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Nina Bouraoui, Autofiction and the Search for Selfhood


Rosie MacLachlan

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.

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Autofiction is a genre which can take many different forms and serve many different purposes. As this study has shown, in the work of just one practitioner, Nina Bouraoui, it has meant representations of one’s own life story in unconventional or non-narrative forms, such as Poupée bella and Mes mauvaises pensées, the use of apparently conventional novels to creatively revisit or alter one’s past, as in La vie heureuse and Sauvage, and overt self-fictionalisation, constructing a parallel textual life as in Appelez-moi par mon prénom. What all of these varied uses of autofiction have in common in Bouraoui’s work is a core project of self-exploration, examining and experimenting with identity, and facilitating the writer’s textual search for selfhood. While an extended autobiographical corpus repeatedly revising aspects of its author’s life may strike some audiences as over-indulgent or self-absorbed, it also provides an instructive case study for critical theory, with three important characteristics of identity strongly emerging from the writer’s search for selfhood – each of which may be expanded outwards from the autofictional text to a more generalised understanding of the construction of identity.

Bouraoui’s experiences as a victim of verbal abuse and social exclusion, represented in Garçon manqué and La vie heureuse, contributed to her understanding of the formative power of discourse, and the notion of performativity revealed Bouraoui’s act of writing to be a form of defiance again the world as she has found it, with the writer reappropriating language for...

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