The Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS), at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) organized a reading session and discussion on feminist Nobel Literature Prize 2022 winner Annie Ernaux, in collaboration with the Alliance Française of Hyderabad on March 27, 2023 in hybrid mode. Towards the end of the Woman’s History Month (March) in 2023, the discussion was organized to read and learn about women writers chronicling social histories in different parts of the world. Entitled “Womanhood in Post – WW II French Society : Reading Nobel Prize Winner Annie Ernaux,” the discussion had in its panel, Prof. Gisele Sapiro, professor of sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the research director at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the Centre Européen de sociologie et de science politique), and a former student of noted french sociologist Pierre Bordieu, Dr. Samuel Berthet, Director, Alliance Francaise of Hyderabad and Ms. Shanthala Veigas, Author, Fellow, She Creates Change and Linguaphile. The discussion was moderated by Ms. Abhiruchi Chatterjee, Gender and Development Consultant and Gender Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies.

Ms. Chatterjee commenced the discussion by welcoming all participants and panelists. Setting the context, she highlighted that the 82-year old French writer, was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022, the 17th woman among 119 Nobel Prize Laureates to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her body of work spanning 24 books, novels and memoirs in addition to other publications are deeply observational commentaries on the society she lived in, through personal and collective memory. Her most notable works include Les Annees, the years (2008), which was recently shortlisted for Man booker prize and the story of France from 1941 to the present day through the thread of a woman’s life story, Memoire de fille- A girl’s story (2016), La Honte (Shame), 1997, A Man’s Place (1983): about her father’s life, le femme – A woman’s story, about her mother’s journey.

Through the tool of personal experience, such as that of abortion, the realm of the domestic household, and power equations, masculinities, the class barriers and the aspirational struggle, her writings brings forth the broader social, political and structural issues in the French society she lived in, but are resonated by many across the world, and provide a visibility to their experiences. She noted that Ernaux’s legacy lies not in thrill and adventure, but in capturing the realm of the everyday. Many of her works are built on the raw material from her diaries and journals, resulting in meticulous detailing of the eras and places she describes.

Ms. Shanthala Veigas started the discussion by sharing her experience reading Annie’s works, located in the global South. She resonated with the experience of shame and confusion that Annie describes on getting her first period in La Femme, lacking guidance on what to do, commenting on the continued lack of institutional support structures for girls to learn menstrual health management. She commented on the writing style used by Annie her works, wherein she refers to her younger self in the third person, symbolic of her distance with her past self that many of us have. Ms. Veigas further unpacked the complexity of Annie describing non-consensual sex in Mémoire de Fille (A Girl’s Story) navigating the challenges of losing one’s agency in a consensual relationship, and quoted Annie’s words from L’eventment (The Event) underscoring the decision to undertake an abortion, “I want a child someday, but not instead of my life.”

Professor Gisele Sapiro joined the discussion online from Paris. She introduced the audience to Annie, setting the context, situated Annie’s win with a discussion on the broader history of Nobel Literature Laureates from the global South, she went on to deconstruct Annie’s writing style as autosocialbiography, a term coined combining autobiography that includes commentaries and observations on the social context as well. Drawing from Pierre Bordieu, noted French sociologist and her doctoral supervisor, she used the concept of symbolic violence to discuss the experiences Ernaux captures in her works. She highlighted that Symbolic violence is a “soft violence, misrecognised as such because it is exerted with the complicity of the dominated: having internalised the dominant categories of thinking through education, they participate in their own domination.” Illustrating through examples from several of Ernauz’s works, she highlighted that Ernaux used ethnography as a critical tool to capture observations from her life. Prof. Sapiro remarked that Ernaux, as the writer, maintained the distance of the ethnographer from her own life and experiences as well. This was followed by an interactive session with Gisele, discussing the politics of memory, the role of the writer in the society and the criticality of marginalized voices, Ernaux’s criticism by the far right in France and the discourse on abortion. The final panelist, Dr. Samuel Berthet, connected the importance of Annie’s works in the Indian context and read an extract from one of Annie’s works, La Honte – Shame, translated in English.

This was followed by an interactive discussion on minimalism and the politics of visibilization and invisibilization of marginalized voices.

Ms. Vandana Likhmania proposed the vote of thanks, on behalf of the Centre for Women’s Studies. She thanked the Head of the Centre for Women’s Studies, Professor K. Suneetha Rani for organizing the event, and the Alliance Francaise for initiating the collaboration, as well as all the panelists and moderators and audience members for the contribution to the discussion.

Written by Abhiruchi Chatterjee