In Nina Bouraoui’s novel Tomboy, agirl named Nina experiences an anguished childhood as a result of herbackground. She has an Algerian father and a French mother, and these differencescause both societies to disown her.
Bouraoui employs different objects andimages to portray how Nina is treated as a foreigner by both cultures, mirrorsbeing one example. The reader understands the struggles she endures throughouther life, through this medium. Mirrors allow Nina to see herself how she believesothers see her, and the judgement that comes with those perspectives. Nina’s consternation is evidentthrough her voice as the narrator, which is a result of her lack of identity.Nina never feels as though she belongs, whether she is in Algeria or France. WithNina being the narrator, the only way the reader can understand how othersperceive her, is through her own eyes, which is made possible through the useof mirrors.
In the first chapter, Nina introduces the concept of mirroring,”This life is brutal. It is voiceless and faceless. Agitated, I sleep badly andeat little. Amine mirrors my insanity” (Bouraoui 4).
Amine, who also has Frenchand Algerian parents, reflects what she is feeling. We quickly understand Nina’sfeelings towards her dual-cultural background, by her acknowledging that Aminemirrors her. Amine takes on an important role throughout the novel in thatsense, as Nina consistently compares herself to Amine. In reaction to Amineleaving Algeria, Nina loses that reference point, “with his absence, I lose myother name, my mirror” (Bouraoui 99). This leads the mirror to become a toxicspace for Nina, as it reflects the judgements she thinks everyone else ismaking of her. Usually, when you look at yourself in the mirror, you seeyourself through your own eyes, whereas Nina is so focused on how society perceivesher, that her mirror must be warped and cracked.
Nina begins to explain anotherconflict she experiences every day, when she sees some Algerian boys playing inthe street. Nina says, “I watch the boys in the street after school, playingwith the new-found sun . . . How they mirror my rage” (Bouraoui 9). WhilstAmine reflects to Nina how society perceives her, these boys instead reflect a internalfeeling that she struggles to suppress throughout the novel.
We learn later inthe novel that Nina has masculine traits and feeling, but she feels she has tosuppress them and cannot act on them. Thus, the boys playing in the streetrepresent how Nina wishes she could express her masculinity, and her inabilityto leads her to the “rage” that the boys reflect. Mirrors in Tomboy play an importantrole in demonstrating how you must look at other people to reflect both desiresthat others act on, and those that remain hidden. Nina claims, “Each person issomeone else’s mirror as well as his defeat” (Bouraoui 22).
In Amine, Nina seesher thoughts and actions through the eyes of others. Amine is also Nina’sdefeat, as Nina realizes that Amine lacks a strong sense of self as well,meaning she will never get any closer to creating her low sense of self, aslong as she uses him as mirror. Similarly, the Algerian boys mirror Nina’srage, which stems from the reason they defeat her, that she will never be ableto be a boy, as much as she feels like one. These boys reflect her innerconflict, in the same way that she can’t act on her masculine feelings, she canonly watch them play. Nina frequently looks to the lives of others to reflecther emotions and identity. When she is in France, Nina reflects on her identitythrough her mother, “I am in my mother’s house… and all of a sudden my lifereflects hers like a mirror.
In one night I replace my mother’s features”(Bouraoui 68). It would seem that in adopting her mother’s features she finallyfeels as though she belongs to her French background solely, and no longerfeels restricted by her conflicted background. As much as she wishes that shecould fully reflect her mother’s life and features, she cannot actually eraseher Algerian background, or her features.
Nina can associate herself moreclosely to her French roots by recognizing her similarities with her mother,but Nina will never completely mirror her physically. Despite the fact that Ninacan’t reflect her mother completely, their shared lack of sense of self canhelp Nina relate emotionally. Using those around her as mirrorsallows Nina to explore her thoughts and emotions, whereas physical mirrorsrepresent her physical definition of self. The use of physical mirrors is notas prominent as the use of those around her as mirrors, but Nina does interactwith one as she describes herself in her apartment in Algeria, “I go all theway to the mirror . . . I see an old man with black teeth wearing a red fez”(Bouraoui 49). What Nina sees when she looks in the mirror tells us both abouther sense of identity, and how she actually perceives her own body.
The factthat the man is wearing a red fez tells us that she is starting to associateherself with her Algerian heritage, and her continued association of herself withmasculinity. The man being old and having black teeth seems like a simple wayfor her to indicate that she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own body, andthinks that others may see her as less desirable as well. Despite the fact thatevery time Nina has looked in an actual mirror, or used someone close to her tomirror her own emotions, she has seen a negative portrayal of her worst traitsin her own eyes, she continues to seek out these mirrors rather than avoidingthem. Nina is constantly looking for a feeling of validation that she doesn’tbelieve will never come.
When she isn’t looking into themirror to see her own reflection, or that of someone else, mirrors do alsoallow Nina to temporarily feel as though she belongs when she expresses heremotions in front of a mirror. Nina starts acting like the Algerian schoolboysin front of a mirror in Algeria, “I don’t understand all their words. ‘YahyaAlgeria’ is . . . repeated. I repeat it in front of the mirror .
. . I’m as onewith those children” (Bouraoui 9). Similarly to how she falsely felt as thoughshe could fully reflect her mother earlier, Nina feels that by imitating theAlgerian boys in front of the mirror she will be able to fully express those suppressedfeelings that will her to be one of them.
In reality, as much as she repeatstheir words, Nina’s sense of belonging is only temporary as she will never bebiologically male. However, even if it is only temporary, she seems to find ithelpful to be able to feel as though she belongs, despite the restrictions ofher society. What become apparent through Nina’snarration is that when we look at ourselves in a reflective surface, we cannever truly see ourselves, the way others see us. Mirrors were never going toallow Nina to be comfortable with her sense of self on her own, it was alwaysgoing to have to come from within Nina.
However, the mirrors did help Ninarealize that she didn’t feel as though she would ever belong, due to her dual-culturalismand sex, and would never feel comfortable with her identity, until she didn’ttry to suppress those feelings, and embraced them instead. Once she realizedthat, the mirrors became nothing more than everyday objects.