Joyce Mansour (1928-1986), while of Egyptian origins, was born in Bowden, England.
Mansour's parents planned her birth in England so that she could carry a British passport, thus easing travel between Europe and Egypt. She grew up between the two cultures, 'vivant la moitié de l'année en Egypte', where she attended school.
During her teenage years she was educated in Switzerland and later graduated from Cairo University before travelling to France. Mansour moved to France in her late twenties, publishing her first collection of poetry, Cris, in that same year, 1953.
This collection caught the attention of the Surrealists and she joined the Surrealist Group soon after, becoming particularly well known for her poetry. She died in 1986 in Paris.
She was married twice, her first husband dying while she was still
young. English was Mansour's first European language, she is reported as speaking French with an English accent, yet it was in French that she chose to write. This mixture of cultures and loyalties is a common feature amongst Francophone writers from countries other than France. They belong neither completely to the East, nor to the West. Mansour's identity lay in her difference, for while her identity crossed several cultures it belonged to no single one. Mansour describes herself as "une femme étrange", both strange and foreign.
It is this meeting of cultures, the ability to stand on the edge of both, that gives Mansour her most powerful images. Her writing is tight with puns and word play. To appreciate her work fully the reader must be aware not only of French, but also of English meanings and associations.
Judith Preckshot titled her discussion of Mansour's narratives Identity Crises, and, starting with two lines from Mansour's work:
"If God is a kite
what the hell is George Sand?"
Preckshot sets out to explore the multiplicity that is Joyce Mansour:
"(...) behind which mask(s) will we discover Joyce Mansour, English-born Egyptian but French language poet and prose writer? As the term of compalison in George Sand implies, Mansour will not be defined other than through a writerly persona that integrates bi-national, dual-linguistic and double-gendered characteristics."
Mansour has commented that her work is largely autobiographical; however the scenarios that she writes are larger than life, mythical and fantastic. Although it would be risky to read too many parallels between her life and her writing, it is possible to discover, from the recurring tensions and images in her work, the issues and struggles Mansour faced in writing.
On first reading, Mansour appears to follow the Surrealist tradition of the
brutalisation of women. Women characters in her work are raped, murdered, silenced, and driven mad. This brutality against women is a common feature of myth and literature. Yet Mansour's characters question these roles, leading the reader to also question the literary and mythical histories which have assigned them. Mansour uses the fantastic dream world of Surrealism to take the reader through to the other side of literature and into its image world. The literary world is explored through the imagery which has been used to describe it and it is revealed as sexual, violent and disturbed. Mansour journeys through literature and myth, subverting images and questioning the place of her own identity within this world. Mansour uses the tools of Surrealism to dismantle the patriarchal model of literature both outside the Surrealist movement and within.
Mansour was placed firmly in the margin both of mainstream literature and the Surrealist movement, yet she fought back in her writing. Her work is often described as erotic and violent, for Mansour's own exploration of the role of women in writing would appear to be both thrilling and ten-ifying, as in it her identity was both found and threatened. This dichotomy is manifested in an internal struggle which is powerfully portrayed in her writing. Mansour's writing is not the conclusion or advancement of a theory of literature. Her writing is the process of creating text. As a result, Mansour's relationship with literature is played out as she writes.
* Antoun, Elizabeth Tanya. Writing across the Lines - A study of selected novels by Joyce Mansour, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Andrée Chedid and Leila Barakat, University of Canterbury, 2001