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Strategic auto-exoticism: Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir (1953) and Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994)

Pages 539-551 | Published online: 04 Mar 2021


Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child) and Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994) explore coming-of-age stories and postcolonial identity through autobiographical, anthropological accounts of colonial childhoods. Both texts can be read as auto-exotic as they are written in the language of the colonizer (or for an international audience in Mernissi’s case), and portray exotic rites and commonplaces designed to appeal to a western readership. However, these auto-exotic and anthropological elements form part of a complex strategy that aims to undermine them and, instead, convey messages of cultural complexity, dignity, harmony, and intersectional Muslim feminism. The auto-exotic serves as a pretext for the re-appropriation and re-creation of the world colonialism has destroyed in Camara Laye, and for the empowerment of women against all forms of oppression – colonial, cultural, or religious – in Mernissi.

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No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


1. All subsequent references to L’Enfant noir (The Dark Child) are to the translation by Kirkup and Jones (Camara Citation1954).

2. Although Camara Laye is often referred to as having the surname “Laye” because of his writing with his name in this order, Camara is in fact his last name as well as that of his father’s clan. Laye is his first name. To clarify the citations, I refer to him as “Laye” when I write about the character and cite him as “Camara” in-text and in the list of references.

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Notes on contributors

Roswitha Zahlner

Roswitha Zahlner was born in Vienna in 1971 and raised in rural Austria, and studied at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, France, finishing with a Maîtrise in English literature. While there, she began to learn Arabic and became interested in North African literature. After moving to the US, she continued her studies in French with a masters and then a PhD in French literature at Washington University in St. Louis. She currently lives in Collado Mediano, Spain, and teaches French, English composition and literature, and women’s and gender studies at Saint Louis University, Madrid Campus.

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