David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, a masterpiece of nature writing in which Deakin embarks from his home in Suffolk to swim Britain, the seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, pools, streams, locks, moats, and quarries and in the process, offers enchanting descriptions of natural landscapes, and a deep well of humanity, boundless humor, and unbridled joy. Susan Casey says, “Waterlog is an adventure, a meditation, a celebration of wild swimming—a delight.” In this book, Roger Deakin has captured the magic of the liquid world. With a new introduction by Bonnie Tsui and a new afterword by Robert MacFarlane, Waterlog is out on May 25th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m usually excited to share today’s conversation between Portland and Paris with Moroccan Writer, Abdellah Taïa, who is as wonderful in the real world as his books are to read. For people who listen to the show regularly, you know I take a moment before we begin to talk about some of the many reasons why you might consider transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter, whether it be the resource-rich emails that point you to further things to explore after the conversation, the best things I discovered in preparing for it, and the most interesting things that either Abdellah and I refer to during it or collectible items from writers from Nikky Finney, Rikki Ducournet, and Ursula K. Le Guin among many others. But I particularly want to highlight the bonus audio archive today because today’s edition to it continues a tradition of doing a long-form conversation, with the translator, if a book being discussed is in translation. Emma Ramadan is the winner of the 2021 PEN Translation Award for today’s book. We talk about why she is attracted to Abdellah Taïa’s work, what challenges there are in translating it, and Abdellah himself asks Emma a question. But the conversation also goes into many other things, stereotyping and sexism within the translation industry, questions of representation and scarcity, about the appeals of co-translating, about the benefits of more out-of-the-box translation experiments, and a particular interest of Emma’s, the relationship of translation to the body and the role of the translator’s body in translation. If you’re interested in finding out about how to subscribe to the bonus audio archive or to look through the many different potential rewards and gifts available to supporters, or perhaps you simply want to become a supporter to join the community of people who are not only receiving a backstage look at each episode coming together but also, to participate in shaping the future of the show, of who we invite next as future guests, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers and check it all out. Now, for today’s episode with Abdellah Taïa.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Moroccan Writer and Filmmaker, Abdellah Taïa. Despite being born inside the Rabat Public Library, where Taïa’s father was a janitor and where his family lived until he was two, Taïa does not connect his own writing or his journey toward becoming a writer to other books or to a literary pedigree but rather to Salé, the neighborhood outside of Rabat where he grew up and to the three-room house where he, his parents, and his eight siblings lived. Abdellah Taïa has lived in Paris for the past 20 years but it was films, not books that fueled his desire to go to France, to live under the same skies as French film star Isabelle Adjani. It was Egyptian movies, American Westerns that he would see on TV that pushed him to study French in Morocco, to study French literature as part of that so that he could ultimately study film in Paris. Yet today, Abdellah Taïa is best known for his writing, for his autobiographical novels and stories, and for being the first openly gay Moroccan writer coming out in the Moroccan magazine Tel Quel, then publishing an open letter in Morocco titled Homosexuality Explained To My Mother. Fortunately, for us, many of his books have been translated into English. These include the story collection Another Morocco and the novel Salvation Army, and An Arab Melancholia, all published by Semiotext, and the novel Infidels published by Seven Stories Press. In 2010, Taïa won the French Literary Award Le prix de Flore for his book Le jour du Roi and in 2014, Taïa made his directorial debut with the film adaptation of his novel Salvation Army which won the Jury Awards of Festival Premiers Plans d’Angers and Festival Tous Écrans de Genève, and the Best Feature Film at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa. This film is also widely considered to have given Arab cinema its first gay protagonist. Taïa has also published two photo books, Maroc, 1900–1960 with Frédéric Mitterrand, and Egypt, the martyrs of the revolution with Mahmoud Farag and Denis Dailleux. He’s also the editor of the anthology Letters to a Young Moroccan. Abdellah Taïa is here today on Between The Covers to talk about his latest novel from Seven Stories Press translated by Emma Ramadan, A Country for Dying. The winner of the 2021 PEN Translation prize. Viet Thanh Nguyen says the following of Abdellah Taïa’s latest book, “A Country for Dying is a knife of a novel—short, sharp, and jagged. Abdellah Taïa ruthlessly uses that knife to cut away sentimental notions of love, romance, family, and nation. He exposes how colonization has shaped sexual desire, expression, and exploitation, and leaves us with a memorable, powerful work.” Rhian Sasseen for The Paris Review says, “A Country for Dying depicts a Paris distinct from the stuff of Anglophone fantasies. Taïa, who came out as gay in Morocco—where homosexuality is illegal—in 2006, poignantly portrays the lives of immigrants in a city and country that is frequently hostile to them, and openly questions France’s perception of itself and its immigration policies.” Finally, Edmund White says, “Abdellah Taïa dramatizes the reality of Zahira and Zannouba, Moroccan prostitutes in Paris, at sea in the stormy straits between the sexes and nationalities, estranged from their families but absorbed by their loves and fantasies; this is a cri de coeur and a cri de corps, heart and body crying in the lonely city.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Abdellah Taïa.
Abdellah Taïa: Thank you very much for inviting me. I hope my English is good enough for you to understand what I will be saying.
DN: Yes, your English is quite fantastic. I’ve listened to you speak quite a bit. I wanted to start with talking about voice as a writer in relationship to self and in relationship to story. But before we do, I think it would be good for people to hear the origin story or one of the origin stories for this book about when you first arrived in Paris full of romantic ideas of what Paris could be and saw someone on the ground outside of the bank. Could you orient the listeners to how that became one way this book came into being?
AT: I arrived here in France in Paris in 1999. Of course, I was only 25, 26 years old and I was totally in love, still, with all the mythical, cultural things about France, meaning the museum of Louvre, the old French movie theaters, Isabelle Adjani, François Truffaut, and all these people that are icons and more than icons for French, and for France. But as soon as I was here, just to be in this reality called France, you immediately see the difference. At the same time, I was still totally enamored and in love with everything that is France but at the same time, I saw so many people in the streets, in the subways looking like me—Arabs, Muslims, Africans, Black people—but at the same time marginalized while being in the center of France, the center of Paris. I remember very clearly that I was in the neighborhood of Barbès which is one of the main centers of Paris. It’s the 18th arrondissement. I was there because I was trying to have a bank account. I had to open that, and just to do that, it was extremely complicated. But I was in the bank, a French bank called Crédit Lyonnais, Le, LCL and while I was coming out from the bank, I saw a woman literally on the floor, totally destroyed, totally abandoned. She was not a crazy woman but it was obvious that this woman was not welcomed in France, not welcomed in Paris. It was obvious that she lived here as an immigrant in France, that totally changed her physically, changed even her eyes. What struck me the most was that the woman looked exactly like my mother. I was attracted to her immediately because my mother never dreamed of coming to Paris or to go to France. This was not for her. She never fantasized about France or the French people or the French culture but it was like my mother being here and destroyed in this country called France and the city called Paris. I felt more than a connection with her. It was so ironic that me, just coming here, just arriving in the West in France with big ideas, big dreams—I am going to be a writer, I will make a film—I was already possessed seriously with all these ideas, and here, in front of me, was a serious image of what the West could do to immigrants and how the West could attract people, how Paris, how France attract people with romantic ideas of culture of France and so many things but yet when they are here, they are just being exploited and sent away. That woman was a prostitute because I talked a little bit with her. I didn’t ask her, “Are you a prostitute?” or something like that, but just from being next to her, I sensed that she was a prostitute, meaning that she was much more exploited than my first thoughts about her, just me making a connection between her and my mother. When I left her, it was obvious for me—this was 1999—that I have, one day, to write a book, a novel, a story about a woman like her in a city called Paris, in this land of freedom that doesn’t give freedom to people like her, Arab, Muslim, and like me of course.
DN: Yes. One of our main protagonists, Zahira, is a Moroccan prostitute in her 40s in Paris. I wanted to ask you about inhabiting her voice, partially because a lot of your work, despite being called novels, is heavily autobiographical but more because when you were in conversation with Colm Tobin for Skylight Books, you were about to read a section of A Country for Dying and you said to the audience before you read that, that what you were going to read was in the voice of Zahira, which is not you and you made that clear. But then you stopped yourself and said, but actually, it is you, that you can’t write except by pulling all that you know and all of who you are into a character, even a female prostitute. Talk to us about this gesture of “I’m going to read you, Zahira. And Zahira is me.”
AT: First of all, I am now 47 years old, meaning, my illusions about life, about France, and about anything that could happen on this planet Earth are far gone. Now, I see things clearly—politically, economically, even when the people are in love—I see what is going on. I’m telling you this just to explain that the idea to be an individual with one voice is not something for me. This idea that I am defined only by one thing and by one voice, and I am only speaking and writing from only that one voice is wrong for me, because it is clear that anyone on this planet Earth right now is here, still alive because so many other people before him built up something for him, not in order to be a writer like me or something but just prepared the paths, prepared the roads for him. Before reading the beginning of my novel when I was in conversation with Colm Tobin—actually, that answer was not even prepared in my head. It just felt natural to me because I cannot be a writer with one dimension, with one voice. You said that my novels are autobiographical, most of the people would understand it’s only about me, it’s only about my stories, about my gay adventures or my gay struggles or fights. And this is wrong. Because although yes, I am gay and I have a lot of horrible experiences in life, but while experiencing all this, I was surrounded by so many people. From those people, I’m not going to use the word support, but I got their influences, I got their voices. As you said in the beginning, I grew up in a poor family, like a really, really poor house, three rooms, 11 persons in 3 rooms, 1 room for the big brother, 1 room for my father, and the last room for 6 sisters, my mother, my little brother, and me. That was nine people. We were all in one teeny tiny room during maybe 18 years or something like that. Me, as a little boy hearing everything happening in the bodies of my sisters, it was too much promiscuity, too much body into another body, a voice into another voice. At that time, there was no internet, there was no social media—this was in 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985—the only thing we had is us in this thing called life and the people expressing, saying things, not necessarily to emancipate themselves, not necessarily in order to be free one day but just because we are human beings and when we are next to each other, something has to come out through the voice. So there was my mother screaming all day long, the six sisters explaining and trying to invent theories about the world, about love, and about sex. There was my little brother, he was the favorite of my mother, and it was me, the gay one. I would not say that I was rejected. They gave me the feeling that I was special but at the same time, they didn’t send me away, they didn’t reject me, I was there with them. I feel that the voices of my sisters, the voice of my mother—and this is not even a metaphor—they are literally all in me. When I write—and this is truly for me the definition of literature and writing because yes, you prepare a book, yes you structure it, and you spend many years preparing it but while doing the writing, literally, other things happen. For me, what happens every time is that the echoes of the voices inside of me, the other people that I just met by chance in the streets, that impose their voice on me in my books. Literature with only one voice, one dimension, would seem to me extremely poor. I know that what I am saying here is the opposite of what is being said today because there is encouragement to be an individual, to be free, to express yourself, and all that stuff. I am with that, of course, but I am at the same time aware that sometimes, that encouragement to be that individual feel just like, I don’t know, commercials on TV, “do this, buy this, go here,” it’s just something the media tells you to do and gives you the illusion that you are free but at the same time, you have only the illusion of the emancipation and you have only the illusion that you are you. I don’t think literature cannot be only about one you. In me, there are all these voices and there are certainly, for sure, Zahira, Aziz, and other people.
DN: Yeah. So Zahira and Zannouba, the two central prostitutes in the story, one way they view prostitution is as a form of acting and they watch a lot of Bollywood films watching the actresses in the films, and you yourself have these recurring homages to female film actresses from Soad Hosny to Marilyn Monroe to Isabelle Adjani and you’ve said that you wanted to, as I said in the intro, live under the same sky as Adjani. In your story Turning Thirty, you say that Isabelle Adjani, her singing voice has usurped or replaced the memory of your mother’s own voice, almost becoming your mother’s voice. In your novel Infidels, there’s this line, “I am the son of Marilyn Monroe.” In A Country for Dying, which has this amazing extended love letter to Adjani, you say, “Adjani doesn’t act. That is her great strength. She is incapable of acting. She is. She is. We know that. We understand it. We take her hand. We are with her. In her. The world will soon fall into a trance. The superseding of every limit.” Maybe, you’ve already answered this but would it be correct to say that you aren’t acting either, that you aren’t acting when you’re Zahira or when you’re Zannouba, like Adjani, you aren’t acting?
AT: If you have that feeling while you are reading my books, that would be a huge compliment to me because nothing can top this. If this is the feeling I gave you when you were reading my books, that for me, I don’t want anymore compliments about what I do in life. [laughter] But Isabelle Adjani, I was not introduced to her through someone who was obsessed with the history of cinema or something. My mother and my sister were watching the Moroccan TV and suddenly, her face appeared on the small screen in the 80s. We’re just a really poor family watching everything on one channel we had in Morocco and my mother said, “Oh, what’s happening to this girl?” My mother who knew nothing about Isabelle Adjani felt a connection with her. She didn’t know that Isabelle Adjani had an Algerian father. She didn’t know that in the way Isabelle Adjani inhabits the characters in movies, there is something coming from us. But she recognized that on the screen. She was not impressed with the fact that she is French. She was not impressed with the fact, “Oh, this is a chic French actress.” She saw in her face and in her eyes something that is like us. My mother was illiterate. My mother was coming from the countryside. She had no idea who Marilyn Monroe was or Catherine Deneuve or Meryl Streep or all these people. But in Isabelle Adjani, she saw something that is coming from our world, the possessed people. Later, I found out that Isabelle Adjani made one of her biggest roles. It was in a film called Possession by Andrzej Żuławski. In that film, there is a scene of a trans who is doing this dance of possessed people I used to watch and see in my poor Moroccan reality. The intuition of my mother making the connection between Isabelle Adjani and us was totally true and sincere.
DN: I had seen a lot of Isabelle Adjani films over the years but I wanted to watch more of them in anticipation of our conversation, so I watched L’Été meurtrier One Deadly Summer, then I watched Possession which I had not seen and which is now one of my favorite all-time films. My mouth was hanging open watching that entire film. You aspire to describe her performance in this book and come as close as I think as possible with words. I’m glad you brought up Possession because I want to talk about possession with you, not the movie but the phenomenon of being possessed. Because in most of your books, you engage with jinns and you’ve talked about them in relation to Arab poetry, how Arab poets would have their own jinns to help them find inspiration to write and about how only those who are possessed or sorcerers can speak to jinns. In your interview in Bomb you say, “My literature is always about a voice imposing itself on me, on the book, and on the readers. A voice that says ‘I’ in a very naked way. It’s an ‘I’ haunted by other ‘I’s, by other pasts, other tears, other spirits.” Finally, in your open letter Homosexuality Explained To My Mother, you say, “Mother, Morocco is not the others, the government, the clergy, the eternal scoffers, the ‘hooligans,’ the obstacles, the jealous, the petty… The whole of Morocco, the one that I carry in me and the one that I address in this letter, is you. It’s a Morocco that is not perfect. Morocco tense and feverish. A surging Morocco. Possessed.” Talk to us about jinns and possession, which is one unifying aspect of your body of work.
AT: First of all, I am so happy I wrote that letter in 2009 and my mother was still alive, so she heard about the letter and someone translated to her what is in the letter. She was not happy about it but I am happy—now that she is dead—to know that I was enough generous and intelligent to write a letter where there is that much love for her and not trying to tell her, “You didn’t understand me as a gay person, so you don’t exist for me as a mother.” I never said that to her. I always cherished what she did for all of us. When it comes to possession, I hope that the people who will hear me saying these things will not take this as a metaphor, it’s not a metaphor. I grew up in a world in Morocco where there is a distinction between human beings and the jinns, and not everyone is capable of seeing them and communicating with them. Some people are possessed by them and through these people who are possessed by jinns, we can communicate. We can ask things, we can do things, we can do good things and bad things. One of my sisters was possessed with jinns. I saw, during all my childhood and my adolescence, the body of my sisters when the jinn wakes up in her body, what happens to her body. She falls down, she leaves her first conscience if I might say and suddenly, someone else starts to speak through her body and her voice, and that person was not a person. That thing inside of her was not a human being but something else. It is something that impressed me extremely and that I respected so much, and that I fear at the same time so much because I saw my mother in fear as me, but at the same time, doing something in order to communicate with these voices, these jinns inside the body of my sister. For me, they were extraordinary experiences. They were horrifying experiences but at the same time, it was a materialization of the idea of what we call the invisible because we think that we know everything, we’re human beings, and that we see everything. Of course, we don’t. We just have this illusion that we see, we understand, and we have control on our minds and our brains, which is not true. But witnessing these experiences through the body of my sister gave me so much link, like a true link to this idea of invisible because I was living that in true life. I was not studying that in order to be a writer one day. These things just happened in my life. All these things, all this love, hate, fear for the jinns and the ceremonies we invented for them, the food we used to prepare for them, the dances, the singing, all these things became, with the years now that I am a writer, aesthetic, a literary structure I use, became a way of being a sensation, a state of mind. I think all my books are about these, these states of minds, these voices, and me trying to bring literature and the readers with me in those states of mind.
DN: Yeah. I was wondering, I guess I wanted to ask you about sorcerers and possession also because I notice that in your books—and maybe, this is true in reality—that most of the people either possessed or who have access to the jinns are women, or in the new book, there’s a Jewish sorcerer or a Berber who’s a sorcerer, so people who aren’t from the mainstream, they’re marginal in some capacity or another. I didn’t know if there’s a connection there for you, that something about being a connection to the invisible world, you have to be on the margins of society in some fashion.
AT: Now that you are saying it, of course, I understand the analysis you are making here and it’s true that I never saw a sorcerer coming from bourgeoisie people or from the elite Morocco or something like that. [laughter] It’s most of the time people who are already abandoned by the power, abandoned by the rich people. In a way, sociologically, we can say that to be a sorcerer and to use sorcery is a way to resist to the elite people, to the rich families in Morocco because even if you wanted to do bad things to them through sorcery, you have that right because you don’t have other weapons. Certainly, the fact that you have much more women in Morocco and in the Arab world in general, using sorcery and believing in jinns, it means something sociologically, it means something about the situation of women in how they resist the masculine domination, the men domination on how they fight them but they do bad things to men. [laughter] Of course, they have the right. Actually, I didn’t grow up with a mother who was presenting herself to us and to me as a good woman. My mother didn’t care about being presented as a good wife or as a good woman. She was always thinking about whom we are going to manipulate in order to have a little bit of money in order to have food because she was facing the harsh reality of poverty and she understood that being honest is not going to bring her little money and food for the 11 persons she was in charge of. Believe me, my father never did that. It was her for 11 people. Now that I am older, I find this extremely extraordinary, extremely powerful, extremely generous, that this woman, that my mother did all this, not for her in order to buy jewelries or clothes or to be presented as the good wife of the neighborhood, no, it was weapons for her to construct something for us, from the food, to the house, to the future, so I ended up not doing what she wanted me to do. Yet during 25 years, even though she saw that I was gay and it was a disappointment for her but she did not reject me, she did not tell me, “Go away.” So yes, sorcery—I am saying this consciously now—certainly, is a way to resist the power in Morocco for sure.
DN: A question I would ask most writers which I think might be the wrong question for you is, given how much of your work is drawing from your own childhood experience and your own personal story, what you gain from calling the books novels versus memoirs. But when I think about this notion of possession and also you describing yourself for 18 years in a room with eight other people where maybe, the borders between one body and another, and one voice and another are all blurred, an identity becomes much more fluid. I wonder if it’s a relevant question. If it is a relevant question, I’m curious if there’s something that calling the book a novel allows you to tell your true story that a memoir wouldn’t allow you to do is a true story.
AT: I have to admit that I just don’t care about this memoir, a novel, a story.
DN: Yeah, that’s what I suspected.
AT: I don’t know how to say this, this is just a marketing thing that is being discussed with the publishing houses. It actually has to do with the distribution even of the book, like the description for a novel is not the same for a memoir, etc. But I just don’t care. While preparing a book or even a short story or short text, to choose something that is extremely brief, extremely teeny tiny, like a moment or a specific one minute in a moment, that I will make a chapter about or a whole novel about. When it comes to structuring in a book, at least I try to choose very carefully the specific moment I will put in this chapter and another moment in the following chapter with the hope that I will become a very good sorcerer like the Moroccan one, Moroccan sorcerer, and just by putting this moment next to this moment, something will happen. We can call it a magic, a literary magic. I totally believe, for instance, if I could write books without using words, that would be heaven. [laughter] But that’s impossible for now. Sometimes, I am in a bus or the subway and just being next to someone for 15 minutes or 20 minutes, a man or a woman, a lot of things happen between the two of us and we didn’t even speak. A lot of things are being expressed. A lot of things are happening and those things don’t need words.
DN: I love that. I want to stay a little longer with this question of identity, voice, and self. You’ve talked about and also written about the dangers to you of being an effeminate boy in Salé where you grew up, where people acted or pretended as if homosexuality didn’t exist but at the same time, you were under the threat of rape by men in the neighborhood and that ultimately, you had to wear a mask of a man to suppress your effeminate nature as a means of survival. In your wonderful Paris Review Conversation with Edouard Louis, you talk about how Abdellah Taïa, your given name, is no longer your real name. That you have a secret name that is now your real name and your secret name has the first name of an Egyptian actor that you love, and that Abdellah Taïa is now your writer’s name. In a way, your given name has become a mask of sorts. This all made me think of the other main character, Zannouba, a close friend of Zahira and a fellow prostitute but one who’s in the process of going through gender confirmation surgery. A lot of this book is told through stories, stories told by Zannouba to Zahira that we get to overhear or stories told about other family members, some of them which seem mysterious or mythical. But also, these long moving conversations between Zannouba and Aziz, her former self. But she isn’t speaking to Aziz, her former self as a grown man. She’s speaking to Aziz, the boy that she was in childhood immersed in the world of having many sisters before she had to really conform to any categories, in a way, before she was forced to wear any masks. Talk to us more about Zannouba and her surgery, which is both a gesture toward freedom but also, I think maybe surprising to her. It becomes an act of mourning as well for the boy Aziz.
AT: First of all, it is very sad to me as a person to say that yes, I loved my family and they were poor, etc. They were, to me, life. They were the center of everything. They were even Hollywood. They were even the Cairo, my Hollywood, they were my stars. My sisters were like my true stars. At that time, this was in the 80s, Hollywood or French movies were just something we used to watch on TV, but them as buddies, as an inspiration, it was them. The fact that they knew what was happening to me and they didn’t do anything actually to help me in a way or another because they knew what was going on, all these people were raping me, this is not a metaphor or something in any way possible. I was in a big danger at a certain moment because society was put in me, because I was that very light effeminate boy, happy. But happy, meaning for them, you can use him for whatever you want. That’s like a killing process for a teeny tiny body, a boy. This is not even an adolescent, this is a boy, it’s not a teenager. For me, today, a 47 year old man, sometimes, I just cry like, “Why did they do this? Of course, I can’t understand what was politically the situation in Morocco, what was sociologically going on there. Even the identity of being homosexual didn’t exist in Morocco. Actually, even in the West, it was still very hard, even in the 80s, it was in New York or America. So imagine, this is in Morocco and I understand that for them, in the sociological structure they lived in, it was very poor to have a boy that was special, let’s call him that. That was something that was going to make them more weak in society. It’s not something that will help them. They had no, this is very hard to say, maybe, no other options. They could not protect me. They could not go to the streets, to the neighbors, and tell them, “Well, this is our son, stop doing…” Because saying these things meant to be sure of what they were, to be proud of their gay son, etc. and all these things were impossible at that time. Actually, they are still impossible even today in Morocco, in so many countries, and actually, even in France. This is another illusion about the West, that so many people think that even in the West, you can be totally you, free as gay because there are the laws, but the reality is something else. In order to save myself literally because again, they were for me, the world, life, all these people. I could not imagine somewhere else to go. That somewhere else didn’t exist. What I used to do around 11, 12 is from time to time, I would just go and wander in the streets around our neighborhood and cry alone while walking, cry, cry, cry, then go back. Then at a certain point, maybe, that was me starting to be intellectual or maybe, already a writer. I started to invent this other me with another name, sometimes other names. For instance, I used to go next to some houses where some men used to live and I was in love with them or something like that, and in front of the house, I would sit there and invent a story just in my head and go back. I think me being a writer started here. This ability in real life to save myself, and that was extremely hard to do, through imagining things but only in my head. This was not the beginning of my writing career or something like that. I had no desire to be a writer or something. This is what I invented in my brain in order to save myself, to start talking to myself and invent other avatars of me, and to talk to them and to make things with them in my head in order to save myself.
DN: I’m glad you brought up that the West isn’t some paradise where these problems don’t exist because I wanted to ask you something about Zahira and Zannouba, something that they both have to confront as prostitutes and that is the white French imagination of the Arab. For instance, Zannouba is asked to dress as a savage Arab boy by white intellectual customers, or in the conversation between Zannouba and her former self Aziz, when Zannouba says to Aziz that she won’t regret becoming a woman, Aziz says, “You wanted to become the woman you always believed you were deep down? Well, look at yourself in the mirror: you are, you’ve succeeded. You’re beautiful. You’re magnificent. Ravishing. The Parisians are going to adore you. Make you into an example of a liberated Arab, who’s not ashamed. Not like the others, those from the village, who are still rotting in ignorance and submission. You’ve succeeded, my dear! Bravo! Bravo!” I guess I wondered about you, Abdellah Taïa, the author, whether people try to make you into an example of the liberated Arab in a way that becomes self-congratulatory for France because it seems like in your work, you do everything in your power to make this impossible for the white French reader. But I’d be interested to hear how you’re received or not received in the French imaginary.
AT: First of all, I’m lucky enough to write books. They are published, they have some readers here in France, and they are translated in many languages. That’s a huge privilege. Whatever the way I am treated by the media or some people, I don’t forget that this is a privilege and a big chance. Yes, I am talented, [laughter] but still, it’s a privilege. I worked for that but it is still a privilege. I think just by reading this novel, A Country for Dying, it is clear what I think about colonialism and French colonialism, French neocolonialism, and how deep still the vision they have for Arabs and Africans, is still so much racist, so much colonial. The problem today, 2021, is that it is very hard here in France to have a serious conversation about this topic with white French people because quickly, you realize they are born and quickly, you realize that they don’t know that much about the colonial time. Most of the time, some people would tell you, “Oh, come on, France left Morocco 50 years ago.” You hear certain reactions that are astonishing. Most of the time, when people would answer me, “Oh come on, France left Morocco 50 or 60 years ago,” I told them about, “The french revolution happened two centuries ago and you are still obsessed with the French revolution, how about that?” [laughter] It’s very strange in a country that is obsessed with its own history to see that we, the ex-colonized people, now that we are brave enough, courageous enough to go through that past and try to clean it up finally and just go to what happened in the recent history—this is not even a very, very long time in history—but I have to admit that this is extremely depressing to me because in the French media and even with my friends, now it’s like what’s going on in America with the Trump people and the other people, like there is a polarization that is happening within circles of friends, people you love. This is not coming from the official enemies or people, like you said, he’s just dumb, he doesn’t know. No, this is coming from really cultivated people but yet again, just reading this novel, A Country for Dying, you have all the answers about what I think about that. But saying this, I don’t want what I try to write in my books to become a space just to have commentaries about what is being said in the media today. This doesn’t work for me. Maybe to say this is arrogant but I’m going to say it because I think literature has to go deeper than this, what is happening today, like the struggles of today, it has to reflect that, yes, but it has to go beyond that. I don’t want my novels to be like people having sociological conversations and saying Michel Foucault said that and Roland Barthes said this, [inaudible 0:54:57] made this film. For me, I love all these people I just named, I adore them but the way they are used in the conversations today, for me, it’s just petrifying, like they are frozen in a certain image and my novels have to bring, I don’t know, the dirtiness of real life. Dirtiness, what is being dirty for real? Certainly, not to clean it up in order to make it look French chic or something like this.
DN: Listening to a lot of conversations that you’ve had or watching conversations that you’ve had, I love how you continually refuse literary influence. You’ve talked about how you’ve felt like books seem bourgeois compared to cinema. But when people bring up you, liking movies by Fassbender or Douglas Sirk, you also push back against this saying, “Art cinema was not an influence either, it was cheap popular movies that were.” Similarly, you studied Proust and Genet, and admire them but they aren’t influences. Recently, one interviewer brought up Pessoa as an influence and you bring him up often yourself but you pushed back and said, “No, Pessoa isn’t an influence, and Nicki Minaj is doing many of the same things,” which I loved. You’ve also said, “Arab literature, with perhaps the exception of Choukri, isn’t an influence either.” That your book is not made of other books or necessarily, even in conversation with other books and that this is clearly a question of class for you. I wanted to link this to a question you’re often asked about why you write in French, or perhaps another way to phrase it: why do you continue to write in French when the original reasons to do so, to live in France, to make films have been achieved? The reason I ask this is because of many things you often say about French. First and foremost, that originally, you associated it with the arrogant Moroccan elite, with the powerful and monied people in Morocco, not the people you knew and loved. You also have said that you still feel inferior within French and you’ve also said that the language is not one you think will stay in you forever. That if you were to move to Argentina for instance, that it would probably vanish and be replaced quickly by Spanish. But I wondered, does French nevertheless, give you something advantageous, a mask, a distance, a space to write in that Arabic wouldn’t or in other words, what keeps you from switching now to writing in Arabic, now that you’re both known and loved on your own terms?
AT: First of all, when someone says, “I grew up in a poor family and I lived in poverty,” most people hear something fashion poor. They don’t realize what it means to be poor. Even when you try to explain, people are very quickly bored with the reality of being poor. I say this to you because I cannot escape that feeling inside of me, of the humiliations of being poor. The people looking at you because you are just poor in Morocco, in Rabat, even in the neighborhood where I used to live which was a poor neighborhood. But even within that neighborhood, there were some people who have more money than others, and certainly, not even here in France. There was no way for someone like me living this extreme poverty, to dream about the idea to become a writer and to construct. It seemed to me, from the people I used to watch on TV, some writers, they seemed like they were living in, I don’t know, Beverly Hills of the world and even in the way they were speaking, and expressing things. Maybe, I am totally unfair to them but this is how it felt, not only to me but to my sister too. The only way in order not to be totally dominated by them and by their words, we used to laugh at them with the intellectual posture. I’m talking about the Moroccan writers speaking French and reciting what they learned in La Sorbonne, and talking about this and that, meaning if you want to be considered as a writer, you have to recite Jean Genet or Marcel Camus. If you start talking about Marcel Camus, people will take you seriously. But if you only talk about your mother who is doing sorcery, you are just a poor guy who is not sophisticated enough in his brain in order to become as a good writer as someone who knows Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But really, that would be for me the biggest betrayal ever to say that my mother, for instance, who was illiterate was not clever, was not intelligent, was not able to think of her world, and to struggle inside of her world and for instance, to go now and to talk about her as an oppressed Arab woman, an oppressed Muslim woman, and only talk about her from that perspective and not say what was the richness. Yes, she was poor but her life was extremely rich with so many, many events happening today and she is screaming non-stop all day long and all night long sometimes. You see, this poverty, people don’t want to hear it. They only want you to say, “I escaped poverty. I am now this free gay Arab living in France and Paris,” and just celebrate me as that. But I have no choice here. My first struggles, what we can call transgressions, my mother dealing with police, begging police people to let us go, kissing their hands and inventing a character just to stay safe somehow. These are big lessons of life. It explains everything why my writing is like the way I am doing it. It’s certainly not when I come here to France. If you ask me, “Who is the biggest filmmaker for you today?” I would tell you, Robert Bresson. He is French. The way we talk about Robert Bresson, it seems like he is not accessible to anyone and I feel that this is wrong. I’m sure that Robert Bresson, his grave, is not happy about this. The fact that his cinema is considered as an elite cinema is something that hurts me somehow because I’m sure, if my mother was still alive, if I show her certain films by Robert Bresson, she will understand them because me, personally, I feel that Robert Bresson was a Moroccan because he believes in spirituality and sorcery, and he put some magic there in his films. I’m sure that in Morocco or someone in India, I don’t know, in China and anyone poor or very poor would understand that language.
DN: And he engages with poverty.
AT: Exactly. But he did it in a very rich way. Until now, the way we treat the poor people and the poverty, it has to be done in a certain way. This thought I’m trying to give you is something that I had when I was already a teenager. For instance, when I used to go to Rabat, the capital of Morocco with all these fancy people, I already invented characters, avatars that I will use just to stop their hate and their separation. It was the same thing when I was writing the screenplay of my film Salvation Army. The first important thing I put in my mind is not to tell the story of this gay Moroccan boy as it is expected, the victimization, the Western point of view on a gay Arab boy. He has to be like me, as clever as me, as tortured as me, as aware of what’s going on really as me, not only a little boy, effeminate. Yes, raped but at the same time, he is clever. He knows what is going on. So not again, not only one dimension.
DN: Yeah. When you mention Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, you’ve also talked about how you resist looking at your works or works in general of literature through the perspective of literary theory because it would be a in a way being colonized a second time as a writer to take that way of meaning making as a frame through which to look at what you’ve done. It made me wonder about how you felt about the fact that you are now yourself, the subject of scholarship. That there’s an entire academic book, hundreds of pages long by Tina Dransfeldt Christensen entitled Writing Queer Identities in Morocco: Abdellah Taïa and Moroccan Committed Literature. It’s a book that compares and contrasts you to other Moroccan writers but uses you as the central subject and the ways that you have reshaped the discourse, and trajectory of Moroccan literature. How does that feel for you? I can’t imagine how that feels actually.
AT: [laughter] One day, my big brother who never helped me when I was a little gay in Morocco heard that I was invited to American University and that impressed him so much. He told his daughter to tell me that he’s proud of me but he was proud of what? America? But we are all only humans, flesh, blood, the skin and we need to be caressed, and to be talked with love and gentle at a certain moment, not when it’s too late. Of course, it’s a huge privilege to have American universities or other people in Denmark, like Tina or other countries. It’s a huge privilege. I helped them when they asked me to have interviews and I answered the questions. I read the books but I don’t read it like, “Did they get this right?” Actually, even if they got it wrong, it doesn’t matter to me.
AT: I read it and luckily for me, I have the ability to forget about that which means that I am just an arrogant person. [laughter] I am obsessed with my own ideas. There is no one who will change my ideas and the ideas of the other people inside of me, the voices, etc. But of course, it’s a huge privilege but it doesn’t interfere with my idea of writing books or writing stories or writing anything. But when I say that I don’t want to be colonized by other books, it’s not even a gesture of like I’m playing the hero here, no. I don’t know if you take Jean Genet, he produces literature in a certain social and political context that is his. His books are the production of that and his life in the prison he was in when he was a little boy, etc. I don’t know how I can take the things that are specific to him and to put them into something that is specific to me. That would be for me, impossible to do.
DN: Yeah. Part of the reason why I wanted to bring up Tina’s book, Writing Queer Identities in Morocco, is I want to return, at least, briefly to this question of why French and not Arabic or at least, not that question but what are you doing within French to make French, French for you or to change French? Because I was listening to your translator, Emma Ramadan speak and she says that your French is very different from the French of others she translates. In this book Writing Queer Identities in Morocco, Tina Dransfeldt Christensen quotes you talking about how you proceed in French through your first origin which is poverty and this is what Christensen says, “This poverty is reflected in Taïa’s literary style, which he himself has characterized as pauvre francais – not mauvais francais as in bad French, which some reviewers, both French and Moroccan, have accused him of, ‘poor’ french as in a language that reflects his poor background but simultaneously resists the norms and conventions of ‘rich’ or so-called ‘good’ French.” Maybe, for all of us non-French speakers, could you talk about your French, the pauvre francais for us?
AT: I think French, at first, was such something that we used to hear on Moroccan TV. It was far from us. Then for certain reasons, we used to go to the capital Rabat and there, you would need certain people using French phrases or French words in order to say something about them, meaning that they are superior to you. Actually, they did more than that. They would insult you. Just because they were able to speak French, they would allow themselves to have a certain postures. For instance, if you are waiting in line and suddenly, a bourgeois Moroccan woman from Rabat could go without being in the line, just because she was the bourgeois woman with the French. We would all accept that. This is something that I lived during many, many years. So even when I studied French literature in the Moroccan university, Mohammed V University in Rabat, a lot of students with me in the class were coming from the bourgeois system. Until now, there are still French schools in Morocco and only the very, very elite people would have enough money to send them. I remember very clearly the way they used to look at me, like all in me. Maybe you don’t see it but for them, it was clear, like all in me physically, my gesture. I am poor and I will stay poor, and this is my destiny just because I don’t know French. If this is not the true image of what the meaning of the French colonization is, I don’t know what it would be. Yes, France left Morocco in 1956 but the French language, until today, is still being used by the bourgeois and the rich as a way to separate themselves from the rest of the Moroccans. This is extremely sad. This is what I’m telling you here. This is extremely sad. It means that if you only know Arabic, you are nothing in your own country, Morocco. It’s like I tell you, David, in America, if you know only English, you are nothing, how would you feel? This is what I grew up with. I think this is my right, I wanted to not stay in poverty and I said, “Okay, I am going to learn your language, that French language and I’m going to be better than you in that language.” Of course, it was very silly of me to think that. But a miracle happened in the university and I don’t know how or why, I became the best student during five years. I don’t know how I did it because I am just coming from the public schools where I learned everything in Arabic except five hours of French each week, I don’t know, like revenge dynamic or in my brain, it was so hard and it became like a terminator. [laughter]
DN: I love that.
AT: Like merciless but yet presenting to the world this very nice, polite face that I know people only see in me when they meet me first but inside of me, I became that terminator. So when I learned French, it was with the intention to kill them all, [laughs] those rich Moroccan people who were already killing us all.
AT: So I learnt it with the desire not to be French as them, not to be bourgeois as them, not to be frozen in French like I used to see them. I wanted to be better than them in French and I did it here. I didn’t want to be French. I remember clearly that when we were studying, I don’t know, Racine, Jean Genet, André Gide, Paul Vecchiali, and all these people, these names, of course, are huge in the French culture at like big, big, big [inaudible 1:16:04.7]. Even Hollywood stars are nothing compared to them in the space of French culture. But yet meeting them in my years at the University in Rabat, I felt like Paul Vecchiali, what he was talking about was very similar to what I was living. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, what a big master of words it is.” Of course, he was but what he was talking about, the misery, the rain, the complicated love stories, the cries, of course the hidden homosexuality, and all that, it felt Moroccan. It didn’t feel like French chic reality to me. In a way, I thank God, if he exists, that I didn’t feel inferior inside the French culture at that time. That’s what made me a writer. This is, of course, very paradoxical because I am coming from nothing, literally nothing. Yet with that nothing, I come to the French language and I tell them, “I’m going to be better than you and in your French language, I’m going to put what is me.” It’s extremely arrogant. [laughs]
DN: It’s very subversive. It’s great.
AT: I didn’t think of myself as subversive at that time but this is intuition of life.
AT: But again, I repeat, I was surrounded with so many hateful rich people using French against us in order to diminish us that I have the right motivation just in front of me. They will not kill me and I will be better than them. [laughs] That’s what somehow made me a writer.
DN: Now that we’re talking about languages, maybe, it’s a perfect time to hear you read in yet another language. We had talked about maybe having you read the beginning of the Isabelle Adjani section where Zannouba is telling the story of Adjani to herself as the boy Aziz.
[Abdellah Taïa reads from Emma Ramadan’s translation of A Country for Dying]
DN: We’ve been listening to Abdellah Taïa read from Emma Ramadan’s translation of A Country for Dying. Sometimes on the show, I invite other people to ask questions of the guest and I had this fantasy that I would somehow be able to contact Isabelle Adjani, and I’d get her to record something and I would play it for you right here. Because there’s a listener of the show who writes for one of the best film magazines in the United States and I reached out to him, and I was like, “Do you have any connections?” Because he interviews people like Denis Lavant and Claire Denis. He knew of quite a big French film director closely and reached out to her, and unfortunately, she didn’t have a way to get a connection to Adjani, but I just want you to know I tried really hard to have Adjani be part of the program today.
AT: That means the world to me. [laughter] Earlier, you said that one of the reasons I wanted to come to Paris is to be under the same sky as Isabelle Adjani.
AT: It’s like when you are depressed or you feel like, “Oh, the God and the world suddenly are so sad.” What do you do? You watch Marilyn Monroe and suddenly, you understand that Marilyn Monroe is not only an actress. It’s something else. It can’t be this trivial that she’s only an actress. I think that’s what makes Marilyn Monroe so alive until now, that people see what she gave. For me, Isabelle Adjani is maybe, bigger than Marilyn Monroe but it’s just something that she gave me, and this is not a starstruck thing or a queer obsession or something, we say in French Elle a les lumières, she has the lights. On top of the fact that she is an incredible actress in terms of acting and she was nominated to French Oscars, The César, and all that stuff but that doesn’t count, this is not what makes her so special, the Oscars or the French César, no. It’s every time that she appears, not only in movies like she is here, you stop being you, I stopped being me and I am in her. It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything she says. It’s something else that I am inside of her. I don’t know that many people can have this effect on me except the sorcerers. Maybe, Isabelle Adjani, I am sure of that, she must believe in the same things as me, like the sorcery, the jinns. Otherwise, she can’t be that good actress. [laughter]
DN: In all of your books, your women, while marginalized, and you’ve spoken to this, are nevertheless really powerful. In your open letter to your mother you said, “Mother, you surely do not know it, but this desire to rebel, it’s you who gave it to me. In our family, you’ve always been the guide, the schemer, the rebel. The one who makes things happen. You understood quickly that you had no other choice but to be a man in a place of men. To be better and braver than all the men around us.” I feel like we see this rebellion, scheming, and bravery in many of the women in your books. But there’s also I think a recurring portrayal of the humiliated man. I was hoping we could talk about that a little bit. This book opens where we learn the life expectancy in Morocco is 56 years old and that Zahira’s father fought in Indochina for France, yet received no retirement pay from France for his service in the military. When he gets sick and comes home from the hospital, he’s exiled to a half-finished second story of the house and the family is supposed to stay separate from him for their own health. Nobody visits him yet they can hear his footsteps upstairs. He’s abandoned and ultimately, he kills himself. There’s a similar situation portrayed in your early books with the father banished upstairs and dying an early death. In this book, Zahira is haunted by her failures regarding her father. The Zahira we see is super kind, a caretaker. She calls her prostitution humanitarian rescue because she focuses her clientele on poor immigrants. She takes care of Zannouba during her surgery. She takes care of Mojtaba, the gay Iranian revolutionary who she gives refuge to during the month of Ramadan in Paris. But all of her caretaking seems also to be a negotiation with her guilt around what she didn’t do for her father when he needed her. I was hoping we could maybe, spend a little bit of time talking about this fallen man character, which feels like the diminished or fallen or humiliated man that seems to be a figure in a lot of your work also.
DN: Sometimes, I think that straight men are just so poor. [laughs] They know nothing. They are born and the world tells them that they have the power, and they act like they have the power but they don’t have the power, yet they impose on the women and LGBTQ people their illusion of power and we have no other choice but to fight that illusion of power they impose on us. But deep down, they are just lost and we are attracted to what is messy chaos. This for me is coming from the images I’ve seen from my father. My real father in real life, he was tender, he was sweet but he was not able to fight. I loved him but at the same time, at a certain point, but he was not there in the street to scream and to fight with the people. It’s my mother who did it. He was just constructing somehow this very romantic image of himself, a depressed man in Morocco, “Okay, I’m depressed, do the work for me.” I’m here, I’m talking seriously because I’m witnessing even today with the husbands of my sisters in Morocco and with the lovers, loves, the concubines of friends I have here in France, white french women, what they live, like the amount of submission, it’s unbelievable. The submission imposed on us by straight men who only have the illusion of power is beyond what we can think of. But when it comes to my novels, yeah, it’s the image of my father there trying to be a romantic depressed guy, the loser guy. This is something that you hear a lot in Morocco, straight men, depressed, telling people, “Do something for me or I will jump or I will commit suicide.” Straight man commits suicide much more, statistically. It makes you think that even when they are in trouble, they are putting on us their egocentric and narcissistic image of themselves losing their power. In a way, I’m trying to say that my father was more than lucky to have a woman like my mother, who not only gave him sex on a daily basis because at some point, this is only what they want, sex, and not only that but she built the whole thing, the whole meaning of the world to him. The beginning of the novel A Country for Dying, this is not what is being narrated but I wrote this novel in 2012, 2013, 2015 and it was published in France in 2015, I sensed that if I had to rewrite the beginning of this novel, I would be harsher on him and it’s much more re-evaluation to the mother because the mother in the beginning here, she is only described as a dictator.
DN: Yeah. There’s another humiliated man in the book, Allal, that I want to talk about at some point. But before we got there, I reached out to Viet Thanh Nguyen to have him ask you a question. I know you’ve met. When he was on the show, we talked about his most recent book which also takes place in Paris, is centered around the French-Vietnamese community but whose primary interactions in the book are with the French-Algerian community of Paris. This is Viet’s question for you, “A Country for Dying includes a move to Saigon in 1954. Why did you feel it necessary to have that place and time in the novel? What is added by including this particular something that you didn’t have to include? I wondered if it may have something to do with an interest in comparative colonial experiences?”
AT: First of all, thank you very, very much, Viet, for this question. I love you very much. I read only The Sympathizer when it was translated in French. I didn’t read the book he just published. Thank you very much for the question, Viet. I included Saigon and in Morocco, they call it Indochine, Indochina. In Morocco and in France, this is until now, the name is L’Indochine. In Morocan Arabic, he was an Indochine. He did L’Indochine. Ah, he’s there in L’Indochine. This name was just there before even me understanding what it meant, colonization, France colonization. It was part of our life, of something that happened in the past for some people, for my family, and other families. Something horrible happened to them, some sacrifice happened to them, and some killing happened to them. This whole horrible experience was condensed in one name, L’Indochine. I put the Saigon/L’Indochine in my novel. It appears really at the end and I’m not going to ruin the surprise for the readers. I’m not going to say what really happened. It just adds that layer of how complex and how brutal was the French colonization and how they used people, the bodies of people and send them wherever they want in order to be more exploited than in their own country, Morocco. Because here, you find the aunt of Zannouba, Zineb being sent to Saigon in the 50s by the French and being used for sex by the French soldiers. I’m not going to tell everything, what’s going on there. But what I told you earlier, like me as a writer here speaking to you, writing in French, being translated into English, I am here because someone did some sacrifices for me and that person is my mother. In the 70s, in the 60s, she did something for me. Literally, she didn’t understand me as a gay person but she feed me, she gave me food, she gave me money to take the bus to go to university. All these things have a huge value and I have to tell the world and not only talk about myself as a self-made writer. In A Country for Dying, when Zineb, the prostitute, Zahira appears, suddenly, it gives another light of the actual exploitation of the immigration in France. This exploitation didn’t start 10 years ago. It started many, many years ago. That’s the first intention. The second intention for me is I always like to bring something surprising at a certain point. I don’t want my characters or the people speaking, like the character of Allal, suddenly he’s there. There is nothing that prepares the appearance of Allal in the book. Suddenly, he’s there and I love this way of structuring my books as something that shakes the book and shakes the reader like, “Who is this guy? Who is speaking? What is he saying?” Suddenly, the reader is not even sure of what he’s reading but at a certain point, it will give a sense of what I am trying to write about.
DN: Well, Viet’s new book, the one that takes place in Paris, unlike your book, is very much a book in conversation with other books and a book in conversation with postcolonial, and anti-colonial theory in other books and mentions a lot of thinkers and philosophers. Right around the time that we spoke, President Macron and his Education Minister Frédérique Vidal, they spoke out against postcolonial theories and they characterized them as an American contamination of French universities and they coined the term Islamo-leftism. They said that the pedagogy of French universities would be examined to remove the influence of Islamo-leftism. Macron also spoke last fall in the largely black and brown suburbs of Paris saying to that audience that one of the reasons they were unhappy was not because of their material conditions but because of these postcolonial theories from America that were making them unsatisfied. But one of the ironies, at least, for me, is that a lot of these theories that he’s calling American either originated from, or were heavily influenced by Francophone thinkers, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre were all crucial to the American postcolonial theory development that he’s calling American, which really is coming from colonized French-speaking people through America and coming back to France. But I guess I wanted to hear your thoughts about the contemporary moment, if you have any, about this move to the right of Macron and Vidal, and the way that they’re inventing a term called Islamo-leftism, which didn’t really exist and it has very vague connotations. What are your thoughts on this with regards to the current situation in Paris?
AT: If you remember earlier, I was telling you about the ignorance about us I see every day in so many white French people and every time, I can’t help but feel sad. I am asked not only to accept their ignorance and their racism, I am asked to teach them things about us and everything you teach them, it is being erased immediately and you have to tell them again, every day, something else about you. It’s revolting of course. It’s exasperating but at the same time, I don’t want to be trapped because all this discourse, these words are being put in the media with intentions. I don’t want to be that guy who will be here systematically, answering everything they will invent just for political reasons to them. I think I have literature and I have interviews like this for you to express colonization, post colonization, to give right images about us every time without putting what I am saying and writing about just to answer them because it will give them bigger honor. It will just validate that they are imposing the right debate to have and what is the wrong debate. Do you know what I mean?
DN: Yeah, I know totally.
AT: I am convinced. I have my convictions. I’m involved politically. I sometimes write articles, etc. But the times we are living in, it’s extremely scary. Sometimes, you say something and some people will take that phrase and suddenly you find yourself in chaotic social media. That means nothing, just people being obsessed with one phrase or one word. I think I have to be extremely cold when it comes to dealing with these things and not to be impatient, and not to jump in the traps they are putting for me as an Arab, or people like me, as an Arab and as a Muslim because I consider myself as a Muslim. I am a Muslim, gay, Muslim and Arab. I don’t want me and my writing to have a meaning that I am doing this to answer that question. That would be too poor for me. I’m somehow talking about what I hope what’s going on in our world today. I am too arrogant, anyway, too self-conscious of my value. I know that there are not that much gay Arabs who are writers in the world or published gay Arab writers. This is very arrogant to say but I am conscious on the fact that I have a certain value, my voice counts, and I will never, as much as I could, let other people take me and use me as the gay Arab that our French freed.
DN: Yeah. I feel like your work really embraces complexity and contradiction. In a way, that makes it hard to pigeonhole or define you in a way that you could be used that way I think. I want to stay with that a minute because this section that Viet points out, both the presence of Moroccan soldiers fighting in France and fighting for France, and Vietnam and the presence of Moroccan prostitutes in Vietnam for white French soldiers who didn’t want to sleep with Asian women, it made me curious just to learn more about that history. Learning that in fact, tens of thousands of North African Arabs fought for the French in Vietnam or Indochine but also, that when France exiled the King of Morocco, there were a whole bunch of Moroccan soldiers who switched sides and fought alongside the Vietnamese. There’s even a monument in Hanoi called the Morocco Gate to commemorate the soldiers who did this. Kind of like this complicated history, I feel like your books do a similar complicated thing narratively and politically. For instance, I feel like your books both embrace and critique Islam at the same time, that they both embrace and critique Morocco at the same time, that you show France as a seductress and also ultimately, a country that fails to live up to what it promises. The books feel deeply immersed in Arab culture but also in Infidels, for instance, you evoke a North Africa pre-arabization and pre-islam with the Berber warrior Queen Kahina, who led her people against the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century. It feels to me like you have this awareness of intersectionality in your books in the way you construct narratives also, I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it but one of the ways I see it is in the way you have the presence of black characters and your inclusion of anti-black racism within the Arab world. I’m thinking of the character Karabiino in An Arab Melancholia who’s a hotel cleaner in Cairo and also a refugee from Darfur when his parents were beheaded by Sudanese Arab guerrillas, and he hates Cairo because of its racism and he gets stoned in the streets. But I was also hoping we could talk about the chapter in A Country for Dying called May She Burn, which feels like a complicated intersection of misogyny and racism ultimately. Because when people find out in Morocco that the money Zahira is sending home for them has come from prostitution, there are people who want her dead. But nobody I think wants her dead more than Allal who wanted to marry her but was rejected by her mother, at least, partially because he was black. Can you talk about this section, in writing this section from Allal’s perspective?
AT: I will never present myself like a good person or only a good person. This is a common knowledge, like when we are dealing with anyone in real life. Literature has to reflect that there is no other way, for me, to write only like someone who is a good person or no binarism. Everything has to be ambiguous because that’s what we are. We all have little bits of evil inside of us. We are all placed in situations where we do things that are not right because this is how human beings constructed what we call human societies. That’s extremely important in all my books. Even the gay heroes, even me, I always add a little bit of evil because that reflects the basic reality of human beings. If you add to this ambiguity someone who is black in Morocco, the level of complexity just explodes. I have to admit that even me—the gay person, oppressed, raped, and a lot of bad things that happened to me when I was little—even me at a certain point, I was racist towards black people because that’s what was being placed in Morocco society when it comes to black people. For instance, maybe, I’m even ashamed to say this, for a long time, I was not even attracted to black men. Can you imagine this? Twenty years ago, I had to rethink myself like, “This is not right, why?” I understood, that’s racism implanted in me, ourselves, so strong and without me even thinking that I am a racist against black people because you see, most people, when you tell them, “Oh, this is a racist thing, what you just said.” “Oh no, I’m not a racist.” Most people would say that, but me telling you, as much as I think, I was racist because that’s what was put inside of me. I was not thinking of black people. I was not even thinking of them until 20 years ago. I remember I started this serious thinking when I arrived here in Paris. Somehow, my brain confronted white French society here in Paris. Suddenly, you see yourself in other people living somehow the same otherness as you. These people could be totally the opposite of you in real life but still, they live something similar to you. Like in Infidels, the hero became the terrorists but it doesn’t mean that a terrorist is only someone that is supposed to be condemned karma. So the character of Allal comes from all this thinking and from something that really happened in real life. When I was a teenager, there was a black family. They were there and I knew some stories about them but over the years, I just didn’t pay attention. Suddenly, I started to think about them and remembered that young man in that family, he was black and he married a white Moroccan woman from the City of Fes. The City of Fes, it’s the center of what the Moroccans called the Moroccan civilization, Moroccan sophistication. Because she was so white, that provoked a scandal in my neighborhood. How come they were saying this? “White women from the City of Fes married this black guy.” I remember, even my sisters were shocked. I used this story here in the book with the character of Zahira, and how she betrayed Allal by refusing to marry him and to follow what her mother told her to do.
DN: Yeah. I want to return to your conversation with Édouard Louis—and I’ll make sure to link to that conversation because it’s so good—He said something I thought was interesting and I wondered if you agreed with it. He said, “I think my work and yours no longer ask the question of integration into collectives, but rather how to flee.” He suggests that the centering of flight in a narrative opens up new possibilities. That comment made me think of two stories in A Country for Dying, two stories of escape, the story of Zineb, Zahira’s aunt who mysteriously disappears. Everyone feels as if she’s escaped but not knowing where and that not knowing becomes mythological, and her story captivates everybody in their imagination. Then there’s also another story called The Happy Tale of Naïma. I wondered if you could speak to their role in the book or to how much or how little Édouard Louis’ characterization of flight and escape being central to your writing feels true to you.
AT: I have to admit that I am in love with the idea of leaving, disappearing, to stop something, to cut, and use a knife, [laughter] to be merciless sometimes, not that you are a merciless person but you are put in a certain situation, you just stop it. It comes I think from what happened to me as a gay person when I was little. You cannot talk with the people. You cannot enter into a serious conversation with them. You cannot convince them. The only thing they want to do is to put their power on you, so you have to be much more clever than them and cut the conversation, leave, and to be in a certain way that impresses them and you just leave. This gives me a lot of pleasure, I have to admit, this power of leaving, of going away and ending things. With time, of course, it becomes a problem when I have love relationships because I am still dominated until now by this idea that if I want to leave, I’m going to leave. But in the book A Country for Dying, all these characters left their first countries. They thought France was going to be the place where to find true dreams, to find freedom, but France betrayed them and treated them as the invisibles. They are yet exploited but they are invisible to the French elites and to the French society. But the novel—and this is what I want to do while writing this book—is yes, they are exploited by France, yes they are invisible to France but I don’t treat them as invisibles, I don’t treat them as poor characters. They are extraordinary, full of life people. The whole novel, I think yes, is sad, tragic but at the same time, they do a lot of crazy things, full of life. France doesn’t want them but they imposed themselves on France and on Paris. Yes, Paris doesn’t allow us to go here and there but in this place where we cannot be, we already have roots and they construct something without the blessing of France or Parisians. They reach the level of dreaming in a place that doesn’t accept them, which is a place that a gay person understands and masters very well.
DN: When you mention that your books are tragic but so much else, it’s funny because if you just describe the plot of your books, whether they involve rape or prostitution or racism, it doesn’t really capture the experience of reading any of them. The first words that come to mind when I think of reading your books are tenderness, love, openness, and possibility. I don’t mean that in a naive way but because all these other things that we’ve been talking about for the last two hours are all there and are very present and there’s a lot of pain, fear, and loneliness but the tone feels different than that somehow, the note that you strike.
AT: In real life, when you are struck in your heart, like something bad happened to you, you scream, you cry in 15 minutes, then you don’t know, you put Nicki Minaj and you dance to it. [laughter] I am not depressed all day long. I’m depressed, I don’t know, at 10:00 AM and at 12:00 PM, I am with Nicki Minaj, then I am depressed again at 4:00 PM and here we go.
AT: Life has much more possibilities for us than we think of and I want this to be in my novel. Again, I hope I succeed in this, to have my characters defined only with one dimension. I want them to be alive. When you watch Gene Kelly dancing, until today, sometimes I spend the whole day doing only this, watching Gene Kelly dancing on YouTube or one of my favorite things, it’s Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, when they dance and sing old-fashioned, I don’t know if you know this song, it’s sublime. So you cry, then you finish crying and you watch Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. [laughter] This combination of the two things while talking about post-colonialism, racism, these important issues has to be brought, I hope, in a very lively way and in an unexpected way. Last week, I put on my Facebook that I love Nicki Minaj and so many people were surprised. “Oh, he loves Nicki Minaj. How come a writer…” [laughter] I find Nicki Minaj extremely talented, extremely flamboyant, extremely American and non-American at the same time. The way she uses the voices, the way she dances, the way she transforms her body. Nicki Minaj writes her own songs but some people were disappointed with a Moroccan writer like me giving praise to Nicki Minaj. I am disappointed in these people that are disappointed in me because of Nicki Minaj. [laughter]
DN: As we’re coming closer to an end, I wanted to ask you about one last thing about the shapes of your books because even though your books are full of stories told by one person to another, or conversations between a character and their ancestor, or a character and their former self, or conversations happening in the realm of dreams, or the imagination or perhaps of a possession, even though your books are full of stories, your books are never shaped like stories. They don’t have traditional story arcs. The characters don’t arrive at a place of resolution. Nothing is linear. There really is no ending. It’s not like it just stops. I don’t feel like the books stop but I was curious if you could talk about that, about story shape and endings also.
AT: I told you I love knives. [laughter] It’s like in cinema, the editing is very important and sometimes, you have to cut the scene, not to finish the scene, you just have to cut. I also told you earlier that before writing, I choose extremely very carefully the teeny tiny moment I am going to write about in this chapter and this chapter. For me, it’s the combination, the juxtaposition of these that makes a book for me. I just love to cut, again, not to give it all. It’s like when you’re having sex, it’s impossible to give it all or at least you have to give the other person what you are not giving him, otherwise, he will leave you and nothing else will happen or it will be only a repetition of the act of sex or the act of love. I have to admit that these things, I learned it when I was a little boy, like in real life, I had to be way ahead of certain people to sense the danger before they even had it in their mind. You have to say something in order to change the whole situation. Again, you said that my French is poor and it’s true. I do really feel that I am poor in French language. Yes, I studied a lot of French literature but somehow, it didn’t stick in my mind. What’s in my mind is this idea that I have nothing and with nothing, I’m going to do something. It’s like when I had many days with my mother and my sister, when I was a little boy, when you wake up, there is nothing to eat for the whole day, so what are we going to do? Because you have to eat in order to survive. You wake up and you have nothing. So from that nothing, you have to invent something. I just feel that this is a good strategy for writing good literature. [laughs]
DN: I don’t want to misquote Emma—and I may be misquoting her—but when I was listening, I think I remember her saying she never calls your French poor but I think she comes closer to calling it perhaps naked or bare in a way that is hard for her as a translator than a more ornate referential French because she has to get the emotional valence of every word right because it’s stripped down to a certain essence. I don’t know if that sounds like something true to you and I may be misspeaking for her.
AT: No, this is totally true because this is my style, like I have teeny tiny phrases, some phrases, it’s only one word, like sometimes, the whole paragraph is one word. I like this idea of, it’s like when you go sometimes for a retreat, you just leave what you don’t need. Your output, the bone, I love this idea. While you have the bones, the blood, the sperm, and the dirtiness, I only put the bones there, the dryness. But again, this thing, at the beginning, I didn’t think about it that much. It just came out naturally out of me because I was coming from circumstances where I was told that you are poor, you are going to stay poor all your life and even you speaking in French is poor. When I first started to be published, some Moroccan reviewers were saying that my French is poor. The way I write, they were saying I don’t have a vocabulary. They are not impressed, thus, I am not a good writer. But when I heard this, I just remembered some people I used to watch in Morocco on TV and I was not impressed with their fancy words, too many complicated words that meant anything. It just meant that they were trying to impose on us their power by using French.
AT: I hope that my poor French, my poor words, at least, give the people, the readers some emotions. That’s all I want.
DN: It feels like it’s a grand victory, Abdellah. It must feel amazing that you have succeeded on the level of language and on the level of story, and self on your own terms that way.
AT: It’s not a success story the way it is told but I am happy I stayed faithful to my mother. My mother was speaking poorly. She was poor. Everything was all in her, then I saw the people the way they reacted to her, yet through that poor self she was, she constructed a lot of things. That’s why in my letter to her, I said to her, “You are my Simone de Beauvoir.” Like why do I need to go to see Simone de Beauvoir? Yes, I go to it when I study in university when I read but when I write, it’s only her—good mother, dictator, merciless heart, tender, screaming non-stop, heartless, a good sorcerer, a bad sorcerer, a good human being, a very bad human being, all that—and I think literature has to be this.
DN: It was such an immense pleasure to spend all this time with you, Abdellah. Thank you so much for talking with me today.
AT: Thank you very much, David, for the invitation. I hope it will make some sense for the people who will hear us.
DN: I’m sure it will.
AT: I send you all my love and all my salam.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Abdellah Taïa about his latest book, A Country for Dying, from Seven Stories Press, translated by Emma Ramadan. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. To find out the latest about Abdellah Taïa, you can follow him both on Facebook and Instagram. Today’s bonus audio archive, an hour-long in-depth conversation with award-winning translator Emma Ramadan joins many other long-form conversations with translators in the bonus archive from Sophie Hughes, the translator of Fernanda Melchor to Ellen Elias-Bursa, the translator of Dubravka Ugrešić, as well as bonus material from everyone from Philip Metres to Hanif Abdurraqib to Garth Greenwell. To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio or about the many other potential benefits of becoming a listener/supporter of the show, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. In addition to Seven Stories Press, I’d like to thank Semiotext(e) for providing copies of Abdellah’s first books in English. I’d also like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Allysa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.