Myth and the Maternal Voice: Mediation in the Poetry of Vénus Khoury-Ghata
Braswell, Margaret Anne
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Born under the French Mandate in Lebanon, Paris-based Francophone poet and novelist Vénus Khoury-Ghata represents a generation of Lebanese writers who have witnessed Lebanon's evolution from a newly independent state to a twenty-first century nation struggling to survive the devastation of civil war and regional conflict. Like many of her compatriots who have chosen exile and whose mother tongue is Arabic, Khoury-Ghata's negotiation between two languages and cultures nurtures an oeuvre that reflects the tensions and provocations of a dual Franco-Lebanese identity. An examination of her poetry represents an opportunity to direct more attention to a poet whose passionate representation of her native country and the pathos of the human figure memorializes in verse personal and collective tragedy. Khoury-Ghata's narrative-driven poems reveal the dynamics of accommodating differences by promoting encounter and integration, while recognizing that confrontation is not entirely unavoidable. Seeking to reconcile the distance and the passage of time that separate the poet from her origins, as well as linguistic and cultural differences that divide self and society, her approach evokes the contemporary poet's quest for a rapprochement, however ephemeral, with the Other, often in the context of an autobiographical project that merges History and myth. Her consistent evocation in writing and interviews of her dual identity invites an examination of her verse in the framework of theoretical notions based on binary structures. Informed by surrealist and magical realist strategies, as well as French and Arab poetic legacies, Khoury-Ghata's verse expresses a paradigm of inversion that renders the common narrative fantastic, transforms the ordinary housewife into a supernatural heroine, and sanctifies the abject. Evocations of language and myth affiliated with this subversive dynamic encourage the investigation of their significance in the framework of binary structures that privilege the negative and the nocturnal. Julia Kristeva's theory of poetic language provides one method for the analysis of Khoury-Ghata's portrayal of the maternal figure and maternal language as negative and subversive feminine forces. This study will underscore how the poet's integration into her text of signifiers of Arabic, orality, and pre-verbal impulses, weaves the maternal voice and gestures into a mythical narrative. In addition, French myth critics such as Gilbert Durand and Pierre Brunel propose various reflections on the development of mythical structures, archetypes, and themes, whose evocations in Khoury-Ghata's verse underscore a poetic strategy of the recovery and revival of her Lebanese origins linked to a broader Mediterranean culture. Durand's isotopic classification of images according to a dichotomous paradigm of the diurnal and nocturnal throws into relief the archetype of the nocturnal Grande déesse whose enigmatic (re)productive power suggests correspondences with the maternal dynamic in Kristeva's semiotic theory, as well as the surrealist médiatrice, and Wendy Faris' conception of the mystical feminine in magical realist strategies. The theme of mediation persists in the poet's mythico-poetic approach that promotes the contact and fusion of contrary forces in diverse "narratives in verse" representing cosmogonic myth, the myth of the primitive Other, biomythography, folktale and fable, and the interaction of myth and memoir. This inquiry demonstrates the durability and plasticity of binary structures of myth and language that mediate personal and collective identities challenged by the potential polarization of languages, cultures, and genders.