Faïza Guène’s Fight for French Respectability

7 March, 2021
Faïza Guène (photographed by Philippe Philippe Matsas/Leemage)

What Faiza Guène’s new nov­el La Dis­cré­tion tells us about French Alge­ri­ans and their per­cep­tion in the French lit­er­ary world


La Dis­cré­tion, a nov­el by Faïza Guène
Plon 2020
ISBN 9782259282444


Melissa Chemam


Back in 2004, a 19-year-old French nov­el­ist of Alger­ian her­itage named Faiza Guène shook the French lit­er­ary world out of its phleg­mat­ic com­pla­cen­cy with Kiff kiff demain (pub­lished in the UK as Just Like Tomor­row). A teenag­er from the dis­ad­van­taged sub­urbs of Paris, Guène’s debut nov­el, writ­ten most­ly in French ver­nac­u­lar, went on to sell over 400,000 copies and was even­tu­al­ly trans­lat­ed into 27 lan­guages. At the time, Guène declared her sur­prise, not­ing that for her, writ­ing had so far been just a hob­by. “There was­n’t real­ly a role mod­el for me…I grew up in a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood. I did­n’t imag­ine I was going to make a career out of it,” she told RFI’s Tirthankar Chanda.


I must say that I feel very grate­ful to Faïza Guène. She broke new ground as a young Fran­co-Alger­ian woman turned into a book­sellers’ sen­sa­tion with a sto­ry about the ban­lieues. In fairy-tale fash­ion, this hap­pened just a year before major riots in Paris’s sub­urbs. Yet Kiff kiff demain was not about life in the trou­bled or dan­ger­ous sub­urbs, it was about adolescence.


16 years and sev­er­al books lat­er, the author pub­lished her sixth nov­el in Sep­tem­ber 2020 in France. This time, in La Dis­cré­tion, she writes more inti­mate­ly, deriv­ing truth from her own fam­i­ly. The main char­ac­ter is Yam­i­na, a 70-year-old moth­er of four chil­dren, liv­ing in Aubervil­liers with a hus­band. They wed­ded 40 years pri­or, in Alge­ria, in an arranged mar­riage. That took her to France, where she had nev­er before set foot. This is a sto­ry of migra­tion that is very famil­iar to North Africans in France—working-class com­mu­ni­ties in which many fac­to­ry work­ers opt­ed in the 1950s and 1960s for an arranged mar­riage with a younger woman from their home­land, and not a local, French (white) spouse. Yam­i­na, a petite, kind-heart­ed woman, nev­er had a job but raised their chil­dren. She and her hus­band have a lot in com­mon with Faïza­’s par­ents, born around the same time in the same cir­cum­stances and with the same des­tiny of migration. 

La Discrétion  is available from  Plon .

The sto­ry isn’t so much about life-chang­ing events, or even Alger­ian inde­pen­dence as it is about the every­day tribu­la­tions of a very hum­ble fam­i­ly, in which all mem­bers feel at a point or another—and some feel this oppres­sion on a week­ly basis—humiliated by their posi­tion on the French social lad­der, which is often char­ac­ter­ized by a kind of invis­i­bil­i­ty. As the title sug­gests, this “dis­cre­tion” starts with them­selves, as Yam­i­na choos­es to remain dis­creet when mis­treat­ed, even when her doc­tor hurts her phys­i­cal­ly, or speaks to her too casu­al­ly. The nov­el does­n’t address the issue in depth, but through a few anec­dotes we feel that the French sys­tem does­n’t give her a chance to speak up for herself. 


I start­ed this review by say­ing I was grate­ful to the writer because, for once, a book by a well-known best­selling author does­n’t men­tion the Alger­ian war only through the eyes of French peo­ple, pieds noirs who had to leave their “beau­ti­ful Alge­ria” because of ungrate­ful locals chas­ing them away. Writ­ers like Yas­mi­na Khadra and Alice Zen­iter have both writ­ten fine books about the 1950s in French Alge­ria, but not through the eyes of local natives who believed in their inde­pen­dence. Here, La Dis­cré­tion is divid­ed into two sorts of chap­ters: the first ones retell the non-event­ful, fam­i­ly-ori­ent­ed life of Yam­i­na and her inti­mates, with the inten­tion to pay homage to the anony­mous in French soci­ety and espe­cial­ly stay-at-home moth­ers in work­ing-class fam­i­lies; and the oth­er chap­ters dig into Yam­i­na’s mem­o­ries and past life in Alge­ria, from the harass­ment of her fam­i­ly by French sol­diers; her birth “in a cry”, as the nar­ra­tor describes, a metaphor for her future moral strength; her fam­i­ly’s exile in Moroc­co dur­ing the inde­pen­dence war; and her mar­riage and her move to France, in tears. Yam­i­na’s father was a fel­la­ga, a free­dom fight­er who bat­tled for his coun­try’s inde­pen­dence from France.


The chap­ters fea­tur­ing Yas­mi­na’s mem­o­ries are the most charm­ing. They describe her dif­fi­cult but mean­ing­ful child­hood in Alge­ria, with her war-trau­ma­tized moth­er and a father she puts on a pedestal for his involve­ment in the inde­pen­dence move­ment. Yam­i­na wor­ships the mem­o­ries of their fig tree back home; all her fam­i­ly respond­ed with courage, even when the women were sent away in exile in Moroc­co to avoid the war, fac­ing famine. These chap­ters are also filled with oth­er char­ac­ters, and not reduced to a nar­row sort of unac­com­plished sub-life only, as are the chap­ters set in Aubervil­liers and Paris in 2019–2020, which are char­ac­ter­ized by a fair amount of repetition. 


When deal­ing with France, the nov­el fol­lows Yam­i­na’s fam­i­ly, described as peo­ple who would only be minor char­ac­ters with a brief men­tion in oth­er books, as they are in Leila Sli­mani’s award-win­ning nov­el, Chan­son Douce (Lul­la­by in Eng­lish), in which the Arabs are only of sec­ondary inter­est, if that. Here, the main char­ac­ters are all work­ers with hum­ble jobs and all Alge­ri­ans, which is for­mi­da­bly rare. The father, Brahim, was a min­er before retir­ing; the broth­er, Omar, is an Über dri­ver; one of the sis­ters, the eldest, Mali­ka, works in the local town hall; the oth­er one, Imane, the youngest, is a sales­woman; and Han­nah is… more or less pro­fes­sion­al­ly angry for every­one else in this soci­ety that appears pro­found­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and some­times out­ward­ly racist. 


None of them ever escapes their milieu. For instance, for years, Omar dri­ves by the lux­u­ry hotel Lute­tia, but nev­er dares to actu­al­ly go in until the very end. Most of them feel they don’t belong in nice French places and in most of cen­tral Paris.


For­tu­nate­ly, none behaves in the way that typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban sto­ries in French films depict French North Africans, as drug deal­ers, thieves or thugs (con­sid­er La Haine, Les Mis­érables or even Taxi, set in Mar­seille). Here, for 250 pages, we observe a lov­ing fam­i­ly, and espe­cial­ly a moth­er who went through a lot of pain as a child, and whose sto­ry will nev­er be heard by her neigh­bors, her chil­dren think, let alone any oth­er French cit­i­zen. Peo­ple mak­ing no par­tic­u­lar trouble. 

The Algerian Connection: French-born artists Lyes Salem, Faïza Guène & Cédric Villani.


It’s a very noble goal, and the book reads extreme­ly easily.


Yet, as a French woman who also grew up in a Parisian sub­urb, with an Alger­ian dad who came to work in Paris in a fac­to­ry in the 1950s, and a moth­er who mar­ried him in the late 1970s, then joined him in France with­out hav­ing ever seen the coun­try pre­vi­ous­ly, I can’t help but feel frus­trat­ed at these por­traits of love­ly peo­ple whose main social occu­pa­tion is to remem­ber the price of every item they ever buy. 


Yes, Han­nah prais­es her moth­er for her strength, and she is angry at racism and humil­i­a­tion she under­goes, but she does­n’t do any­thing about it. Actu­al­ly, none of them ever real­ly tries to change their lives. Mali­ka, the first born, has to endure an arranged mar­riage just like her moth­er did, and unfor­tu­nate­ly her father choos­es real­ly unwise­ly so she divorces once she dis­cov­ers her hus­band had a child with a French lover. After­wards her father only feels pity for her, sees her as “dam­aged goods.” She nev­er remar­ries and none of her sis­ters even try to. They all seem to have trou­ble falling in love—they resent French men for not being mas­cu­line enough, and Arab men for look­ing for French tro­phy wives to reward their self-pro­ject­ed inte­gra­tion, the Holy Grail for an immi­grant in France. In that mat­ter, La Dis­cré­tion is no fem­i­nist novel. 


The fam­i­ly’s cul­ture is also lim­it­ed to a few tele­vi­sion pro­grams and the moth­er’s quotes from her prayers and the Qu’ran. They don’t feel French and don’t even try to be French, spend­ing all their sum­mer vaca­tions in Alge­ria with their moth­er’s fam­i­ly, except the last one, in 2020, when they dis­cov­er the Poitou-Char­ente region. 


The depic­tion of these first-gen­er­a­tion French Alge­ri­ans wants to be lov­ing and accept­ing, but it risks being alien­at­ing by virtue of the sum of its clichés on Mus­lims and their cul­tur­al desert, nam­ing more super­mar­kets, brands and sub­ur­ban malls than a Simp­sons episode ever could. Some­thing in me is real­ly sad­dened by the fact that French immi­grants can only rep­re­sent them­selves as humil­i­at­ed, not fit­ting in, feel­ing half the time like fail­ures or look­ing a bit like car­i­ca­tures, wear­ing burki­nis and eat­ing cheap halal Chi­nese food. It’s not Faïza Guène’s fault, of course; it’s most­ly because France has so few Mus­lim or Arab writ­ers, the most suc­cess­ful and known being Nina Bouraoui (whose moth­er is Alger­ian), Rachid Djaï­dani and Sabri Louatah (author of the bril­liant nov­els Les Sauvages or Sav­ages in Eng­lish and 404).  


(We should note that Kaouther Adi­mi writes in French but she is Alger­ian, like Yas­mi­na Kadra; she was born in Alge­ria, spent a few years in France as a child, but stud­ied in Alge­ria and was liv­ing in Alge­ria until 2009.) 


Faïza Guène is call­ing for more accep­tance, through the eyes of her female char­ac­ters espe­cial­ly, in a France that is every day near­ly as racist as it was in the 1950s, con­sid­er­ing that the Macron admin­is­tra­tion is open­ly dis­cussing the arrest of so-called Mus­lim “sep­a­ratists”. And she men­tions in pass­ing that the attacks on the World Trade Cen­ter and Char­lie Heb­do only made the coun­try more Islamophobic.


The French literati has most­ly praised La Dis­cré­tion, while they came down hard on her first nov­el, often not tak­en seri­ous­ly because of its heavy use of slang and humor. 


Unfor­tu­nate­ly for now, unlike the likes of Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, whose nov­els have become more broad­ly uni­ver­sal both in the UK and with­in the Anglo­phone lit­er­ary world, France’s gen­er­a­tion of Arab/Muslim nov­el­ists most­ly rep­re­sents mem­bers of eth­nic minori­ties as lone­ly out­casts, with no sense of belong­ing or desire to fight for greater inclu­sion. Too often, their sto­ries end with some ver­sion of fail­ure and tristesse. This may be a reflec­tion of the state of French diver­si­ty, or lack there­of. For now, with her nov­els, Faïza Guène does­n’t real­ly cel­e­brate the empow­er­ment of first-gen French cit­i­zens of immi­grant her­itage; she puts them on the radar and describes their iso­la­tion well, but does­n’t embody a bold and proud appear­ance into the French cul­tur­al land­scape. But she def­i­nite­ly stands as a rare and impor­tant French-Alger­ian female voice.


Accord­ing to Faïza Guène’s Eng­lish trans­la­tor, Sarah Ardiz­zone, Dis­cre­tion will be pub­lished in ear­ly sum­mer 2022, while her nov­el Men Don’t Cry (Un Homme ça ne Pleure Pas) will be pub­lished by Cas­sa­va Repub­lic in July 2021.



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