N. Al-Mousawi: Death at the Border
Essays of the Forum Transregionale Studien (2/2016)
Death at the Border:
Making and Unmaking the Migrating Body
Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a postdoctoral fellow and visiting faculty of modern Arabic literature and culture at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In 2015/16 she was a postdoctoral fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME), a program at the Forum Transregionale Studien. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an MA in Middle East Studies from the University of Texas, Austin. Her research has focused on Arab–African migrant literature.
In her tripartite French novel Trois Femmes Puissantes (2009) Marie NDiaye explores the trials of three loosely connected women, who reveal the traffic links between France and Senegal.1 In the first part, Parisian lawyer Norah reluctantly returns to visit her ailing father in Senegal. In the second, Fanta's troubled French husband narrates his reasons for convincing her to migrate from Senegal to rural France. In the last, young and impoverished widow Khady is forcefully deposited in the hands of a smuggler by her mother-in-law to be trafficked to France (presumably so she can stay with her cousin Fanta and send money back to her in-laws). Thus, it is a novel at once about the African diaspora in France and the undocumented journey from Africa to European territory. In creating these linked, albeit not interchangeable, characters who are in various stages of the "journey" in their sense of French identity and belonging, NDiaye reveals a presumption of validity and licitness that the women bear as Africans in their relationship to France—whether their journey is undocumented or not.
Set apart from other critiques of
the novel that equally analyze all three characters,2 this essay focuses on
the last "strong woman" of the triptych—Khady Demba. Although it
focuses on Khady as an allegorical figure of today's African
migrants pushed out of a homeland that refuses to provide for
them (due to unemployment, poverty, corruption) and into perilous
journeys, it also draws on the other two "strong women" to
demonstrate how gender, race, and class limit these women—whose
survival presumably depends on their strength. The other "strong
women" function as a socioeconomic counterpoint to Khady, who is
impoverished and does not have access to the material resources
and social capital available to the other women. In their
European–African journeys, the border is not neutral, but rather
a site of power that privileges and marginalizes—certainly based
on axes of race, nationality, and gender, but also on
Due to the material restrictions on Khady's trek North, on foot and in the back of trucks, across the African continent, through the Sahara, and toward the Mediterranean, NDiaye forecloses on the possibility of neglecting the material effects of specific borders: there is no cookie-cutter airport to homogenize the journey into one unforgettable global experience. In Khady's story, the actual journey across borders is not an afterthought in the new homeland, as it is with the other women in the novel, but rather it encompasses her entire narrative. With Khady, NDiaye focalizes the specifics of a Saharan border topography that puts into momentum Khady's narrative until the denouement: from the border town suffocated by the sand of the Sahara (a "town infested with sand, with low sand-colored houses and with streets and gardens covered in sand")3 to the haphazard camp set up by undocumented sub-Saharan migrants in a "makeshift tent of plastic and foliage"4, deep in a Moroccan forest atop the Mediterranean whose branches the migrants use to build a ladder to climb atop the razor-wire fence separating Morocco from European territory, the Spanish enclave of Melilla.
In detailing Khady's journey, it is not that NDiaye projects such a hyperfocus on the everyday violence of borders that she completely detaches from the abstract, metaphoric, and discursive aspects of borders that articulate lines of difference and identity. In fact, she poses all her characters on the brink of various discursive and ideational borders to mark various steps in identity formation. Rather, NDiaye highlights the interconnectedness of the material and metaphoric/ideational in apprehending the border. She does this by playing with the abstract—literalizing metaphors and the figurative to highlight the way language and the ideational intersect with and even affect and shape the material. In doing so, she draws attention to the categories in which the world is represented and to the way these conventions shape social reality.
The device of shape shifting
allows for a variety of discursive borders to be established in
the novel. Shape shifting from human to bird gestures toward a
border other than the national one the characters straddle: the
border between the human and non-human. After all, the
transformation of the women to fungible, commodified, consumable
objects also lies at the center of the novel: certainly for Khady
who never loses sight of her "unshakeable humanity"5 despite being
trafficked and prostituted, but also for Norah and her sister
who, as children, are treated by their father like disposable
objects that could be exchanged with his wife for a son he
considers indispensable enough to abduct. Moreover, it also
gestures toward an ethnic-identity and -affiliation metamorphosis
for Norah and one based on development and resiliency of
independence and individuality for Fanta.
Avian imagery is dispersed throughout the novel. But, especially in a brief "Counterpoint" at the end of each section, Khady and the other women metamorphose into birds, signaling both death and re-birth. The first section opens with Norah, standing outside her Dakar childhood home, flustered by the appearance of her ancient, decayed, birdlike father who seems to have "flitted down"6 from a poinciana tree. In response to her father's summons to Senegal, Norah arrives expecting to find the father she remembers from childhood—a fashionable, arrogant, successful businessman: "[…] this man who […] had worn none but the chicest of perfumes, this haughty and insecure man".7 Instead, she finds an unkempt old man that she compares to a "plump old bird"8, giving "the effect of his being too heavy a bird, one that fell over each time he landed"9. In the "Counterpoint", a bird-like Norah has joined her father in the poinciana tree:
[…] perched among the branches now bereft of flowers, surrounded by the bitter smell of the tiny leaves; she was there in the dark, in her lime-green dress, at a safe distance from her father's phosphorescence. Why would she come and alight on the poinciana if it wasn't to make peace, once and for all?10
When she ponders, "Poor soul,
who'd have thought he'd wind up a plump old bird, clumsy flying
and strong smelling?"11, she could have
hardly thought that she too would end up transforming into a
bird, turning into her father. Her metamorphosis is identitarian,
perhaps indicating a liberating reconciliation in terms of her
troubled relationship with her father and her paternal heritage.
Or, her death is a metaphor of her single homogenous French
identity, her re-birth a reconciliation of her varied, syncretic
identities—French and Senegalese, as suggested by Deborah
Gaensbauer in her essay "Migrations and Metamorphosis in Marie
NDiaye's Trois Femmes
In the second section, a teacher in her native Senegal, Fanta ends up isolated in the south of France due to her white French husband's scandalous fight with students at the Dakar high school where they both taught. In the "Counterpoint", rendered through the perspective of a neighbor woman of whom her husband is contemptuous, a birdlike Fanta appears waving toward the neighbor in a gesture of solidarity:
[…] her neighbor's long neck and small delicate head that seemed to emerge from the bay tree like a miraculous branch, an unlikely sucker looking at Madame Pulmaire's garden with big wide eyes and lips parted in a big, calm smile […]. She waved to Madame Pulmaire, she waved to her slowly, deliberately, purposefully.13
Through this birdlike
metamorphosis NDiaye suggests that, despite her troubled husband
and the vagaries of a racist French society, Fanta is poised for
resiliency—the ability to recover her autonomy after a
vertiginous "uprooting" from Senegal, as also suggested by
Gaensbauer in her critique of the novel.14 Her metamorphosis,
like Norah's, is also based on the death of an old identity and
re-birth into a new one.
In the last section, Khady's transformation into a bird in the novel takes on a value beyond metaphor, as suggested by the real—rather than metaphorical or identitarian—death of her body. The appearance of birds mark various stages of Khady's migration—as symbols of her fellow migrants' squalor and torment, for one: as she starts out on her journey, Khady hears the shrieking of crows "in their fury at being always hungry"15. Birds also symbolize her traffickers' ferocity and as signs of illusory episodes: suffering from exhaustion and hunger, she perceives the similarity between the trafficker's round sunglasses and agitation and nearby crows, wherein the trafficker transforms into a terrifying crow "subtly changed into a man in order to carry Khady off"16. Birds also function as memory triggers: seagulls hovering over migrants pushed toward a flimsy boat provoke a flashback to a childhood memory of birds at the fish market where she bargained on behalf of her grandmother, a memory that fortifies her "unshakable humanity"17.
Trois Femmes Puissantes ends with Khady leaving the forest atop the Mediterranean beach, rushing the barbed-wire fence separating Morocco from Spain, clambering to the top with other sub-Saharan migrants while hearing border guards firing into the air on either side, and finally falling—a descent without end. Her story ends with her "letting go, falling slowly backward, and thinking then that the person of Khady Demba—less than a breath, scarcely a puff of air—was surely never to touch the ground, but would float eternal, priceless, too evanescent ever to be smashed in the cold, blinding glare of the floodlights"18. As her head hits the ground after her fatal fall, she sees a bird with long gray wings above the fence: "[…] that's me, Khady Demba, she thought in the bedazzlement of that revelation, knowing that she was that bird and that the bird knew it"19. The brief "Counterpoint" section following Khady's story reveals the thoughts of a restaurant worker in France, Lamine—a man who betrayed Khady on her travels: he would think of her and thank her, as a "bird would vanish in the distance"20.
Khady's metamorphosis into a bird is set apart from those of the other "strong women" in the novel: her transformation signals a death and re-birth that are not identity-based or premised on difference and subjectivity in the migration process. While the other women transcend the boundaries of who they once were to become other types of women in the context of their migrations, her transcendence is from life to death to a re-birth into another life. The death of her body is literal, rather than metaphorical. Unlike critiques that center shape-shifting as a way of arguing for the relatedness of the African migrant women despite vast differences between their social and economic positions, I argue that shape-shifting marks Khady apart from the other "strong women". Her literal death before metamorphosis takes place does not afford her the indeterminacy and ambiguity that the metaphoric death and re-birth of the other migrant women allow.
In literalizing symbols, figures, and metaphors, NDiaye reveals the divide between representational elements of displacement and the border zone and their material-historical reality. By "representational", I mean the abstract, metaphoric, and discursive aspects of social and spatial categorizations. One concern is the use of the concept of borders to articulate difference and subjectivity in social and cultural studies to the point that the term slides into metaphoric usage.21 Cultural geographers Keith Woodward and John Paul Jones III address the de-politicization at the heart of a representational and discursive use of space for critics and theoreticians:
[…] when critics and theoreticians turn to the concept of borders as an apparatus for articulating various lines of difference and subjectivity in social and cultural studies (e.g., Anzaldua, 1999; Kirby, 1996; Welchman, 1996), the term may slide into metaphoric usage. According to Smith and Katz, this maneuver can introduce absolutist and Euclidean versions of spatial thinking that may de-materialize and therefore de-politicize social space, as if borders did their work solely within the nether-land of abstract neutrality.22
Indeed, these are criticisms lodged at theorists and critics, removed from the realm of novelists.23 However, holding the migrant up as a metaphoric prism for the broader narratives of humanity—the migrant-as-metaphor trope or displacement as a trope—has been a fashionable literary tactic for fiction writers up until recently. In 1985, Salman Rushdie wrote that the migrant is the "defining figure of the 20th century". According to Rushdie, "this century of wandering" has produced refugees and writers carrying "cities in their bedrolls", where "migration" is not limited to the act of crossing borders and frontiers but functions as a prism through which other acts can be understood:
Migration across national frontiers is by no means the only form of the phenomenon. In many ways, given the international and increasingly homogeneous nature of metropolitan culture, the journey from, for example, the Scottish Highlands to London is a more extreme act of migration than a move from, say, Bombay. But I want to go further than such literalistic discussion: because migration also offers us one of the richest metaphors of our age. The very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek words for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images. Migrants – borne-across humans – are metaphorical beings in their very essence; and migration, seen as a metaphor, is everywhere around us. We all cross frontiers; in that sense, we are all migrant peoples.24
Moreover, he suggests that migrants model what it was to be human due to the loss of what renders their humanity—roots, culture, social knowledge—and their attempts to create new ways of being human. Migration here of course alludes not specifically to displacements of people across frontiers but to a state of displacement that is universal and generally befalls humankind.
Salman Rushdie is certainly not the only writer drawn to the creative and liberatory connotations attached to migration: Parul Sehgal's article "New Ways of Being" recounts how various writers of the past century have made migration-as-trope a determining feature of their literature and politics.
Roberto Bolaño once asked, "Can it be that we're all exiles?" Aren't the themes of immigrant literature—estrangement, homelessness, fractured identities—the stuff of all modern literature, if not life? "Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?" Kafka spoke to everyone when he wrote in a (possibly apocryphal) diary entry: "Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country; […] I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites and very language defied comprehension; […] though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals."25
Skepticism toward the migrant-as-metaphor has been more prolific in the past few years. Rushdie and others have been subjected to various critiques for making of the migrant one of the reigning tropes of the 20th century.26 In addition, a more recent body of literature has emerged in counterstance to the optimism of migrant literature and of displacement as a trope, revealing, in opposition to the likes of Bolaño that the terrain of migration, is not merely an internal psychic landscape.27
Trois Femmes Puissantes is part of a wave of literature that shows the optimism of the migrant novel—complete with upward-mobility narratives accompanied by nostalgia for the homeland and animated by the protagonist's struggle to balance demands of individualism and community orientation—is waning. Part of this more skeptical literature involves revealing the harsh material realities of the journey to migrate and settlement in the new land. Another part involves shining a light on various anti-migrant sentiments. And another involves interrogating the metaphors that make up the migrant in the national imaginary.
NDiaye's task of metaphor play and literalizing metaphor is not restricted to sentencing Khady to death before her shape shifting takes place while the other women are sentenced to a more identitarian "death"—again, revealing that the consequences of migration are life-threatening, rather than merely threatening to familiar "roots, culture, social knowledge". NDiaye's task of literalizing metaphors also extends to the anti-migrant imaginary wherein various metaphors are at work.28 This interrogation of the anti-migrant imaginary and its metaphors are featured in other trans-Mediterranean undocumented migrant narratives: for example, in Sefi Atta's short story about a Nigerian migrant who crosses the Sahara to find that a forest atop the Mediterranean is where many migrants have camped for as long as years to cross the sea, "Twilight Trek," she integrates the tropes of apocalypse that undergird anti-migrant public discourse—like migrant "tides", "floods", and "exodus" stemmed and averted—into a story that allegorizes the quest of Moses for a Promised Land in Revelations.29 Trois Femmes Puissantes also plays with anti-migrant tropes, such as the metaphor of contamination that is literalized through Khady's ailing and contagious body pushing through border after border until she arrives at the edge of the Mediterranean.
Disease after disease befalls Khady as she crosses one border after another. She is perceived to not only be infected but to infect many. In the novel, each border marker, from sea to checkpoint, trigger a fresh layer of illness, pain, and suffering. The vicissitudes of the journey—intersecting at the border and the pain it inflicts—tear her body apart. First, on a rickety docked boat prepared to breach the border of the Mediterranean Sea on the way to Europe, she injures her calf on a nail while scrambling out once she becomes alarmed the boat was becoming crowded. At first, she cannot see the injury in the dark, only feels the blood running down her leg. In the morning when she wakes up on the beach, a man asks her about her wound, which she is able to see for the first time: "It was a gaping wound, encrusted with dried blood covered in sand."30 The man, Lamine, befriends her and they pair up, as she finds he plans to head across to Europe, as well.
In a truck hurtling across the Sahara, Khady's wound has still not healed. At a checkpoint, the couple encounters soldiers who assault Lamine and terrify Khady to the point that she hands over the rest of her money to save Lamine. After surviving the checkpoint, Khady is left without money and works as a prostitute in a small room at the back of a "chophouse" she and Lamine find in a small border town on their route across the Sahara. Khady prostitutes herself to secure enough money for their trip across the Mediterranean to Europe, and there her body suffers: it's unclear whether she contracts a sexually transmitted disease, but "some customers would complain, saying that it had hurt, that the girl was infected"31, because "a recent attack of pruritus that made Khady's vagina dry and inflamed also caused [their] penis some discomfort"32. In the small border town marked by a checkpoint, she becomes an assemblage of pain: the calf wound from her first injury, "swollen and foul smelling"33; an "attack of pruritus that made Khady's vagina dry and inflamed"; "multiple shooting pains in her back, her lower abdomen, and her calf"34; "her burning vulva"35. When she accumulates a little bit of money, she finds one day that Lamine has disappeared with it.
Anti-migration rhetoric of potential contamination at the hands of outsiders is figural and usually gestures toward a political, cultural, and ideological compromise of the nation or region's purity from incoming hordes that presumably seek to infect with their social practices. (This does not mean that the social body is not also represented as vulnerable to physical contamination, as well.) The figural collapses into the literal through Khady's body in Trois Femmes Puissantes. Khady's sickness and potential infectiousness come to literalize the anti-migrant "plague" metaphor, as she crosses borders to reach the Mediterranean and carry out the final stage of her journey to Europe.
The trope of containment against contamination that frames undocumented immigration situates those within borders as expressing acute anxiety over the encroachment of outsiders. As recently as 2015, outrageous newspaper columnists used words like "cockroaches" to describe the migrants.36 While it's easy to discount the effectiveness of certain columnists for their general outrageous behaviour, politicians like UK PM David Cameron have referred to the migrants in terms of "swarms". Allusions to infestation are drawn to task for dehumanizations and allusions to infestation.37 We can turn to less recent instances such as when "governing parties in Spain"38 referred to undocumented migration as an "anti-social plague"39 in 1990. And the construction of these symbols and associations is not restricted to Europe. In the Arabic-language Tangier newspaper al-Shamal, a September 12, 2005 article describing sub-Saharan Africans trying to scale the security fences separating Morocco from the Spanish-ruled enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla featured the following headline: "'Black locusts' are taking over Morocco!"40 Moroccan authorities banned al-Shamal for using racist language, but terms like "massive invasion" and "plague" to describe the migrants' attempts to escape from Africa into the territory of the European Union continued being used. The polluting, degenerative, contaminating figure of the migrant operates centrifugally in terms of symbolizing the extent to which the conceptions of a nation's purity are bound in the discursive construction of national communities.
In an effort to secure the porous borders of Fortress Europe during the "Age of Terror" (or the specter thereof), the European Commission issued the Hague Programme, a five-year plan designed to "protect the field of freedom, justice, and security"41, driven by an agenda to counter terrorists and "illegal" immigrants. Undocumented migration has been on the rise since 1995 when several European Union nations enacted the Schengen Accords to soften internal EU borders and fortify external ones. The razor-wire fence separating Morocco from Spanish enclaves—from which Khady falls to her death—is the result of European plans to "deport" migration controls to African territory on the Mediterranean.42The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Europe's only land border with Africa, have been transformed into what have been described as "aggressively defended fortress cities, enclosed by security fences that are patrolled by the Moroccan army and Spain's Guardia Civil" and reinforced with "infrared cameras […] as well as tear gas canisters, noise and movement sensors and control towers"43. Etienne Balibar has described the African-European border as "a normalized state of exception"44, in which
[…] the violent police operations continuously performed by some European states (with the help of neighboring non-European subject states, such as Libya or Morocco) on behalf of the whole [European] community, including the establishment of camps, amount to a kind of permanent border war against migrants.
The notion of the pure body of the European Union under threat of "invasion" and deadly degeneration by the specter of migration is a significant and abundant metaphor, which is used to envision and shape the political border. The bodily discourse that shapes anti-immigration stances constructs the figurative "national body" or "regional body" as an organism that must be protected from contamination or infection by contagion that the migrant body represents. Julia Kristeva's theory of "abjection" addresses the boundary between the inside and outside of the body and the anxieties produced by transgressions of that boundary. "Abjection" defines simultaneously the fear, loathing, and fascination experienced when the bodily is expelled or rejected. She draws a similar metaphoric relation between the body and cultural formation.
The space of the border and the figure of the border crosser are reflective of a collective border anxiety: this border anxiety is over the collapse of the border between subject and object, between the living and the corpse, between seeing the migrant as human or subhuman/superhuman. It is the ambiguity of the border zone that elicits anxiety, as Kristeva explains: "It is thus not lack of health or cleanliness that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules."45 According to Elizabeth Grosz, the abject demonstrates "the impossibility of clear-cut borders, lines of demarcation, divisions between the clean and the un-clean, the proper and improper, order and disorder"46.
Thus the abject is not literally
lack of health or uncleanliness but the implications of the
abject, as drawn by Kristeva—disruption of order, the
indistinguishability of inside from the outside, the instability
of the border itself. In Trois Femmes Puissantes the
abject is literalized via Khady's body—her flesh, tears and
bleeds, compelling a "seepage of a foul, reddish
liquid"47, her gums bleed onto
the bread she eats, her inflamed vagina is suspected of
contamination and infection. Her body is sacrificed to the
literal—it leaks wastes and fluids in violation of the "clean and
proper body", in a quite extraordinary series of illnesses.
Cultural fears of both a physiological and cultural contamination
of the clean and social body are mapped onto Khady's body.
Why use Khady's body to literalize the metaphor of national contamination and the implications of abjection? NDiaye calls attention to the boundary breakdown between the figurative and the literal, the metaphor and its literalization, between the rhetorical and the material/physiological, between the making of the border as pure and contaminable in anti-migrant rhetoric and the making of Khady's diseased body in Trois Femmes Puissantes. Here, the boundaries between rhetoric and substantiation dissolve. In doing so, NDiaye suggests that the figure of contamination has become literalized in the public sphere already—migrants are thought of as physically contaminated, diseased, and contagious. Border politics' naturalization of the trope is already in place to mark their unbelonging.
Khady's body has already been used as an allegory for a gendered, racialized, and nationalized body politic. NDiaye's literalization, Khady's disintegrating body, highlights the links between the rhetorical figure and the body. She is both the abject that lacks health and the abject that disturbs order (of the border). Perhaps this evokes Nietzsche's notion of the slippage between figurative and literal language, the dismissal of a direct "correspondence" between reference and referent, the unreliability of language to adequately account for that which lies outside language.48 But, because "metaphorization of the literal, by drawing attention to the literal […] to words themselves, signals a distance between word and world"49, literalization compels the opposite: figurative distance here is closed and indeterminacy is checked, as the gruesome details of Khady's sickness gradually become more focalized throughout the novel.
NDiaye's literalization of the figurative highlights the connection between the making of the border as pure and contaminable in anti-migrant rhetoric (border politics) and the making of Khady's diseased body (degeneration and disappearance). That is, this correspondence closes the wide gap between the theoretical instrumentalization of the border—"border talk"—and the real geopolitical implications mapped on the bodies of migrating women like Khady. Certainly, borders are signifiers with much potential for border metaphors to reimagine identity and representation but a lone emphasis on the "textual character of space" that explores the representational aspects of social space often eclipses the "brute force underlying social structures" in materialist analyses of a global border regime.50
But, Trois Femmes Puissantes is in no way a text reflecting the cleavages between the ideational and material preoccupations of social space and borders. In fact, NDiaye is portraying "a world in which language and experience are indivisible"51. The literalization of the figurative involves NDiaye's subversive literalization of an othering metaphor—of disease and contamination by those who harbor anti-migrant stances—upon the target—the poor and vicitimized figure of Khady. NDiaye wrestles the vehicle from the tenor by suggesting that a central aspect of the figurative—that which determines contagion, the border—has consequences: it has made Khady a metaphor come to life. NDiaye has appropriated the metaphor and explored the way it leaves an imprint of literalization on those it captures in its sites—interminable illness, potential contagion, death. Indeed, a feature of allegory is the literalization of metaphor. And, one can certainly say that Khady is an allegorical figure of the "plague" and "pollution" threatening Europe's purity, in racist anti-migrant rhetorics and imaginaries. Through the character of Khady, NDiaye makes literal what in the pretext is metaphorical. But beyond the figure of Khady, the possibility of an allegorical reading wherein correspondence is achieved throughout the entire narrative falls apart.
The structure of the plot reinforces the connection between language effects and experience as the exponential breakdown of Khady's body the further she ventures forth on her journey is determined by the order of the borders she crosses. The border puts in motion processes of illness, contamination, and death. Her sickness is not completely arbitrary and natural, but rather a product of crossing the border, a man-made site of violence. Although the narrative does not make explicit that she crossed the border into Morocco, it is clear that after she leaves the desert border town, she begins living in a "makeshift tent" in a forest bordering the Mediterranean, but sicker than ever (presumably the Gourgou forest in Nador close to the border of the Spanish enclave of Melilla, where several sub-Saharan migrants have been known to be living, for as long as a period of several years, awaiting the right moment to climb the fence and into European territory). If her previous encounters with the border zones had resulted in the bleeding of her flesh, a bleeding of her possessions had apparently gone into effect while she was sick and unconscious in the forest. When she wakes up from her feverish state, she realized she has been divested of all her possessions and IDs: "Khady'd noticed she had nothing anymore: no bundle, passport, or money."52 Crossing borders, her humanity is gradually stripped: her ID cards and documents disappear, her money is gone, her "bundle" is no longer, her immune system is degenerated, her body wastes away as her skeletal figure indicates.
Khady's continuous assertions of her own "unshakable humanity"53 on the journey fortify her already indomitable sense of self—"that she was indivisible and precious and could only ever be herself"54, "that she, Khady Demba, was strictly irreplaceable"55. But also, on the journey these assertions float to the surface of her consciousness in response to her interminable objectification as a trafficked and prostituted woman—"human cargo", "human traffic", "human capital"—all that which is paradoxically both human and simultaneously fungible, commodified, consumable, inhuman. At the start of her journey as she is being shuttled from place to place, she relaxes because: "She was herself, she was calm, she was alive."56 Through a veil of misery, she thinks that "she would never forget the value of the human being she was"57. After she is prostituted for years, she tries to make her way North once again and in the back of another truck across the Sahara, she catches sight of herself in the rearview mirror: "[…] a gaunt, gray face with matted, reddish hair, a face with pinched lips and dry skin that happened, now, to be her own and of which, she thought, one couldn't be sure it was a woman's face, any more than it could be said that her skeletal body was a woman's". At that point, she counters her image with the unassailable sense of self that emerges from her consciousness: "[…] yet she was still Khady Demba, unique and indispensable to the orderly functioning of things in the world."58
Wounded and ill, Khady keeps venturing forth on her dangerous journey wherein she asserts her humanity to herself repeatedly. She is physically being broken down piece by piece at each border and her response to this dehumanization—continuous assertions of her humanity—only serves to highlight the space of the border as a deliberate site of degeneration and disappearance. NDiaye commits to the rendering real of what is usually conceived of as a figure of speech—immigrant as "plague", "vermin", "disease"59—and, thus language is endowed with a distinctly material presence in the figure of Khady, thereby exemplifying the power of words to effect a social reality. In doing so, she carries the logic of the power of rhetoric to its final conclusion: If she literalizes the metaphor of the migrant by mapping it on the body of Khady, riddling her with one illness after another, gesturing toward the power of government and popular rhetoric to make one diseased, abject, and unassimilable, then she also recognizes the power of government and popular rhetoric to create the border zones that leave their imprints on her body. The boat on the beach, the checkpoints, the border towns, the forest atop the Mediterranean beside the Moroccan/European border effect a literalization/realization of the metaphors that its governments assign into an assemblage of irredeemable waste: "seepage of […] foul reddish liquid[s]"60, "gaping wound[s]", "encrusted […] blood"61—that to which Khady is reduced despite her assertions of unassailability, unshakability, indispensability, preciousness, uniqueness, humanity.
It is not as if metaphor alone makes reification possible, but what has been made effable in its objectification in metaphor was now potentially real due to metaphor. The danger in metaphor lies in the "puncturing of its figurative life"62, investing in present and future metaphors their potential for realization. In a discussion on the impact Nazi-Germany rhetoric has had on subsequent political rhetoric, James Edward Young explores the slippage of metaphor into reality:
After the Holocaust, we might ask whether by making something imaginable through metaphor, we have also made it possible in the world. That is, to what extent does "imaginative precedent"—the kind we effect in metaphor"—prepare the human sensibility for its worldly reification? […] one might ask to what extent […] the repeated figurative abuses of the Jews in Nazi Germany prepared both killers and victims for the Jews' literal destruction.63
Although I do not make any claims on periodizing this slippage between rhetoric and reality, I do make a claim on the interconnectedness of the figurative and literal in shaping migration ("the plague at the border") upon which NDiaye capitalizes to convey the novel's various borders shaping the physically degenerated, polluted figure of Khady as she migrates across.
The final scene of the novel, with which I began the paper, is a denouement of the border zone throughout the novel: Khady's drop from atop the border fence down to her death is simply the last step in the processes of degeneration, dissipation, and disappearance that the border put in motion. It also provokes another assertion of her humanity and unassailable sense of self: atop the barbed-wire fence tearing her fence, she is climbing and then
[…] letting go, falling slowly backward, and thinking then that the person of Khady Demba—less than a breath, scarcely a puff of air—was surely never to touch the ground, but would float eternal, priceless, too evanescent ever to be smashed in the cold, blinding glare of the floodlights.64
Her death and re-birth into a bird she spots in the sky are real (not identitarian or ideational or symbolic), as suggested by the "Counterpoint" where her traveling partner claims he feels her gaze through the bird hovering above him in France (where he was able to successfully migrate). In this case, the device of shape-shifting deviates from the realism of the novel—where previously shape-shifting was metaphorical, it has been literalized in Khady's demise. But even up to this last bizarre moment of the text wherein shape-shifting and reincarnation take place, our attention is drawn to the power of literalization and language—as it is being called into question by a bizarre reality constituted by literalized metaphors and, yet simultaneously, as it points to its own textual performance of how reality is put into motion by language.
While NDiaye constructs a variety of border transgressions in the text relating to ethnic and national identity—as well as personal and individual—through representations of characters crossing a border between life and death into an ultimate re-birth, she gradually hones in on the microtopography of the border and border towns she represents Khady crossing. In doing so, she detaches from the metaphor and the figurative perspective of the border to embrace the literal dimensions and scope of such a voyage. At the same time as she focalizes the material realities of this specific border, she apprehends the way metaphors have a way of shaping the material reality of the border. She suggests the two are inextricable as represented through the breakdown of Khady's body—the product of unrelentingly violent machinations of the border, established and shaped by government rhetoric and popular anti-migrant sentiment that are also often figurative in scope. NDiaye's insistence on making metaphors and figures of speech literal is an act of transgression that highlights the rules governing literal and figurative language use. The literalization of figurative language draws attention to the categories and conventions within which the world is perceived and represented and to the way these conventions shape social reality. The repetition of symbols in the popular imagination have accumulated to represent the migrant identity as a source of contamination from which Europe needs protection and containment.
Ahmed, Aijaz, "Rushdie's Shame: Postmodernism, Migrancy, and Representations of Women", in Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 24, 1991, 1461–1471.
Al-Shamal, September 12, 2005.
Atta, Sefi, "Twilight Trek", in News From Home, Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing, 2010.
Balibar, Etienne, "At the Borders of Citizenship: A Democracy in Translation?", in European Journal of Social Theory 13, no. 3, August 2010.
Bensaâd, Ali, "The Militarization of Migration Frontiers in the Mediterranean", in The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life Across North Africa, edited by Ursula Biemann and Brian Holmes, Barcelona: Actar, 2006.
Cisneros, J. David, "Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of 'Immigrant as Pollutant' in Media Representations of Immigration", in Rhetoric & Public Affairs 11, no. 4, 2008, 569–601.
Elgot, Jessica, and Taylor, Matthew, "Calais Crisis: Cameron Condemned for 'Dehumanising' Description of Migrants", in The Guardian, July 30, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jul/30/david-cameron-migrant-swarm-language-condemned, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
European Council, The Hague Programme: Strengthening Freedom, Security, and Justice in the European Union, 2005/C53/01, OJ C53/1, March 3, 2005(a).
Gaensbauer, Deborah, "Migrations and Metamorphosis in Marie NDiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes", in Studies in 20thand 21st Century Literature 38, no. 1, 2014, Article 5.
Grosz, Elizabeth, "The Body of Signification", in Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, edited by John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin, New York: Routledge, 1990.
Hopkins, Katie, "Rescue Boats? I'd Use Gunships to Stop Migrants", in The Sun, April 17, 2015, http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/suncolumnists/katiehopkins/6414865/Katie-Hopkins-I-would-use-gunships-to-stop-migrants.html, [accessed: June 20, 2016].
Kortenaar, Neil ten, Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children", Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, 2005.
Kristeva, Julia, Pouvoirs de l'horreur, 1980. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Kumar, Amitava, Passport Photos, Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 2000.
Ministerio de la Presidencia, Situation of Foreigners in Spain – Basic Guidelines of Spanish Foreigners' Policy, Communication to the Congress of Deputies, Madrid, 1990.
Mitchell, Peta, Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity: The Figure of the Map in Contemporary Theory and Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2012.
NDiaye, Marie, Trois femmes puissantes, Paris: Gallimard, 2009. Three Strong Women, translated by John Fletcher, New York: Knopf, 2012.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", 1873, in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870s, edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979, 77–97.
Parent, Anne Martine, "À leur corps défendant: défaillances et excrétions dans Trois femmes puissantes de Marie NDiaye", in L'Esprit Createur 53, no. 2, 2013, 76–89.
Petmesidou, Maria, and Papatheodorou, Christos, Poverty and Social Deprivation in the Mediterranean: Trends, Policies and Welfare Prospects in the New Millennium, London: Zed Books, 2016.
Rushdie, Salman, "On Günter Grass", in Granta 15, March 1985, http://granta.com/on-gunter-grass/, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
Sehgal, Perul, "New Ways of Being", in New York Times, March 10, 2016, http://nyti.ms/1LTvRxp, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
Shariatmadari, David, "Swarms, Floods, and Marauders: The Toxic Metaphors of the Migration Debate", in The Guardian, August 10, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/migration-debate-metaphors-swarms-floods-marauders-migrants, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
Sharma, Shailja, "Salman Rushdie: The Ambivalence of Migrancy", in Twentieth Century Literature 47, no. 4, Winter 2001, https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-91653352/salman-rushdie-the-ambivalence-of-migrancy, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
Toivanen, Anna-Leena, "Not at Home in the World: Abject Mobilities in Marie NDiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names", in Postcolonial Text 10, no. 1, 2015, http://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewArticle/1916, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
Woodward, Keith, and John Paul Jones III, "On the Border with Deleuze and Guattari", in B/ordering Space, edited by Henk van Houtum, Olivier Kramsch, and Wolfgang Zierhofer, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005, 235–248.
Young, James Edward, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
1 The novel was translated to Three Strong Women by John Fletcher in 2012. The text I quote is from the translation, with the exception of one section he omits translating.
2 See Anna-Leena Toivanen, "Not at Home in the World: Abject Mobilities in Marie NDiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names", Postcolonial Text 10, no. 1, 2015; Deborah Gaensbauer, "Migrations and Metamorphosis in Marie NDiaye's Trois Femmes Puissantes", Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature 38, no. 1, 2014; Anne Martine Parent, "À leur corps défendant: défaillances et excrétions dans Trois femmes puissantes de Marie NDiaye", L'Esprit Createur 53, no. 2, 2013, 76–89.
3 Marie NDiaye, Trois femmes puissantes, Paris: Gallimard, 2009; Three Strong Women, translated by John Fletcher, New York: Knopf, 2012, 716.
4 Ibid., 744.
5 Ibid., 840.
6 Ibid., 10.
7 Ibid., 30.
8 Ibid., 30.
9 Ibid., 13.
10 Ibid., 80.
11 Ibid., 30–31.
12 Gaensbauer, "Migrations and Metamorphosis", 2014.
13 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 587.
14 Gaensbauer, "Migrations and Metamorphosis", 2014, 10.
15 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 632.
16 Ibid., 644.
17 Ibid., 840.
18 Ibid., 757.
19 The translator, Fletcher, did not include this significant paragraph, the last before the "Counterpoint", in his translation.
20 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 759.
21 One example (cited in Keith Woodward and John Paul Jones III, "On the Border with Deleuze and Guattari", in B/ordering Space, edited by Henk van Houtum, Oliver Kramsch and Wolfgang Zierhofer, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005, 234–248) is John Welchman, who states: "No longer a mere threshold or instrument of demarcation, the border is a crucial zone through which contemporary (political, social, cultural) formations negotiate with received knowledge and reconstitute the 'horizon' of discursive identity" (John C. Welchman, "The Philosophical Brothel", in Rethinking Borders, edited by John C. Welchman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 177–178).
22 Woodward and Jones III, "On the Border with Deleuze and Guattari", 2005, 237.
23 Many theorists like David Harvey are critical of the use of theoretical, abstract, metaphoric, and discursive aspects of the social and spatial to the detrimental neglect of the material effects of borders.
24 Salman Rushdie, "On Günter Grass", Granta 15, March 1985, http://granta.com/on-gunter-grass/, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
25 Parul Sehgal, "New Ways of Being", New York Times, March 10, 2016, http://nyti.ms/1LTvRxp, [accessed: October 6, 2016].
26 In response to Rushdie's claim that migrancy is characteristic of humankind, Amitava Kumar states: "[…] [the trope of migrancy] emerges as an obsession in the pages of a writer like Rushdie. For him, in fact, 'the very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek words for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images'. Rather than oppose the metaphorical to the literal, it is the idea of the metaphorical itself that Rushdie renders literal and equates with a universal condition […]." Kumar adds: "There is a danger here in migrancy becoming everything and nothing." Kumar suggests that this obsessive celebration of migrancy is a result of the shame of having to represent the Other to the west without having much to represent, a shame of not living up to the tokenism foisted on the non-western writer. Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos, Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 2000, 13. See Aijaz Ahmed, "Rushdie's Shame: Postmodernism, Migrancy, and Representations of Women", Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 24, 1991, 1461–1471. Also, see Shailja Sharma, "Salman Rushdie: The Ambivalence of Migrancy", Twentieth Century Literature 47, no. 4, Winter 2001, https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-91653352/salman-rushdie-the-ambivalence-of-migrancy [accessed: October 6, 2016].
27 In Sehgal's "New Ways of Being", she writes about Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart and Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways "[…] recount[ing] the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England— from the costs of the journey (much dignity, one kidney) to the caste politics at either end to the first beating, the first sight of snow." In addition, undocumented migrant narratives, like Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Sefi Atta's "Twilight Trek", and Tahir Ben Jelloun's Partir, cast a more skeptical eye toward migration and throw more of a focus on the politicized nature of borders.
28 See J. David Cisneros, "Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of 'Immigrant as Pollutant' in Media Representations of Immigration", Rhetoric & Public Affairs 11, no. 4, 2008, 569–601; David Shariatmadari, "Swarms, Floods, and Marauders: The Toxic Metaphors of the Migration Debate", The Guardian, August 10, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/10/migration-debate-metaphors-swarms-floods-marauders-migrants [accessed: October 6, 2016].
29 Sefi Atta, "Twilight Trek", in News From Home, Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing, 2010.
30 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 682.
31 Ibid., 727.
32 Ibid., 726.
33 Ibid., 730.
34 Ibid., 730.
35 Ibid., 728.
36 Katie Hopkins, "Rescue Boats? I'd Use Gunships to Stop Migrants", The Sun, April 17, 2015, http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/suncolumnists/katiehopkins/6414865/Katie-Hopkins-I-would-use-gunships-to-stop-migrants.html [accessed: June 20, 2016].
37 Jessica Elgot and Matthew Taylor, "Calais Crisis: Cameron Condemned for 'Dehumanising' Description of Migrants", The Guardian, July 30, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jul/30/david-cameron-migrant-swarm-language-condemned [accessed: October 6, 2016].
38 Maria Petmesidou and Christos Papatheodorou, Poverty and Social Deprivation in the Mediterranean: Trends, Policies and Welfare Prospects in the New Millennium, London: Zed Books, 2016.
39 Ministerio de la Presidencia, Situation of Foreigners in Spain – Basic Guidelines of Spanish Foreigners' Policy, Communication to the Congress of Deputies, Madrid, 1990. Cited in Petmesidou and Papatheodorou, Poverty and Social Deprivation, 2016.
40 Al-Shamal, September 12, 2005.
41 See European Council, The Hague Programme: Strengthening Freedom, Security, and Justice in the European Union, 2005/C53/01, OJ C53/1, March 2, 2005(a).
42 Ali Bensaâd, "The Militarization of Migration Frontiers in the Mediterranean", in The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life Across North Africa, edited by Ursula Biemann and Brian Holmes, Barcelona: Actar, 2006.
43 "World's Barriers: Ceuta and Melilla", BBC News, November 5, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8342923.stm [accessed: October 6, 2016].
44 Etienne Balibar, "At the Borders of Citizenship: A Democracy in Translation?", in European Journal of Social Theory 13, no. 3, August 2010, 315.
45 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, 4.
46 Elizabeth Grosz, "The Body of Signification", in Abjection, Melancholia, and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva, edited by John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin, New York: Routledge, 1990, 89.
47 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 801.
48 Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" (1873), in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870s, edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979, 77–97.
49 Neil ten Kortenaar, Self, Nation, Text in Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children", Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press, 2005, 59.
50 Woodward and Jones III, "On the Border with Deleuze and Guattari", 2005, 235.
51 Peta Mitchell, Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity: The Figure of the Map in Contemporary Theory and Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2012, 163.
52 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 836–837.
53 Ibid., 840.
54 Ibid., 678.
55 Ibid., 676.
56 Ibid., 712.
57 Ibid., 794.
58 Ibid., 829.
59 Please see footnotes 26, 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40 to locate sources referring to language that dehumanizes migrants, particularly African migrants to Europe and more specifically undocumented migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
60 Ibid., 802.
61 Ibid., 761.
62 James Edward Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990, 93.
63 Ibid., 93.
64 NDiaye, Three Strong Women, 2012, 846.
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