Núria Codina Solà: Writing Beyond the Mother (Tongue): Gender and Multilingualism in the Works of Najat El Hachmi and Chika Unigwe

This paper approaches world literature from a feminist and multilingual perspective. It examines the role of African women and oral languages in Najat El Hachmi’s La filla estrangera (2015) and Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer (2011). Both novels explore the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and underscore the role of written narration in forging bonds between them. Indeed, they both include fictive written accounts written by one of the characters that shed new light on the mothers’ past and help the daughters to reassess the life story of their progenitors. By doing so, these written narrations do not only help to overcome the differences between generations, they also question essentialist notions of female identity. At the same time, El Hachmi’s novel is structured around a fundamental opposition between orality and literature. Orality is conflated with the illiterate mother and the oral mother tongue (Amazigh), with tradition and female submission, while literature is associated with the foreign written language (Catalan) and with female emancipation. Although this divide is missing in Night Dancer, the emancipatory role of Igbo women’s writing – as opposed to male writing, based on oral tradition – is at the center of Unigwe’s doctoral dissertation In the shadow of Ala. However, rather than reinforcing the distinctions between orality and literature, between mothers and daughters, between the modern and the traditional, both writers expand world literature in terms of gender and language. Drawing on Michael Allan’s book In the Shadow of World Literature, this paper argues that the boundaries of literary discourse are also marked by gender and linguistic hierarchies. El Hachmi and Unigwe show that African women are the typically excluded from the world of literature – or from world literature. Moreover, the multilingual style of the novels defies the monolingual paradigm and places oral, peripheral languages within the scope of world literature.

portraits Nuria Codina Sola

Núria Codina Solà is a postdoctoral fellow at KU Leuven and is currently working on a project on multilingualism, translation and minor languages in contemporary world literature. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Universität Tübingen. Her dissertation (Verflochtene Welten. Transkulturalität in den Werken von Najat El Hachmi, Pius Alibek, Emine Sevgi Özdamar und Feridun Zaimoglu, 2018) focuses on literature of migration in the German and Catalan context. She also holds a BA in German Philology from Universitat de Barcelona and a MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Universität Tübingen. She has taught numerous courses on varied topics at Universitat de Barcelona and at the Institute of European Studies at Chemnitz University of Technology and has worked as an editorial fellow at Words Without Borders, New York’s international magazine for contemporary literature in translation. Her research interests include literary multilingualism, transnational literature, postcolonial studies, translation theory and cultural studies. She has published several articles and delivered numerous talks on these topics.


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