouraoui has not ← 2 | 3 → returned to Algeria since her childhood, and yet, while this early rupture has a significant impact on her later self, racial or cultural malaise is just one aspect of the personal themes about which she primarily writes. As suggested by the title of Garçon manqué, another important element of Bouraoui’s childhood experience – and one with which she continues to struggle as an adult – is that of first gendered, and then sexual, identity, with the ‘tomboy’ behaviour of this text developing into an adult lesbian sexuality which features strongly in her later work.

Bouraoui’s first novel, La voyeuse interdite [Forbidden Vision], was published in 1991, and tells the story of a young girl, Fikria, growing up in a claustrophobic house in central Algiers. Although Fikria’s geographical background matches Bouraoui’s, this work is manifestly fiction rather than autobiography, examining the inner feelings of a native Algerian girl suffering under strictly repressive social and family conditions. After being awarded the 1991 prix du Livre Inter for La voyeuse interdite, Bouraoui published three further novels over the following seven years, each of which deal with socially isolated and brutalised characters. Poing mort [Dead Fist] describes a menacing and bitter old woman who lives and works in a cemetery; Le bal des murènes [The Ball of Moray Eels] relates a sickly young boy’s disturbing relationship with his abusive mother, in a house previously used as a wartime torture chamber; L’âge blessé [The Wounded Age], in turn, features a forest-dwelling hermitic old woman, who remembers her life through an intermittent dialogue with her younger self. Although these early works make use of first-person narrators, and elements of the writer’s life could be said to be echoed in some places in these novels (for example, in the family arrangement of L’âge blessé), they nonetheless precede a decisive turn in Bouraoui’s oeuvre at the end of the 1990s – away from frequently disturbing and violent works of fiction, and towards an interest in the self, explored over a series of self-referential texts.

The first of Bouraoui’s more autobiographical works, Le jour du séisme [The Day of the Earthquake], sees a poetic return to the writer’s childhood homeland, juxtaposing the story of a destructive northern Algerian earthquake in 1979 with its fragmentary effects on the anonymous narrator’s self-identity. Following this, over a five-year period Bouraoui published three works explicitly retelling events from her own childhood and ← 3 | 4 → adolescence: the straight-forwardly autobiographical Garçon manqué, the autobiographical novel La vie heureuse [The Happy Life] and Poupée bella [Bella Doll], a reconstructed diary describing her early sexual experiences as a young adult. Bouraoui’s next publication, Mes mauvaises pensées [My Bad Thoughts], is her most critically successful work to date, winning the prix Renaudot in 2005. It is also her most experimental, as it takes the form of an unbroken monologue, recited by an apparently self-referential ‘je’ [I] to her imagined psychoanalyst during therapy sessions. In 2007, Bouraoui departed briefly from self-referential writing to publish Avant les hommes [Before the Men] – a short narrative telling the story of Jérémie, an isolated young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. She then staged an autofictional love affair of her own between a celebrated female novelist and a young male reader of her work in Appelez-moi par mon prénom [Call Me By My First Name]. Bouraoui’s next work, Nos baisers sont des adieux [Our Kisses Are Farewells], may ostensibly be read as a form of conclusion to this self-referential period, collecting together as it does a series of fragmented memories in a non-linear work of textual archaeology which repeats and expands upon life events recounted in previous books. Following this, Bouraoui returned to writing fiction, and yet her next publication, Sauvage [Savage], continued to explore many of the same themes and preoccupations as earlier texts, through the form of a novel. Only fifteen years after the autobiographical shift of 1999 did Bouraoui publish a book with no clear connection to her own life story – 2014’s Standard – a novel which may, at least until further work is published, demonstrate the completion of this phase of Bouraoui’s writing.


VIII, 174
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
autofiction queer theory contemporary French literature women's writing women's studies gender theory Nina Bouraoui
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VIII, 174 pp.

Biographical notes

Rosie MacLachlan (Author)

Rosie MacLachlan lectures in learning development in London and southeast England, specialising in the teaching of language and literacy in higher education. She completed an MSt in Modern Languages at St John’s College, University of Oxford, and a PhD in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.


Title: Nina Bouraoui, Autofiction and the Search for Selfhood
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