Interview by Adeli Block
Adeli Block: Your monograph Queer Maghrebi French (2017) frequently references your first book, Queer French (2007). In what ways do you see your second book as an extension of your first book?
Denis Provencher: I definitely see them as companion volumes, where Queer French (QF) informs Queer Maghrebi French (QMF). As I point out in the introduction to QMF, the map of “self-erasure in the Marais” drawn by Samir, which I analyze in the conclusion to QF, points me on a path to discover and analyze many untold and invisible stories of queer Maghrebi and queer Maghrebi French men. Moreover, in QF, I question the largely Judeo-Christian narrative in Anglo-American contexts of death and resurrection that undergirds the process widely known as “coming out of out the closet.” I argue in QF, that French speakers rely more heavily on the post-World-War-II existential narrative of being authentic (living in good faith) and inauthentic (living in bad faith) and the French verb “s’assumer” (assuming one’s role in society) than the French expression “sortir du placard” (come out of the closet). The queer French Maghrebi speakers in my second book build on this existentialist narrative, along with some transnational reliance on the coming-out narrative, to tell their own authentic stories that include but are not limited to images of “coming out of the harem,” “coming out of haram,” and “dropping the veil.” These are examples of flexible accumulation of language, which I address a bit more below.
Adeli Block: This book transcends nation-state borders (Algeria, France, Morocco, Tunisia), ethnic and geographical categories (Arab, Amazigh, French, North African, Middle Eastern), identity categories (gender, sexuality, race, class) and disciplines (anthropology, linguistics, queer studies, French and francophone studies, literary studies). You also integrate a mixed methods approach (or a queer methodology) of semiotics, visual/film analysis, conversation analysis, and critical discourse analysis. How were you able to achieve a project so multi-faceted and what were the challenges and rewards?
Denis Provencher: My ability to develop this approach comes from a number of factors: 1) my doctoral training in an interdisciplinary French and Francophone cultural studies program at Penn State University; 2) my many years of work with scholars in queer linguistics and the Lavender Language and Linguistic Conference; 3) my experience of having worked at several different types of universities with different student populations. This includes having directed an interdisciplinary master’s program in Intercultural Communication and teaching intercultural pragmatics and critical discourse analysis in a Modern Language Department; 4) I’ve always just been generally interested in reading broadly across fields and this has served me well as a teacher, author, and as the editor of an interdisciplinary journal in French and Francophone cultural studies like Contemporary French Civilization. Indeed, it is sometimes a challenge to find a publisher who can even recognize what you’re trying to do in a wide-reaching interdisciplinary project and who can even envisage the audiences you’re trying to reach. That was the case for both Queer French (QF) and Queer Maghrebi French (QMF) and it took some time to find the right home for each. In the end, I had the good fortune with QMF of being published in the Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures series at Liverpool University Press, which, as you can tell from their interdisciplinary list, was the perfect home for this project. The book went on to win honorable mention for the Ruth Benedict Book Award in queer anthropology, and has been reviewed in a variety of journals in different fields, so I am very pleased with how it seems to have drawn a very wide audience.
Adeli Block: You organize the book thematically around language, temporalities, and transfiliations through the narratives of both artistic and creative (and relatively well-known) queer Maghrebi French speakers and “everyday” queer Maghrebi French speakers. Why did you decide to organize the book in this way?
Denis Provencher: Here again, knowing your publisher and what an editor is looking for is very important. From the outset, I spoke with the book series editor at Liverpool and pitched two different versions of the same book, and they were drawn more to a book where each chapter based on a different artist, filmmaker, writer or everyday speaker. That way, each chapter was a “stand-alone piece,” which could then be taught in a graduate or undergraduate course. From the outset then, I knew how I generally wanted to structure the book. At the same time, it has always been important to me in both of my books to conceptualize cultural production broadly – by incorporating canonical and non-canonical or non-dominant voices. Those non-dominant voices and struggling or burgeoning identities often help us to shape new social narratives and to reach for social justice for new groups. When I turned to do the fieldwork, it was important for me to not enter with assumptions about what stories would emerge about “the closet” for example and this then helped me to listen carefully and to hopefully reflect back the voices of the interviewees as authentically as possible without my own analytical lens. Ultimately, the themes of language, temporalities, and transfiliations allowed me to help theorize those voices while also allowing each artist, creative, and “everyday” speakers to come through. It’s certainly a delicate balancing act.
Adeli Block: Throughout the book, you analyze the ways in which your interlocutors are exhibiting a “flexible accumulation of language.” Can you describe this phenomenon and what are some of its features and signifiers?
Denis Provencher: Flexible accumulation of language is one of the three main threads of this book and I try to show how it intersects with temporalities (time/space) and transfiliations (transgressive and transnational forms of kindship). Basically, anyone who moves across different frames of time and space, including transnational migration and speakers in diasporic settings, has the potential to accumulate a broad range of local and global references. These are not only specific to their own place of origin but to all the other spaces where they have lived and traveled over time. For example, when a queer Moroccan male subject like Abdellah Taïa states in French (and not in Arabic): “I am the son of Marilyn Monroe and Jean Genet”: it means, among other things, that he was educated in Francophone university, but his cultural references and linguistic capital draw from among other elements, France, a queer literary tradition, and a global network of cinematic stars. Another example is when a French queer speaker like Ludovoic-Mohamed Zahed states: “I’ve come out of the harem and out of haram, his speak act illustrates not only his understanding of local cultural references like “harem” (the site of patriarchal dominance/the father’s space) and/in Arabic with “haram” (shame/forbidden in Arabic), but his ability to tie them to a broader set of global narratives such as “coming out of the closet.” Speakers who exhibit a flexible accumulation of language are examples of border crossers or people living across various (artificial) divisions, and they are able to construct new meaning and new forms of belonging and kinship in order to thrive and make sense of their own lives and retell it to others.
Adeli Block: As someone who hasn’t read your first book, Queer French (2007), what are the primary differences between queer French speakers and queer Maghrebi French speakers in negotiating their identities? I can imagine that the family members being co-participants in their representations would be one aspect.
Denis Provencher: You’d be surprised by the fact that family members are always co-participants whether we’re considering the experience of queer French or queer Maghrebi speakers. It surprised me a bit especially for Maghrebi French families but it makes total sense. We know that the traditional Maghrebi French family has/had a structure and hierarchy where the eldest male child reigns supreme. Hence if the queer Maghrebi French speaker is the eldest, then co-participation is crucial as the whole family is really invested. I’d say the differences comes more from those queer Maghrebi French speakers who grew up in France in comparison with those queer Maghrebi French speakers who were born in North Africa and immigrate to France. The men who grew up in France see and construct their identities in relation to French and Anglo-American models. The men who grew up in the Maghreb received images of Paris and France as a mecca during the childhood education, and have a cultural baggage related to images of queerness from France (literary and artistic references) that point them on a path to immigrating to France. In those case, co-participation may experience a rupture because those queer Maghrebi French subjects often immigrate to France without their biological families, and the physical distance prompts other barriers to communication.
Adeli Block: I found particularly powerful your call at the end to “take up our crosses, mount our pilgrimages, walk to Calvary or journey to Mecca, shave our heads or grow out our beards, and wear our heels or wear our veils” both in and outside of the academy. What advice do you have for fledgling scholars who aim to carry out activist scholarship as well as queer systems within the academy?
Denis Provencher: I really appreciate this question in particular. This is something that I’m trying to figure out in my own life and career: how to maintain one’s own “authentic” voice while being part of a larger system and in my case, the public university. It’s a very delicate balancing act, for sure. Not in terms of carrying out activist scholarship because I have always had the good luck of being employed at state universities where they welcomed my research and teaching on LGBTQ topics. More in terms of how do you continue with activist scholarship and subversive methodologies or tactics while also holding an administrative role. For example, in my current position as Head of Department, what I have learned is that you have to put aside your own views and voice for the greater good of your faculty. You need to listen carefully to your own faculty and then reflect back to them and to upper administration their voice and their needs. At the same time, you are hired to serve the institution and it is difficult at times to speak back to or against that entity.
This does not mean however that you cannot engender change. As students of culture, we also know that effective change, in terms of language change, but also in terms of greater institutional change, can occur effectively from within a system of knowledge and power. Subversive language or practices can eventually become part of broader set of practices that become more widely accepted. A good example comes from what we were talking about earlier on in this interview: thinking about how “coming out of the closet” has become a commonly known expression. We could imagine the possibility someday for something like “dropping of the veil” or “coming out of the harem.” Basically, as a scholar/activist you need to take your skills and knowledge related to language and social discourses, and learn to change patriarchal discourses within the academy. I would also recommend you need to surround yourself with people who think broadly and even differently than you do in order to form a team of diverse thinkers to make sure your own blind spots are identified. We are always stronger in the academy with a broad range of perspectives. Of course, this is not the same thing as forging a “queer system” or a revolution. We also know, and we are vividly reminded this summer, how sometimes real change requires pure revolution and uprising. This process usually comes from outside of an institution, a system, a discourse, and it is also always a messier (and hence queerer) project. Unfortunately, it not only includes symbolic violence but can also involve real physical danger. We each have to decide where we feel most effective and comfortable in effecting change and advocating for justice.