Early September ushers in Labor Day, and with it, the unofficial end of summer. For Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser Professor of French at Yale University, the summer may have appeared especially brusque, arriving on the heels of her recently published literary-cultural memoir Dreaming in French. The book, an animate portrayal of three iconoclastic American women—Angela Davis, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and Susan Sontag—during their ubiquitous junior-years abroad, explores the lures that the City of Light would cast on them in their formative years and beyond, from themes of seduction and escape to rising political consciousness and the struggle for selfhood.
Kaplan spent a portion of July blogging her experiences in Algeria for the Best American Poetry blog, considering literary and political culture in light of the French colonial experience, and evaluating the changes facing the nation 50 years after it fully declared its independence from France:
People like to say there was no Arab spring in Algiers because everyone was still traumatized by the violence in the 1990s. On the other hand, the “Place des martyrs”—the big gathering place at the base of the Casbah—is completely blocked off for public works (metro etc). And during the events in Tunisia, there were so many police in Algiers that the city, long known as “Alger la blanche,” white Algiers, became “Alger la bleue”—blue Algiers. Also, out of the blue, the university professors got a 200 percent raise in salary last year. Making their salaries comparable with their Tunisian and Moroccan counterparts. How to measure the chilling effect of the death of a gentle activist in Oran?
Before embarking on her travels, Kaplan sat down with novelist Arthur Phillips (The Tragedy of Arthur, 2011) to discuss Dreaming in French from another vantage: the lingering experience of expatriate identity, and how it continued to shape the lives of Davis, Bouvier Kennedy, and Sontag, long after they returned to American shores. Kaplan and Phillips elevate their tête-à-tête to a #longreads-style literary conversation, informed by both of their recent works, and filled with insight into how traveling to places foreign to our sense of self helps us to become something other than what we were before: