Parisian Letters: Book Review

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Book Cover Lettres Parisiennes
Lettres Parisiennes: Book Cover

Parisian Letters (Lettres parisiennes – Autopsie de l’exil) is a confession of two women who decide to tell their stories of life in exile and the extraordinary feelings that such a life can sometimes bring. In 1983, Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist, joined forces with her Algerian counterpart, Leïla Sebbar, and the result of this cooperation was a collection of letters in which the two writers exchanged their opinions on the country that became their new home, France. The themes of the letters range from childhood, love, and everyday life to books and languages but the central point remains the same: the analysis of life in exile or more precisely an autopsy of exile. The book offers unique insights into the soul of an expatriate dealing with difficult situations but at the same time it explores the unique challenges of living and writing in an adopted country.

Life in a foreign country is often connected to the question of one’s identity, which all too frequently collides with the influence of a new culture. In Parisian Letters, concrete examples of this influence are provided and described through the eyes of the two writers. What is interesting is the diversity when it comes to their native countries. Having been born in Algeria, a country occupied by the French for such a long time, Leila Sebbar’s childhood was different from what Nancy Houston experienced as a child. The latter was constantly travelling around the world and visiting countries, each of which would later contribute to forming her own identity. That’s why Houston’s understanding of exile differs in many regards from that of her counterpart’s. While Sebbar’s life can be divided into two periods, before and after Algeria, Nancy Houston’s situation is much more complicated, having experienced several successive exiles in various countries. She is aware of the ambiguous nature of this situation: on the one hand living in different cultural environments has enriched her personality a great deal, but on the other hand she sometimes feels that the constant changes in her life have made her “transparent” or even “insecure.” She provides an example of a situation when meeting a couple living together in the same village for fifty years would make her cry.

For many people, living in exile is automatically associated with loneliness or sadness. However, the reason Nancy Houston decided to leave her native country was the exact opposite: she did so to forget the bitter childhood experience that brought sadness into her life. As she puts it, “I decided to live in exile because I was sad and I was sad because my mother abandoned me when I was six.” Her mother’s decision had a considerable influence on the author’s life and it started a process in which Houston herself abandoned her loved ones in different periods of her life. The process of leaving others culminated when she decided to abandon her native country as well as the language she spoke. As the author suggests, it may have been a certain symbolic revenge against her mother, who began the whole process.

Apart from identity and exile, the book deals with the question of bilingualism. A very interesting moment described in one of the letters occurs when Houston tries to talk to her daughter in English but is incapable of doing so as a result of the whole gamut of emotions she feels at the moment. The image of her own mother suddenly infiltrates her mind and she finally gives up, saying, “Les livres, les enfants, je ne peux les faire que dans une langue non maternelle" (Children and books, I can only make them in a non-native language). What also concerns her a great deal is the omnipresence of American culture while travelling around the world. She describes the shame she feels when going on holiday to Greece, where English words can be found everywhere. Even the author’s pretended incomprehension is not enough to fool the passers-by into believing that she doesn’t belong to the dominant culture. “Les hommes que je croise dans la rue me susurrent en anglais leurs compliments ou leurs injures et savent parfaitement que je les understand” (People I meet in the streets murmur their compliments or insults knowing very well that I understand them all). As she says, the fact that all of them speak English while she doesn’t know a word in their native languages gives those people a big advantage over her. Moreover, the majority of them know a lot about North America, which can hardly be said about Houston’s knowledge of Greece, its history and culture described by the author herself as sheer ignorance. “Car à la supériorité de ma culture, c’est-à-dire la culture américaine-blanche-triomphante-et-riche, s’ajoute l’infériorité de mon savoir” (Because the superiority of my culture, American-white-triumphal-and-rich, is automatically connected to the inferiority of my knowledge).

The book is written as a conversation, allowing the authors to exchange their views that are not always identical and to explain their own positions on a particular issue. Thus it doesn’t simply present facts but it’s more of a friendly talk where questions are raised and consequently analyzed and answered. Given that the exchange of letters spanned more than a year, the range of topics is very wide and still more and more new issues arise as life goes on. However, it’s not only the topics that change but also the places from which the letters are written. The reader is taken on a journey from Paris to Cargèse, a village on the west coast of the island of Corsica, or to a region called Berry located in the centre of France. Each of these places has a different impact on the writing experience of the two women and thus adds to the multifaceted nature of the whole book.

Parisian Letters is a book that captures the reader’s attention from the very first page. It speaks not only to those who decided to leave their native countries forever but to all of us who have already experienced “exile” and separation from our home even for a shorter period of time. Everyone can identify with at least one of the many facets of living in exile as presented by the authors of this great book.

Parisian Letters

  • by Nancy Huston & Leila Sebbar
  • 221 pages, paperback
  • List price: $10.95
  • Available in French at Amazon (online price at $8.08)
  • ISBN-10: 2290053945
    ISBN-13: 978-2290053942

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