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Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women: Translingual Selves by Natalie Edwards

Reviewed by Erin Nickalls, University of Oxford

Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women, Natalie Edwards. New York: Routledge, 2020. £29.59. ISBN: 9781032087566.


With an ever-increasing percentage of the world’s population traversing geographic and linguistic borders, Natalie Edwards’ call ‘to theorize the trans in translingual’ literature is all the more pressing (18). Adopting the term ‘translanguaging’ originally developed in linguistics and pedagogical studies, Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women examines how six female authors incorporate other languages into their writing in French. Grounded in the view that multilinguals draw on a continuum of linguistic resources which work together—as opposed to separate linguistic systems which operate in parallel—Edwards’ analysis focuses on how writers juxtapose their languages to ‘create new formulations of subjectivity within their self-narrative’ (18). Selecting writers who hold distinct relationships to France and the French language, Edwards trains her lens on the work of Lydie Salvayre, Kim Thúy, Catherine Rey, Gisèle Pineau, Chantal Spitz and Hélène Cixous. In the case of writers whose work has received considerable critical attention, such as Salvayre and Cixous, this study contributes an important analysis of the relatively under-researched question of multilingualism in their writing; and, in the case of authors whose work is under-represented in life writing research, notably Catherine Rey, Edwards showcases their work’s significance to current discussions in the field.

            The introduction takes the pulse of existing scholarship in the areas of applied linguistics, life writing, transnational French studies, and multilingual women’s writing. This includes an overview of terms used to refer to multilingual individuals and practices—which, although more granular than necessary for the ensuing discussion, gives a convincing rationale for Edwards’ adoption of the term ‘translanguaging’. Edwards also refers to an impressive range of key works—outlining how research in these fields has evolved in recent decades and, importantly, where she believes it is going next. As part of this, Edwards underlines the significance of women’s writing to current life writing studies. As she explains, translanguaging is an integral part of how female writers present alternative forms of self-narrative to univocal autobiographies.

            The chapter on Lydie Salvayre focuses on her 2014 Prix Goncourt-winning work Pas pleurer. While Salvayre was born in France and writes predominantly in French, her parents crossed the Pyrenees as political refugees during the Spanish Civil War. Pas pleurer offers a portrait of this complex period of Spanish history from the alternating perspectives of celebrated author Georges Bernanos and the narrator’s aging mother Montse. Salvayre’s work thus juxtaposes written testimony in standardized French with oral testimony which draws on lexical and grammatical elements of Spanish and French. Edwards’ focus on Pas pleurer’s linguistic dimension is a significant contribution to existing research on Salvayre’s promotion of under-represented accounts of the past. One shortcoming of this otherwise insightful discussion is Edwards’ contention that Salvayre’s ‘craft is to consult multilingual sources and render the information she garners from them for a monolingual audience’ (41). Even if Edwards acknowledges that readers will have different levels of access to the text’s multilingual elements, there is an unjustified assumption that the intended audience is monolingual—a generalisation which aligns with her weighted focus on these readers throughout the study.

            The following chapter focuses on the life writing of Kim Thúy, who learned French after moving from Vietnam to Quebec at the age of ten. Her works Ru and Mãn recount her journey of forced migration and later success as a restauranteur. An interesting point of discussion is the close relationship Edwards identifies between food and multilingualism in Thúy’s work—a connection she also highlights in Pineau and Spitz’s writing. To be sure, adopting food names from other languages is common to almost anyone’s lexicon; however, Edwards’ discussion invites further investigations into the recurring link between cuisine and language in transnational literature. As another point of strength, Edwards discusses how the multilingual context of Quebec adds a layer of complexity to Thúy’s translanguaging practices, such that Mãn is ‘not an expression of a decontextualized French but one that reflects, intervenes in and complicates a particular multilingual context’ (63).

            The third chapter focuses on the life writing of Catherine Rey, who moved from France to Australia as an adult. As part of her drive to reinvent herself abroad, Rey began to supplement her writing in French with elements of English. Compared to other chapters, this discussion is more biographical and focuses on more non-linguistic issues raised by the author’s writing—perhaps because Edwards calls for more critical attention to be paid to Rey’s work. Taking the lead in this direction, Edwards offers a perceptive analysis of how mixing languages allows Rey to reflect on her past struggles and present spirituality in a more intimate way. The chapter ends with a neat articulation of Rey’s translanguaging strategy: in her work, the ‘“langue minoritaire/minority language” that she claims to speak is not a reference to the fact that she speaks French in Australia but to the fact that she has fashioned her own unique language with which to practice life writing’ (88).

            The next chapter focuses on three works by Gisèle Pineau, who, though born and raised in Paris, has also spent considerable portions of her life in Guadeloupe and Martinique. Edwards tracks how Pineau’s translation strategies evolve across her life writing—from giving translations in footnotes, to taking away these translations, to removing the italics from Creole words. Pineau differs from the other authors in adopting a consistent approach within each work, even though her strategies change in accordance with each text’s aims and audience. In this chapter more than others, it is important for Edwards to refer to ‘dominant and dominated languages’, as Pineau’s translanguaging strategies are motivated by postcolonial power imbalances (98): L’Exile selon Julia criticises racism in contemporary France and Mes quatre femmes explores slavery’s ramifications on generations of Caribbean women. Notably, Edwards provides a thoughtful comparison between Pineau’s inclusion of footnotes in Un papillon dans la cité to Maryse Condé’s glossary at the back of Contes vrais de l’enfance—arguing that the latter sets a clearer hierarchy between French and Creole, even if the two are intermingled in the text.

            The fifth chapter centres on the work of Chantal Spitz, a groundbreaking author from French Polynesia who incorporates both French and Tahitian into her writing. Although Spitz uses similar translanguaging tactics to those adopted by the other authors, Edwards notes that the intended effect is different: rather than focusing on how languages intertwine to express a unique subjectivity, Spitz juxtaposes her languages to stress the incompatibility of French and Tahitian cultures. For one, on a diegetic level, language plays a key role in the characters’ failed intercultural relationships and attempts to assimilate into metropolitan French society. As Edwards astutely analyses, rather than incorporating Tahitian to add local flavor, Spitz uses it to stress the importance of language, land, and the traditional belief system which compose the ‘triptych’ of a uniquely Tahitian identity (126).

            The final chapter gives a thoughtful discussion of Hélène Cixous’ translanguaging practices—an aspect of her work which has received little critical attention to date. This gap in the scholarship is likely due in part to the fact that, as Edwards recognizes, Cixous’ writing shows little evidence of her multilingualism—even if her play on language through neologisms and puns is an oft-discussed dimension of her work. Of particular note, Edwards explains how Cixous’ experience of being Jewish in Algeria differs from that of Jacques Derrida as a result of their seven-year age gap and different linguistic backgrounds. According to Edwards, Cixous did not feel the same exclusion from French; and, as such, her concept of ‘pluslangue’ manifests a different view of language from that presented by Derrida’s ‘monolinguisme’ (156). She also discusses how Cixous’ mother’s death during the drafting of Une autobiographie allemande likely augmented her desire to express her emotional connection to the German language—a relationship she can separate from her family’s experience of trauma during the Holocaust. Edwards also gives an insightful explanation of how the grammatical distinctions between the terms ‘Muttersprache’ and ‘langue maternelle’ affect Cixous’ relationship to German and French.

            The conclusion synthesizes the similarities and distinctions between the authors’ translanguaging practices and suggests several avenues for further research. Refreshingly, the study ends on a positive note: given that the prevalence of border and language crossings are set to increase in the future, Edwards contends that paying more attention to multilingual literature will ‘call for a more engaged reading process and for reading to become an act of solidarity: to listen to a writer’s multiple languages and to read in an appropriate way as a response’ (167). This is certainly an admirable ambition which may explain why she tips her analysis towards monolingual readers; that said, her study would be more attuned to the variegated effects of heteroglossic writing if multilingual readers were considered more consistently. Overall, despite its minor shortcomings, Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women offers an original contribution to the fields joined in its title and will no doubt prompt further research on multilingual women authors within and beyond French studies.