Strangers to Ourselves is a reflection on foreignness and foreigners. It sympathizes with the problems and thoughts of the foreigner as well as those of people who live with foreigners and even with the troublesome discovery of finding the foreigner in oneself. Because Julia Kristeva was born in Bulgaria and settled in France, she herself in some ways reflects the foreigner, and she sympathizes with this point of view. She expresses concern that France is becoming a kaleidoscope of nationalities in which immigrants do not give up their particularities and in which a new homogeneity is not likely or desirable. This book received the Henri Hertz Prize, awarded by the Chancellerie des Universités de Paris for the best book by a faculty member.
The title of the first chapter, “Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner,” refers to the idea that a foreigner is never completely at home in a new country even when he or she has been there for a number of years. A musical form, the toccata rushes from here to there, briefly touching on each note. The foreigner is a wanderer who never feels a sense of belonging. Possessed with a driving ambition, the person will take any and all jobs and try to be the best at whatever that may be. The foreigner lives with a sense that those at home have been abandoned, and although one’s mother tongue has been forgotten, there is an awkwardness in speaking the new language. Worst of all, the foreigner feels that no one is listening and no one deeply understands. Kristeva uses an example from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Knight wanders; he cannot find a home, a partner, or a language. Even his memories are constantly changing.