Alexa Barger, San Francisco State University

Alexa Barger is a graduate student at San Francisco State University, where she is working towards her M.A. in Comparative Literature. She received her B.A. in Transcultural Francophone Studies from Mills College. She is an editor for P ortals a nd a research assistant at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at SFSU, as well as a teaching assistant in the Comparative and World Literature department. B arger works with literatures in English, French, Italian, and Spanish, with an emphasis on contemporary novels and non-fiction prose. Her current research interests include global feminist theory and women’s writing, literary representations of immigration, exile, and belonging, and digital humanities.


            As a literary format, the memoir often sees its subject equally as the author, narrator, and protagonist of its written narrative. However, the memoirist often feels equally compelled to develop a new sense of their cultural history through their life story. The use of memoir as a mode of cultural and historical expression is especially imperative for Senegalese writer Ken Bugul and Palestinian American scholar Edward Said. Bugul’s autobiographical text Le baobab fou (The Abandoned Baobab) focuses on the writer’s painful childhood, her studies at a French school in Senegal, and her early adult life in Belgium. Meanwhile, Said’s memoir Out of Place follows its author’s upbringing and education in Mandatory Palestine, Egypt, and the United States.

Though their memoirs emerge from disparate cultural and historical backgrounds, Bugul and Said both confront the institutions that defined the negative aspects of their upbringing and education. In particular, the two writers explore the traumatic rift between themselves and their cultural identities as a result of their internalization of colonial thought. Their exilic sense of self is further complicated by their strained relationships with their families and communities. Simultaneously, their narratives transcend the boundaries and binaries of their early experiences. By examining Le baobab fou and Out of Place as autobiographical and counter-colonial texts, I find that both writers attempt to define an identity that transcends the limitations of colonial/nationalist thought. By placing their narratives in conversation, I wish to draw attention to their efforts to create “new histories” – not only as affirmations of their personal struggles and triumphs, but as an effort to speak towards historical circumstances which are commonly negated within dominant historical narratives.

Memory, Text, and Power[1]: Ken Bugul, Edward Said, and Colonial Education

In their theoretical exploration of autobiographical writing, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson reflect on the relationship between history and writing about the self: “When [memoirists] write to chronicle an event, to explore a certain time period, or to enshrine a community, they are making ‘history’” (10). The mission to create this new “history” becomes more complicated (and more vital) within the context of exile – a cultural and historical rupture that intercepts the relationship between the writer and their heritage. The Senegalese novelist Ken Bugul (pen name of Mariètou Mbaye, born 1947) and the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said (1935-2003) have both incorporated their lived experiences and knowledge of exile through their respective approaches to memoir. Bugul’s autobiographical text Le baobab fou (1982) focuses on her separation from her birth mother, her studies in a French school in Senegal, and her life as a student and young adult in Belgium. Said’s memoir Out of Place (1999) also follows its writer’s childhood and education in Palestine, Egypt, and the United States. Though they emerge from different contexts, both writers relate that the materials and methods of “colonial education” ruptured their relationships with their culture, language, and ethnicity. Both writers also connect their educational history with their experiences of exile and isolation in adulthood. As memoirists emerging from two territories with unique histories of colonization and occupation, Bugul and Said ultimately initiate a transnational and transcultural exploration of their past experiences and present identities. As a result, they find the greatest amount of agency through a more “hybridized,” self-defined configuration of their identities – one that requires them to negotiate the reality and the impact of their respective historical contexts.

To understand the creation of Bugul and Said’s identities in the text, it is valuable to consider the nature of the autobiography and memoir. The two genres mirror each other in that they emphasize writing about one’s own life; the memoir tends to have a themed focus, whereas the autobiography attempts a chronological approach to one’s lived history. Carolyn Heilbrun writes that the memoir, beyond contending with autobiographical fact, carries the motivation “to reveal certain circumstances throughout a life that testify to the unusual claims the writer has made upon the world” (35); history and subjectivity combine to create a testimony that encompasses the writer’s “unusual [and personal] claims.” On the text’s cover (and throughout the narrative itself), Edward Said identifies Out of Place as a memoir – asserting the role of memory and truth as primary forces for the text. Le baobab fou, in its English translation, is described as “the autobiography of a Senegalese woman” – yet its adherence to the subjectivity of its narrator, as well as its interest in memory, also speak to the conventions of the “memoir.”

Furthermore, Smith and Watson examine memoir and autobiography under the umbrella term of “life writing.” While the term suggests its general connection to writing about lived experiences, the medium often employs the same narrative structure, dialogue, and character description as is used in fiction (7). In this sense, Bugul and Said each use “novelistic” modes of storytelling in order to recount their own lived experiences. It is worthwhile to note that Bugul and Said’s texts (and their respective genres) have each been impacted by the discourse of “veracity” – that is, whether or not the story they tell in their autobiographies is rooted in the full truth. For instance, Le baobab fou has been described equally as a personal autobiography and as the “fictionalized autobiography” (Riggs 61) of a narrator not entirely unlike Ken Bugul. In an interview about her work, Bugul notes that her texts “mirror the very deep and radical experiences [she herself] went through” (Azodo 2). Bugul is neither confirming that the text is purely autobiographical, nor that it is purely fiction; in reaffirming its relevance to her creative motivations, it can be read as a memoir or as a fictionalized approach to her own story. In this sense, she assumes full agency over her narrative, including its relationship with fictionalization; at the same time, she underlines the importance of history (or verifiable truth) within her narrative.

Meanwhile, Said’s relationship with autobiographical “truth-telling” is more political in nature. By the time Out of Place was published in 1999, Said had become famous as a literary scholar – authoring Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1992) among other works. Through his writings, he became equally recognized as an advocate for Palestinian rights. His activism often called upon his Palestinian heritage and his upbringing in Jerusalem. The memoir’s publication coincided with accusations by legal scholar Justus Weiner that Said had falsified various aspects of his life for political gain. Writing in the conservative magazine Commentary, Weiner especially placed doubt on the location of Said’s parents’ home in Jerusalem and his family’s status as Palestinian “refugees” (“My Beautiful Old House”). In indirect response, Said insists that Out of Place is “the story of [his] life against the background of World War II, the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel” (Out of Place, “Preface,” n.p.). Said asserts, then, that Out of Place is anything but a work of fiction. The text acts not only as a personal account of Said’s early life, but as a memoir that presents the realities of expulsion and occupation. While recounting the facts of his lived experience, Out of Place also presents an account of a national and cultural trauma that is commonly negated – “the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel.” In underlining the primary “conflict” of his memoir, Said intentionally speaks to the sense of exilic loss experienced by diasporic Palestinians. Out of Place thus attempts to uplift subjective and collective experience over dominant historical narrative.

In their own reflections on their autobiographical writing, both authors underline the pressing need to reflect their “radical experiences” – particularly in terms of their cultural exile. Bugul and Said’s texts are essentially predicated on the reader’s belief that they are engaging with the reality of the authors’ lives. In this sense, the author is never quite dead; instead, the writer maintains their agency (and textual “life”) through their multiple roles in the text. Bugul and Said thus reenact the vision of the autobiography envisioned by French philosopher Philippe Lejeune. In his Pacte autobibliographique, Lejeune distinguishes the many roles of the writer intending to create an account of their own life: “L’identité se définit [comme] auteur, narrateur et personnage. Narrateur et personnage sont les figures auxquelles renvoient, à l’intérieur du texte, le sujet … l’auteur … est alors le référent auquel renvoie, de par le pacte autobiographique, le sujet de l’énonciation” (35). (“Identity defines itself through author, narrator, and character. The narrator and the character are the figures that return to the subject itself … [and] the author is the referent that returns, by the autobiographical pact, to the written subject”).[2] The memoirist becomes a hybrid of self-as-writer, self-as-consciousness, and self-as-character with agency. Each facet of the individual plays a distinct role in the autobiography itself, all while seemingly refracting the exact same figure. As a result of these multiple roles, Smith and Watson argue that memoirs must make “truth claims of a sort that are suspended in fictional forms such as the novel” (Reading Autobiography 9). Smith and Watson argue here that the memoir is rooted in reality. While the novel is under no obligation to reflect the total truth of all referenced events – or to represent anything that occurred in “real life” – any kind of “writing about the self” demands some connection to verifiable fact. In order to accept the text as autobiographical, one finds that the reader must accept that the text reflects some kind of “truth” for the writer/narrator/protagonist. In turn, both autobiographer and autobiography are constantly grounded in the historical, geographic, and cultural contexts from which they emerge. For Bugul and Said, whose narratives are embedded in histories of national trauma, it is essential to reflect the “verifiable truth” – not to affirm historical record, but to underline the traumatic reverberations of colonization and occupation in their own lived experiences.

Indeed, Bugul and Said are united as memoirists (authors, narrators, characters) in reconciling their experiences with their writing. However, they are equally impacted by cultural hybridity. As products of the interactions of multiple cultures, they must also contend with their respective histories of colonization. Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha envisions hybridity as a means of resistance and a source of conflict between the formerly-colonized and the colonizer: “[Hybridity] unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power. For the colonial hybrid is the articulation of the ambivalent space where the rite of power is enacted on the site of desire” (The Location of Culture 112).  The “hybrid” subject simultaneously internalizes colonial ideas and retains awareness of their subjugated status – transforming colonial notions into modes of resistance. Hybridity thus appeals to the desire to attain agency by asserting “the rite of power,” the internalization and interpretation of colonial thought; it is not uniquely a matter of self-identification, but an appeal to assimilation. Hybridity also encompasses a multiplicity of consciousnesses, a state of constant flux and anxiety especially regarding oneself, one’s relationship with colonial perspectives and ideals, and one’s relationship with the world. Often, the colonial “hybrid” finds themselves mimicking colonial attitudes, but they remain a (post)colonial subject. In this sense, the hybrid moves (and struggles to assert themselves) between geographical, linguistic, and cultural spaces. Both memoirs bear witness to the ambivalent and painful aspects of hybridity – including the negation of identity beyond colonial acceptance. For Bugul and Said, hybridity provides a means of conforming to a certain colonial narrative – but left unquestioned, they feel constrained and frustrated by the contradictions and conflicts between the voices of the colonizer and the personal experience of colonization.

For Bugul’s text in particular, it is especially valuable to note the nature of the “colonial education” and the “French school” in the Senegalese context. France maintained its presence in Senegal between the seventeenth century and the twentieth century, especially in its connection with the transatlantic slave trade; further colonization of Senegalese territory took place in the nineteenth century. Senegal became independent in 1960. Kelly Duke Bryant links the content of education during the latter portion of the colonial era: “[Colonial] officials consistently considered [the French education system] to be an important part of … [France’s sense of] obligation to spread its civilization and values among purportedly ‘backward’ peoples” (Education as Politics 17). The colonial (or colonially-imbued) education system relies on the projection of a power dynamic within the classroom. The instructor affirms both their superior role over the students and their supremacy within the racialized power dynamic. The materials of instruction reaffirm the importance of the colonizing force’s history, culture, and identity. The students, in turn, internalize their subaltern roles and attempt to conform to colonial expectations.

Hybridity plays an especially fraught role in Le baobab fou, where the constant dialogue between colonial ideas and personal (Senegalese, African) identity is central to its narrator’s struggle. The text constantly transitions between Bugul’s childhood in Senegal, particularly in the aftermath of her mother’s departure, and her young adulthood in Europe. Though Bugul mentions few dates in the text, her writing is constantly informed by her nation’s colonial history – and in particular, the colonial underpinnings of her education. Furthermore, Bugul’s narration of her educational history is influenced by her family dynamics – which became more strained once she began attending French schools in Senegal. While Bugul recognizes that she attended a school system that was once primarily designed for “les fils des chefs … ensuite les originaires des quatre Communes … considérés comme des citoyens” (Bugul 179) (“sons of chiefs [and] those from the four districts … since they counted as citizens” [de Jager 127]), she also recognizes that “la génération façonnée par l’école française entra dans la solitude, face à la famille traditionnelle” (179) (“the generation trained in the French schools entered into loneliness as it confronted the traditional family” [127]). For Bugul, the French school represents a level of opportunity that was once accorded only to leaders’ sons; it is through the language that she imagines she will be able to attain more socioeconomic power. At the same time that she receives these linguistic skills, however, she finds herself in the same constraints as these “sons of chiefs.” In particular, she describes confrontation with “the traditional family” – not just in terms of her family’s Muslim background, but in terms of her ability to see value in her African origins. She thus attempts to accept the ambivalence of her “hybridized” experience by internalizing colonial values, and in turn, severing her relationship with her homeland.

The resultant “hybrid” in Le baobab fou is a Senegalese student whose education has forced her to internalize “Gallic” identity and sustain a fragmented notion of her cultural identity. Even so, Ken Bugul’s body of work is rooted in her reclamation of her Senegalese heritage – affirmed, in part, by the pseudonym she used when Le baobab fou was first published in 1982. In Wolof, a language native to Senegal, “Ken Bugul” evokes “one who is unwanted” and isolated from the world. However, her name functions equally as a form of protection. Beyond concern that her representations of sexuality and drug use would shock her conservative Senegalese and Muslim society (Edwin 75), Chorok Sally Chung notes that “[the name] is bestowed on unborn children by mothers, who after having experienced a stillbirth, seek to ward off the spirits by tricking them from wanting her new baby” (Dictionary of African Biography 333). “Ken Bugul” assumes the role of the mother who protects her child from danger and malice – and in essence, protects herself. She thus attempts to ward off all opponents, including death itself, to tell the truth of her life.

Whether one reads Le baobab fou as an autobiography or as a biographically-influenced novel, the text is inextricably defined by its relationship with Bugul’s memories. In her concluding remarks on the more recent edition of Le baobab fou in translation, Jeanne Garane reflects that Bugul’s text works as a “therapeutic” response to her past. In contrast with “Ken’s Prehistory,” which follows her family’s history and her mother’s departure from the young Bugul’s life, “‘Ken’s History’ begins with the narrator’s departure for Belgium and her misguided search for her ancestors in the land of the Gauls. … She explains how her French education led her to … place [European ideals] above her [Senegalese values]” (Garane 164). The narrative of Le baobab fou thus centers around its Senegalese female protagonist’s effort to understand her past – both in terms of her familial traumas and her educational history.

“Ken’s History,” however, does not begin with this recognition of fragmentation. Instead, “Ken,” who arrives in Belgium on a scholarship, finds herself with an idealized vision of life in Europe: “Le Nord des rêves, le Nord des illusions, le Nord des allusions, le Nord référentiel, le Nord Terre promis” (39) (“The North of dreams, the North of illusions, the North of allusions. The frame of reference North, the Promised Land North” [23]). For Bugul, hope does not lie in her homeland of Senegal, where her birth mother abandoned her at a young age and where she became increasingly isolated from the rest of her family. Based on her upbringing, including her education at a “French school,” she recalls seeing the immediate North as a “dream” and a “Promised Land.” For Bugul, who experiences various levels of abandonment by her family, the North suggests a new world where she can use her education, linguistic knowledge, and artistic talent in order to establish her own identity. However, she juxtaposes her hopes and dreams with a more complicated image of Europe as a place of “illusions,” “allusions” and as a mandated “frame of reference” for her livelihood and her future. The young Ken Bugul thus envisions “Europe” as an idea rather than a concrete realm. She indicates, then, that she has yet to experience the conflict between her expectations (as the product of a French education) and her reality.

Bugul’s expectations begin to shatter during her early years in Belgium. Her ability to navigate Belgium is complicated equally by her Blackness and by her womanhood – and how both are perceived by the (mostly white and/or European) people around her. Early on, Bugul recalls a relationship with a white man that led to a pregnancy. When she arranges an abortion with a white doctor, he reveals that he opposes interracial relationships. In response, she finds herself projected into her past:

Tout revint. Le baobab. Le soleil. … Le cri perçant… Descartes. I, u, o, a, e, é, è, t-o, to. Le coq gaulois. L’athlétisme. Le capitalisme. … Charlemagne. … L’école française. La chute des nuages. Les étoiles qui s’arrachaient du ciel saignant (Le baobab fou 72).
(“Everything came back. The baobab. The sun. … The piercing scream. … Descartes. i, u, o, a, e, é, è, t-o, to. Sports. Capitalism. … Charlemagne. … The fall of the clouds. The stars that rip away from the bleeding sky” [47]).

The doctor’s racist remark sends the young Bugul, and the author-Bugul that now transcribes her thoughts, into a traumatic and fractured journey through her upbringing. Bugul also notes the emphases of her French education – from vowels to culture and history. Her memories of her education also coincide with events and descriptions (the bleeding sky, the baobab as witness) that correlate with her familial traumas. She notably creates little distinction between her upbringing and her educational experiences. Not only have her initial hopes for mobility in Belgium been shattered, but she has also been forced to confront her isolation in European society. She recognizes herself as a product of a “French education” that is neither French, nor Belgian, nor Senegalese. Furthermore, she has been doubly isolated as an African woman living amongst Europeans in a vulnerable medical setting – which emphasizes the intersectional complexities of her relationship with her new country.

Bugul’s sense of isolation develops further as she attempts to develop a circle of (white) friends in Belgium. Even as she enjoys regular outings, she finds herself an outlier in an unequal social equation. Despite her efforts to fit in with her social circles, she is constantly exotified and otherwise singled out as a Black, African woman. At the same time, she identifies herself as a perpetual “student” of European identity through her interactions with white people: “J’étais souvent avec les Blancs ; je discutais mieux avec eux, je comprenais leur langage. Pendant vingt ans je n’avais appris que leurs pensées et leurs émotions. … [Je] m’identifiais en eux, ils ne s’identifiaient pas en moi” (80) (“I spent a great deal of time with white people; I found it easier to converse with them, I understood their language. For twenty years, all I had learned were their thoughts and feelings. … I identified myself in them, but they did not identify themselves in me” [53]). “Je discutais mieux avec eux” (“I found it easier to converse with them”) reveals that Bugul has used her French education in order to become more comfortable among (European or occasionally American) white people. Furthermore, she senses that she can “understand” them (as a “Gaul”) better than she can understand other Africans, much less herself. “Je n’avais appris que leurs pensées” (“All I had learned were their thoughts”) suggests, in turn, that Bugul sees herself as a student of whiteness. She has also “studied” their emotions and their responses to her presence. In the process, however, she neglects her own lived experiences – whether because she wishes to escape her past, or because she wishes to be accepted by those who cannot and will not “identify themselves in [her].” Bugul is thus aware that her status as “hybrid” does not render her as equal in Europe; rather, her education (in both scholarly and social senses) forces her to become more cognizant of her solitude amongst Europeans.

While she navigates her social life in Belgium as a young adult, Bugul also recalls her education in Senegal. She especially recalls the negative representation of Africans in her textbooks and readings:

Dans tous les manuels scolaires que j’ai eus, le Noir était ridiculisé, avili, écrasé : Toto a bu du dolo, Toto est malade, Toto a la diarrhée, Toto pleure. Ou bien les Noirs étaient mis les uns contre les autres. Toto tape Pathé, Pathé tape Toto. … À eux les bêtises, les sottises, les maladresses, comme dans Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien (Le baobab fou 129).

(In every school text I’d ever had, the Black person was ridiculed, vilified, crushed: ‘Toto drank dolo [a kind of beer], Toto is sick, Toto has diarrhea, Toto is crying.’ Or the Blacks were set up against each other: ‘Toto is hitting Pathé, Pathé hits Toto.’ … All stupidity, all foolishness, all awkwardness was theirs, as in [the story of] Mariétou, Sabitou and the Dog [90]).

In the textbooks described by Bugul, Blackness and African-ness are attributed with illness and violence. One notes that the Africans evoked in Bugul’s examples are configured only in terms of their failings – their selfishness, their gluttony, and their constant violence against one another. To be African in these texts is to experience constant pain and sorrow – either as a result of being “set up against” another African, or due to their own “stupidity, foolishness, [and] awkwardness.” Simultaneously, it is through these texts that Bugul is expected to learn French. In exchange for fluency in the colonial European language, she relinquishes any identification or pride in her Senegalese roots. It is also valuable to note that Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien – the characters and the educational exercise – reflect a real-life educational text. The story itself appears as one reading unit in André Davesne’s Les premières lectures de Mamadou et Bineta, a French textbook designed for use at West African schools and circulated throughout the mid-twentieth century (i.e., likely during Bugul’s education in Senegal). Davesne’s reading depicts two young women returning from the market with baskets filled with meat (Mamadou et Bineta 77-78). When they lose track of their baskets, Sabitou becomes convinced that Mariétou is trying to steal her food (and vice versa). While the two argue, a dog runs off with the meat from both of their baskets. One might argue, then, that Bugul sees African women as doubly minimized in this text. If Black African characters in these texts are depicted as unintelligent, unkind, and unhappy, Black African women receive their own set of negative traits; since the two women fail to think about their surroundings or treat one another with respect, “sisterhood” and self-acceptance are not textual possibilities. By referencing this real-life text, Bugul provides concrete, verifiable evidence of a far more painful (and personal) historical consequence – a need to scorn her African background in order to distance herself from denigrating, subjugating narratives.

“Mariétou” (like the other African characters) thus becomes associated with a set of identities that Bugul feels she must reject in order to assimilate into European life. However, her African origins render this assimilation impossible. Maurice Simo Djom describes the interaction between Bugul and her educational system, calling it

le refus de l’hybridité qui passe par la négation de l’Autre. La puissance coloniale française refuse la décontraction, préférant la domination. … La transmission de cette image négative à l’école offre la garantie de la domination car la catégorie ainsi avilie … va construire son identité sur la base de ces schémas (L’hybridité dans le roman autobiographique 292).

(the rejection of hybridity as a result of the negation of the Other. French colonial power refuses to relinquish its hold, preferring to maintain its dominion. … The transmission of negative [images] at school guarantees this domination; by [placing students] in this degrading category, [they] will build their sense of identity on the basis of this framework).

While Bugul’s French studies allow her to gain social mobility in the European world, they come at the cost of her well-being and self-esteem in Africa and Europe alike. Simo Djom suggests that the “price” of Bugul’s education is intentional. In constantly suggesting the supremacy of European values and the inferiority of African figures, colonial educational narratives ensure that African-ness (and national identity) are both marginalized and easily manipulated. Within this context, Bugul struggles to confront the negative frameworks of identity that not only mar her childhood, but also re-implicate themselves in her self-understanding as a grown woman.

Later into the text – as her relationship with Belgium becomes more fraught – she recalls again her experiences of learning French. She mixes the recollections of her education alongside her sense of isolation in her family – her constant longing for the mother that abandoned her and her wish to reconnect with her extended family. In particular, she recalls the shock of her first French class: “[Tout] expira avec le son de la première lettre française que l’instituteur prononça et écrivit sur le tableau noir: ‘i.’ … Je … hurlai [cette lettre] presque les joues fendues. Je sentis le sang couler dans tout mon corps et remonter à ma tête” (Le baobab fou 140) (“All my expectations shattered with the sound of the first French letter the teacher pronounced and wrote on the blackboard: i. That brief and also very abrupt sound cracked my cheeks when I pronounced it, almost screaming. I felt the blood circulate through my body and go to my head” [98]). Here, Bugul extends her sense of fragmentation beyond the psychological. The French language not only severs her from her culture and family but actively harms her when it is first spoken; her cheeks “crack” (or “splinter,” as the French fendre implies) as she repeats the first vowel. Shirin Edwin describes not only how Bugul becomes further alienated from her family as a result of her education, but also how she ultimately becomes distant from her home culture: “[In] this context, the French school appears as an intrusion of which the Senegalese did not approve … [This] new education continues to deepen the pain and the torment of having to pronounce words alien to her spirit” (Edwin 79-80). Here, Bugul continues to see her education as a pseudo-colonial intrusion on her own wellbeing – even if she had pursued it for what she believed to be the sake of her future. Her invocation of the first French lesson thus suggests Bugul’s increasing awareness of her alienation in European society.

Despite this awareness, Bugul (as the narrator) cannot change the choices of her “character” in the text. Her overwhelming sense of loneliness leads her to experiment with drugs and sex work – culminating with a nearly-fatal suicide attempt. Bugul thus recognizes that she cannot continue her life in the North. Before narrating her return, she returns to her memories of her colonial education:

L’école française, nos ancêtres les Gaulois, la coopération, les échanges, l’amitié entre les peuples avaient créé une nouvelle dimension : l’étranger. Ne plus pouvoir reconnaître chez les siens les liens vrais qui façonnaient … les destins. … J’avais trop joué avec un personnage : une femme, une Noire qui avait cru longtemps à ses ancêtres gaulois (Le baobab fou 157).

(“The French school, our ancestors the Gauls, cooperation, foreign exchanges, friendship between peoples had all created a new dimension: the foreigner, no longer able to recognize … the true bonds that used to shape … destinies. I had played a character too long: … a black woman who had for a long time believed in her ancestors the Gauls” [111]).

Bugul reconfigures her character through the terms of her education. She now recognizes herself not as a “Black Gaul,” but as a foreigner of all lands and as an actress who has assumed her role for “too long.” In the original French, she notably identifies first as a woman, then as “Noire” (“Black” in the feminine form) – as her experiences of race and gender are intertwined. One senses that she has found little comfort in any identity (Black, female, or “Gallic”), particularly in her efforts to navigate the world around her. “Cooperation, foreign exchange, [and] friendship between people” evoke an idealized vision of coexistence that Bugul has never been able to experience – and will never experience under the terms of white supremacy. She senses that she must abandon the “character” that she has projected – the exotic/exotified Black woman, the desirable object – she recognizes that she must unlearn the script that she has internalized since youth. In this sense, she must find a way to disconnect from her colonial education – both in terms of her schooling in Senegal and in her social “education” in Europe.

The text ultimately ends with Bugul’s return to Senegal, where she senses a distinct loss of guidance: “Le rétablissement était devenu impossible …de l’enfance perdue, envolée un après-midi, la première fois que j’avais vu un Blanc … J’avais essayé de me défier, ce fut presque la victoire … Sans parole, je prononçais l’oraison funèbre de ce baobab témoin et complice du départ de la mère, le premier matin d’une aube sans crépuscule” (221-222) (“Recovery had become impossible … [for] a lost childhood that had flown away one afternoon, the first time I ever saw a white man. … I’d tried to mistrust myself and was almost victorious … I pronounced the eulogy of the baobab tree that had been witness to and accomplice in the mother’s departure, the first morning of a dawn without dusk” [158-159]). Though not a representation of a perfect recovery, Bugul’s final act of “reconciliation” emerges from her return to the homeland and her interaction with the titular baobab (the witness to her childhood traumas). In narrating the tree’s “eulogy,” she attempts to release herself from some of the weight of the identities imposed upon her in Senegal and in Europe. Within this ambivalence of beginnings and endings, deaths and rebirths, she recognizes herself as a hybrid of cultures and experiences. She thus ends the text as the sole narrator and the primary agent of her own story – and, through her writing, is the sole proprietor of her own historical experience.

Bugul’s trajectory seems to differ greatly from that of Edward Said – who experiences different boundaries as a result of the circumstances of his life. Said was born to a Christian Arab family in 1935 in Jerusalem, then a part of Mandatory Palestine. The land that comprised Mandatory Palestine had been originally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In the midst of the first World War, Jerusalem (and later the entirety of the territory) was claimed by the British with the intent of creating a national home for the Jewish people (per the Balfour Declaration); by 1923, the British Mandate was established. The Mandate was disrupted equally by Arab and Jewish inhabitants of the land; their conflict for control over the mandate culminated with the Arab-Israeli war, which ended with the establishment of the state of Israel. Ahmad Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod note the temporally disruptive nature of the Nakba (“the disaster/catastrophe,” used in Arabic to refer to the aftermath of the 1948 conflict) for stranded and exiled Palestinians: “A society disintegrated, a people dispersed, and a complex and historically changing but taken for granted communal life was ended violently. The Nakba has thus become, both in Palestinian memory and history, the demarcation line between two qualitatively opposing periods” (“The Claims of Memory” 3). Where Bugul’s movements through her recent and distant past seem fluid, Said’s transitions through his history are permanently demarcated by loss. His narrative is developed around exile – not only his family’s loss of home and citizenship in Palestine, but by his own sense of disconnect from his history. Spurred by his then-recent diagnosis with leukemia, Said reflects that “Out of Place is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world” (“Preface,” Out of Place, n.p.) Like Bugul, Said finds himself part of a world that has been forgotten; he speaks not only of Palestine as a “lost” homeland, but of his upbringing in Palestine and Egypt as a part of his life that he has (actively or accidentally) erased from his consciousness. For Said, the memoir allows him to rediscover the events and figures that he has “misplaced” – and reconsider the development of his own identity.

Said’s return to his “lost and forgotten world” begins with his birth and early childhood. Though he spent his early years in Jerusalem, he mainly lived in Egypt, where his father ran a stationery business – and where, up to the second half of the twentieth century, British authorities maintained control of key aspects of the Egyptian government. Whereas Said’s home in Palestine is linked to his relationship with his family, his relationship with Cairo is permanently framed through his struggle to be accepted by cultural outsiders. As a young boy, Said recalls the subject matter of his classes at the Gezira Preparatory School in Cairo – and the colonial positionality inherent in his education: “Our lessons and books were mystifyingly English: we read about meadows, castles, and Kings John, Alfred, and Canute with the reverence that our teachers kept reminding us they deserved. Their world made little sense to me, except that I admired their creation of the language they used, which I, a little Arab boy, was learning something about” (Out of Place 37). The English-owned school focuses on histories and lands with which Said has no immediate relationship. However, he is expected to internalize the information as if it were part of his daily life. Like Bugul, who finds herself aligned with “[her] ancestors the Gauls,” Said senses that he is meant to identify with (or give special respect to) the histories of English kings. Said still refers to his younger self as a “little Arab boy,” as if his class’ subject matter made him more conscious of his identity and of his role as “subject.”

Said is equally cognizant of his identification not as Palestinian inhabitant of Egypt, but as an “Arab.” On one hand, the young Said may not have felt the need to emphasize his Palestinian background. The need to assert a national identity would become especially pressing after the Nakba – that is, after the expulsion of much of the Palestinian Arab population. Even so, Said is still rendered a member of a homogenized group. He is simultaneously uncategorized (as a “little Arab” before anything else) and demarcated as an outsider to his own early studies. He ultimately recalls that the school was his “first experience of an organized system set up as a colonial business by the British … [and] an extended contact with [English] colonial authority” (40). Through the colonial framework of his education, his understanding of history becomes disconnected with his immediate physical surroundings and with his homeland. Said thereby associates this rupture – between land and educational/historical narrative – with various histories of colonization and occupation; through this association, he recognizes the various forms of displacement that impacted his early life.

It is also here that Said struggles to reconcile his narration of his past with the experiences of his younger self – the main “character” of Out of Place. The older Said finds interest in his lived experience because it mirrors his later understanding of colonial dynamics – a key aspect of his scholarship and activism. The younger Said, however, has no choice but to observe (and be observed by) his educational surroundings. Roger Porter describes the trajectory of Said’s memoir through his sense of displacement in the classroom: “Said’s memoir traces his childhood in [Jerusalem and Cairo] … [as] places where he always felt out of place: … a non-American in American [and English] schools, a Palestinian who could not go home … a boy yearning for independence whose authority figures saw him as a troublemaker” (310). Said finds himself even more displaced at the Cairo School for American Children, where he is the only Arab amongst his primarily-white classmates. He relates feeling constantly isolated from the other children as a result of his clothing and food – and recalls being treated as “other” than his classmates. While recalling an episode where an instructor chastises him for misbehaving at a field trip, Said describes his isolation from his peers and surroundings: “I was riveted to my chair… hating the by now thoroughly concentrating class, each one of them, I felt, looking at me with justified dislike and curiosity. ‘Who is this person?’ I imagined them saying, ‘a little Arab boy, and what is he doing in a school for American children? Where did he come from?’” (Out of Place 84). Said again describes himself as a “little Arab boy” not only because he is “out of place” in the classroom as an Arab, but because he is equally singled out as a source of mischief and discord. Whereas the American children embody the “norm” of the student body, Said is the inherently-disruptive outlier. Through his perception of the encounter, Said even imagines that the students are contemplating “where he [came] from,” as if his apparent delinquency could be explained through his cultural otherness. In this sense, his educational circumstances lead to his isolation – both from social circles and from his own heritage.

Said’s sense of displacement intensifies with the encroaching arrival of the 1948 war, and particularly in the aftermath of the Nakba. Though Said spends much of the memoir focusing on his time in Cairo, he recalls his last stay in Jerusalem in 1947, where he briefly attended St. George’s School. He recalls that the school presented “a volatile atmosphere and … a general sense of purposeless routine trying to maintain itself as the country’s identity was undergoing irrevocable change” (107). The school thus mirrors Said’s growing understanding of the politics brewing in Jerusalem. After leaving Jerusalem in December, his immediate family would never be able to return to the city again; he recalls that distant family members were forcibly removed from the city. Later on in the text, Said’s adult consciousness of his exile (and its impact) intercepts his narration of his childhood: “The remoteness of the Palestine I grew up in [and] my family’s silence over its role … allowed me to live my early [adult] American life at a great distance from the Palestine of remote memory, unresolved sorrow, and uncomprehending anger” (138-139). He notes that the loss of Palestine created “unresolved sorrow [and] uncomprehending anger” in those around him (and implicitly, in himself). Said thus describes his younger self as being unable to process the sorrow and violence of exile – and is given no venue in his education to articulate that suffering.

Despite the weight of this grief, however, he remarks that his family refused to discuss the Nakba in its immediate aftermath. His instructors and classmates rarely mentioned the conflict or Palestine “as a country lost” (140), outside of one incident during Said’s last year at the Cairo School for American Children (1948-1949). During an innocent debate with his classmates about a boxing match, Said writes: “I suddenly grasped what my [Jewish] friend Albert Coronel was referring to when he spoke contemptuously of ‘six against one.’ The phrase … seemed to contradict what I implicitly believed: that Palestine was taken from us by Europeans who … were incomparably more powerful, organized, and modern than we” (140). Like Bugul, Said feels constrained by his educational surroundings – such that he is unable to discuss his experiences of exile and occupation in detail. Faced with his friend’s remark, Said becomes more cognizant of his own lived experience as a Palestinian. In turn, he senses further isolation from many of his peers (none of whom share his own experience). At the same time, Said reflects his later awareness of (and approach to) his nationality throughout his narration – and his interventions play an essential role in Out of Place’s thematic structure. As Mohammad Salama notes, the book is “a narrative that keeps interrupting itself despite Said’s cosmetic attempts to give it some chronological order … [and is] in every sense a writing of a disaster” (“Yanko’s Footprints” 243). Even as he revisits pre-1948 events, Said’s account of his own life is irrevocably impacted by the Nakba; he creates a narrative not only of his own upbringing, but of his need to confront the loose ends of a life disrupted by various levels of exile and disaster.

For the adolescent Said, the Nakba is a tragedy that is ultimately repressed. His family, now forced to reside permanently in Cairo, develops a culture of silence around all sources of trauma (whether political or familial). Much like Bugul, Said’s strained relationship with his family leads him to focus his energy on his education. However, his desire for resistance manifests in different ways. Said recalls attending Victoria College, a British-established, all-male, and culturally-diverse secondary school in Alexandria. There, he especially becomes connected with a group of Arab students (mainly, though not exclusively, Egyptian) who hoped to resist the school’s rules. As he recalls his involvement in the students’ mischief, he notes, “In a matter of hours, years of earnestly solemn education fell away from me as I joined in the ceaseless back and forth between the boys united in group solidarity as ‘wogs’ confronting our … teachers as cruel, impersonal, and authoritarian Englishmen” (Out of Place 181). Both Bugul and Said partly present their educational contexts as a conflict between the “instructor-colonizer” (or colonial subject who mimics the colonizing role) and the colonized student body. However, it is here again that Said especially configures his classroom as a conflict between a diverse set of students perceived as “wogs” (whether non-white or non-Anglophone) and their pseudo-colonial controllers. Their “group solidarity” transcends any national or religious identity, and appears equally as a defensive collective (of disgruntled teenagers) as it is a seeming mirror of colonial resistance. Meanwhile, Paul Armstrong partly considers Said’s conception of the classroom as a colonial space to be an act of literary exaggeration: “There may be at least a little personal mythologization at work in Said’s depiction of himself as a repeated victim of the Anglo-American imperial gaze who fights back by rebelling against his oppressors. Regardless of the truth or falsity of these self-representations, what is interesting is the epistemology of the response he describes” (Play and the Politics of Reading 51). Armstrong notes that Said ultimately develops two personas: the external “Edward” who is constantly reprimanded and rendered into an “ideal” by his teachers and family, and the internal self that resists these confines. At the same time that Armstrong draws attention to the “veracity” or verisimilitude of these self-representations, I would posit that Said is more interested in describing how he actively configures his own lived experience – particularly in the context of the colonial dynamic.

This inner agency emerges as Said describes the dynamics of his classroom at Victoria College: “A little pamphlet entitled The School Handbook immediately turned us into ‘natives.’ Rule 1 stated categorically: ‘English is the language of the school. Anyone caught speaking other languages will be severely punished.’ So Arabic became our haven, a criminalized discourse where we took refuge from the world of masters and complicit prefects…” (Out of Place 182). Said again names the students as “natives,” and portrays their “disobedience” as anti-colonial resistance. In speaking Arabic, Said and his friends enact an adolescent revolt that allows them to transcend the power dynamics of the school. When they are witnessed and punished, they still maintain their “criminalized discourse” through disruptive behavior in the classroom. Said may very well be painting teenage shenanigans as a means of decolonial revolution, but he is also representing a moment in his life where he has actively chosen to reassert both his language and his individuality. The boys’ continued uprising ends, however, with the young Said being ejected from the school: an exile that Said eventually views as both inevitable and necessary.

After his expulsion from Victoria College, Said’s family sent him to Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts.[3] Said recalls his initial homesickness at the uber-American institution: “I longed to be back in Cairo; I kept calculating the time difference of seven hours … missing our family’s Cairo food during school meals, an unappetizing regime that began with chicken à la king on Monday and ended with cold cuts and potato salad on Sunday night…” (Out of Place 232-233). Said describes a different sense of exile in his early years in the United States. Whereas the colonial rules of Victoria College inspired its students to revolt, the monotony and regularity of life at Mount Hermon leads to Said’s assimilation into the school’s culture. Furthermore, he once again feels distanced from time. Not only is he no longer able to spend physical time with his family in Cairo, but he has found yet another part of his life (his homeland and his childhood) rendered as an irreversibly “remote memory.” Said’s personal narrative remains informed by his connection to history – as does his response to his layered experience of exile in the United States.

Unlike Bugul, who assumes agency through her return to her ancestral land, Said is unable to return to Palestine. Instead of revisiting the land itself, he resists the psychological strain of his education by seemingly embracing his exile. In particular, one notes his decision to focus on his internal interests and motivations. Said remains struck by the rigidity and cultural homogeneity in the United States – not only at Mount Hermon, but also at Princeton and Harvard, where he respectively received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. However, he also relates that living in the United States obligated him to develop his own identity outside of his family: “My years in the United States were slowly weaning me away from Cairo habits—of thought, behavior, speech, and relationships. My accent and dress were slowly altering; my terms of reference in school and, later, college were different…” (271). Though he relates a continued sense of isolation, he finds himself increasingly interested in literary studies. Later on, he is also able to connect with Arab classmates (several Palestinian) who help him maintain a connection with parts of his heritage. Said’s education and experiences in diaspora are thus essential to the development of his career – primarily as a literary scholar at Columbia University, then as a political critic and public intellectual. In the memoir’s conclusion, Said declares, “I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self … A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place” (293). Said ultimately depicts himself as a product of various languages, cultures, and homelands. Much like Bugul, Said ends the text by attempting to create a life according to his own conditions – rather than those of his family, his early education, or a greater political entity.

Ken Bugul and Edward Said describe two unique lives, with separate interests and itineraries. Materially, their lives seem almost entirely disparate. Bugul emerges from a relatively humble family in Senegal, while Said was raised with nearly every comfort available in Palestine and Egypt. However, both endure emotional and psychological trials as a result of their educational experiences, and both feel exiled from their own home cultures. Their accounts mirror their struggles to reconcile the different aspects of their hybridized and disconnected sense of self, whether connected to their ethnicity, gender, nationality, or culture. At the same time, both writers attempt to negotiate a space within their works which allows them to explore these concepts in greater detail. In this sense, their writing – and their career trajectories – resist the confines of family boundaries and colonial thought. In placing Bugul and Said’s memoirs in conversation, readers find a remarkable unity in their textual resistance. For both writers, the memoir – in its structure and its relationship with history – presents the ultimate mode of literary self-definition. Through this mode of writing, it is equally possible to write against essentialized or homogenized notions of identity; Le baobab fou and Out of Place both end with their respective authors’ recognition (or even embrace) of their hybridized backgrounds and histories. The medium of memoir ultimately allows Ken Bugul and Edward Said to describe their intimate knowledge of colonization, occupation, and exile in their respective contexts. Like countless other authors from formerly- and presently-occupied lands, the two memoirists ultimately develop a “new history” of their lives – one that emphasizes their individuality and agency in the face of oppressive power structures.

Works Cited

Azodo, Ada Uzoamaka. “Conversations with Ken Bugul: ‘I Write My Life as I Want.’” Indiana University Northwest, Mar. 2001, Accessed 16 December 2018.

Armstrong, Paul B. “Being ‘Out of Place’: Edward Said and the Contradictions of Cultural Difference.” Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form. 2005. Cornell University Press, 2018, pp. 42-61.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 1994. Routledge, 1997.

Bugul, Ken (Mariètou Mbaye). Le baobab fou. 1982. Éditions africaines, 2009.

—. The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. Translated by Marjolijn de Jager with afterword by Jeanne Garane, Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008.

Chung, Chorok Sally. “Ken Bugul.” Dictionary of African Biography, edited by Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, vol. 1-6 (online), Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 333-334.

Davesne, André. “Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien.” Les Premières lectures de Mamadou et Bineta: livre de lecture et de français à l’usage des écoles africaines. Illustrations by P. Fangeaux et S. Bouglé. Librairie Istra, 1951, pp. 77-78.

Duke Bryant, Kelly M. Education as Politics: Colonial Schooling and Political Debate in Senegal, 1850s-1914. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Edwin, Shirin. “African Muslim Communities in Diaspora: The Quest for a Muslim Space in Ken Bugul’s Le baobab fou.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 35, no. 4, 2004, pp.75–90. 

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. “Contemporary Memoirs: Or, Who Cares Who Did What to Whom?” The American Scholar, vol. 68, no. 3, 1999, pp. 35-42.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le Pacte autobiographique. 1975. Éditions du Seuil, 1996.

Porter, Roger J. “Autobiography, Exile, Home: The Egyptian Memoirs of Gini Alhadeff, André Aciman, and Edward Said.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1, 2001, pp. 302-313.

Riggs, Thomas, editor. The Literature of Autobiographical Narrative: Autobiography and Memoir. St. James Press, vol. 1, 2013.

Sa’di, Ahmad H., and Lila Abu-Lughod. “Introduction: The Claims of Memory.” Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, edited by Sa’di and Abu-Lughod. Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 1-26.

Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. 1999. Vintage, 2000.

—. “Memory, Inequality and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights.” Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 19 February 2003, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Salama, Mohammad. “Yanko’s Footprints: Edward Said and the Experience of Exile.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 42, no. 2, 2007, pp. 238–253.

Simo Djom, Maurice. L’hybridité dans le roman autobiographique francophone contemporain. Éditions Publibook, 2017.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. U of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Weiner, Justus Reid. “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said.” Commentary, Sep. 1999, Accessed 13 December 2018.

[1] Adapted from “Memory, Inequality, and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights,” a lecture given by Said in 2003.

[2] All translations without page numbers are my own; no official translation is available for Lejeune’s book. All translations of Bugul’s text come from Marjolijn de Jager’s translation.

[3] Said argues that he would have been moved to the United States even if he had not been expelled from Victoria College. Said’s father, Wadie, had lived briefly in the United States and fought with the U.S. Army during World War I, likely to avoid conscription by the Ottoman army according to the author (Out of Place 7-8). Wadie received American citizenship through his service and residency in the United States, and all of Wadie’s children were U.S. citizens at birth. Edward Said had been told by his family that, in order to maintain his citizenship, he needed to be a resident in the United States for at least five years before he turned twenty-one. By beginning attendance at Mount Hermon at age sixteen and continuing his education at Princeton University, he was able to meet these requirements exactly (207-208).