Faïza Guène: ‘We wanted me to say: Thank you France’ | Fiction

Faïza Guène is the Best-selling, award-winning Franco-Algerian author of six novels set largely among the Algerian community living in the outskirts of Paris. She rose to fame in 2004 at age 19 with the publication of love tomorrow (like tomorrow), who used street slang to capture the world of 15-year-old Doria, who grew up on the misnamed estate of Paradise. His latest novel, Discretion, tells the story of the Taleb family over seven decades and their journey from a small village in Algeria to the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers.

Why did you put the matriarch Yamina, whose children born in France are nurtured and overwhelmed by a love that “overflows like the Mediterranean”, at the heart of your book?
There are a few memoirs, and studies by historians or sociologists, on Algerian immigrant workers in France. These [men] had a role to play, even if they were exploited, while women stayed at home. So we never heard of them. It was important to me that such a woman be the central character in my story.

How far is it based on your mother?
All the parts about children and contemporary France are made up, but everything that happens in Algeria is very close to what my mother experienced. While working on the novel, I asked her about her earliest childhood memory. It was the scene of the French soldier who entered their house in Algeria and pointed a gun at his little brother.

Your novel is very frank about family tensions and the difficulties of the younger generation in finding love. Given the hostile stereotypes about Algerians in France, have you ever felt the desire to present your characters in a more overtly “positive” light?
I tried to be faithful to the characters I had in mind. There are not many representations of Algerian families in France. They are mostly caricatures – either heroes or delinquents and terrorists. My way of being honest is to make them complex, neither black nor white.

Discretion also evokes the events of October 17, 1961, when the Parisian police killed dozens of Algerian pro-independence demonstrators. How did you come to make a film about the massacre, even before having written your first novel?
I was taking part in a workshop near my house, where we had to propose documentary projects for the local television. I was working with a retired audiovisual arts teacher. He started telling me about the massacre and I was stunned. I thought it was revolting not to know. I went home and started talking to my parents and saw that my father was very upset. And I learned that he had participated, that he had been arrested and locked up for two days in the Palais des Sports. It was the bloodiest act of repression in Paris since the Paris Commune [1871], with 300 dead. Even before that, there were many Algerians hanged in woods like the Bois de Vincennes. This story is still present and still haunts us.

What was it like to become famous at a very young age?
For a while I was all over the press, but in the pages of society and not on the literary or cultural pages. That tells you everything! I quickly realized that I was a disappointment. People wanted me to say, “Thank you, France. Thanks to you, I was saved by literature. But I said, “No, I’m grateful to my community, my parents, my family. I didn’t want to tell the story of the little Arab girl who was saved by reading.

Can you tell us about Oussekine, the series you co-wrote for Disney+, which recreates the story of Malik Oussekinethe A 22-year-old Algerian student bludgeoned to death by French police in 1986?
It became a very symbolic event, which co-opted grief and grief from the family. We wanted to describe the reality of what they experienced. It also allowed us to describe what it meant to be Arab in France in the 1980s, the reality of racism and the violence of French-style assimilation. The children believed in “the republican promise” and really tried to integrate as much as possible, then this drama made them realize that they were still considered first and foremost as Arabs.

What did you mean when you said you wrote like Zinedine Zidane play football?
When Zidane plays football, he relies on immense technical skills, but 10-year-olds watching him think it looks easy and want to become footballers themselves. When I write, people shouldn’t see the difficulty of what I do. The effort should not be apparent in the book.

Which writers have been important to you in helping you find your own voice?
At first, I was inspired by my life, by the stories I heard. I read a lot, but without “sanctifying” literature. We are the heirs of an oral culture transmitted from generation to generation. There was a tradition of storytelling even though there were no books. A little later, I discovered JD Salinger, who used a very lively style to write about adolescence, then John Fante and more recently James Baldwin.

Can you name a contemporary English-speaking writer that you particularly admire?
Bernardin Evaristo. I liked his particular voice and his way of telling a story in Girl, Woman, Other. I recognized myself a lot in this book and it was different from what I had found among French writers.

What book have you recently been impressed by?
I received a letter from a woman who was almost 90 years old, a Frenchwoman who had been a teacher in Algeria. She wrote to tell me that she had no heirs and no money but a library with many novels from her time in Algeria. When she read Discretion, she realized that she wanted to leave me her books. His letter made me cry. She sent me a box with all the books. It was wonderful, full of incredible things: the first manifestos of the National Liberation Front [the Algerian independence movement]novels by Algerian authors in Arabic and a French translation of what is considered the first official Algerian novel, The south wind by Abdelhamid Benhadouga. It is an extraordinary book.

Discretion by Faïza Guène, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, is published by Saqi Books (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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