-written by Caroline Kirby (Class of 2012: Honors in Comparative Literature and a major in French)
I am coming of age in a time when image and sound are replacing the written word in many forms of communication. Even significant life events are flashed on Instagram before they are summarized on Facebook, or, in an even more archaic form, detailed via e-mail. As a Comparative Literature major, research became the outlet for me to both rediscover the written word and translate it into today’s audio-visual language.
Dr. Inger Brodey’s Comparative Literature 250 course challenged me to interpret literary works of art through disciplines such as music, art and film. Just as Romantic poets rewrote Classical epics in the context of their experiences, so contemporary filmmakers rewrite novels and short-stories through the lens of a camera. We studied how syntactical elements in prose, such as punctuation and sentence structure, can be communicated through audiovisual media.
The next semester, I discovered in Dr. Valerie Pruvost’s French 310 course a topic ahead of its time, captured not through text but through image and sound. According to Benjamin Stora’s La gangrene et l’oubli (La Découverte, 2005), trans. Gangrene and Oblivion, the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) remains largely undocumented in contemporary French history. As I discovered more about this “guerre sans nom” (war without a name), I came to understand these events were not recorded on pages but on the streets of Paris and Algiers, captured only by rare photographs (see Elie Kagan’s) and oral histories (Leila Sebbar’s La Seine Était Rouge (Thierry Magnier, 2003), trans. The Seine Was Red).
A Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship provided me with the resources to continue the work of historians Jean-Luc Einaudi and Benjamin Stora in filling in the blanks of history books surrounding the French-Algerian War. I took particular interest in the traumatic events of October 17, 1961 in Paris, France. On that night, thousands of anti-war protestors left their homes to march peacefully through the streets, yet hundreds were never seen again. On the eve of its 50th anniversary, historians, writers and activists were calling the French government to acknowledge the Paris Massacre, and I was among them.
Informed by the work of Einaudi and Stora, I traveled to sites in Paris where violence had occurred on the night of October 17, 1961. I was largely unimpressed. These train stations, statues and cafés seemed shrouded in the prosaic din of vehicles and passer-bys, none of whom slowed to take notice. I yearned to honor those whose lives were lost there, communicating their stories in the audio-visual language of my time. I returned to Chapel Hill with hundreds of photographs and hours of footage, and, with FinalCutPro and my narrative voice, began to write the story of the Paris Massacre.
The following academic year, I had the opportunity to present my work at Virginia Tech University’s ACC Meeting of the Minds Conference and at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Celebration of Undergraduate Research Symposium. I was thrilled to continue my discovery of unwritten francophone histories through a Fulbright Research Grant to Geneva, Switzerland following graduation. Image and sound have become my way of writing, and the lens has become my pen. I am grateful for those professors who taught me the languages of literature, film, French and Arabic, and for those mentors who gave me the confidence to write in my own.