An Unsentimental Education

The Last One by Fatima Daas; translated from French by Lara Vergnaud. New York: Other Press. 208 pages. $10.
Fatima Daas. Photo: Olivier Roller

In many ways, Fatima Daas’s new novel, The Last One (translated by Lara Vergnaud), appears to be autobiographical. The character bears the author’s name (a pseudonym) and is also a young Clichoise who spends three hours commuting on public transportation to get to the city center from the far-flung suburbs. As a teen, she has a Harriet the Spy–like tendency to observe those on the train, listening to them arguing on the phone or manifesting peculiar laughs. The only member of her Algerian family who was born in France, Fatima struggles to identify with the gendered and religious expectations that structure her Muslim upbringing, especially as she apprehensively comes to terms with being a lesbian.

Her writing style is clipped and unadorned; Fatima’s character has asthma, and the writing seems almost asthmatic, too: staccato, as if trying to conserve breath. The narrator repeats her name and identifying details like a refrain or a prayer. She mixes in Arabic words and expressions. She references Marguerite Duras and Kendrick Lamar and the TV show Charmed. She ducks past the scoffing violence of her father and endures the stiff silences of her mother. The household is one in which she becomes gifted in “l’art de la dissimulation,” where restraint is constant and the self-edit in-built, and where she lacks the trust to be vulnerable.

I spoke with Daas at a coffee shop in Paris. Over her café allongé, she discussed negotiating the oft-clashing identities of family, nation, religion, and gender—especially in a country where the conversation around these issues feels awfully slow to evolve.

SARAH MOROZ: French literary fiction is often very florid in style, but your sentences are startlingly direct and short. Formally speaking, were you resisting of this manner of classicism?

FATIMA DAAS: Yes. When I was a teenager, doing only the required reading, I was under the impression that the language wasn’t addressed to me. Sentences were so long that I’d get lost very quickly; I’d forget what happened from one page to another. My writing style developed not in opposition to that—because when I write, it’s only about what I’m trying to say—but I want to write the way I speak: to integrate orality, slang, and to be steeped in everything I see and hear and to funnel that into literature. Literature should be about the quotidian: the gaze of a writer on the real. I didn’t want to embellish or gild at all. I especially wanted to say things—to shout things—people didn’t want to hear in France.

I think a flowery style makes writing inaccessible. Yet if anything should be accessible to everyone, it’s writing. It’s the easiest thing to do. You can go anywhere, take a pen or a phone, and write. When I do events in middle schools and high schools with young people, there’s a sense of gratitude because they think even I could do this. And I’m happy—I don’t take that badly. On the contrary: it’s super that young people say to themselves “If I want to write something, I could do that too. I can write in the style I want.” The first step is to be confident in what you have to say, and in your manner of saying it.

Can you talk about how you found your way from required reading to books that felt like a better fit?

I wrote before I became a reader. When I was very young, I read Goosebumps. I hated what I was assigned to read in high school. Then, I read Marguerite Duras’s Écrire. Reading about an author who discussed writing immediately touched something in me. I felt very close to her. Little by little, I began to select what I wanted to read and to sift and say to myself it doesn’t matter if you don’t find what you want. You have the right to close a book and not finish it.

In France, you have the classics—you have what you “must” read. I think coming to reading late enabled me to untangle writing from reading, even if they also go together. You can get into literature by another path. I started to read writers like Abdellah Taïa: he devastated me. He helped me find my voice and made me feel you can put so much into a text—things you hadn’t read or seen before. Because if, through writing, we talk about what’s missing, it’s like offering someone else what we’ve been lacking, and what they no doubt have been lacking, too.

In terms of accessing what you couldn’t find in literature, you reached for other forms of creative expression, like rap.

Definitely. You can put so much in a novel, all the things that influence you—and rap is something that shaped me. It accompanies me every day. For every emotion, I can listen to rap and feel like myself. It was so important to me to include rap references in the novel. Rap also really makes me want to write—as much as Marguerite Duras and Annie Ernaux do. I’ll put on an album by Nekfeu and it’s powerful. He writes about intimacy. Good rap goes hand-in-hand with the desire to act, not just to listen. The contempt for rap in France always revolves around the same subjects: rap is sexist, rap is this, rap is that . . . as if there were only one form of rap, as if there were just a single rapper. It reveals quite a few things about French society—it’s clearly class contempt. As if there aren’t French chanteurs who are sexist.

Do you feel part of a new wave of authors outside the white-male paradigm?

There’s a movement in the sense that there are people saying things others don’t want to hear. Faïza Guène, who published her first novel at age nineteen, experienced a pretty crazy media whirlwind. She told me she needed to go abroad to really be able to discuss her text. I realized that was true for me, too—that it provides a really different, unmatched experience relative to France. When you’re from an immigrant background, from the banlieue, you realize you’re not treated with the same respect as other writers are.

Mehdi Charef was one of the first to discuss stories of immigration. Kaoutar Harchi, too, who wrote an autobiographical novel—that’s how she defines it—addresses the same questions. When you grow up with the impression that you don’t exist—in society, onscreen, in books—there’s the impossibility of knowing who you are, an impossibility of identification. And, therefore, a lot of shame. You’re shaped by a system of shame that’s difficult to separate yourself from.

The book talks about attempting to shake the shame.

It’s hard to say how we can get rid of it; it’s something that stays within you. Even when it’s buried, one remark can resurface it. It’s pop psychology, but you really feel like it’s always there. The shame around being poor, for example: even when you have money and success, you still can’t get rid of it. It depends on the types of shame. For example, I’m no longer ashamed to be a lesbian at all. It doesn’t affect me if someone says something homophobic to me, or to my girlfriend. Whereas if someone comments scornfully on poverty, or being a child of immigrants, I relive the shame I felt when I was young. Time helps—but I don’t think that publishing a novel or experiencing success or receiving social recognition quiets that shame. It’s about reconciling that within yourself. And getting therapy! But it’s hard because everything is structured to prevent real conversations from happening. When you’re subjected to racism, for example, you’re always under the impression that people diminish your reactions to an offensive comment when you call them out on it. Like, “No, it was a joke!” or “No, he didn't mean it that way!” So on top of being subjected to something terrible, you’re made to feel guilty.

It’s a form of gaslighting.

It’s not just with people you don’t know. It’s with friends, it’s with family. You grow up with a really extreme sense of solitude.

How do you fight against this?

I consider writing to already be something. However, during the first months of media interviews, I was answering questions that weren’t my responsibility to answer. Like I was explaining what racism is. And I thought: no, this is not my role. I don’t want to put my energy towards this. For example, during a radio interview at France Culture—a major media outlet—the guy was paternalistic, discriminating, Islamophobic, anti-Algerian. For ten minutes, he was cornering me into saying that “it’s better” in France. He was saying, “In Algeria, your book wouldn’t even exist. You can thank France—you can thank the republic.”

Oh . . . wow.

Really! And I said: “No, I won’t say it’s better in France.” He was horrible. You’re like, how is this possible? I was twenty-four years old; I didn’t know anything about navigating the media. Afterwards, he was called out and wrote a “letter” to his listeners. All that to say that I do not position myself as someone who’s going to come in and explain to people who have so many prejudices that they’re wrong to think like that. When I write, I’m not thinking about those people; I’m thinking about what I want and about the people who might be able to identify, who are able to read a book without prejudices. But for those who already have prejudices, who read the book and come away with more prejudices, there’s nothing I can do. And, especially, when you’re brought into those debates—it’s been a year and a half that I’ve been experiencing this—it’s a way to diminish my authorship, to try to make me talk about something else. In France, we’re at the lowest level. We’re at, like, negative ten. These are non-debates. Today, I just leave it. It took me two years to write a novel only for people to quiz me obsessively about Islam and homosexuality—no thanks. It’s tough to always be the one saying there’s a problem.

What about reaching those closer to you? For example, the way the main character seems to try to bridge a gap with her mom, at the end.

That’s something else. It’s a tender moment, even if it’s in silence. It’s my first novel so I wasn’t thinking about the effect the publication would have, but there was still a question of who I am addressing. Who do I extend a hand to? At a bookstore event in Paris, a mother arrived in tears, telling me, “I’m Catholic and my daughter is a lesbian—she’s going to go to hell.” She stayed for the event and bought my book afterwards and acknowledged, “If she’s happy that way, I can't do anything.” That’s an open door. Plenty of girls have told me, “I gave this to my mother; that’s how I came out to her,” or mothers have gotten it for their daughters. That experience is worth all the rest. If it helps a few people, if it’s transformative… I meet students for events at schools, and one came out in front of a room of a hundred people. What courage!

Can you talk about mingling languages? In the French version, it’s almost three languages, because in addition to using Arabic, contemporary French borrows a lot of from English.

I’m most comfortable in French; it’s the language in which I’ve always expressed myself. But Arabic was extremely important. To take the temperature of this family, to understand how the sentences hit and their musicality, it had to include Algerian Arabic—phonetically, because the character read it that way, and the reader could try to read it that way too. When I was a kid, I was ashamed that my parents spoke Arabic at home, I was ashamed to say there’s another language. How can anyone be ashamed to speak another language—it’s an asset! But I was scared people would think I didn’t speak French well. And that feeling stays, when you’re a kid and you want to hide your parents, and hide what you’re living on the sidelines. Now it’s a point of pride to have that language, to be Algerian, to honor it in the novel.

As for the English references, like the rap lyrics by Lil Wayne, I transcribed the original.

There’s a particular Arabic word that’s especially resonant regarding the overall story: mghané, “to make something implicitly understood.”

Exactly. It’s silence, it’s the implicit—and other things still. There are certain Arabic expressions that can’t be translated into French. You have to use the original language because otherwise you don’t convey the sensation, the emotion—you just can’t. Even when you try to explain what it is, it’s still something else.

I love the way you describe public transportation. It reflects behavioral aspects of both the character and French society.

It was important to me to show how isolated Clichy-sous-Bois is. It’s far from everything. Showing the character moving around, needing so much energy to get from point A to point B, being tired but doing it anyway . . . I too did this for a long time. It’s during those moments that you realize the degree to which it’s trivialized: to have to make more effort than others. These are key moments of social observation that add to the character’s sense of always being between two things. Public transportation is a tableau of society.

Have you thought about the next book?

I’m still very much with the first book—promoting it in other countries where it’s been translated—but I started thinking about it a few months ago. The book’s reception in France really worried me: it made me want to show just how anxiety-provoking it is to be at the center of so much discrimination. Literature is the best way to address that for me. If I’d written an essay rather than a novel on these themes, I think fewer people would empathize with this character. Literature creates something collective. You don’t have to be an Algerian Muslim lesbian from the banlieue to recognize yourself in this character—you can recognize what it’s like to feel like you’re in the wrong place.

There were things I wanted to develop that I didn’t, like the way sisterhood is a saving grace. The theme of parents interests me. And questions around gender interest me. It’ll kind of be in continuity with the first book, without being the same story.

There’s one very disturbing scene I wanted to address—a homophobic incident with a visibly gay kid at school, instigated by the Fatima character. It’s a short moment, but it’s painful and upsetting.

That was super important to me. We have to acknowledge when we’ve fucked up, when we were young and inflicted harm and violence. It was important to show the existence of internalized homophobia: that growing up with that is not easy, for oneself or for others. Before the book was out, someone from the publishing house suggested cutting this. I countered that it absolutely had to stay because it reveals a lesbian woman who can’t stand to see a boy overt in his homosexuality. Her violence is through that mirror effect.

If, today, we learned to talk about the way we’ve discriminated against others, things would in fact get better. There needs to be a mea culpa—we mustn’t hide that. Because before we deconstructed our identities, there were previous versions. We said racist things. We said Islamophobic things. We said anti-Semitic things. We said transphobic things. We have all done things like this. At a certain point, it’s important to show this, and to say: “I was that person, I did that, and I feel terrible about it. I regret it and I want nothing else in the world than to not do it again.” This scene allows the reader to realize that anyone can still change. Being racist is not a fatality. We can become aware. But we cannot hide that violence—it exists everywhere, all the time.

Translated from French by the author.

Sarah Moroz is and arts and culture journalist who has written for The Cut, the New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.