To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?

Abdellah Taïa

Artwork by Olaya Barr

What good is the French language to me, today, in 2018? And for what mysterious reason did I let myself, in the 1980s, be lured in by a language that was everything but my own?

I’m forty-four years old. And after having written several novels in French, I’m now assailed by doubts. I no longer remember exactly how I became emotionally and intellectually attached to French. Even worse, I’ve begun asking myself this question: Do I actually like the language?

I come from a very poor world. A large Moroccan family from Salé, a city just outside the capital, Rabat. A Muslim world, a completely Arabic-speaking world, where I learned the essentials of life: much violence and, at times, miracles of tenderness. Human beings like only this: to fight, to battle, to beat one another down. I realized I was homosexual in this world and, quite naturally, I adopted the same survival tactics as the people around me to save my skin. At the beginning of my adolescence, I invented the character of the nice guy, the polite and studious young man. I played the role to perfection. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. Violence loves violence. Violence attracts violence. From this first world that wanted to kill me, and that I loved deeply despite it all, I had to escape. Leave it. Betray it.

Dreams, of course, aren’t enough. I figured that out pretty quickly. The others are always stronger. They always manage to catch us. To torment me again. To subjugate me again. To denigrate me again.

Where is my mother, whom I love so dearly? Where is my father, with whom I’ve always stood shoulder to shoulder? And where are my big sisters, my heroines, my movie stars?

The exact moment you need the other, their tender smile, the hand that will save you, you realize it, the bitter truth that will be with you the rest of your life: no one saves anyone. Making your life means killing the others like they killed you. Closing your eyes. Hardening your heart. Building walls and barricades around yourself.

It was then, in that dark moment, in that terrifying solitude, that I thought French could save me. Carry me away. Far from these people who claimed to love me and who proved the opposite to me every day. French as a lifeline. A line to flee over, to set myself apart, and also, a line with which to strangle them.

In my little adolescent mind, that was the plan. Not to love French, but to use it as a weapon, as a tactic, a precise and sharp-edged means to an end.

With French, I thought I would cut myself off from the others. Find myself in another sensibility. Another reality. Beautiful and mythic. Arthur Rimbaud. Gustave Flaubert. Isabelle Adjani. Marcel Proust. With and within French, I could be nothing but free. And strong. Of course.

I knew perfectly well it was the language of Morocco’s rich. The others whom we never saw, whom we’d never meet, and who, all the same, dominated everything in our country. Just like the authorities, they’d abandoned us in poverty and ignorance, them too. French was their way of, day after day, marking the distance between us. Them and me. Stay in that prison forever, don’t try to raise yourself up like us, you’ll never make it. And you, little Abdellah who daydreams too much, you’d better give it up. Look at you. Just look at you. Got it? Yes? No?

French, the French of the rich, I hated it. I loathed it. And, to be honest, I knew that it was the power of this French that I wanted to have for myself. French as a sword for going to battle. French so I, in turn, could be merciless. A warrior who dares to dream and who, there could be no doubt, dares to seek his revenge.

So, that’s what I did. Not only did I manage to master the language but, on top of that, I even reinvented myself as a writer in that language.

Me, a writer! Now there’s a mystery that will always be beyond me. It’s something I take very seriously and that, as soon as the excruciating work of writing is over, completely escapes me. Was it really me who created that, transformed the world into words? Yesterday’s me? Today’s me?

There is no romanticism in writing. There is only vampirism. You’re eaten alive by words, by style. By what we call literature.

For the author, there is no salvation in writing. No possible therapy. It is even the opposite that occurs and reoccurs at every instant: books steal bits of your life, of your emotions, of your memory, of your tragedies and abandon you. That’s how it is. That’s the law. No point in discussing it.

It’s not schizophrenia. It’s just chaos. Disorder ever greater and ever more widespread in the author’s heart. In me.

I am, more than ever, engulfed in anarchy today. As the years passed, I found my writing style. And then? That’s it?

There is a great sense of dissatisfaction in me today. As if even revenge has been, in the end, pointless. I killed those who tried to kill me. I got out, as they say. I am gay and free. I am Arab, Muslim, and free. Really?

I came to Paris in 1998. I fought to carry out my plan. To become a Parisian. I bragged. I belly-danced. And I tried not to lose myself. 

I had strength and rage, and I conquered Paris. In my small way, I measured up to the city. It neither impressed nor frightened me. Quite the opposite: I found in that place, within those new borders, the ideal ground for trying things out, for forgetting that I was poor, for planning my future, breaking doors down, falling in love with much older men, breaking their hearts with no regrets, leaving them, forgetting them, never straying from my original goal, never paying any attention to the daily racism directed at Arabs like me.

I was twenty-five. I am forty-four years old now. I put the essence of what I think of myself and of the world in my books. In them, I committed betrayals and murders. In them, I tore open wounds and scars. In them, I spat and vomited up my entrails. And, one day, I woke up with the feeling of having lost. Lost the battle. Lost myself. Lost in the streets of Paris. Lost in the West. Hating the world and hating all the violence that never stopped accumulating in me.

The anger is there, before my eyes. Nothing can calm it. Nothing.

I’m just an Arab. Who speaks French well. Who writes. Who publishes. Who thinks. Bravo, bravo! And then? Where to put the rest, everything I’ll never say or write?

I can always resist the clichés they have about people like me in Paris. Arab, Muslim, and gay. But how do you manage it, my little man? Here are our hands, prostrate yourself and kiss them properly! Come on, a little more subservience won’t do you any harm!

I can write my rage. Feed it. Give it fire, fuel, bullets.

But I’m lost. In Paris. 2018. More than ever assailed by doubts, about everything, about certain faraway days, about the language I subjugate and that doesn’t love me either, about French. And, every day, I ask myself the question: Should I go back to my first language, Arabic? Write in Arabic? Continue stripping myself naked in my ancestral skin? Is that what would reawaken a taste for life and its boundaries that keep shrinking around me, here in Rabat, in Paris, in New York, everywhere?

Where to go?

I wrote that little line in many of the stories I drafted in Paris between 1994 and 2004. At the time, I wrote with the absolute desire of conquest. To continue the battle with nothing if not the strength that comes from despair and unyielding humiliation. At the time, and without realizing it, literature allowed me to endure the gaze the West leveled upon people like me, allowed me to avoid the traps and the prison France had long ago set aside for me.

I made my way in Paris. Ambitious. Striving. Despairing. But with an unshakable faith in the future that was waiting for me and whose doors I broke down one by one.

I erred and I never strayed from my goal.

Today, I’m like the character Robert Mitchum plays in The Night of the Hunter, a film by Charles Laughton. A murderer who’s been released from prison and who chases down innocent children to kill them. I am the evil. Hatred. The world rejects you. Then, it gives you freedom like an epic slap in the face. It abandons you again. And you’ve got to rebuild everything, absolutely everything, alone.

Write everything alone.

I am simultaneously Robert Mitchum and the children he’s about to sacrifice.

Perhaps writing does good for those who read the books. But, for the mad writer who still believes in words even as they’ve been emptied of their essence, writing isn’t good for anything. If not for having a too-sharp awareness of the atrocious world where, in the end, we learn just one single thing: how, again and again, to hurt one another.

translated from the French by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg

This essay originally appeared in Maroc : La Guerre des langues, ed. Kenza Sefrioui (Casablanca: En toutes lettres, 2018).

Click here to read Abdellah Taïa’s nonfiction, translated by Riccardo Moratto, from the Summer 2012 issue, and here to read Abdellah Taïa’s interview, conducted by Jason Napoli Brooks, from the same issue.