Questions & Answers
The book caused a sensation when it was published in France, as much for its depiction of the poverty and violence in your village as for what happened to you personally. Did that surprise you?
Absolutely! At first my publishing house printed 2000 copies of the book and I thought I would sell 800 or so, I was not expecting this at all and suddenly it all happened.
You asked me about violence and I think this was one of the issues that struck people. On the first page of the book I am in this hallway at school and these two boys run to me and spit on me and call me names because I was considered effeminate in a world shaped by the values of masculinity. That scene was a reference to Jean Genet in his book, Our Lady of the Flowers, in which some people spit on him and he said the spit was like flowers. The book meant a lot to me but I thought it was strange to use literature to turn violence into beauty. I wanted to show that violence is violence, spit is spit, it’s not flowers. I think a lot of people connected with that because so often violence is the invisible foundation of our lives, who we are. We are born, then we are named by the Other, whether because of our sexuality, our colour, our religion… And even before we start to think, we are taken by this violence. And then if we are lucky we have a chance to fight against this violence. So this aspect of the book is what people connected to, but unexpectedly.
How has the book been received by your parents and other people depicted in it?
It was kind of mixed! Obviously some people were very angry with me, especially my mother. She went to the media and on a big popular tv show of the type I would never go on, to say ‘my son is a liar, everything is wrong’. And of course she did: one of the most difficult things with violence is that violence can be invisible, we don’t necessarily see it, we don’t necessarily feel it. And if you take my mother, for example, and ask her why she stopped school at 16, she would never say that it was because of a situation of violence, she would never say it’s because she’s a woman born into a certain class where she had no opportunities and where she had to stay at home to raise the kids.
So if I write a book saying she is experiencing a violent life, if I write a book saying I am fighting for her, for all these people, they won’t recognise themselves. My mother always says ‘I can’t complain, my life is not that hard,’ but in fact when I look at her life I see how hard it is. So for me to write The End of Eddy was to make this invisible violence visible through the literary tools. So of course it caused violent reactions. When Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex she had very tough reactions from some women, who denied they were dominated.
Some people reacted well. My father reacted very well. He bought 20 copies of the book and I think it was the first time in his life he had bought a book. He called me and said he was so proud of me. At that time we hadn’t spoken for about 5 years. But that just gives me faith in literature, in its power. If you don’t write a piece of disturbing literature, then don’t make literature. If literature is not disturbing then it will die.
Do you think he was responding to the book or the publicity and excitement around the book?
I think my parents probably didn’t read the book, it was more the fuss around it, but still they knew what was in it. The effect of a book always goes beyond its readers. Black peoples’ lives wouldn’t be the same without Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, even for the black people who didn’t read them, because it settled a certain way of thinking, it put it in the public space and that’s what’s powerful about literature.
How do you account for some of the random acts of cruelty such as your father withholding the letter you were waiting for telling you whether or not you had got into the Lycee?
Of course I think it’s not due to him, I don’t think it’s his fault and in this situation I wouldn’t call it cruelty, I would call it masculinity, the compulsory masculinity, which is to be tough, to be not easy. My father was suffering from it. He made me suffer twice as much, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t suffering from it himself, because it’s a role you have to fit in to and you never really do achieve fitting in to it.
And I suppose for you, your sexuality was just one more thing loaded onto this scenario?
Yes absolutely. If you grow up in this class in France, or in the UK or anywhere else, the only thing that is left for these people is the body, because they are excluded from school, they don’t fit in there, it’s too difficult, they are excluded from having money… the system just leaves them with their body. So of course after that they end up building an ideological body of masculinity that makes women suffer, or gay people, or anyone different, including the men themselves because it’s a role they have to hold. That was probably the hardest part of my childhood.
You talk about any moments of happiness in your childhood being consumed by your suffering. Did you think the bullying at school was somehow more 'normal' than the abuse and neglect you experienced at home or did it all feel like the same thing?
I just felt that I had no home, nowhere was safe for a gay kid, nothing was safe. School and home were the same thing. I wish I had been protected at home but the habits were the same in both places. So for my whole life I was looking for home, looking for a place that would welcome me and at some point I discovered something. I discovered Pedro Almodovar and Koltes and Proust and Stephen Frears and it was as though I had a history that I hadn’t known about. My history was waiting for me. But until that time I felt bad everywhere.
My parents were not conscious of bullying me. They didn’t call me names to my face. The violence is so much more subtle. My father was asking me, almost innocently, ‘why do you do it, why are you like this, why do you bring shame on our family? All the village are mocking us, saying we are the family with the gay child.’ And he didn’t realise this was violent for me. And when I say it happened to me, I’m really talking about all the Eddys. Because I escaped, I am happy with my life. But I am angry when I think that the same things are going on. My little brother he just turned 18, he went to the same middle school and the exact same things were going on. And that’s why I wrote The End of Eddy.
What happens to those who, for whatever reason, can’t get away as you did?
It’s terrible. When you flee and when you escape one of the hardest things you realise is that you can’t save everyone. When, as the first in my family to go to high school, at the beginning I desperately wanted to help my brother and sister, so I took them to the city, to the cinema, I would buy them books, but the more I did it the more they rejected it and my way of life. But of course I was being naïve, I was 14, 15 years old, I thought I could fix the whole social struggle. But first they had to accept that some things might need changing. They had to see the violence, and that there are people whose lives are so much easier than theirs, because they don’t really know how privileged some people are compared to them.
But at the same time I think even a single person fleeing is already a collective act. When the black slaves escaped the south of the US to go to the north there was no proper structural programme to help them, but every person who escaped made the others realise that escape was possible, thinkable, because even before knowing that it’s possible you have to make it thinkable. And every person who fled at that time would make other people flee because the idea had been put in their minds, so even if there is an element of failure – because of course I can’t fix social inequalities by myself – at the same time there is some hope through mine and others' experiences.
Why do you think your sister tried to set you up with another girl when she must have known you would not be interested? Did she think it would somehow ‘help’ you. Have you talked to her about it subsequently?
Everybody was trying to fix me when I was a kid because I was this failing person. My sister tried to set me up, my big brother tried to teach me how to walk like a man. And I tried to fix my own self. One of the things I often say, because for me it’s the point of the book, is that Eddy is not a ‘different’ child. It’s the Other who tells him he’s different but he doesn’t want to be different, he wants to be like the Others, he wants to fit in. His dream is to conform, to be what the Others call ‘normal’, and throughout the book I am doing my best not to flee. If you had given me the choice between going to high school, meeting new people, having a different life and maybe travelling the world, or staying in the village, becoming more masculine, having my parents be proud of me, I would not have hesitated, I would have stayed.
And this is the point where I feel there was something important to be done in literature. The story of the outsider was always the same, was always the different child who wanted to escape at some point, and politically it’s so much more interesting to say you can create a difference. Because if Eddy was normal, if Eddy was not different then he became different, and so it means you can have positive action in the world, you can do something. I would see this all the time in very legitimate literature like Stendhal or James Baldwin or even in pop culture, for example, Billy Elliot, it was always the same story of this amazing child. Who am I to say I was cleverer than my sister or more free or more anything else that might have caused me to leave?. No, I was exactly the same. I was as racist, as homophobic - even though I was gay - I hated school, I hated books. My father would say that reading was for girls and I agreed with him. I was not the delicate, clever child, never, never.
So it was moving out and going to the new school that opened your eyes to other possibilities?
Yes, but it took time because at the beginning some of my teachers thought I wasn’t good enough to continue. They told me I would be better as a baker or a construction worker, something like that. It took me time to realise that maybe I wanted a more academic life, maybe I wanted to read books, even – much later – even to write them. In reality, other people try to decide for you, make you think you can choose when in fact it’s an illusion of choice. But to actually be able to create a space of liberty in one’s life is so difficult. I see it because I experienced it and it’s because I had the chance of freeing myself that I see how difficult it is to be free. Because people always say to me, 'so escaping is possible' and I say 'not really'. At the time I didn’t think I was escaping. It’s because I escaped that I know how hard it is, because I see all the people behind me, all the people who were excluded. It’s because I did it that I know it’s impossible in a way.
Just before, when you were talking about the book you referred to Eddy as ‘he’. How far has the Eddy in the book become almost a separate character from the person you actually are, how do you manage to hold them in your head at the same time?
I can switch very easily from one to the other because it was me: my body and my flesh remember my childhood, my fears. When I walk down the street I am scared all the time. Alan Ginsberg said he would be a scared child for his whole life. And I am the same. I will be a scared child forever. I am always afraid that a group of guys will assault me in the street, it’s something that’s in your flesh. So I have Eddy within me but at the same time he’s so different from me that sometimes I can say ‘he’ because I don’t recognise him. He would have hated me and I don’t like him, because when I was little I would be in the street and see this very macho guy spitting on the ground and I wanted to be him. If I had seen Edouard Louis at that time I would have said, ‘He’s such a nightmare. I don’t want to be this effeminate intellectual.’ So because of that I also feel so different and remote from who I was.
Have you forgiven yourself for being ‘complicit’ in the violence you experienced?
I tend to forgive other people more easily than I forgive myself, but then I think everyone is like that. It’s clear that I was complicit, I didn’t want to say out loud that I was a victim of violence so I would hide these two guys who were assaulting me. I was doing everything I could to protect them. And in that respect I was complicit, they would have done the same thing to others. That’s one of the tragedies with violence, that when you are subject to violence you don’t want to say anything, because you are so afraid of being considered a victim. When I was writing The End of Eddy even then I was scared that people would see me as the guy who was assaulted at school.
Because there’s shame in it too…?
Yes, you are ashamed of being subjected to violence, that’s terrible but that’s the way it is. It is almost the worst thing about it. It’s like so many members of the working class reacted badly to Marxism when it appeared because they didn’t want to see themselves or be seen as alienated or oppressed. It’s an unbearable idea to say, ‘I am dominated’ and still that’s the first step towards change, revolution. So Eddy was the same, I would hide everything. I was pretending that everything was OK. You hear that so many times, everywhere. You put the radio on or you read the newspaper and you hear people talking about victimisation as if the problem in the world we live in is that too many people are talking about victimisation rather than the fact that violence is everywhere, and it is still so hard to say you are a victim. It was the starting point of the feminist movement: women who were assaulted and raped couldn’t say they were victims of violence. The problem is the lack of people saying they are victims and not the opposite. It’s so complex. I want people to be able to say they are a victim and at the same time I know how hard it is.
Yes. It took Primo Levi nearly 50 years to get If This is a Man published. No one wanted to hear about his time in Auschwitz, no one wanted to know what really happened in the camps.
Absolutely, it was so difficult. History is repeating itself like this. Everyone said the same after the coup in Algeria - that people were exaggerating, that things hadn’t really happened the way they were claiming.
Do you find yourself in the role of spokesperson and if so, is that a problem for you?
It’s not a problem. I want writers to talk about politics more because I think politicians are so bad at it most of the time. I think Toni Morrison is a better politician than Francois Hollande by far! In fact I even prefer to talk about these things. I’m not the kind of writer who wants to talk about how he built his paragraphs. I prefer to talk about the issues of the book. It’s become fashionable lately among some writers such as Michel Houellebecq, for example, to say the less committed you are the more serious you are about literature. I just want this ideology to end. We have to move on.
You’ve written another novel since Eddy?
Yes, it’s already been published in France. It’s about an encounter one night between two boys. One is from a very poor working class background and the other is a son of very poor migrants and they meet in the street and go to a room and suddenly in this little tiny room the violence of their two lives explodes, hence it’s called History of Violence. It’s like a closed door story, everything happens in this one room. It’s a story of patience that turns into destruction. One of my main inspirations was James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. My book is based on an encounter I had with a boy I met in the street and we felt something very, very strong when we met. We went to my room and we had sex and we talked together and he told me so many things about his past. We were so intimate. But at some point in the night he became crazy and I realised that I was violent also without realising it.
I’m guessing that caused another very big response when it was published?
Yes, each time I publish something it’s like that. But I’m fine with it because I want literature to be disturbing, to upset people, to cause them to think. That was my problem when I started to read in France. I read so many books that didn’t disturb me, the stories were fine but when you remember the effect that other books had, like Lolita by Nabokov or Sanctuary by William Faulkner – in fact in the middle of my second book there is a small essay on Sanctuary – you realise that the best literature is always disturbing.
When you were writing the first one did you think of yourself as a writer or was it more about getting the story out?
I always loved to imitate the people that I admired. When I first started to read seriously I admired people like Toni Morrison or Marguerite Duras so much that I wanted to be them, I wanted to have their lives. But it took time before I realised I really wanted to be a writer. There were so many things I wanted to say, so much violence within my body, I had to do something with it or it would have destroyed me. I tried so many things, I was more or less an actor and then I was very committed to politics, I was a big militant. It was as if I was seeking a way to address what I wanted to address and literature just happened to be the way I found that was most comfortable to say what I wanted to say.
The acting seemed to give you the opportunity to legitimately be something Other and I’m guessing it fell away as you found other outlets and could also be yourself?
Yes! And what fear taught me is if you want to be something then perform it and at some point you will become it. There is an expression in English which says ‘fake it til you make it’ which doesn’t exist in France. You know at the beginning when I started to perceive myself differently and when I started to have different dreams, at first I was just pretending but in pretending I found I had to actually do it, to read writers like Beckett and Faulkner who I’d previously only pretended to have read. And that was becoming complicated! The theatre gave me this confidence. In Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex she says one isn’t born a woman, one becomes a woman, so she more or less says that being a woman is a role that society imposes on you, because you act it and act it then you become it. So I thought if you want to be a writer then write and write, 7, 8, 9 hours a day, and fail and fail again but one day it will work. It was painful but I got there.
So could anyone do it if they applied themselves?
They need structures. Some people told me I had escaped social determinism in a way, but in fact it was the opposite - I was more determined by the Other, I was more socially determined because I had a class determinism of post-industrial working class and at the same time I had a sexual determinism and these two determinisms didn’t work together so it forced me to flee. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying pretend something and you will become it, but if we have this kind of other determinism, if we build structures… it will never be enough, we will have to do it again and again. But that’s how the world is. If there was a big revolution tomorrow I would be happy but unfortunately it never happens this way. So you create programmes at school to help poor people, you create drama classes to help children, you do all these kind of things, and when you have done them journalists start talking about them and not only about Marie le Pen and the people who vote for her, and then you can start to help people.