Khouloud “Lou” Gargouri, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), researches contemporary francophone literature and theater, with a special focus on female solo performances. Gargouri grew up in Tunisia, an Arabic-speaking country with a francophone heritage deriving from its colonial past. She spoke with Tableau about politics, comedy, and memories of fictional characters.

Why did you choose to focus on one-woman shows?

Women are really taking the stage—for entertainment and to spread awareness about women’s issues such as abortion, immigration, racism, and breaking taboos. I’m particularly interested in the use of the stage to spread political messages about female history and oppression, and how theater can become a way to fight back.

For my doctoral research, supported by the François Furet Travel Grant, I attended 26 plays at a theater festival in Avignon. One performance helped me ground my doctoral work: Gardiennes, a play written and performed by Fanny Cabon, who stages her own family line over a century in a series of ten monologues illustrating different women as they struggle with abortion, alternating between comic and tragic.

Does your research focus on all French-speaking countries or mainly France?

At first I was very ambitious: France, Tunisia, Morocco, and Canada. But it’s too much for a PhD timeline. Right now I’m focusing on France and conducting research in Paris for the academic year.

What brought you to UChicago?

After college in Tunis, I taught French at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. I wanted to stay in America because it’s more about my interdisciplinary path—it’s validated and valued in the US. I spent one year at Tufts University studying French literature and started performing stand-up in Boston comedy clubs. When I saw that I could combine theater and literature at UChicago, it seemed perfect.

What does your comedy focus on?

It all started because I felt that people around me knew so little about Tunisia. I open my stand-up by introducing Tunisia’s geography and repeating all the weird and funny comments I get when people learn that I’m from there. (No, it’s not “Indonesia”; yes, I am a White African; yes, I speak Arabic and can perfectly say “Allahu Akbar.”)

You mentioned attending plays and taking a course in stand-up at Cours Florent, a prestigious drama school in Paris. What else does your current research entail?

Spending time in the Bibliothèque Nationale, attending conferences, speaking with directors. I’m also working with Françoise Lavocat from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, who was in Chicago last year as a visiting professor. The project is about memory of fictional characters—how did you meet certain characters, under what circumstances? We first surveyed in the US, China, Japan, Russia, and France—of course—as well as other countries. I can tell you that Harry Potter is kind of on top.

I was curious about memories in my home country, and Professor Lavocat was eager to expand the survey, so I collaborated with fellow Tunisians and collected around 136 answers.

What kind of differences did you notice?

We noticed Americans tend to discover favorite characters by themselves, whereas in Russia or Tunisia, which are more family oriented, relatives introduce characters. The survey is ongoing but so far, my major finding was that, despite its heavy colonial heritage, Tunisia has its own references. The most cited book was written by the Tunisian author Mahmoud Messadi.

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Khouloud Gargouri