French-Tunisian Novelist Colette Fellous Tells History Through Literature

Author meets with Duke students in classes and lecture

Author Colette Fellous, right, chats with Duke first-year students, from left, Amee Tan, Dan Altman and Erin Russell, before her talk at the Foreign Languages building. Photo by Jared Lazarus, Duke University Photography

French-Tunisian author Colette Fellous says she's a fortunate writer in that the people of Tunisia keep giving her a history to write about.

Born in Tunisia in 1950, Fellous' heavily autobiographical novels are shaped by large moments, notably Tunisia independence in 1956 and the emigration of much of the nation's previously thriving Jewish community in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Days War.

Now with the 2011 revolution, the people of Tunisia have provided more material for her.  During a visit to Duke's campus this week, Fellous said experiencing the change in Tunisia has been both exciting and cautionary and that writers have an important role to play in the direction the uprising takes.

"Even though I have lived in France since I was 17, I remain connected to Tunisia. It's been so marvelous to experience the liberty and the spread of democracy after the revolution," said Fellous, speaking in French during a visit to Duke's campus this week.  Romance Studies Professor Helen Solterer provided a translation. 

Fellous is returning to Tunisia this weekend. "I want to be an ongoing witness and participant to the change there.  Journalists were writing a lot immediately after the events of the uprising, but for me, fiction is indispensable.  Fiction writers can see the nuances that are expressed in events, and when there are social problems, these nuances must be examined in order for society to grow. One has to have the full complexity of situation."

But she returns to Tunisia as fears are rising that some of the promises of the uprising are being broken.  "That's why it's important that writers and literature should do the work of memory," she said.  "Otherwise these moments and hopes are forgotten.

"The role of women is crucial if democracy is to be nurtured.  Women were at the forefront of the revolution, and they remain its defenders.  At [a university in Manouba in northeastern Tunisia], some Islamist students attempted to take down the Tunisian flag last month and replace it with their own, but a young woman named Khawla Rashidi confronted them.  They beat her and pushed her out of the way, but she kept saying No!  Now she has been decorated by the president and is a national hero.  I think that is symbolic of the role young women will play."

Fellous describes her works as "a stroll through history." Her acclaimed 2001 novel, "Avenue of France," takes the reader through the architecture of the city of Tunis along one of its most famous streets, telling the story of her family along the way, leading  readers into the  medina -- the Arab center of the city.

Her latest novel is "Un Amour de frere" (A Brother's Love), another heavily autobiographical work about the death of her brother as a young man. 

She spoke at Duke Thursday in a talk sponsored by the Department of Romance Studies and the Center for French and Francophone Studies. During her visit, she also participated in the classes of Professors Deborah Reisinger and Solterer, talking about events in Tunisia that she covers on her radio program on the station, "France-Culture."