In 2013, the French writer Edouard Louis organized a symposium on autofiction at the École Normale Superieure, in Paris, where he was studying. The symposium was titled “Je vois écrit: Ecriture de soi et politique du récit” (“I Write You: Writing of the Self and the Politics of Narration”). The subject was of urgent interest to Louis: he was only months away from publishing his first novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (published in the United States, in 2017, as The End of Eddy), an autobiographical novel about growing up gay and poor in a conservative, working-class town in France. Among the day’s panelists was the writer Abdellah Taïa.
Born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1973, Taïa moved to Paris in 1998; he published his first story collection in 2000 and another in 2004. Two years later, he came out as gay in the Moroccan daily TelQuel, making him the first openly homosexual Arab writer. In the aftermath, he wrote the bildungsroman L’Armée du salut (Salvation Army, 2009), an autobiographical novel whose publication in English was introduced by Edmund White. (He also directed a film adaption of the book in 2013.) Since then, he has published five other novels, including Le jour du Roi, which won the Prix de Flore in 2010.
Last year, Semiotext(e) published Another Morocco, a translated selection of stories from Taïa’s first two collections; Louis’s second novel, History of Violence, a best seller in France, was published last month in an English translation. In between these two events, Taïa and Louis, who have become friends, conducted a conversation over email—on recognizing similar concerns in one another’s work, resisting victimhood, and the effect of shame on writing. Our appreciation to Noura Wedell for her translation from the French.
How can I disappear from a world that doesn’t like me, a world that brutalizes and rapes me because I am a homosexual and an effeminate Moroccan adolescent? How can I die in the eyes of others but stay alive elsewhere, in some dream place, some true fiction, while I prepare my vengeance to come? Those two questions were my obsession when I was still in Morocco. How to flee the system in order to realize myself? How to hide in order to see better, to love better, to better transgress? But I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where to learn how to protect myself. The world was very clearly dominated by the most powerful, by the most rich, by the dictators, the rapists, or by the parents who simply followed what they were told and sometimes killed their own children rather than give them guidance.
One day I understood the first thing I had to do in order to become a little strong, a little rebellious. I had to change my name. I had to stop being Abdellah Taïa. But in order to be what? To be whom? And where exactly? I chose this new name, Azzedine Matar. The first name was the name of one of my favorite Egyptian actors. As for the family name, in Arabic it means “rain.” The rain that washes and purifies, the rain that would allow me to be born again, that would allow me to resist. Since my adolescence, that’s been my name. Not my writer’s name but my secret name, my unsullied name, my name between the sky and me, between Allah and me. When I met you for the first time, Edouard, I felt immediate fraternity. Recognition. A tie that was so precise. A way of walking and trembling. It was during the symposium you organized at the École Normale Supérieure. The theme was “I Write You: Writing of the Self and Politics of Narration.” And when I discovered the title of your first book, The End of Eddy, I understood the nature of my feelings for you, of my intuition. You’d also thought about changing your name. To flee with a new name, to write anew, naked and more than naked … You are the first person to whom I’ve told this secret.
It’s true, there is one question that runs through my life, and thus through what I write. I found it in you as well, when I met you—How do we become something other than what we are, how do we become something other than what the world has made of us? It’s a simple question that has been around for a long time—in Nietzsche, in Simone de Beauvoir. But we must always reinvent the answer because the world changes and so do the ways of fleeing or the obstacles that bar us from fleeing. I didn’t grow up in Morocco. I grew up in a small village in Northern France, where there are only white people, where unemployment is very high because the factories have disappeared, where alcoholism is the refuge against misery, and where the extreme right wins at every election. And yet I faced the same problem you did, from the moment I was first thrown into the world—How can I disappear from a world that does not like me, a world that brutalizes and rapes me because I am a homosexual, effeminate adolescent? I’m always struck by how uniform the world is, by how rare differences actually are. There are cultural differences, of course, differences in ways of life and of being, but these differences are very slim in relation to the similarities we find all over the world—the hatred of homosexuality, racism, male domination, class domination, the rejection of all difference. The forms taken by these phenomena are all different, but the structure is the same. I see in your book that we faced the same questions in our childhood and that we’ve been molded by the same difficulties. Am I wrong?
You’re not wrong. I’m twenty years older than you, but that age difference doesn’t mean much. It doesn’t constitute a limit, an obstacle between our books The End of Eddy and Salvation Army, or between you and me. The French language could have been that obstacle, since I associate it so strongly with an arrogant Moroccan elite. I’m really struck by your style, by the rhythm of your sentences, by the intensity of your words, their savagery. I come from a very poor world in which only Arabic was spoken. Today, I write in French, but like you I try never to write clean or straight, stuck to the rigid imaginary of the France that only accepts “good immigrants” who are able to recite Victor Hugo or Marcel Proust. To write is to not submit. I do not submit to the wealthy and powerful in Morocco, and since I’ve been living in France, it’s out of the question that I would give the French and other Westerners what they expect from a gay Muslim. I’ll never become the victim they want me to be.
Yes, that’s also the difficulty. Once we’ve fled, we have to flee again. It’s endless work. You flee your native Morocco to reinvent yourself in France, and once in France you have to escape what France expects of you. You flee the isolated village in the North of France where you were born to live another life in Paris and to write, and you have to escape what the Parisian cultural bourgeoisie expects of you. I felt that pressure so strongly when I arrived in Paris, that way people want me to submit to their expectations, to their worldview. I saw this when I sent editors the manuscript of my first novel, which was precisely about the environment in which I grew up—poor, excluded from everything. Editors would refuse the manuscript, saying, Poor people aren’t like that! They’d grown up in a wealthy environment. They’d never known or even seen poverty, but they wanted me to respect their image and myths about the poor—filth, working-class solidarity, enjoyment of life, and so on.
I’ve said this quite often, but I think the question of fleeing is at the center of my work and yours, as it is at the center of the work of the filmmaker Xavier Dolan or the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. It’s a very contemporary, very urgent issue. For a long time, the question was how to bring the individual back into the collective. That was Freud’s question in psychoanalysis, for example, or in another way, what Durkheim was after in sociology—how to resist what he called anomie, the emergence of the individual in society. How to deal with conflicts produced within the structure of the family. It’s as if that question reigned over the entire twentieth century. I think my work and yours no longer ask the question of integration into collectives, but rather how to flee, in the same way that Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowden reinvented politics by placing this principle of flight at the center of their actions. A new space of questions and possibilities is opening.
There are also those anonymous, striking, heartrending faces I pass by every day in Paris, in the heart of Paris, in the neighborhoods of Belleville, la Chapelle, or Barbes. These are the faces of migrants who are also fleeing, although for different reasons than you and me. France doesn’t want those “barbarians.” No one here is ready to seriously reflect on the Western world’s responsibilities in this uprooting, in these political and human tragedies, and in the reasons that drive these despairing people onto the path of exile, of death. These Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and Eritrean migrants know that the West does not want them, and yet they still come. They still walk. They still resist. Confronted by these people, every day I feel more than solidarity, more than love. What can I do for them concretely? Listen to them? Write about them? Carry them? But how? Am I justified in doing that? As a homosexual, yes, I am justified in going before these women and men in their distress and expressing a form of love.
You are right that resistance evolves. It is our duty to carry others with us. And whether these migrants accept the Arab homosexual that I am isn’t important. They’ve suffered more than we have. And the homosexual knows in his flesh what it means to suffer and to have to flee. Every day we hear terrible things about these migrants. Every day we notice the indifference of those who have enough to eat. Every day we see open-faced inhumanity settling in a bit more and rejection being shamelessly expressed everywhere. Some will think I am exaggerating. They’ll say there’s still hope, that we must be optimistic, and that everything is not lost. I’d rather keep pessimism in my heart, flee with those who flee, stay poor, write poor. Remember Jean Genet and his political commitments to the wretched of the earth. Remember James Baldwin writing his magnificent letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, to teach him the history of blacks in the United States and to teach him struggle as well as love. Remember how they used their literary legitimacy to cry with others, to cry out truth. My emancipation is only meaningful if at some point it allows someone else—and not necessarily another homosexual—to emancipate himself as well, to find the way, the courage, the breath, the impetus. Edouard, do you think I’m being too romantic here?
No, on the contrary, I think you’re really close to reality! And I completely recognize myself in what you’re saying. I recognize my anger in the face of the political situation. Earlier I said that we had similar experiences. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t degrees in the way we live experiences such as flight, uprooting, or exile. I’m white, I’ve never had to suffer racism. I didn’t have to cross the Mediterranean in a plastic boat to get to Paris. Unlike a Syrian migrant, I can walk in the street in Paris without being stopped by the police. Just like you, I measure the violence of the world every day and ask myself what to do. And when I realize that I spend my days writing books, I feel infinite shame. Every day when I sit in front of my desk to write my next novel I think to myself, You could help migrants fight for their rights. You could go block factories to protest against the violence of capitalism. You could free animals from slaughterhouses. Shame is the feeling that forges my life as a writer. And yet it would be stupid to say that the world is too violent and that therefore we should no longer write. I think we must instead take hold of that shame and try to produce a literature that confronts the world. Maybe shame is a good thing.
The problem today is that so many writers aren’t ashamed. They write books on the little sentimental problems of the white bourgeoisie while people are drowning in the Mediterranean, while the police in France and in the U.S. are killing black people, and they are not ashamed. You were just saying that to write means not to submit. But there are so many writers who submit to the violence of the world without ever questioning it. Without shame there is no good literature. Would you say that shame played an important role in your life?
At the end of every month when there was nothing left to eat in the house, when my father could no longer face “begging” the owner of the grocery store to give him a little more fava beans, a little more lentils, or a little more flour—when he couldn’t take it anymore, he would express this shame and transmit it to us. Sometimes he would cry. He was no longer able to act like a man in front of others and in front of us he would fall and abdicate. At that point my mother would take over. She knew how to become “yellow”—impermeable to mean stares. She knew how to manipulate and seduce to get what she wanted. She never thought twice about overstepping boundaries, becoming nasty, or becoming a “whore.” Did she have a choice in a world that takes such pleasure in crushing the poor? Can women really choose not to play the game?
I feel so much like my mother today—not quite clear-cut, not really finalized. That’s what makes me into a writer, or rather, someone capable of throwing himself into this strange yet necessary activity of writing. Yes, I know shame, in part because of homosexuality and extreme poverty. I’m already mortified, immersed in shame, in Morocco just as in France, and I write from that death, and from all the times I died. It’s from there that I pronounce my own voice, and that I mix my voice with other voices, even with those voices that kill, that paralyze, that give the cold shoulder, that lie, that whisper or stay quiet. There is such violence within me and around me that I have no other choice but to work by and with that violence. You know as well as I do that there is no possible therapy. There is almost no healing to hope for, no strategy of evasion. There is only the possibility of having at some point the courage to confront all those people, to face the obscurity of my own “self,” to write with my skin, my blood, to describe the darkness upon darkness and to cry outloud, like those figures who are torn apart in Francis Bacon’s paintings.
Yes, I absolutely agree that there is no good literature without that feeling of shame. Do you remember the first book you read? Did it influence you?
The first books I read were the Harry Potter series, which had a huge influence on me. They are precisely the story of a boy who wanted to flee. I find the Harry Potter books so superior to a huge part of what we are told is good literature. Later, I read Marguerite Duras, Toni Morrison, Herta Müller, Pierre Bourdieu. What I liked about Bourdieu was his capacity to speak about all the problems—colonialism, masculine domination, homosexuality, social classes. You were just wondering if you had enough legitimacy to speak about migrants, and you answered in the affirmative. I think you’re right—everyone has the legitimacy to speak about all subjects. There are important debates in the US on the question “who speaks?”, notably around the idea of cultural appropriation. Can a white person speak about black people? Can a heterosexual speak about gays? I think the question shouldn’t be “who is speaking?” but “what is being said?” Does what is being said take something away from gay people, or does it say something true about homosexual experience? Does what is being said help the fight against racism, or does it insult or caricature people of color? Some gays are more homophobic than some heterosexuals, some black people more racist than some white people. The problem is about truth, not about who is speaking. Of course, it’s clear that white people or heterosexuals have easier access to all the dominant positions of the social world, but that means we have to change the institutions and structures, not stop people from speaking under the pretext that “it’s not their story to tell.”
There is also a fundamental right for people not to carry the pain they didn’t choose. It was essential in my second novel, The History of Violence, which deals mostly with rape, particularly with the rape that I endured. After experiencing that sexual assault, the police, doctors, judges all wanted me to talk and testify about it again and again and again. I didn’t want that, because I didn’t want to carry a pain that I didn’t choose. I wanted other people to do it for me. Everyone should have this right. In your case, for example, women’s lives and voices are present in your novels.
Yes, women are very present in my books. Since I grew up with seven sisters, I hold their stories and their struggles deep within me. I carry their transgressions and the way they stage daily life. I am really attached to objective, historical precision. I always try to represent them—Arabic, Moroccan, Muslim women—in complex ways, not as the West would like to see and accept them, that is, as “liberated” women according to Western codes. Freedom can exist in different ways, according to different perspectives. Living in Paris, I’m forced to repeat this self-evident fact over and over again. It is out of the question to reduce Arabic women to Oriental, colonial clichés in order for people to take an interest in them and look favorably on them. Today, betraying them historically and politically is out of the question. And I realize increasingly that the life and stories of Muslims are completely ignored in contemporary world literature, except when they are inserted in narratives that are prepared for them in advance. Literature should not be a prison for anyone.
When I was small, my sisters seemed as courageous as some Egyptian actresses or as some characters played by Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, women who were incredibly resolute, sometimes ferocious, and very rich from a psychological point of view. If I were to locate the true origin of my writerly vocation, it would be in Moroccan women. In some sense, my mother was my Simone de Beauvoir and my Angela Davis. She was from the country and illiterate, but at home she was the boss, she imposed her voice, her way of thinking and of directing us. We were eleven people living in three rooms. I didn’t like everything about my mother, but I recognize that she wasn’t scared of men or of the law. Nor was she scared of the king of Morocco. And she was certainly not scared of us, her children. She screamed all the time. A little like Jane Hudson, played by Bette Davis in the sublime What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Or like Hind Rostom in the wonderful Egyptian film Cairo Station, by Youssef Chahine. Evil women who are also endearing, oscillating at all times between good and evil. That ambiguous line and that uncertainty are very present in all of my books.
In my books, and more specifically in my second novel, History of Violence, in which the main narrator is a woman, my sister, I wanted to insist on the way women were crushed in that village in Northern France where I grew up. My father did not want my mother to work because of his ideas about gender, because he thought he’d be disgraced if his wife made more money than he did. My sister lived with very violent men who beat her. It’s always important to me when I write to speak first of all about violence. All of the great movements of the twentieth century, all the movements that transformed our lives—Marxism, the gay-liberation movement, the feminist movement, the black-liberation movement—they all spoke of violence. These movements proclaimed that as women, gays, blacks, workers, we are formed through exclusion and violence, through alienation. Paradoxically, we about the extent to which individuals are not free, yet we can free them. We speak about violence, but we can attempt to undo violence. And that’s why people who speak about the most violent and desperate realities, such as Ta Nehisi-Coates or Herta Müller, aren’t pessimists—quite the contrary. Or maybe we should wonder if pessimism isn’t what changes the world, while optimism reproduces it as is. But I feel that reality, that violence in your books as well. We just have different languages to speak about the same emergencies.
That’s right, we find ourselves in the same situations of emergency. We have the same desire to do something today, now, not tomorrow, and not next week. In our own little ways, we want to shift some ground in a world that is regressing so radically, that is afraid, that is trying to reinstate ignorance and fear in us, the fear of others, of course. We must never adopt the pose of the writer who is above others, who knows everything more than others. As Gustave Flaubert used to say, we must continue through our books and through our writings to question our family in humanity in a frontal, brutal, and yet tender way.