An Algerian Travelogue Offers Important Reflections on Settler Colonial Guilt and Responsibility
Olivia Burton revisited her family's colonial heritage in Algeria, and the gorgeous comic which resulted offers a reflection on our personal imbrication in the colonialism of our forebears
Algeria Is Beautiful Like America
Olivia Burton, Mahi Grand
Algeria is Beautiful Like America falls into the growing category of books produced by writers who embark on personal journeys and tell the story in comic form, in what is becoming an increasingly complex sub-genre.
As someone who loves memoirs -- especially travel memoirs -- I'm thrilled at the growth of the category. Yet while the category contains its share of intelligent and provocative accomplishments, growth comes with consequences. Many of these books are far from literary masterpieces, and more self-absorbed and narcissistic than socially perceptive. This echoes prose literature: a perusal of university libraries or old bookshops will turn up no shortage of short-run vanity editions of memoirs by the rich and dilettantish.
Comics are an ideal form for this sub-genre. For writers whose journeys were short or unremarkable, the nature of the comic form works well, lending bulk to brevity; and for those who travelled to stunningly exotic locations but didn't manage to do anything interesting there, the visual aspect of comics still offers a redeeming quality to the work. Comics are an eminently flexible medium, permitting the writer to concentrate on either visual form or written content -- or in the best of cases, both -- from a variety of perspectives.
These 'personal journey' comics range from the personal and temporal -- introspective reflections on one's life, like Alison Bechdel's memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? -- to the transcontinental wanderings of restless writers (the travelogues of Guy Delisle or Igort come to mind). Some books combine the personal and the transnational -- GB Tran's Vietnamerica, about his journey to Vietnam to discover his family's roots there, is an excellent example.
Algeria is Beautiful Like America is difficult to situate in this broad spectrum of reflexive personal journeys. It's a beautiful comic, yet frustrating at times in its brevity. Written by Olivia Burton and illustrated by Mahi Grand, it follows the journey Burton took to Algeria to seek out the places where her parents and grandparents grew up. They were among the waves of French colonists who migrated to Algeria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek their fortunes. Many of them (Burton's family included) did quite well, as white colonists often do when the military machinery of colonial empire accompanies them, eradicating and exploiting indigenous populations to make room for the settler class.
But as with most colonial adventures, eventually France's foray in Algeria collapsed as well, as the country's oppressed Muslim groups and militant activists (many of them now armed with anti-colonialist theory from French universities) rose up in arms against the settlers. A horrendously violent struggle ensued, marked by brutal terrorism against white settlers and those perceived as their supporters; genocidal counter-measures enacted by French troops against Muslims and the country's racialized and indigenous populations; and of course bloody in-fighting between all of the various factions involved in the war, from French secret police to Muslim activists to Marxist revolutionaries (for a visceral portrayal of this period, there's no more powerful source than Gillo Pontecorvo's 1967 film The Battle for Algiers, which retains its brutal power decades after its original release). Many of the settlers – Burton's family included – fled the country during this violent period. Algeria finally won its independence from France, but at terrible cost, and what was left of the country degenerated into violence, crime, corruption and dictatorship.
As the country's turbulent historical waves slowly settle, more and more of those who left have been drawn back. Burton's journey was initially supposed to be a family trip, but in the end she wound up carrying through with the enterprise alone. Burton, a French professor, journeyed solo to Algeria, armed only with a stranger's contact information, a collection of family photos, and the rough memoir her grandmother had bequeathed her.
The tale itself isn't the most exciting. Burton makes the acquaintance of a curmudgeonly old man who drives her around the country, and manages to hit most of the spots on her family tour. She engages in occasional conversation with the people she meets. She waxes guilty, at significant length, over her complex feelings as the daughter of a family that tapped into and prospered from French colonialism. Her insistent protestations of guilt to the people around her grow tedious at points; even an Algerian woman eventually admonishes her: "It was the war. It made everyone crazy. Neither you nor I are to blame for any of it. We must simply move on."
It's not clear that Burton agrees, and the book honestly shares the confusing muddle of feelings and ideas her journey provokes. That's perhaps the best approach to a fraught topic: no neat resolutions, simply a muddle of complex and contradictory ideas and feelings without any definitive, right or wrong answers.
What makes the book a must-read are the gorgeous illustrations of Mahi Grand, which are simply breathtaking. Consisting largely of pencil sketches, mostly in soft greys punctuated by the occasional full-colour rendering (all the more dramatic for the contrast this provokes), the book's artwork is stunning. From intricately detailed urban cityscapes to the vast and picturesque mountain landscapes, the soft and gentle illustrations are simply mesmerizing.
Tackling Colonial Guilt
The narrative is sparse and sometimes self-indulgent, yet does a good job of explicating many of the complex angles of French colonialism in Algeria. Many of those who moved to Algeria were themselves poor French families seeking a hopeful future, revealing the tangled knots of class and colonialism which drove France's imperialist venture (the perceptive reader will detect a double irony here, given that it is the descendants of those now-returned French colonists, themselves originally poor migrants, who today, enriched from the avails of their own illegal migration into the Algerians' lands, now protest against contemporary economic refugees and migrants trying to do the exact same thing in the opposite direction, by entering Europe). Burton's sense of guilt comes across pretty profoundly; at times it's unclear whether she's more eager to seek her family roots or her own imbrication in French colonialism. Of course, acknowledging the dark brutality and very real history of colonialism is important, and it's difficult to say what other approach could have been taken by a well-off French professor wandering the poor villages and hinterlands of Algeria.
It's perhaps misplaced to criticize a work like this; some commentators--for example the excellent folks at ComicsVerse--use the book as a platform for revisiting the brutal legacy of French colonialism. In fact, reading their excellent reception for Burton's colonial critique gave me pause and cause for reflection. They seemed as impressed as I'd hoped to feel from the book; why then did I feel a lingering dissatisfaction with it?
I think, in retrospect, my criticism was generated by the tentativeness with which Burton approaches the topic. It surely is laudable that she's tackled the guilty legacy that generations who have benefited from the avails of colonialism ought rightly to feel. For readers who haven't had the opportunity to witness or confront France's colonial heritage (or the colonialism of their own national heritage, wherever that may be), the comic might indeed serve as a breakthrough or gateway comic on the topic of colonialism (one senses it would be particularly useful in school settings). Yet I still feel it doesn't go far enough, especially for those who are familiar with France's colonial crimes and brutal violence in the country: one yearns to hear more precisely what Burton would like to contribute, intellectually speaking, to this difficult discussion. Lightly grazing such a rightly sore topic doesn't do it justice: if these complex debates are to be entered into, they must be entered into wholeheartedly. A travelogue is not, perhaps, the place to do it; at least not one of a mere 176 pages. What is the obligation of those of us descended from settler societies, when it comes to our relationship to the places and peoples colonized, especially in the recent past? It's one of the key questions of our age, and one worth trying to answer.
Perhaps, though, what matters after all is Burton's opening the discussion. Some scholars have argued for the importance of reflections on collective guilt emanating from the oppressor group itself, rather than from the group which experienced the harm. The research of Bertjan Doosje, for instance, found that "when the in-group is the source of the information [about colonial violence], it makes the negative information about the group's historical actions more difficult to dismiss"; hearing history from the oppressed group resulted in a greater likelihood the oppressor would question its credibility or find reasons to brush it off; either way, they would experience a reduced sense of collective guilt. (Branscombe & Doosje, Collective Guilt: International Perspectives, Cambridge University Press) Ah, colonialism: reiterating oppressive hierarchies even in the experience of colonial guilt!
A tempered critique then: Burton does deserve all the props she's received for tackling her guilt as the descendant of colonial settlers, and for many readers this book will probably open important doors. But let's hope that in future such comics go beyond merely grazing the surface. If one is going to rip off the scab, one needs to grit one's teeth and look seriously, long and hard at what lies beneath.
Not quite a masterpiece, but much more than a vanity memoir, Algeria Is Beautiful Like America feels like it would have benefited from greater length. There's no reason to cut these important intellectual discussions short, even in comics. Still, Burton's book offers a solid contribution to this important conversation, turning a would-be travelogue into something more -- a comic intervention in decolonization -- and that coupled with Grand's superb illustrations make this a book worth checking out.