Some notes on David Mitchell at the Music Box Theater, 8 November 2015

Not the “or” but the “and,” David Mitchell said last night. We shouldn’t have to choose between literary and genre fiction, high and low—and of course there was more than a little transgender subtext to the whole thing, since he was in conversation with Lana Wachowski. Then he closed the evening talking about the difficulty of crafting compelling villains: “The problem of evil is really tricky.” I wish I could capture how he elaborated on that statement, but the gist of my understanding was that there is no way to write a compelling villain without understanding how that villain thinks they are acting with good in mind. And finally, Mitchell closed the conversation with this quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart…”

And when he said that, I sighed in recognition. The passage continues:

“…and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Writers aim not to destroy, but to draw out our contradictions and complexities. And now we’re back to Ian KcEwan’s “Only Love and oblivion”: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

The kindness and imagination of “and.” I’ll be thinking about this for some time, particularly as it concerns Francophone writing as a social and political choice—and the disciplinary divide between creative writing and, well, every other academic discipline.

Update on Charlie Hebdo censure from the IBDS conference at ULIP

Jane Weston Vauclair has continued pursuing dialogue on the censure of the two panels on Charlie Hebdo from the IBDS conference to be held next week at University of London—Paris. Here is an open letter she has written regarding the current state of affairs:

Dear all,

As you are aware, I was due to deliver a paper on Charlie Hebdo and the events of January at the “Voyages” conference at ULIP in Paris. 3 weeks ago, it was made known to me that these panels needed to be removed from the conference programme. This of course concerned me greatly, amounting as it did to an alarming restriction on the freedom of academic conferences to discuss the events of January in Paris and their aftermath. Despite my efforts to request for the panels to be reinstated, I had to accept after meeting Mr Docherty yesterday, that the panels are officially, unequivocally, cancelled and that it will not be possible for my paper to be delivered. Yesterday’s meeting made that entirely clear. The ULIP venue is, on Mr Docherty’s intractable insistence, subject to a centralised safety policy pertaining to the duty of care he owes to the minors who learn English on site at the British Council. This makes the site utterly unfit for purpose as a venue for an academic conference given the current vigipirate setting in Paris. The Belfast conference reversal set an important precedent: that censorship of legitmate academic debate on Charlie Hebdo and related topics can and must be flagged up and reversed. Both the British Council and ULIP as an institution have, sadly, failed to recognise and mitigate a virtual structural certainty – the cancellation of the panels on safety grounds – given the way their space is shared. The CEO of ULIP has, despite Mr Docherty’s clarity on this matter, stated in email communications dating from yesterday that the conference will, I quote, operate as follows:

“Comme prévu, nous accueillerons la sixième conférence « International Graphic Novels and Comics » ainsi que la neuvième conférence « International Bande Dessinée Society » en juin à l’Université de Londres Institut à Paris. Malgré l’annulation d’un petit nombre de présentations pour des raisons de sécurité ces conférences permettront aux participants d’avoir l’opportunité de débattre sur un large éventail de thèmes en rapport avec la bande dessinée, du moyen âge jusqu’à nos jours, y compris l’affaire Charlie Hebdo et les évènements sans précédent qui ont eu lieu en janvier dernier à Paris.”

With this statement, Mr Gore is, again de facto, indicating that the children will be just as much at risk as if the Charlie Hebdo panels had gone ahead, because there will be almost virtually the same scope for the conference participants to debate and engage – if not more – with the topic of Charlie Hebdo affair and the events of January. Such debate and exchange is exactly what is needed. And the panels should of course go ahead alongside that.

On this, I fully agree with Gérard Biard, the director of Charlie Hebdo, in his article of June 3: “Certes, le British Council est responsable de la sécurité des élèves qui ont cours dans ses locaux. Mais cette honorable institution culturelle a également la responsabilité de veiller à ce que lesdits élèves grandissent et vivent dans un monde riche en cultures variées et en débats féconds. Et anticiper les désirs de fanatiques obscurantistes qui ont pour seuls arguments la violence et la terreur n’est pas forcément le meilleur moyen d’y parvenir”.

The British Council, rather than short-sightedly limiting its role to addressing the question of ‘duty of care’ to children, should be prepared to make the necessary arrangements to support ULIP in holding a conference dealing with a perfectly legitimate topic in an entirely responsible, proportionate way. To do so, they should arrange for the appropriate measures to be taken to secure the building in line with what is fitting for an academic conference. If it does, then I too shall be able, after all, to speak on the programme as was originally arranged. I will be sure to voice this point through all available avenues.

Best regards,

Jane Weston Vauclair

On banning discussion of Charlie Hebdo at academic conferences

Friend and colleague Jane Weston Vauclair wrote her dissertation on the politics and aesthetics of Hara-Kiri and Charlie Hebdo some years ago. While she has continued her research, she has also become a freelance translator and teacher at various schools in Paris. Since the events of January, she has been asked to speak at various universities and conferences on the meaning of Charlie Hebdo in French society and culture, including the conference Voyages: The Sixth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference / Ninth International Bande Dessinée Conference, in which the extended CFP explicitly asked for papers on Charlie Hebdo.

In the intervening time, Paul Docherty, Director of British Council France, has told the conference organizers that the Charlie panels cannot be held on site in concert with the other panels, citing the safety of primary school children learning English in adjoining rooms.

I will let Jane speak for herself in response; if anyone has thoughts or ideas for how to open the discussion on banning Charlie Hebdo and related censorship topics, feel free to contact her at

This topic will also be raised at the Charlie Hebdo conference in Belfast this coming week, which, you may recall, was nearly cancelled, citing security reasons as well.

Dear all,

I am a Paris-based translator, academic and English language coach of British nationality who has lived in Paris for the past ten years. I hold a PhD in French Studies from Bristol University and my research examines the aesthetics and politics of humour in the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and Hara-Kiri.

I am currently preparing a paper for the Belfast conference to be held on contemporary perspectives on citizenship at Queens University. As many of you are, I’m sure aware, this was a conference that has had to be reinstated, having been cancelled owing to security concerns. My paper at Belfast will be looking at the tensions between the global and the local, and between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction since the events of January in Paris.

These issues have, however, struck even closer to home than I had previously thought possible, having recently been asked if I would prepare to change the topic of an upcoming paper on Charlie Hebdo that I had due to deliver at a conference on bande dessinée and cartooning to be hosted by the University of London in Paris at the end of June. As many of you know, ULIP at Invalides, close to the Assemblée Nationale. The reason for this issue, as far as I have been given to understand, is that the British Council shares the premises with ULIP and that its director, Mr Paul Docherty, does not feel he is in a position to accept the 2 panels on Charlie Hebdo out of concern for the safety of the young learners in the building. As such, he has seen to it that the panels on Charlie Hebdo have been removed from the programme.

I have been in contact with Mr Docherty and he has confirmed this position, stating:

“You are absolutely right that this has not been an easy decision to make and that it has unwelcome consequences. However I can only reiterate what I said before – we have no issue with the conference or its content, it is not our place to comment on that, but we do have a concern with the location for the event for the reasons that you have given in your reply. I am sure that the organisers of the event from Glasgow would not choose to hold the event at a primary school on the Byres Road. Equally the University of London would, I am sure, not choose to run the conference in space shared with the University crèche or in a school in Bloomsbury. As you know, the British Council in Paris is effectively a school catering to young learners as well as adults and the building we share with ULIP is fully integrated. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I have taken the position I have.”

The conference organisers have offered to try and find an alternative venue for the Charlie Hebdo papers, as such mitigating censorship down to marginalisation, working as best they can with the fallout from the suppression of the panels, which reflects their absolute desire for panels to go ahead. But this still troubles me immensely. Mr Docherty seems to be saying that there is nothing else he can do than ban the panels from happening alongside the other papers, for the sake of the safety of the children on the premises. It does concern me, I must admit, that he is prepared to use these children and their families to justify decisions likely contrary to their values, i.e., censorship and freedom of speech in a city still very much marked by the events of January.

Moreover, despite what Mr Docherty is claiming, cancelling the panels is not the only option, in my opinion. Hosting any event carries risks—that doesn’t mean that we simply stop hosting events. Rather, we take steps to mitigate risks, for example, we increase the security presence/procedures at the event. In this case, there is a choice between mitigating risks in a way that tramples on our values of free expression, or mitigating risks in a way that does not trample on those values.

I would very much welcome your views on this, as academics on Francofil. For my part, adding these panels to the main body of the conference had struck me as a sensible, measured thing to do for this conference. The panels were not the centrepiece of the conference. To include the panels had struck me as a way to mark respect for the victims and solidarity with the values of freedom of speech and the work of the cartoonist victims. A small, discreet, but crucial act of respect. Truly, I don’t believe these panels should hijack the conference (although I appreciate that the very act of banning them certainly militates for that).

But I don’t want the panels to be quarantined and stigmatised by moving them away from the others; I don’t want to feel any more discriminated against in the topic of the talk than I already have; I don’t want my talk to be stigmatised as a burden through an institution which claims to have debate and the free exchange of ideas as part of its DNA (quoting Paul Docherty’s own email to me). I’m happy for my talk to be part of one of 3 parallel panels at the time and place when it was originally scheduled: I want the panels to happen alongside the rest of the conference and I really do still believe that the original location is a very fitting one.

Equally, as I have said to Mr Docherty in one of my emails:

“I am sure that you feel that your decision is in the best interest of the students to whom you have a duty of care at the British Council. I can moreover imagine that the decision was not an easy one – it was surely rather difficult to have to choose to exert de facto academic censorship, not least so soon after the events of January when freedom of expression was the central value defended as the very thing that should not become the victim of the terrorists’ actions, what with the terrible loss that would be to the kind of society we all aspire to live in: one which indeed values dialogue and exchange, perhaps especially in the face of a certain degree of fear.

I suppose you were aware of how this could well come across to the academics affected by the situation, to the members of the public who are becoming aware of the situation, and of the distress it might cause those who had worked so hard to organise the conference and these two panels in response to the urge to engage productively, critically and responsibly with the important questions emerging from the events of January, as is their job to do, including out of respect for the journalists and cartoonists who died and whose stature in the world of French culture can hardly be overplayed, despite the undeniably controversial aspects of various parts of their work.

I suppose you were aware that there could be no perfect solution in such a difficult situation, but decided to err on the side of caution. I would respectfully put it to you, however, that your decision has come as a considerable shock and indeed conveyed a sense of great defeat. While it is true that now, the children of the British council will be incrementally safer than they would have been should my talk and those of the others on the Charlie Hebdo panels have happened, as one academic not involved in the conference has commented to me: “Apparently extreme religious groups threaten violence for a reason–it works”.

That makes me both sad and angry. If the panels are indeed blocked, I would have to agree with him. And by blocked, I mean if they are unable to be delivered on an equal footing with the rest of the conference without stigmatisation or marginalisation on site with the other papers, as originally planned. The threat of violence, if this transpires, will have worked and academic discussion will have been silenced through the very institutions that, perhaps naively or idealistically, I had truly trusted to come through for us, showing courage and leadership I could be proud of. Is there really no way that these panels could go ahead in a dignified, respectful fashion, as they had originally programmed?”

Again, I would very much welcome your thoughts and thank you for your attention. The conference participants are all aware of the situation and I have very much appreciated the extent to which they have expressed their solidarity and understanding of the stance I am taking. I do feel that it is part of the responsibility I have as a British citizen in Paris with a PhD on the topic that I have.

Best regards,
Jane Weston Vauclair

Jane Weston Vauclair
Traduction – coaching linguistique

On the passing of Assia Djebar (1936-2015): not a moment of silence, but a moment to speak

Normally, we hold a moment of silence to honor the dead. In honor of Assia Djebar, shall we institute a moment to speak?

Djebar was a renowned novelist, filmmaker, and advocate for Algerian women’s rights. One of the central tropes in her work is women’s expression, as a struggle for freedom and an epistemological problem, whether in the 19th century harem, from under the veil, or in speech, music, or writing.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from Djebar’s groundbreaking feminist novella Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in their Apartment)(1978):

Une femme qui parle devant une autre qui regarde, celle qui parle raconte-t-elle l’autre aux yeux dévorants, à la mémoire noire ou décrit-elle sa propre nuit, avec des mots torches et des bougies dont la cire fond trop vite? Celle qui regarde, est-ce à force d’écouter, d’écouter et de se rappeler qu’elle finit par se voir elle-même, avec son propre regard, sans voile enfin… (122)

(A woman speaking in front of another one who’s watching; does the one who’s speaking tell the story of the other one with the devouring eyes, with the black memories, or is she describing her own dark night with words like torches and with candles whose wax melts too fast? She who watches, is it by means of listening, of listening and remembering that she ends up seeing herself, with her own eyes, unveiled at last… [47])

assia_djebarMore on Djebar:

From Arabic Literature (in English), with links to some of Djebar’s works translated into English, here. Also see Authors Remember Assia Djebar.

“…we are lauding her here because she has given weeping its words and longing its lyrics.”—William Gass, “Encomium for Assia Djebar, 1996 Neustadt Laureate” (WLT Vol. 40, Autumn 1996)

Nécrologie: Le Monde

No obituaries in major American publications yet, but they are surely forthcoming.

On Charlie Hebdo

Here are two particularly thoughtful and resonant pieces on the Charlie Hebdo assassinations – neither piece sugarcoats Charlie Hebdo‘s oftentimes sophomoric satire, and they both lay out how complicated this terrain: liberté, égalité, fraternité indeed…

Teju Cole’s “Unmournable Bodies” from The New Yorker

Omid Safi’s “9 Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo” from

Crowdsourcing call for student research topics on the CTA Red Line…

Anyone everyone, I’m putting together a list of possible research topics on the CTA Red Line for my students’ research papers. Your ideas on research sites – all things social, cultural, political, and historical – that are situated or took place in proximity to the Red Line are welcome! Here is the course description
– please feel free to email me or touch base on Twitter. Thanks much!