Taking risks: An interview with Névine El Nossery

By Kathryn Mara

I am sitting on the bench that greets new arrivals to the sixth floor of Van Hise, which houses the Department of French and Italian. To my right, I see a showcase displaying faculty publications, including Névine El Nossery’s book, Temoignages Fictionnels Au Feminin: Une Reecriture Des Blancs de La Guerre Civile Algerienne. Before I am able to investigate further, however, Dr. Katrina Daly Thompson turns the corner unexpectedly. I use this opportunity to confirm the pronunciation of Dr. El Nossery’s name, because until today, I have only ever read it, never having heard it spoken out loud.

After a brief discussion with Dr. Thompson, I do not have to wait much longer before Dr. El Nossery arrives. I witness her engage in a friendly conversation, in French, with both a fellow faculty member and a graduate student, before following her to her office. She knew to expect me, so she welcomes me into her office genially.

Commencing the interview, I ask, “How long have you been teaching in the Department of African Cultural Studies?”

“Okay. It’s interesting, because I started only this semester,” she begins with a laugh, “Because I got my position here in 2007, and my home department was and is still, of course, the Department of French and Italian. And then African Cultural Studies asked me to join them, so I started with 25% this semester, so it’s my first semester actually to be part of the faculty members.”

Intrigued by her joint-position, I inquire, “Have you taught any courses so far, or do you anticipate doing so?”

“Yeah. I am teaching, this semester, a course entitled Dissident Women Voices of the Middle East and North Africa (African 303),” she states. “I developed it. It’s a new course, and I created it, and now I am teaching it,” she explains proudly.

“Okay. For courses in French and Italian, are there any courses that you teach that are pertinent to African Languages and Literature?”

“Yeah, yeah, definitely, because my main area of interest, in teaching but also research, is Francophone literature and mainly North African literature,” she states. “So I have, of course, been teaching a lot of courses on Francophone literature (like French 665), not necessarily only on North Africa, but sub-Saharan, Caribbean, French-Canadian Québécois literature too. Most of my courses in the French Department have been cross-listed with African Languages and Literature, so the content is mainly on African literature, but written in French.” After some research, I note that she will also be teaching a course entitled “Islam in French Literature and Culture” (French 211) in the fall.

Listening to the manner in which Dr. El Nossery has positioned herself on campus, I ask her, “What advice would you have for incoming or prospective students to the Department of African Cultural Studies?”

“Undergraduate or graduate?” She clarifies.

“Graduate students,” I confirm.

“I would advise them, first of all, to be very open from the beginning, meaning that they have to take courses that are not necessarily related to what they really want to work on or study, but to be more open to take some courses that they wouldn’t think they would take, because I think it might open them to new venues, new ideas, and they might, after all, change their mind about their topic and chose something else, or extend it more. To be very much open, to shake a little bit their comfort zone, if I can say, and to take some risks and explore new ideas, and also even in other departments, so it can open them to other areas of expertise, but also their perspectives and so on. Mainly, I would advise them to be very open to new venues,” she concludes with a wise smile.

“Out of curiosity,” I start, “you made sure to note that I meant graduate students. Would your advice be different to undergraduate students?”

“For undergraduate students, maybe I would tell them to focus more on what they really like to do, since they are just starting to explore new fields, new ideas, new concepts, they might be a little bit lost if they take too many things that are not necessarily related to their area of interest, so I would advise them more to focus on the things that they really like and to dig more deeply into them, so they can have, at least, a solid base to start with for, maybe, their new adventure in graduate school,” she says, carefully explaining the difference between her two sets of advice.

Changing the topic, I ask, “What’s your favorite thing to do in Madison?”

“Well, Madison,” she begins, acknowledging the vastness of Wisconsin’s state capital by widening her eyes briefly. “I like to do a lot of things. I like to bike a little. Well, I’m not a very good biker, but I like to bike even for small distances. And I like, of course, to go a lot not necessarily outside of Madison, but some places where you can feel almost as if you’re outside of Madison, but you’re not, like the Picnic Point. Of course, one of my really favorite spots that I feel like I am starting to relate to is the Memorial Terrace, the Union Terrace. I like very much to go with friends, especially where there is music from different areas and regions of the world. And, of course, the farmers’ market is one of my hot spots that I really like, not necessarily only to buy stuff, but to see people and to bump into friends and even new people that I am just discovering,” she explains happily, undoubtedly dreaming of the nice spread of produce the warm weather will bring to the Capitol Square.

I conclude by observing one of Dr. El Nossery’s posters. “I note this ‘Literature and Risk’ poster. I assume it’s for a conference. I wonder if you have anything to say about the conference topic.”

“Yeah, sure, definitely. This was a conference that took place in one of the countries that I am really in love with, which is Tunisia, and it was in 2008, and I participated in this conference. Actually, it was one of the first conferences where I introduced some of the topics that would be part of my book, the first book I published, entitled Fictional Testimonies. It’s about the Algerian Civil War in the ‘90s. So, it was about how writing literature, but also reading literature, and even doing literary analysis, a close reading, all of that, is kind of a risk, because writing literature is a risk, for sure, for a writer who is maybe going to tackle controversial issues. Women in North Africa, for instance, writing about taboos in their society might take quite big risks. But also trying to explore, trying to read new literature that you are not really familiar with can be a big risk, especially for graduate students again, so it’s a risk, of course, to interfere, to be an intruder in a world that you are not really part of, and it’s a risk not only to read new literature, but also to try to understand the context, the culture that is depicted behind the literature, or whatever it is, the medium. Reading is a risk, in itself, because you might impose a certain way of reading the text that sometimes the text might even be resisting, so it’s a constant struggle between the text and yourself and your interpretation. Take a risk by trying not to impose your way of thinking or your way of analyzing, but maybe be generous enough to let the text offer you its own reading or interpretation.”

Listening to her commentary on the topic, I close the interview by asking if she intends to teach a graduate seminar in the department any time soon, and though she concedes that there is nothing planned as of yet, she would certainly be willing to do so. Whether or not her intent comes to fruition before I finish my coursework, I recognize the value of what she discussed off-the-cuff within my own research, and I think it will be useful to work with Dr. El Nossery again and to engage with her scholarship further.