The Chantal Chawaf Newsletter, Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 1998)
"Chantal Chawaf: Une artiste de la vie"
by Beth Droppleman, University of Florida, USA
In the midst of preparing the final version of Le Manteau Noir last June, Mme. Chawaf kindly took the time to speak with me about her latest work. The following are excerpts from the interview held in Paris. Provoking and insightful, her comments on the state of French society, politics, feminism, and women's writing in the '90s shed light on her unique artistic vision and enthical engagement "dans les chemins de la sensibilité, de l'affectivité, et du féminin."
It is a completely new, subversive gaze, if you will, at what has been so often looked at since the war: the gaze at history, the gaze at politics, the gaze at destruction, the gaze at violence. This gaze has been presented by historians, politicians, writers, many male writers, some women writers, but through a perspective, the perspective of their male society. Here [in Le Manteau Noir] it assumes another point of view completely because I am speaking of a witness's experience, a witness who was a baby, a fetus even. So the gaze is inevitably different and inevitably it is new because normally history is not made by way of a fetal gaze. ... It's the whole shock of the war. This is where I begin in this work. In fact, all the literature from the start came from there, but I did not really say it. It wasn't really cultivated or clarified. ... I was writing precisely to reject this world of violence and this male world which yielded this type of solution. So this early writing was a response or a resistance, you might say.
But there came a time when I told myself that I must anchor this work firmly to the society from which it comes, in the society it addresses, and finally to do work that is not on the offensive, but is active. ... This writing denounces precisely all that renders male-female relations, human relations, so difficult and that results in a world which runs more poorly than well. Lots of things remain in the shadows; communication, language, and speech have not been clarified. Many things remain rejected, repressed, and come from our female being.
If we are attuned to this sensibility which is ours, this puts us on paths toward sensibility, affectivity, and the feminine. ... In fact, this engages us with the male world, with the world of history, with the world of politics, with the world of struggle, with the world of war. But we are engaged with what we have. We have much to contribute with our vision, with our propositions, with perhaps another sense of the ethical. So, it is not because we are women that one should separate us from this world as soon as we speak as women, saying, "That's the masculine. This is the feminine." Not at all. ... This is an extremely rich means given to us to renew the whole perspective on the world, on ethics, on politics. It can renew all and enlighten all in a much more sensitive manner, much more interior and internal, and this gives a completely different approach to the same facts as those transmitted through culture, transmitted through the novel, transmitted through language by the powers in place, the powers of language, the languages of power. ...
But at this time, in this work [Le Manteau Noir], I want to get to another stage, to the stage where one approaches the world that is not the feminine, that is not the world of the feminine -- of wars, of violence, of our history, of our immediate past, of our present ... to approach it from the most simple elements of the living inside of us and which, if we listen, requires another language, another work, an interrogation, an interrogation of the living, an interrogation of life. In my case, this comes about through work with war archives, work with witnesses, with aged persons, with these last fifty years which have produced the world we now are. ...
As with a human life, work passes through stages and strategies. And we have both individual and collective strategies to pursue. The defense of life occurs in the end through a struggle, a struggle that must choose its means, that must approach an ideal and that must be precisely the opposite of the violence which has up to this point fed struggles. So then, can we fight and can we struggle against violence without recourse to it? What can we bring to this battle? What are we going to provide? This is where I think there are things to propose and modestly all the work I am finishing is a small point, a small point of proposition: "How can we fight against what has not ceased to fight against life? How can we fight? Without recourse to the same arms, to the same language, how?" ...
I am an artist. What can I do? I am not a politician. I am an artist. But I think that artists have a lot of things to do in politics, in history, in the fight and without a doubt more than intellectuals because the intellectual is already limited, self-fragmented. He has his mental faculties, his reason, his logic while the artist is much more attuned to everything, to everything and is searching, is in exploration, seeking the unknown. He employs all his senses and his affects. He thus has a role to play. he or she. And perhaps every woman can and should be an artist of life.
[Translated into English by Beth Droppleman.]
If you would like to contact Beth Droppleman about this interview, please click here.
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