French, Arabic, English: Abdellah Taïa Discusses His Novels and Why He Uses the Language that He Does
Author: Todd Reeser
March 27, 2016
“I grew up in a very poor family and speaking in Arabic. Around me, those who used French fluently were the rich Moroccans, the elite. I never felt that French was for me. And I still have that feeling. Though I write now in French, my feelings about this language are very complicated. I am in a constant war with it.”
It is not easy to classify the work of gay Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, who is 42 years old. His most well-known novel, Salvation Army, is about a Moroccan whose homosexuality is at the core of the novel, but it is hard to call it a coming-out story. Abdellah’s native language is Arabic, but he writes in French. Much of his fiction takes place around the Mediterranean, but he himself lives in Paris. Salvation Army starts in Morocco and ends in Western Europe, and actually ends up being about the relation between the two cultural contexts. Taïa himself made the novel into a film, and it is easy to see why: much of his fiction has a cinematic quality to it. Two of his novels have been translated into English (Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia, both published by Semiotext(e)), and an English translation of Infidèles, published in French in 2012, will be published by Seven Stories Press this coming spring. Todd Reeser, Professor of French and Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, hosted Abdellah on a visit to his campus in fall 2015. Abdellah sat down with Todd to talk about his novels and about his relation to the three languages he speaks.
I’d like to start by asking you about your novel that is the most widely known here in the US: Salvation Army. Since we are thinking about an American LGBTQ audience that may be interested in this novel, can you say something about the novel as a coming-out narrative, which some people who read it might think it is? Or for you, is it not a coming-out narrative? What do you think it is?
When I write my books, I just write. I don’t place my writing in a specific literary genre. I write with what I am, with my life experiences, with very precise memories of some people, some places. The textual form comes from there, from inside, never from outside. Yes, I am gay, Moroccan, Arab, Muslim, but I don’t want this situation to be another prison for me. I don’t want to say exactly what is expected from someone like me, as someone coming from this part of the world. I didn’t write Salvation as a coming out narrative. No. I did my coming-out in reality, in Moroccan newspapers, on the radio, etc. And, yes, I used my published books as a way to legitimize my voice, my gay identity in a certain space–the Arab world–where it’s very hard to be heard as this kind of voice. Salvation Army was the first of my books to be translated into English in America. And I understand that many American readers considered it a coming-out story. I actually don’t mind that. Every reader is free to interpret my work the way he prefers. But, I repeat again, my intention with this novel was to talk about the idea of transformation. The fragmented transformation of a Moroccan “I” who happens to be gay.
Some American readers, or at least some academic readers, appreciate that the novel doesn’t rectify a Western narrative of a non-Western subject that goes to Europe and suddenly becomes a stable, political, sexually-free “out” subject. It’s not just a story of sexual liberation. Do you agree?
Deep inside, I think that it’s really hard to be totally free. Wherever you live, Casablanca, New York, or Paris, there will always be some people who will try to stop you, to put you in a new jail. Salvation Army is about three moments in the world of a Moroccan “I.” He is trying to free himself, yes, but with every step he makes, we see he is obliged to do bad things, evil things, he is obliged to betray some people. At the end of the novel, he is out of the first prison, the family, but to be in Geneva (the West) does not mean at all that he is now free. Other battles are still waiting for him. Other betrayals, other bad moves. The novel finishes with him asking so many questions. And I didn’t offer any answers.
I want to move to your novel An Arab Melancholia. The sexual aspects of the opening scene are very graphic, but also very complicated. There is a rape scene, but it is not clear if it is really happening. However, the rest of the novel is very different in terms of content. There is a lot of affect, emotion, melancholia, as opposed to sex itself. So how do you think of that very striking opening scene in dialogue with what comes later in the novel? What is it doing for the rest of the novel?
I will always have in me the Arab hysteria. My mother was a grand tragedienne. She imposed on us her melodramas, her screams, and the falling down of her body. The narrative structure of An Arab Melancholia comes from this excessively intense person–my mother. I tried in the novel to create some kind of transfer, to be like my mother. Intense, crazy, hysterical, and possessed. And gay too, of course. It’s a book about the constant falling down of a lonely Arab body, mine. It’s a very political book as well because the melancholic situation of this “I” has to constantly confront the situation of the Arab world where individual freedoms are quite impossible to obtain. The first chapter is about a rape, yes. But, at the same time, the hero falls in love with the guy who wants to rape him. So he starts to manipulate him, to try to change the situation. While doing that, he realizes that there’s always something bigger than himself, a power that condemns him to wander without end. The following three chapters are each an image of that wandering….
I want to ask you about Infidels. This is your novel to be published in English translation this May. Infidels is a different kind of narrative compared to Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia, in part because it feels—to me at least—much less autobiographical. How do you think about what Infidels offers to a reader that is very different from what Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia offer? What is the novel doing that is new in that trio of novels?
This novel is not about myself. That’s true. It’s more “fictional.” But, to be honest with you, everything in that novel comes from my world, my Morocco, my own visions of the world. I think I will never be able to write a novel that is far from what I am. I write about what I know about the world. I put my world into literature, in a very precise and naked way. I am not interested in inventing too much: I always stick to my sense of reality, to my stories, to my first place—Morocco, the city of Salé where I grew up. That’s where I discovered the meaning of loneliness, the need to quickly become a fighter in order to survive and impose on the world who I am—a gay person. Infidels is about a Moroccan prostitute and her gay son living in the city of Salé. They are the pariahs. They are exploited by Moroccan society. Their lives are a tragedy. But the book doesn’t treat them like pariahs, they are presented as full of energy and the desire to change their situation and to renew [their idea of faith] as Muslims. They are constantly attacked by those who think that they are the real Muslims. The book follows these two characters from the 80s until the beginning of 2000 and gives them the opportunity to show what they are really capable of. In the middle of the story, they meet with Marilyn Monroe, in the film River of No Return. Marilyn becomes their goddess and her presence changes the tone of the book…the structure of Infidels is more complex than my other books, more provocative…the end might not be understood by everyone…
Let me ask you about writing in French. After talking to you this week, I have the sense that the French language for you is a kind of migration, or at least, that is how as a reader of your work I make sense of your writing. Can you say something about that? Is writing, for you, a kind of migration? And how is that related to the French language, which is not your first language?
I write in a language that is not mine, French. I grew up in a very poor family and speaking in Arabic. Around me, those who used French fluently were the rich Moroccans, the elite. I never felt that French was for me. And I still have that feeling. Though I write now in French, my feelings about this language are very complicated. I am in a constant war with it. I don’t like it and yet I want to impose myself and my identity on it. There’s no migration when I write. There’s always a feeling of misunderstanding, of something missing. A feeling of domination against which I have to fight. I am surrounded by ambiguity after ambiguity. I don’t feel comfortable when I write in French. And, maybe, that’s what helps me to write.
The obvious question is why are you not writing anything in Arabic? What would that do to you if you sat down to write down a novel in Arabic?
Arabic knows me more than I know myself. And that’s very scary. Arabic dominates me more than I could dominate it. My intimacy with Arabic is just too deep. When you write, you need to be, at some point, in control–especially of the structure of the book, of the rhythm of the phrases–so, I felt that I could fight against the colonial language, French, and that I will win. I must win. With Arabic, I am already a loser. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like Arabic, on the contrary: for me, Arabic is the most beautiful language….
What about the third language that you speak, which is English? You don’t write in English except for a few minor exceptions. How do you read yourself when you read your texts in English? How do you respond to your own prose that’s been translated by somebody else that you don’t really know?
I can speak in English. I have taught in many American universities in English. I was able to do that. But, when I think back on it, I just can’t see how I was able to do it. Miracles. I feel like it’s not me when I am speaking in English. It’s a third me that comes out of me with no control of me. Very strange. I am in those moments like a character lost in a book written by Borges. In other words, though I look like a reasonable person, I feel totally crazy when I speak in English. I feel in these moments that I am in some American action movie with Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. And like them, I have of course weapons in my hands. As for the translations of my novels, I never interfere in the process of translating my work. I just trust the editors and the translators. If they have specific technical questions, I answer them. And that’s it… It’s really hard for me to go back to a book that I finished writing many years ago before it was translated…
Can you tell us about your plans for future writing? Where are you headed? What have you been working on? What do you imagine doing in future years?
Gay love and post-colonialism: that’s the story of my next novel. Morocco was colonized by France from 1912 to 1956. And, when I hear political discourse in France these days, I feel like France doesn’t want to clear up that past. Morocco is still somehow colonized by France. And so am I.