Backstory: Assia Djebar, the unlikeliest French 'immortal'

Heads turned when Assia Djebar – a prominent voice of Arab women – joined the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo in the elite Académie Française.

First comes the coffee, poured dark and strong into tiny cups. Algerian flat bread, slightly sweet yet slightly tangy and still warm from the bakery around the corner, is presented on plates.

Only then is Assia Djebar ready to speak.

But hold on tight. Start a conversation with this 70-year-old novelist and historian, the newest elected "Immortal" in the prestigious Académie Française, and get ready for a literary roller-coaster ride. A reflection on contemporary French language suddenly soars back 1,500 years to the theologian, Augustine, who was born near Ms. Djebar's Algerian hometown and shared her hatred of religious violence. She fast-forwards to her 1974 film about Berber women, takes a loop-the-loop to dwell briefly on the structure of the 18th-century British novel, and comes to rest on the politics of language in France's former colonies.

"Have I answered your question?" she asks with a hint of concern and another cup of coffee.

Djebar, a brunette with a velvety complexion that belies her age, is one of the best-known and most prolific writers on the condition of women in the Arab world. She writes in French, the language she learned as a schoolgirl when Algeria was a French colonial possession. It is "the language of the occupier," she said in one of her essays, but also her "second skin" and "the house that I inhabit."

While she spends much of her time traveling, her home in Paris is a book-crammed flat overlooking the sprawling greenery of the Père Lachaise cemetery. The walls are hung with a few simple paintings of traditionally dressed Arab women. A photograph of two grandchildren dominates the ledge under a mirror.

Perched on a cushioned sofa, the coffee pot before her on an engraved brass tray, Djebar speaks her mind firmly and in flowing French, betraying not the slightest self-doubt. She is, she says, a "migrant" who can be comfortable in countless places in the world.

Her stories, on the other hand, are most often told in the dreamy impatient voices of women suspended between their mothers' tradition-bound Muslim culture and the tantalizing freedoms of the west. They fight to be heard above the thunder of male tyranny and the Islamic fundamentalism that seek to keep them silent and invisible.

The backdrop of much of her work is Algeria's modern history, a topic painful to many in France who once administered the country, settled there, and fought there to keep it part of France. Djebar, who holds dual nationality, writes from her own Algerian perspective about Algeria's war of independence in the 1950s, its bitter break from France in 1962, and the wave of assassinations by Islamic extremists in the 1990s.

She has been uncompromising in her portrayal of those many bloody years. And that's why she turned more than a few heads when, in June, she took her seat as one of the 40 members of the elite Académie Française. Djebar is the first North African and only the fifth woman ever elected to the Académie, the august body created by royal decree in 1635 to preserve the purity of the French language.

It's France's most exclusive club, a pantheon of literary heavyweights who select new members by secret ballot after heated, sometimes brazen, lobbying from publishers and intellectuals. To take a measure of its significance in French society, think of an American club that admits only Nobel Prize winners. Visualize pomp: On ceremonial occasions, each member dons a special jacket embroidered with green olive branches, a sword, a red tie, and a boatlike feathered hat.

Académie members serve for life, and the French, without the slightest hint of embarrassment, call them the "Immortals." Among those admitted over the centuries were Louis Pasteur, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean Cocteau, and Voltaire. The now-iconic French writer Victor Hugo tried three times to join before he was finally admitted.

Djebar acknowledges the weight of all that history. But, she says, "it's for others to say what the symbolism is, not me."

Many describe it as a breakthrough. Here, after all, was a fierce proponent of Algerian independence who once wrote that the French language had advanced in the world "on roads of blood, carnage and rape."

Addressing the Immortals, she spoke of France's colonial record in terms of "crushed human lives [and] uncountable private and public sacrifices." As her fellow Académie member, Pierre-Jean Rémy, noted in his welcome speech, Djebar's election makes some French people uncomfortable. "Even here, within these walls," he said, "I know that it can be difficult to evoke the destiny of an Algerian woman whose brothers died from French bullets or worse, while we too have our brothers ... who died from Algerian bullets or worse."

Since 2001, Djebar has taught French literature at New York University, returning to Paris for the summer to visit family and to write.

Her Paris dining-room table is piled with books and papers for her upcoming classes, lectures scheduled in European cities, and research for a book about her father that has her excavating French military records from Indochina.

Like her conversation, her interests range far and wide.

"I have books to write," she says. "I'm always running after time."

She is a wanderer at heart. She says she falls in love easily with cities where she can walk and be stimulated by the architecture. She accepted a teaching position years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, because the sunlight reminded her of the luminous light of Algiers.

Barcelona tops her current list of places she could retire to someday, if she considers retiring at all. But she smiles when her mind turns to Italy. "I don't speak the language," she says, "but I adore listening to it." And then there's New York, where she walks Greenwich Village and the Brooklyn Bridge, writing in her head. Perhaps, she wonders, San Francisco is the place to finally settle down. She remembers the two books she has in progress and puts those thoughts aside.

In her writing, she insists that language is memory and everyone should be free to choose their own. She paid the price for that freedom. She had hoped to study classical Arabic in colonial Algeria, but it was banned by French authorities. Then in 1963, after independence, she rejected a professorship in Algiers because she was forbidden to teach in French.

Now she has a seat in the temple of French language – and she admits she feels at home.

Each Thursday afternoon, members of the Académie meet to take up the task that has occupied them for three centuries. They write and edit the definitive dictionary of French words. They're working on the ninth edition and were on the letter "R" when Djebar attended her first session.

The word under discussion was repère. "It's a sign, for example in a field, that allows one to see the limit of things, to mark out a space or a border," she says.

She considered making a little joke during the discussion. "While we were talking about it, I should have said, 'see, now that I'm elected into the Académie – me, a French-speaking Algerian woman – maybe that's a repère for you but not for me.' "

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