Born in 1960, Leïla Marouane is an Algerian writer, who has lived and worked in France since 1990. Marouane’s books include The Girl from the Casbah (1996), Ravisseur (1999), The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (2010), and La Jeune Fille et la Mère (2004). The latter received the Prix Jean-Claude Izzo in 2006. Marouane has also previously been awarded the LiBeraturpreis at the Frankfurt Book Fair (received in 2004).
In this interview with Hadrien Diez, Marouane talks about her writing, and shares her thoughts on religion, women oppression, and the politics of her country.
How did you start writing?
I knew I wanted to write the very first time I read a novel. I was 7 or 8 at that time. To speak frankly, I thought that everybody wrote; that everybody had to write. If not so, how would the books’ existence have been ensured? So I started to write, fables mainly, in which the characters were our pets – I must say that we had rare ones at home, gazelles and lizards in our garden, not to speak of the rabbits, moorhens and dogs; but no cats: my father did not like them. I finished reading my first book some time later, a detective story I had accidentally found on a summer day as I was bored. The author was James Hadley Chase. From that moment I devoured the whole series, taking great care to hide the cover behind jackets more appropriate to my age, Alice in Wonderland say, or Treasure Island…
My father loved to read us poetry. I was fascinated by Contemplations (Victor Hugo), and by Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. My father was a writer, he even had a publisher, an Egyptian man who often visited us at home, and spent nights reading my father’s works. My father was flattered of course, delighted that such an important publisher could find interest in him but he nevertheless kept rejecting any publication plan. Only when I grew up did I understand our country’s censorship and dictatorship that had reined him in. Like my father, I wrote in secret. I hid what I wrote from the adults and especially from my father who wanted me to become a doctor.
As for my mother, still young, surrounded with educated friends, she was illiterate – that is another story – and yet the best storyteller I have ever heard. She used to tell us about her childhood, her struggle as an activist, the life of her family, the colonial experience, her encounter with my father, what she had seen during her underground time, what she had experienced during her multiple exiles in Tunisia, Italy, Spain, Morocco, the people who had left a lasting impression on her, good or bad; and my mother possessed an outstanding capacity to tell such things. I hope I am worthy of her legacy.
When did you first share your writing? When did you get eventually published?
My French teacher at secondary school discovered my talent. She decided to dedicate an hour a week to the reading of my work – something that resulted in an unexpected popularity for me. I was celebrated as a star; finally escaping the loneliness I was suffering from in this boarding school where I felt imprisoned, that I had joined much too young, and where I even spent holidays with other unfortunates whose parents lived abroad. In short, I felt the pleasure of being sought-after for the words I wrote, and I felt safe because my father was unaware of this. One day though, the French teacher wrote me from Paris. It was summer, I must have been twelve at that time; she told me she had found a publisher, etc. So I thought about my father, about the censorship, about the future he wanted for me as a doctor. I vehemently, almost violently rejected the offer and I think I hurt Mlle. Neff, the teacher in question. It is far now; it was long ago.
At the beginning of the new school year, Mlle. Neff, who was still my teacher, kept reading my work in class. Refusing to be published did not mean I did not write any more – writing was a basic need, which it still is. My readers were females who had grown up in a female-only environment, boarding school and student residences. As a young adult, I ended up in an editorial office as a proofreader. I had a job, a status, and it paid for my medical studies. Then I left the medicine faculty to enter the literature one. Hearing of this, my parents almost banished me. They did not at the end but our relation was more distant: I had disappointed them. And then the newspaper I was working for proposed me to join the editorial staff. I agreed. I loved the job, but in Algeria, I had to struggle with censorship. I found ways to censor myself, which reinforced the idea that I did not want to be published. Besides, the relationship with my parents was soothing: they were proud to read their name in a national newspaper.
My exile in Paris began in 1991 (Leïla Marouane was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in Algiers, she then flew to Europe e-n.). I started writing for news magazines, Politis, Jeune Afrique. I wrote fiction in the meantime, alone, isolated; exiled Algerian friends always wanted to read it. Then, on the 17th of December of the same year, my mother died. She was 49. I could not attend her funeral. I think it is around the same time that I decided to be “a writer”, finally accepting to give away my work to the world, to strangers. I started to write what would later become “La Fille de la Casbah” (1996) in absolute loneliness; I was my only reader until I wrote down the last period, until I sent the manuscript to publishers. With the distance, I think that some people decide to become parents when losing a close relative. I decided to write, to lay myself bare, to express the sorrow by different means and to allow my texts to belong to someone else; just as one would do with a child, bringing him up while knowing that he will fly away from home once grown.
I read tremendously and I do not have particular literary influences. I like texts that are sincere and literature that does not cheat, that does not pretend to be something it is not. Authors who influence me are authors who write with their flesh, with their blood. Ah! Still, there is someone I would like to name: Juan Rulfo. I am very often asked to explain the “shadow zone” of my characters, to put words on the upheavals they experience; upheavals that can lead them to madness or physical metamorphosis. I must say that my reading of Rulfo’s only novel “Pedro Paramo”, has been a determinant factor in that perspective. A Mexican author, Rulfo founded what commentators later dubbed the “magic realism”: the sudden transformation of “normal”, “realistic” situations into “paranormal” or “magical” ones. This surge of magical elements in Rulfo’s work fascinated me and I have been trying to echo it in my novels.
Why did you decide to write about the particular topics you write about: Algeria, the submission of women, the pervasion of religion in every part of life…?
My books come from my past; word by word, line by line, the material they are built on comes from my blood, from my guts. My guts look for this “material” in the labyrinth of my brain. This process is accomplished in spite of me; I just let it be. Creative writing is the opposite of journalism: it is a strict, difficult process. To write fiction is a demanding task because it can “work” only if the author is himself involved in his text – even if his text is allegedly non-autobiographical. To write fiction is an austere task because there is no place for hazards or “incoherence” – your characters might all be absurd but they still have to follow a certain structure. To write fiction is a difficult task because it requires a superhuman effort, it is almost a god’s work – you might spot failures though, but we all know that gods themselves are not perfect.
To come back to the question, I did not really “choose” the genre of my novels. How could I have done so, since it reflects my past? Some say that my books are tough. I say that life has not always been tender. But readers can cheer up: I am a happy person – even if I always find it difficult to leave my characters. The day I have to “give them back”, a sense of pain pervades me, and there is a void in me when the text is not in my sole possession any more.
In your novels, religion and traditions are terrible obstacles that usually keep your characters from happiness. What is your position about religion and traditions?
I have nothing against religion per se, on the contrary! Religions are formidable carriers of culture and knowledge. In my family, I had a captivating great-aunt, an intellectual who was familiar with the works of the most illustrious Islamic doctors and theologian, the el Bokhari, ibn ‘Arabi and so on. She was as pious as one could be, carrying out the prescribed prayers, fasting, taking every opportunity to go on pilgrimage to Mecca; to such an extent that some linked her to the great Sufi women of the Islamic tradition, Rabia’ el-Adawwiya, um Harun, Amina al Raliya… My great-aunt was incredibly tolerant; she would never have judged or rejected anyone on the pretext that they would not share the same religion.
At the opposite of this example, what I show in my novels is the shameful misuse of religion to establish domination. In Algeria as in many other countries, men hijacked religion to assert their authority, to dominate their wives and daughters, to keep them under their thumb and use them as puppets. I denounce this hijacking, not religion.
What do you really think of today’s Algeria?
I have very little contact with my home country since I left it, about twenty years ago. Still, I would like to recall something about Algeria. There is much fuss about the “Arab Spring” in the media, the revolutionary wave that rose first in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and keeps inspiring people all over the world with the potent hope of liberty it carries. Algeria’s border countries have been transformed by the revolution: Tunisia’s and Libya’s dictators are definitely gone, and Morocco has adopted a new constitution. Algeria’s apparent calm can seem depressing in comparison, but one should never forget that the country has had its own “Arab fall” a bit more than two decades ago – a revolution that, sadly, has had no positive consequences for Algerian people to this day. In October 1988, a courageous opposition movement rose against the then president Chadli Bendjedid. This movement was first initiated by students and backed by the street, days before the Islamic political opposition got involved. The courage of these students forced the constitutional changes of 1989, opening the way to political plurality and free elections. But when the FIS (Islamic party) claimed victory on these very elections, the army reacted by a coup, triggering the horrible Algerian civil war of the nineties.
For my part, I think that a revolution is won when the army takes side with the people, as it was the case in Egypt during the events of the Tahrir Square in 2011. The Algerian army never dared to make this choice, and one can regret it. Today’s deadlock in Algeria is a direct consequence of this.
You are known to use humour even when narrating the most terrible circumstances. Why is it so important to write with humour, even about tragic topics?
I do not decide of what I write. I set characters who are inside me when I start a novel, characters of whom I have an intuition. Once they are “installed”, they take the lead and I am just the one through whom they write their own destinies. These destinies are sometimes terrible, as Samira’s in “Abductor”, where her father’s violence and her entourage’s cowardice lead her to madness. In such harsh circumstances, humour is essential. I need humour, simply in order not to suffocate! You know, when your hand and your soul have to relay such stories, it is of vital importance to arrange for some breathing space. Otherwise, you risk to be dragged down by your characters, and ultimately to sink into madness with them. For me, humour represents this “breathing space”, an opportunity to put some distance between me and my characters; not to turn down what they have to tell me, but to allow me to breathe between their confidences, to remain a trustworthy listener.
Is there one thing you would love to write about but haven’t?
Let me talk about my mother’s illiteracy that locked her into a painful loneliness during her whole short life, although she never said a word about it. I feel guilty about her illiteracy, for the right or wrong reasons. I do not know if my guilt finds a justification. Anyway, I would love to write about this in a future book. You can find elements related to illiteracy in all my books, but I need more time to tackle the subject head on. I hope life will offer me this opportunity.
Besides, I also happen to envy “happy end” writers. I would love to write stories you can dream about or books that would require only some weeks of work; that I would write in a cheerful mood because they would not leave me downcast once finished. But it is too late to move back. Maybe I shall write such a book once my wounds are cured? I do not know. For now, I am satisfied with the kind of books I write, I do not want to change genre.
You write books, something a lot of our readers would love to achieve. Do you have any advice for them?
I have always written. As I said, it always seemed to me that writing was a vital human function, very much like breathing, drinking or eating. So it would be difficult for me to give advice to people who consider writing… I would say that the most important is your subject: what do you want to write about? When you write, a truth process must be happening. In my view, it would be unthinkable to write about something that I do not know and that is unfamiliar to me; like, say, putting my characters in an unknown milieu, to let them say things in a language I have never heard before. So, yes, sincerity matters most. Sincerity is what the aspirant-writer must seek. If his approach is sincere, his characters will find him by themselves, and tell him what they have to say.