Dr Joe Ford joined the MLAC department in October as a new Teaching Fellow in Francophone Literature and Culture. We decided to welcome him (unnerve him?) with an interview about his research, his time as a student, and… Klute?
Well, I guess it was through my research for the dissertation that I really started showing an interest in Francophone and Algerian literature in particular. I started on quite a classic trajectory with Camus’ work, but it was through the study of his non-fiction and political relationship with Algeria during the Algerian War that I was drawn to more contemporary literature. I did my MA on Camus and Contemporary Algerian Literature, so this was Camus during la décennie noire: the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s, which I then went on to study in my PhD in conjunction with the literature of this period. So the pathway was fairly standard in the sense that I came through a contemporary Franco-Algerian author from the 20th century.
And had you looked at Camus at all during your undergraduate studies?
I hadn’t, actually. I suppose it really kicked off when I was doing my A-Levels; I wrote my first ever essay in French on Camus’ L’Étranger — I mean, you couldn’t get any more classic than that, could you really? So that’s how I came to Franco-North-African literature. It’s interesting you should mention that because, at the end of my thesis — I didn’t plan on doing this at all from the outset — I ended up looking at an Algerian novel called Meursault, contre-enquête, which was like a rewriting of Camus’ L’Étranger, by a guy called Kamel Daoud. I wrapped up my thesis with a chapter on it, so I sort of started there and finished there. That’s if I count the end of my thesis as the end of my career… I mean, it is technically possible, but I seriously hope it’s not!
So, now, do you have a favourite Camus work?
My favourite is probably La Chute, and again that’s related to the Kamel Daoud piece as well, because he says that he feels like the novel is more like La Chute than L’Étranger. I quite like the style of La Chute: it’s quite a funny text. But I don’t really work on Camus anymore; he was my way in. A lot has been written about Camus, you see, so there’s not a lot to say… Not a lot more to say, I should say.
One thing...I want you to take away lots of things. Perhaps think about how literature can give us a more complicated view of the past, a more interesting view — how literature can test the way the past has been written in history books, but also in official state discourses, and how literature or art more generally can challenge them. I’m not just looking at literature in that module: we’re going to do film, colonial photography, colonial postcards… So the idea is to give you a broad view of Francophone and postcolonial studies, particularly in North Africa.
Yeah, I taught a little bit of film as well as photography at Leeds as a part-time tutor during my PhD. Film is great: I feel it’s a lot easier to engage people in a lecture with film, since it’s a bit more interactive. It’s easier to demonstrate what’s going on in certain scenes and how they’re put together. I really enjoy film analysis, and I get the sense that students really enjoy it too. It’s a very practical, hands-on thing that you can do in the classroom, whereas literature often takes a bit more time and reflection.
I like it! It’s a lot smaller, but it’s lovely. I was in Paris last year, so it’s a bit of a contrast to say the least. But I was very busy finishing my thesis while I was there — I wasn’t exactly living the Parisian dream, so to speak. I’ve only been in Durham for a few weeks, so I’m still getting used to things. I’ve been getting to know the town and exploring further afield too. A friend of mine came up last weekend and we went down to Shincliffe Village, which was very nice. I’ve gone that far, but I’ve never ventured to Newcastle. That’ll probably be my next adventure.
Well, at Leeds I didn’t teach Algerian literature. I taught all sorts, starting with Racine. The module was an introduction to French studies, so we covered a broad range of material, from 17th-century theatre right up to the Paris Commune. I taught Zola’s Thérèse Raquin as well…
We studied Thérèse Raquin in first year; it was actually the first text we studied at university!
Yeah, it’s certainly a classic! It’s one of the first ones I did as well on a module that I ended up teaching as a postgrad at Leeds. I taught Zola, Racine, and Césaire’s Martinique-postcolonial literature, so that was the closest I’d got to teaching my own specialism.
I mean, I’m looking forward to teaching some of the stuff that I worked on in my thesis in the module here at Durham. Right at the end of the module, there’s a set of short stories by an Algerian writer called Maïssa Bey, who came into writing late in her career in the 1990s, speaking of it as a necessary pursuit. She explored the trauma of the time, looking back on the War of Independence with a sort of layered memory of its history. Both these periods posed critical questions: was this a repetition, or was it a continuation of history? Again, it’s important to consider the critical voice of literature when it comes to reflecting on moments of crisis. So I think she’s an interesting writer who I’m looking forward to introducing at the end of the Francophone module. Her short stories are great — they’re very well written. I think we’ll have a good time with that!
So that’s one writer you’re particularly excited about. Do you have an overall favourite aspect of your research?
I’ve worked on a lot of authors; I worked on six authors in my thesis. There’s no particular author that stands out, although I’ve done a bit more work on Kamel Daoud and Mustapha Benfodil…Would you like me to write that down for you?
Yes, that will hopefully be coming out in Algeria in January 2017, and I’ve already published an article on Benfodil. I’ve focused on these two writers for a while now, so I would actually quite like to get away from some of ones I’ve been working on. There’s such a rich tapestry of writers producing work in Algeria today in French. There’s a guy called Chawki Amari, and he’s worked on some rewriting as well: he wrote a companion text called L’Âne mort (The Dead Ass), which is kind of a take on L’Âne d’or by the 2nd-century Roman writer Apuleius — don’t ask me to spell that. Some people say that this was the very first Algerian text because it was written in Numidia, located in the same geographical space where modern-day Algeria lies today. It was also known as The Metamorphoses, inspiring Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then there’s the German writer Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Yes, I’ve never published anything in Algeria before, and I guess it’ll expose my work to people who wouldn’t otherwise see it if it were written in journals based in the US or UK. There’s that disconnect between how we talk about Algeria beyond its borders and how it’s understood differently in a local context. Hopefully, we’ll get to explore that a bit in the module with Assia Djebar because she is a writer who has been read a lot outside Algeria more so than inside. Not all of her works are even available in Algeria, meaning she has a bit of a controversial status there. That’s something we could cover in the module, hopefully.
That leads me nicely onto the next question: in a totally non-standoffish way, what’s the relevance of your research today?
No, I mean, it’s good to ask those questions. It’s really important that we’re forced to justify what we’re doing as well as its relevance. I think there are a couple of strands; I’ve just mentioned the discipline of reading literature in different contexts. In the context of Algeria, the content is particularly politicised because of the way it’s being read, perhaps with a lack of nuance, implicating it in political cultures and debate. We, on the other hand, have articulated a version of their literature that is not directly political. It’s obviously removed from a directly political context, working as a form of art and doing something a little more complicated, but that’s not taking into account the local reception and uses of the literary text. There are clearly divided readings: ‘the West’ understands ‘The Other’, the Algerian, in politics and culture today in certain ways.
It’s trying to articulate its own African version of feminism. I mean, it’s kind of situated in a certain political context and culture. With Une si longue lettre you’ve got this sense of oral culture as well. So you’re right, it’s very different to how we think of literature here, and that’s one of the reasons it’s important to look at. Western literature is not necessarily the best, although it’s pretty good, but if we don’t look at non-Western literature, we lose out and we don’t appreciate or have a full view.
So that’s what we’re looking at in the second-year module. Which other year groups have you taught so far?
At Leeds, I taught first-year Language and Literature modules and then in France, where I was a lecteur, I was teaching across the undergraduate programme (from first to final year). Here at Durham, I’m teaching Language 4 to finalists alongside the Francophone module. On top of that, I’ll be supervising six dissertations, all broadly on Francophone questions. I like hearing what dissertation students have to say.
The way that they’ve set up the language module for finalists here at Durham is really well structured, so it means that we don’t have to do as much preparation. I’ve just been doing some of the marking now, actually, and that’s quite challenging. When you’re grading something, even though it’s formative, the trick is to not have the student become dispirited, to pick out what’s good about the piece and give them positive feedback. It’s tough because you don’t want to put people off straightaway, but it’s worthwhile in the end. The students are final-years, so really at this stage of their language careers, they’re trying to perfect their French. They’ve come back from the Year Abroad; their language might be a bit colloquial as they’ve been using it in everyday scenarios, so we’re trying to draw it back to a more academic level.
But the good thing is that you have the TLRP on your Year Abroad as well — I’m actually supervising 25 of those. I’ve just had a load of the proposals come in, so I’m quite busy at the moment in terms of marking. But it’s ok — it’s good...Don’t write that I’m complaining — I’m not complaining. But there is a fair bit of work to do. Fingers crossed I’ll manage to find some spare time for research too. I’ve applied for some conferences next year, so hopefully I’ll have some of those lined up.
Oh, this is tough… This is possibly the hardest question because it could give so much, or so little...
How about the Great British Bake Off — are you a fan?
Not really. I mean, I did watch a couple of episodes. I’ve been following the whole political fallout over the BBC-Channel 4 switchover. For me, it’s a bit too nationalistic and patriotic. Maybe that’s a simplistic criticism to make, but I feel a little bit uncomfortable watching it. I did see a couple of episodes, I concede — but I’m not going to say I liked it.
Maybe it was a good idea to start off with what I don’t like. I don’t have a television at the moment, which is really tragic. I mean, I could get one, but I have access to film using Netflix. I’m definitely a fan of film. Music-wise...In Leeds, I became a bit of a fan of electronic music and going out dancing… Yeah, I don’t do that anymore, not really — ok, maybe a bit. Actually, I haven't had a chance to check out the clubs in Durham yet...
Have you heard of Klute?
No, I haven’t.
It’s officially the worst nightclub in Europe.
And that’s in Durham?
It’s just across Elvet Bridge. It took the top spot in the rankings after its predecessor burnt down. It’s famed for it’s sticky floors.
Ok, so I’ll avoid Klute — I might go to Newcastle at some point instead. But yeah, I enjoy dancing; my favourite genre of music is disco — a bit of old-school disco goes down a treat. I might even play some disco in my lectures...I probably won’t, but I’ll try to find a link between that and Algeria to make it relevant. If it happens, I’ll look for you guys in the audience. If I can’t find any, then maybe we’ll try some other music — apparently it helps people concentrate.
We certainly wouldn’t mind some music: no objections here!
So we’ve got film, photography, music, and literature — covering all the bases here. I’ll be asking you all for feedback because it’s the first time I’ve designed my own section of a module. Maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone that, actually...
Don’t worry, we trust that it’ll be good! Well, it was nice meeting you. Thank you for your time, and we’ll see you soon!
Yes, it was lovely to meet you both. I’d better go grab some lunch now...
Thə Definite Article would like to thank Dr Ford for his time, and for giving us a great insight into his work. Catch him around Elvet Riverside talking about North Africa, or maybe disco-ing his way through Newcastle. Time will tell...