The first time I heard Abnousse Shalmani speak was her TEDxParis talk, which opened with: Oh, putain de bordel de merde [oh, motherfucking shit]. The auditorium echoed with scattered titters of discomfort and appreciation. “It’s ugly, all these curse words in a woman’s mouth, at least that is what parents tell their daughters,” Shalmani continued, “but I think the opposite: that all these swear words—words of the mouths of men—in the mouths of women, are indispensable.” In the remainder of the talk Shalmani exhibited through personal anecdotes and precise historical and literary analysis how sexism and misogyny, through the constraints on women’s bodies, permeate the Republic celebrated for equality and liberty.
To Shalmani, freedom begins with the liberation of the body and the assurance of one’s ability to fulfill corporal desire without limits or restriction. In her first book, Khomeini, Sade, et Moi [Khomeini, Sade, and Me, tr. Charlotte Coombe, World Editions]—which toes the line between memoir, manifesto, and novel—Shalmani expands and elaborates upon these foundations. In September 2016, I had the opportunity to interview the author about her book, feminism, and the conundrums facing contemporary France
Nina Sparling (NS): In Khomeini, Sade and Me, you make the case for a renewed humanist project, a way past all forms of extremist thought. But you get there via an unusual intellectual trajectory: through the libertine literature of authors like the Marquis de Sade or Pierre de Louÿs, both of whom are often associated with the search for extreme—even cruel—sensations and thoughts. Is it possible to reconcile humanism and libertine literature?
Abnousse Shalmani (AS): Above all, I plead for the liberation of the female body. And that liberation is impossible without the erasure of prejudice. The intellectual paths I’ve taken might seem unusual, but under closer scrutiny, their trajectory fits perfectly within the tradition of Enlightenment thought.
I first ‘encountered’ Pierre Louÿs, the prolific erotic writer. What struck me most about this lover of Beauty (“Beauty is made from Greek perfection crowned with Oriental grace,” he wrote) in his erotic poems and pornographic novels was his playful vision of flesh, of sex. Born in Teheran under the Islamic Revolution, all I knew of the body was the drama it provoked, the gravity with which my world covered up the female body, the danger it represented. To read a poet—at fourteen—who laughed about the body, about sex, who took pleasure in both, this took the drama out of the body. I began to see my body as something besides a forbidden place. It began as a literary step; the politics followed.