Mobilizing Disciplinary Knowledge in the Migration Studies Classroom: the Case of Migrant Literatures in French  

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE).


Abdellah Taïa, the prolific novelist and filmmaker, once told an interviewer that he mastered French by writing his diary in the language.[1] I love this story because it indicates Taïa’s depth of knowledge (he later pursued advanced degrees in French literature in Geneva and Paris) and yet it takes nothing for granted about the process of constructing an identity through writing. Traversing Morocco, Switzerland, France, and Egypt, the narrator of Taïa’s autobiographical oeuvre covers great distances. And yet, this literary voice is also the result of continuous, protracted study.

Taïa could serve as a model for those who strive to balance intellectual breadth with depth. For an interdisciplinary field like migration studies, this balance is crucial; Christina Clark-Kazak cautions instructors in the field to “promote the creativity and innovation that comes with interdisciplinarity” in the classroom, “while curbing a ‘pick-n-mix’ mentality that undermines academic rigor.”[2] This pedagogical imperative is equally relevant to those of us who are rooted in a national language and literature as we prepare to adjust our teaching and research to the realities of transnational migration. As projects like the Mellon-funded Consortium on Forced Migration, Education, and Displacement (CFMDE) develop a curriculum of Forced Migration and resources for educators, it will be important to combine existing knowledge with innovative approaches and techniques.


Migrant Literatures in French

Migration has become a subject of increasing interest to French and Francophone scholars, even as it calls upon researchers to reconsider the most basic tenets of the field. These most recent approaches tend to think of migration less as a particularizing biographical detail of some authors, and more as an intellectual sensibility. In her book, The Migrant Text, Subha Xavier studiously avoids essentialisms, relying neither on the ethnic origin of any given author, nor on any fixed formal criteria of the writing, to define “migrant” textual practice: “The migrant mode as we here conceive it considers the economic, poetic, and cultural strategies put in place by the individual agency of a given writer who chooses to narrativize the experience of migration.”[3] This sensibility is consistent with Jeanne E. Glesener’s account of historical trends within the field of migrant literatures, which follow a three-part schema.[4] First, scholars discern a literary tendency, which they define by the ethnic origins of the author; taking the category of national literature for granted, literature by “migrants” is presumed to be in a marginal position. Then comes an intermediate phase, when scholars emphasize the interstices between national literatures, no longer taking those categories for granted. Most recently, scholars approach migrant literature as world literature. Although national borders still impact the material fates of authors and texts, we can detect, in this last phase, a utopian impulse to think beyond the categories of national belonging.

These new literary horizons are not intended to obscure the historical, political, and economic realities of migration. Migration literature emerges, in fact, from a tense debate about how to balance the utopian promise of world literature with the historical violence of colonialism, which has indelibly affected the community of French-language writers and readers. In 2007, the French newspaper Le Monde published a manifesto “For a World Literature in French” (Pour une littérature-monde en français).[5] Signed by forty-four influential authors, the manifesto called for a French “language liberated from its exclusive pact with the nation.” This pronouncement was an avowed attack on the older concept of Francophonie, a set of literary and political institutions, which, the manifesto argued, still placed the “French” nation-state at the center with its former “Francophone” colonies at the margins. The manifesto met almost immediately with impassioned opposition.[6] Francophonie might very well gesture to France’s colonial past, but its defenders argued that a term like “World Literature” glossed over the language’s political history and the literary market’s uneven economics. If the manifesto controversy highlighted an impasse, migrant literature is often consciously theorized as a way out. Migration is conceptually tasked with resolving conflicts between the utopian and the historical; it allows the researcher to reflect upon the most promising aspects of twenty-first century mobility without forgetting the political and economic violence that often spurs migration.

Scholars of migration literature are thus especially sensitive to the material factors that shape their terms. One such terminological issue is the question of which migrations are called “forced.” Françoise Lionnet and Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François touch upon the question in their recent article, “Literary Routes: Migration, Islands, and the Creative Economy.”[7] The regional focus of the article is the southwest Indian Ocean and the Comoros islands, where 500-1,000 people die each year in the canal de la mort (death channel) attempting to reach the island of Mayotte, an overseas French territory. The article examines the political and ethical dilemmas of artists like the Comoran writer Soeuf Elbadawi, whose poetry testifies to those lost in this dangerous migration route. It must be acknowledged that Elbadawi’s migrations were aided by access to resources that many of the subjects of his poetry do not have; he lived in Paris for over a decade and made use of a French publishing house. (One could make the argument that such movements are a necessity, rather than a neutral choice, if one is to attract readers in the present literary economy.)  It is just as instructive to consider the ways in which Elbadawi has navigated the ethical complexity of his special status; he has since returned to the archipelago where he contributes to local theatre and university culture. Elbadawi’s journey of departure to a Western center followed by return to a peripheral region permits him to serve as a conduit and a vital critical voice.

This is but one example of the way that scholars and writers have mapped the unequal movement of texts and their authors. Subha Xavier’s book, discussed earlier, and Oana Sabo’s recent monograph have also addressed the publication and circulation of texts.[8] Together, these studies call attention to the symbolic force that global inequality still exerts on the “choice” of who and which texts circulate, which language authors choose, and which audiences they address.

While this brief summary has focused upon how the lens of migration has expanded the purview of French literary scholarship, it is worth asking a question from another angle: how can literature add to the study of migration? This is especially true in the classroom, where students preparing to respond to migration demand, and deserve to know, how the course will respond to the urgent movement of people fleeing violence, dire economic circumstances, and environmental catastrophe. Lionnet and Jean-Francois eloquently explain how literature may contribute to knowledge about migration in the “age of big data.”[9] Noting that “audible or legible truth is always determined by questions of power,” they suggest that literature, nevertheless “unsettles this selective ordering of knowledge, contributing alternative insights that illuminate other realities, the truths that cannot be quantified.”[10] I often think about this formulation as I prepare courses, striving to transmit alternative perspectives on the most pressing problems of the present.


Teaching Cixous

Once the stakes are framed this way, then it is possible to recognize literary precedents. The “migrant text” may be a relatively new label, but I would argue that many disciplines, including my own field of literary studies, already offer useful analytical resources to approach the problem. For instance, isn’t the classic text, “Coming to Writing,” by French feminist icon Hélène Cixous (1937- ) about “unsettling the selective ordering of knowledge”?  Below are some reflections about how Cixous’s essay might offer important insights into migration and writing. Crucially, these reflections came about through the process of teaching students who responded to this challenging text with “unsettling” questions of their own.

The essay, “Coming to Writing,” appeared in a collection with the same name in 1977.[11]  The piece is semi-autobiographical, drawing on details from the life of Hélène Cixous, an Algerian-born, French-educated feminist playwright, poet, and theorist. Cixous tackles the challenge of writing within a feminist paradigm. This theoretical inquiry is interwoven with autobiographical meditations on the author’s own girlhood. The political circumstances of colonial Algeria weigh heavily on the personal details; the daughter of a Jewish French colon and a Jewish-German refugee, the author’s religion and ethnicity assigned her a precarious status in a colonial legal system with tiered political privileges. The timing heightens the precarity of her position; much of the essay describes the time period between World War II, which forced her mother to emigrate from Germany, and the notoriously bloody war of decolonization, which would eventually force the author herself to emigrate from Algeria.

“Coming to Writing” details the gendered barriers to authorship in a patriarchal society. As a young girl, the author understood writing to be a masculine pursuit. “Writing spoke to its prophets from a burning bush,” she writes of her childhood reasoning, “but it must have been decided that bushes wouldn’t dialogue with women.”[12] Even if she were to stage an individual rebellion against these norms, the would-be authoress would still be thwarted by the collective preconditions of writing, which are often biased against women. As the author puts it succinctly, “I had no grounds from which to write. No legitimate place, no land, no fatherland, no history of my own.”[13] A feminist reading might seize upon the theme of heritage in Cixous’s essay, pointing out how women are disinherited from an implicitly masculine cultural legacy.

The astute reader, however, would remark that gender is not the only reason one may become displaced, dispossessed, or de-legitimized.  This is precisely the kind of “unsettling” insight that has emerged through class discussion. For example, students raised questions about academic elitism when encountering Cixous’s text. Several pointed out that theoretical jargon can serve a gatekeeping function; even in feminist circles, they suggested, specialized words can legitimate a small circle of those in the know while perhaps de-legitimating the experiences of the uninitiated. These observations pushed me to think critically, in turn, about how to contextualize Cixous’s intervention. Cixous’s thought was transmitted to me in the language of psychoanalysis and structuralist linguistics. Now, however, these points of reference obscure, rather than clarify, the stakes of the essay. My students pushed me to identify new points of entry into “Coming to Writing.”

Another common sticking point for students was the problem of generalization. Students were reluctant to accept the category of “women’s writing,” so central to the way that Cixous’s project is often understood. Many were attentive to the nuances that distinguish different writers. Understandably wary of abstracted claims about “women”; these students shared Gayatri Spivak’s famous position on French feminism, which emphasized “discontinuity, heterogeneity, and typology” in gender analysis, reminding her readers that feminism cannot “by itself obliterate the problems of race and class,” nor of colonialism.[14] Heeding Spivak’s warning, students were likely to think in intersectional terms, sensitive to the question of how gender may interact with factors like class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and (im)migration status.

Cixous’s essay is also about that very list of intersecting factors, but it may take a different angle of approach to see those factors clearly.[15] New elements of the text may become legible to students who are conscious of the issues surrounding forced migration. Cixous depicts her own gender as one identity marker within a dense web of social and political dynamics barring her from writing, and this worldview is present in the text if one is looking for it. “Everything in me joined forced to forbid me to write,” she states, “History, my story, my origin, my sex. Everything that constituted my social and cultural self.”[16] In the case of the author, this social and cultural self, symbolically and materially barred from writing, is largely shaped by the experience of migration and borders. When she formulates the question, “Write French? With what right?”, Cixous imagines the harsh response of an invisible censor: “You are not from here. You are not at home here. Usurper!”[17] The author’s relationship to written French, that of a “Usurper!”, is over-determined in this case; she is a usurper by virtue of her gender and by her unique position vis-à-vis the moving boundaries of Europe and North Africa. She writes in the official language of the territory where she was born (colonial Algeria), but where she does not have secure political rights (Vichy France looms), a language which, in any case, is not her “mother tongue” (at home, she learns her mother’s native German). How many people are in a similar position, “usurping” languages because they have moved across borders, or because the borders themselves have moved?

“Coming to Writing” raises questions about migration and literature. Anticipating Lionnet’s and Jean-François’s observation about “audible or legible truth,” Cixous shows that access to language, a right that seems rather abstract and intangible, is subject to the material concerns of borders and citizenship. Cixous speaks to the author who writes fiction in a language that she does not speak at home, or who publishes in a country where her legal status is precarious, or who researches a canon with few literary representations of people like her.


Teaching Sebbar

If “Coming to Writing” can be read as a question, then Arabic as a Secret Song can be construed as a response. This latter title refers to a collection of essays published in French in 2007 by Leïla Sebbar (1941- ).[18] Also autobiographical, Sebbar’s essays recount her childhood in Algeria, the daughter of an Algerian schoolteacher father and a French mother. There are a number of biographical parallels between Cixous’s essay and Sebbar’s collection; the two authors were born mere years apart, and they recount a similar period around the war of decolonization in Algeria. Sebbar’s essays, like those of Cixous, are written years after the author left for France, and so they are marked by emigration and retrospection.

Sebbar, too, struggles with the question of language and identity in an era of moving borders. Who has the right to write and in which language? Sebbar’s biography places Arabic at the center of these reflections. Growing up on the school grounds run by her parents, which functioned like tiny academic outposts of French-ness in colonial Algeria, Sebbar rarely hears her father speak his native Arabic: “My father doesn’t speak to us in his language. He doesn’t tell us about his people’s legends, or about Djha, the sly little man who mocks the powerful and the despotic. Not a single book, not a word in his language is to be found in the library.”[19] Arabic remains a silent presence for Sebbar, even as an adult: “Conforming to my father’s wishes, I didn’t learn his language, and I write and say that I’ll never learn it.”[20] As Sebbar’s writing grapples with her missing Arabic, it becomes clear that the omission is more strategic than accidental. The author’s ignorance is not the kind to be remedied by adult Arabic lessons; it is more like a considered choice about how to occupy an impossible position. As her point about the legend of the Djha indicates, speaking or not speaking Arabic has political implications; to take up Arabic, at that time and place, is to inhabit a position vis-à-vis the “powerful and despotic.” Silence, for Sebbar is a way of respecting a language that is hers by paternal right but which, because she is also the little girl in a colonial schoolyard with a French mother, she can never fully inhabit.

Like Cixous, but coming from a very different position within these colonial dynamics, Sebbar understands language, individual identity, and collective belonging to be intimately entangled. It takes a community of others, paradoxically, to produce a writing self. “I don’t know how it is that I exist,” writes Sebbar, of being caught between French and Algerian culture as the borders of each were being hotly contested.[21] “I’m a person, of course, but the ‘I’ is prohibited… put simply, memory is blank and empty without a religious or familial inscription to give it depth, a real, tangible thickness, a stratified ground that can be decoded by reading the geological and genealogical strata.”[22] What is so striking about this formulation, for me, is the way that literary and cultural “ground” is conceptualized as something that can accumulate and gain solidity. In the right circumstances, it becomes almost as material as soil. Without it, as Sebbar suggests, the “I” almost cannot exist.

If Sebbar formulates this problem acutely, the problem of the writing “I” without a community and its history, then she also gestures toward a possible solution. “To come back to myself, to say ‘I,’ I had to walk a long way,” Sebbar tells us.[23] The distances to which she refers are both intellectual and physical. She travels to France to do doctoral research on colonial Saint Domingue (now Haiti). She participates in the feminist movements of May ’68, and in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. She reads legends about Arab women and writes her own novelistic trilogy. She travels and listens, “in the Arab cafés in Barbès, Montreuil, Belleville…in the metro cars, along the construction sites, behind the green garbage trucks with ‘Paris sanitation’ on the side.”[24] This collection of figures—historical, fictional, and real become her “immense new tribe.”[25] They form the literary ground beneath Sebbar, the collectivity to her writing “I.”

The text, a portrait of the author as a student, might also be read as a pedagogical blueprint. A literary work that is also a model of academic and experiential learning, Arabic as a Secret Song, can serve as a useful antecedent for projects like the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education.

Sebbar also gestures to the importance of another of the CFMDE’s guiding principles, which is to take the lead from migrant knowledges. As I have demonstrated in this essay, migrants have already been guiding researchers and instructors, even those of us who, like me, come from disciplines which have historically been organized around a national language and its literature. Those of us renewing our scholarly and pedagogical practice to respond to an era of transnational migration could do worse than to follow the example of Sebbar, who invented an “immense new tribe” in order to write as herself.[26]


Brittany Murray is Coordinator for Research and Pedagogy for the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education (CFMDE).  She works with the Consortium’s Project Director Maria Höhn, Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair and Consortium Coordinator Matt Brill-Carlat.  As the liaison between the Consortium and the CES network, she fosters research opportunities among student and faculty partners at Vassar, Bard, Bennington, and Sarah Lawrence colleges. Her duties also include supporting the Consortium’s pedagogical initiatives, and she will be teaching the curriculum’s entry course, Lexicon of Forced Migration, at Vassar College in Spring 2019. 



[1] Abdellah Taïa and Joe Edgar, A conversation with Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa, September 10, 2012,

[2] Christina Clark-Kazak, “Teaching Forced Migration: Pedagogy in the Context of Global Displacement Crises,” Migration Studies 0, no. 0 (2016): 1.

[3] Subha Xavier, The Migrant Text, Making and Marketing a Global French Literature (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 12.

[4] Jeanne E. Glesener, “Migration Literature as a New World Literature? An Overview of the Main Arguments,” June 21, 2016,

[5] “Pour Une Littérature-Monde,” Le Monde, March 15, 2007,

[6] Two especially prominent critics were the Lebanese novelist and literary critic Alexandre Najjar and the former president of Senegal, Abdou Diouf.

Alexandre Najjar, “‘Expliquer L’eau Par L’eau’.,” Le Monde, March 29, 2007,;

Abdou Diouf, “La Francophonie, Une Réalité Oubliée,” Le Monde, March 19, 2007,

[7] Françoise Lionnet and Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François, “Literary Routes: Migration, Islands, and the Creative Economy,” PMLA 131, no. 5 (October 2016): 1222–38.

[8] Xavier, The Migrant Text, Making and Marketing a Global French Literature; Oana Sabo, The Migrant Canon in Twenty-First-Century France (University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

[9] Lionnet and Jean-François, “Literary Routes: Migration, Islands, and the Creative Economy,” 1222.

[10] Lionnet and Jean-François, 1223.

[11] All English translations from Hélène Cixous, “Coming to Writing,” in “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, ed. Deborah Jenson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 1–58.

[12] Cixous, 14.

[13] Cixous, 15.

[14] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “French Feminism in an International Frame,” Yale French Studies, 1981, 184.

[15] Researchers have paved the way for this kind of reading in the classroom, highlighting Cixous’s relationship to colonial Algeria. See, for example,

Debrauwere-Miller, “Hélène Cixous, A Sojourn Without Place,” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 11, no. 2 (2007): 253–63; Alison Rice, Polygraphies, Francophone Women Writing Algeria (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

[16] Cixous, “Coming to Writing,” 12.

[17] Cixous, 13.

[18] All English translations from Leïla Sebbar, Arabic as a Secret Song, trans. Skyler Artes (The University of Virginia, 2015).

[19] Sebbar, 44.

[20] Sebbar, 61.

[21] Sebbar, 50.

[22] Sebbar, 50.

[23] Sebbar, 58.

[24] Sebbar, 59.

[25] Sebbar, 59.

[26] Sebbar, 59.



Photo: Man reading book while sitting on pile of books| Shutterstock
Published on March 5, 2019


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