Publishing a novel at 19 and selling more than 400,000 copies of it ought to be enough to be taken seriously as a writer, but not if you are young, French, of Algerian origin and living in a poor suburb of Paris
Faiza Guene, now 23, has just published her third novel and she is gratified to see reviews of it in the literary pages of the newspapers. It means she is slowly breaking down barriers. "For four years I’ve battled to convince people that my work is literature. They used to put me in the ‘society’ pages. I was considered a social issue," Guene told Reuters in an interview. Born in France to Algerian parents, Guene grew up and still lives in Pantin, one of the poor "banlieues" around Paris which are seen by mainstream French society as ghettos of dreary tower blocks, failing schools, high unemployment and youth violence. The tough suburbs were the scene of weeks of riots in 2005 that drew world attention to France’s disenfranchised youth.
In her 2004 debut, Kiffe Kiffe Demain, Guene adopts the voice of Doria, a 15-year-old girl living with her Moroccan mother in such a suburb. The pair struggles with poverty but Doria also tells tales of teenage dreams, love and friendship.
Peppered with "verlan", a type of slang popular in the suburbs, Kiffe Kiffe Demain (published in English as Just Like Tomorrow) was an instant bestseller.
Success stories from places like Pantin are rare in the French media, which perhaps explains why Guene became a reluctant spokeswoman for the deprived suburbs.
"I would like to be seen as an author, period. It wasn’t my dream or my aim to be the white knight of the banlieues. But on the other hand I hear so much rubbish about the banlieues that I feel I have to speak some truths," she said.
"It’s scary to realise how we’re seen from outside. Some people have no idea that there’s also an ordinary life in the banlieues like anywhere else — joys and sorrows. There are positive things too, not just young guys torching cars."
Guene’s third novel, Les gens du Balto (The people of the Balto), is a departure from the first two which are both set in suburbs similar to Pantin and focus on a young girl or woman.
Set in a semi-rural commuter town at the outer edge of the Paris regional train network, the book is a whodunnit with multiple narrators, the regulars of the Balto cafe who are all suspects in the murder of the establishment’s owner.
Like her other books, it is written the way the characters speak, but this time each one has a distinctive voice. The younger characters use verlan and abbreviations common in text messages, but the older characters use their own slang. Guene said she had fun writing the book and no social critique was intended, but some of her pet themes do appear, such as the conflicted identities of the children of immigrants.
Among the characters are Nadia and Ali, twins of north African origin. Nadia is proud and combative about her immigrant background, while Ali finds his family heritage too weighty.
"I have a little of both twins in me, a desire to let go of a burden, a history that is very heavy and that we didn’t chose to carry, and at the same time a sense of pride," Guene said.
The people of the Balto are all misfits, but Guene sees them as victims of a ghettoised society in which different groups never meet and so never have a chance to learn from each other.
"It’s a story you could just as easily set on the Left Bank," she said, referring to the intellectual heart of Paris. — Reuters