Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Goncourt among many awards, and short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature, talks to Georgia de Chamberet about writing in French, immigration, exile, language, and fighting injustice.
How many hours a day do you write?
I write in the morning, on average for three hours, although I sometimes stay at my desk all that time and just write one phrase, it depends. The principle is that it’s a discipline and whatever happens I must stay in front of the page, or computer, and not give up. It’s a practice I have followed for 30 years.
Is the actual process of writing pleasurable – or is it a need?
Both. When I write novels and poetry it’s a pleasure naturally, but also a worry as I don’t know how it will turn out. And it’s a necessity since if I don’t write, I feel useless.
Do you feel like a writer in exile?
I’m not in exile insofar as I’m free to come and go as I please. But I am exiled, as are many writers, in terms of language. In other words it’s a way of being in that particular territory that is the French language, from which I cannot escape. Take the case of Le Clezio who is bilingual English and French, but only writes in French; whereas Beckett wrote in either English or French. I am bound by one language from which I cannot get away.
To what extent are language and nationality intertwined? And why write in French rather than Arabic?
Exactly. Language and nationality are not intertwined. The passport we use for travelling or the passport of the country of our birth gives an administrative identity. In my case language defines my identity as a writer. What does it mean, to be a French writer? It is important to always specify écrivain d’expression française. Contrary to Indian or Pakistani writers writing in English, some do not have the choice and they write only in English. I once asked Salman Rushdie about this, and he said, ‘No, my language is English, but I’m an Indian writer.’ I said, ‘No, you’re a British writer.’ And he said, ‘No I’m an Indian writer because everything I write about comes from India.’
The ‘littérature-monde’ Manifesto which you signed with 43 other writers was in protest at being labelled ‘francophone’?
‘La francophonie’ is a concept that is more political than literary. And writers who are from the Mediterranean or not of French origin are included in the term. Michel Tournier or Alain Robbe-Grillet are francophone writers to my mind. When you say, ‘You are a francophone writer,’ they say, ‘No, that is stupid, we are French writers.’ This kind of imposed segregation is ridiculous. You don’t say it in England about writers originally from Pakistan or India, they are British.
Did your first publishers François Maspero and Maurice Nadeau encourage you just by buying your work or did they also offer editorial advice and suggest ideas?
Both were publishers who had great respect for writing and literature, and gave their writers a free rein, they weren’t tradesmen. Now it’s all about business, which is detrimental to the creation of literature. I have nothing against a publisher who wants to make money and publishes a bestseller, but in the same publishing house one can create a list of high literary quality and another that is commercial. To only do commercial is not good at all.
You were imprisoned for 18 months in 1966 for participating in student demonstrations in Casablanca. To what extent did this influence your evolution as a writer?
I was in a military camp, a disciplinary camp. But it’s there that I began to write, in secret.
You asked your brother for the longest paperback he could find, and he smuggled in Ulysses. Was this when you decided to become a writer?
No. I began to read Ulysses, a crazy story of which I understood little, but I was captivated by its freedom. It represented liberty. When you are in a restricted environment everything that comes to you from outside assumes gigantic proportions.
When your first novel, Harrouda, was published in 1973 you received letters from Roland Barthes and Samuel Beckett – were these writers among your early formative influences?
At first I followed seminars by Barthes. Then I read Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, a great deal of Sartre, Jean Genet, Kafka . . . I began to take a great interest in literature. I consider my first book to be too influenced by all this reading although not in a way that is recognisable to the reader.
You knew Jean Genet?
Yes, we were great friends.
The fate of north African workers in France informed your second novel Solitaire (1976) and the essays, French Hospitality (1984) and Racism Explained to My Daughter (1998). To what extent has the situation improved for a Moroccan living in France today, compared to back then?
In the 1970s, immigration was largely of men who were bachelors, now it’s the immigration of families, which creates different problems to those of 40 years ago. One cannot talk of ‘improvement’ as immigration has always been a bad experience in France. Immigrants have never formed a community that is recognised, taken into consideration, defended – it’s as if they were being given charity. To understand immigration in this country, you have to go back to the colonial period which gave permission to France to help herself to workers whenever she needed them.
The riots in French suburbs in November 2005 are part of a pattern of resistance and rebellion, dating back to October 1961 when hundreds of Algerians were thrown into the river Seine by the police. Is each generation a lost generation? What hope is there?
There is a little hope now as the young – the children of immigrants, who are not immigrants themselves, but French – are fighting back, but are not well organised. There is a growing awareness though and France cannot behave as though these young people do not exist.
You have spoken about ‘the geography of fear’ – could you elaborate?
Fear is everywhere. Fear is a driving force that is near permanent and all pervading. We talk about the current crisis, but people are more fearful of the effects of the crisis than of the crisis itself. Even when people have means, have money, they are scared. Fear is very bad in a country; it transforms very quickly into conflict.
You were the first north African to win the Prix Goncourt with The Sacred Night in 1987. To what extent would you say this helped open the door for other Maghrebi writers to go mainstream?
The Prix Goncourt was an exceptional opportunity since, first off, it affected my life as a writer. And then it sensitised the general public and brought to its attention this kind of writing. Publishers were less twitchy, less doubtful, about publishing Maghrebi literature.
Copyright © Tahar Ben Jelloun, 2009. Translation copyright © Georgia de Chamberet, 2009. All rights reserved.
The full interview was published in Banipal magazine No. 35 in 2009 and is available here at banipal.co.uk
TBJ’s books are available here.