The Chantal Chawaf Newsletter, Volume I, Number 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1997)
"Beyond the Narrative: Teaching Blé des semances and Vers la lumière," by Metka Zupancic, University of Guelph, Canada
Recently I taught Chawaf's novels in two classes at the University of Ottawa in Canada. The two classes were a second year course in literatrue and women and a fourth year course in mythology, called "Critique de L'imaginaire." Both courses were taught in French, mainly to students whose mother tongue is French.
I chose a challenging path: first by asking students to approach Chawaf from different perspectives, rather than just reading the story; second, at the end of the semester, by examining the results, in order to figure out where the difficulties in reading Chawaf stem from (even for native speakers) and what can be learned from her type of writing.
Interestingly enough, in my second year course, the most common comment was: Why is she so complicated? Why is it that she cannot say things directly? We (the students) had trouble grasping her symbols, and in determining who is who in there. We dealt with Blé de semances and I tried to convey to my class the particularities of a metaphoric écriture du corps, where an unusual being takes flesh, so to speak, inside the narrative, such as the women-cows -- half human, half animal -- that one could perceive as a textual manifestation of a symbol, of an idea.
The symbolic dimensions of the text were best integrated by those who chose to write a more interesting "letter to ..." in the place of a regular academic paper. (See Magda Costea's paper in the Student Paper section of this issue.) Most of them chose the relationship between the mother and the daughter -- specifically the necessity, for the daugher, to break the circle, to free herself, to become an individual. The biggest problem for most of them, I would say, was the necessity to search beyond the narrative, to start exploring the underlying mythology and the symbolic context of the novel.
In my mythology class where we read Vers la lumière, this same dimension was easier to present and to be integrated. Our first step was to face the complexity of the basic mythological thinking in Chawaf's writing, and to understand the process of the conjunction of opposites. ONce this was accepted and understood, the reading became somewhat easier. However, the difficulty still remained around the density of images, the reversibility of roles, and the connections between characters and their mythical models, as well as around the originality in Chawaf's rewriting myths.
The class fully agreed that a traditional, reductive approach, dealing primarily with the narrative and the characters, could not give satisfactory results, unless supported by a reading taking into account the mythological and symbolic dimensions. Students had a choice of writing their main paper on any of the books studied. Those who chose Chawaf mainly dealt with the Demeter-Persephone model. I was so pleased with the quality of their papers, that I encouraged the authors to submit their works to the Women in French paper contest for undergraduates.
It might be interesting to have all students around North America exchange their papers and discuss them. It would be interesting to see what the reception of these novels by English speaking students would be, and what results one could have with Chawaf's texts in translation.
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