Racism in France Isn’t Just About the Color of Your Skin
Mahir Guven, author of "Older Brother," on the gig economy and Hitler's grandchildren
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The Older Brother in Mahir Guven’s debut novel drives for a ride-sharing service in Paris while his Syrian-born father is an old-school taxi driver. Their Uber politics conflict is further sullied by their religious divergence. Into this, Guven adds a Younger Brother, a talented nurse who could well become a doctor, who decides to pursue his humanitarian intentions—in Syria.
The novel, narrated by the Older Brother and Younger Brother, vibrates with sharply driven prose and wry humor, and takes us into the streets and the insides of working-class immigrant life in France, and to the battlefields and hospitals of Syria. We don’t find out the brothers actual names until the last pages of the novel—and readers will see why when they get to the terrific, mind-bending end. By then, why the novel, which won France’s prix Goncourt du premier roman in 2018 and is published in translation in the U.S. this month, will be absolutely obvious. In Guven’s inventive hands, Paris and its discontented inhabitants, as well as the bizarre, brutal world of ISIS-era Syria, come alive, grab you hard, and won’t let go.
I spoke to Mahir Guven, who just became the editorial director of a new imprint for debut works at French publisher JC Lattès, about being French, taking Ubers, and being spoken of in the same breath as Michel Houellebecq. (Thanks to Miriam Gordis for translation.)
JR Ramakrishnan: What was the question (or idea) that began the writing of this book for you?
Mahir Guven: I wanted to shout. By the way, in French, the letters in the word “to shout” (crier) are almost the same as the word “to write” (écrire). I was full of cold anger. Cold anger is never violent: it forces you towards awareness, it forces you to take action. This was a few months after the Bataclan attacks. I had experienced various strange emotions: incomprehension, bitterness, pain. The political climate had deteriorated and the executive branch was threatening to start revoking people’s citizenship. A portion of our country began to see French Muslims as internal enemies, almost like a virus or a disease invisible to the naked eye. Some people started to look suspiciously at anyone with Mediterranean features. It was terrible because when I was growing up in the 1990s, France was a peaceful place. Raï, which is a type of North African music, was extremely popular. Khaled came out with his hit “Aïcha.” So I started to write about a character, one of whose parents was French by heritage and the other French by choice. I deliberately avoided using the term “native French.” There are no French natives, there is no such gene, that is a stupid, racist idea. France is a melting pot of cultures that together form a nation. My nation.
In February 2016, I went to an exhibition about Martin Scorsese. I was interested in Taxi Driver and in the character of Travis Bickle. I knew that he was a former soldier lost in New York, who took a job to get by. The day after that, I was talking to a taxi driver who worked for an app-based company and he explained to me that his father was a traditional taxi driver and that they had a strained relationship. After this conversation, I sat down full of feverish anger and energy and wrote chapters one and three of my book.
JRR: The book seems to be a grand novel of a very particular slice of contemporary Parisian life. You were born in Nantes and my understanding is that in France, regional differences are huge. Would you reflect on the differences between growing up outside of the center and writing about it so intimately?
MG: I see what you’re getting at. I generally believe that it is easier for us to understand things from the outside. I understand life better in Nantes now that I don’t live there anymore. Last year I lived in Germany and I understood France better than ever before. When I arrived in Paris, in 2006, it was a shock. So much wealth and so much speed. Paris seemed like a place of limitless possibilities. And then in less than a year, I wrote and staged a play there. The big difference between Paris and Nantes is that Nantes has almost no urban ghetto. I grew up in a small town of twenty thousand inhabitants, where all the social classes lived together and mixed. I almost never experienced racism, or at least, I didn’t notice it. Unlike my mother. By contrast in Paris, you can come from an ordinary background and study at a grande école, you just have to get on the metro. Paris seems inaccessible to people living outside of it. This is the drawback of very centralized countries. Finally, I would say that writing comes from what you see. You have to look around with your eyes wide open.
JRR: It’s bewildering to think of how real the phenomenon of young people going to Syria is, and how much it will be part of life (i.e. parents searching for their kids, etc.) for some time to come. The scene where the Older Brother has to pay off the bus station clerk for the passenger list was super powerful in these terms. I have often wondered what life is like over there amongst this multinational set who maybe don’t have much (or any) Arabic—the fight scene of the Younger Brother was amazing in illustrating this (“So they talked in English. But the French and their English…well it was a shitty mess.”) Also, he notes, “It did me good to hear my own language,” by which he means French.
MG: In reality, somewhere between 1400 and 2000 French citizens have gone to Syria. A tiny percentage compared to the International Brigades of the past. Seven hundred of these are fighters, the others are settlers looking for a utopia. History repeats itself. Those who suffer too much, the most fragile try to find a way out, an escape route to feel as though they exist. You might think this is a dangerous oversimplification, but I think we are experiencing a massive psychological crisis of hyper-existentialism. Everyone wants to find meaning in their lives, wants to be something. And young French people going to Syria are a part of this very modern dynamic.
You’re right that many people who think they are Arab realize that they are actually very French. Personally, I was born in France, undocumented, with refugee parents, and I became a French citizen when I was fourteen years old. When I was 20, I identified as a “ketur,” which is French slang for a Turkish person. Then I went to live in Turkey for a year and felt very, very French. The main problem then is the self-image that you receive from society. You might feel completely French, but some close-minded people who remark that “you come from somewhere else” will make you feel different. Now, at 33, I don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore, and if someone asks me, I just answer “I’m French. How about you?” until they start to feel stupid.
JRR: You inhabited both worlds so incredibly. How did you research and imagine the Syria that the Younger Brother experiences?
MG: I traveled through Syria by motorcycle in 2007 and 2010. So I was familiar with the landscape. It’s a bit like Nevada. Huge, magnificent stone deserts, where the solitude and the heat are your only travel companions. I also read Lebanese newspapers written in French, where they have profiles of refugees. I read David Thomson’s research on French people in Syria. I watched a lot of video blogs on everyday life there posted by French YouTubers. It was all astonishing. I remember one lifestyle blogger, who I think was named Samir, describing how you should dress in Syria. He recommended sweatpants and Nikes with all-over camouflage print. On Sunday, they have soccer games. I also read a lot of blogs by women in Syria, public reports by the French Ministry of Defense, BBC documentaries, art documentaries, and geopolitical journals which describe the structure of ISIS. It all blended together into a milkshake in my head and I became immersed in this world that a young idealistic, frustrated, and naïve young French man discovers in the book.
JRR: Your book has a number of tragedies, but an especially cruel turn of fate was the incident at the PSG tryouts, which ends the brothers’ dreams of being football players. Would you talk about this scene and more generally about the options available to kids of color like the brothers?
MG: Firstly, it’s not an issue of color in France. You can have white skin and still experience discrimination. If you come from the countryside, for example, or if your family origins are Romanian or Balkan. It’s all about your first and last names. You can have foreign roots, but if you’re named Jean, life will be easier for you. It’s strange, but for a long time France assimilated foreign populations based on first names. People would have to make a choice between their family’s culture and the culture of their new nation. This model has disappeared, but its reflexes and beliefs have remained in our nation’s subconscious. I would also say that sports are a fantasy because they promise to make you into a hero, whereas studying offers more security. This explains the profoundly different attitudes that boys and girls from poor backgrounds have towards studying. Society doesn’t encourage girls to become heroines (and when they succeed despite the odds, it is because they are truly exceptional).
There is another aspect to this. For a long time, sports have been a vehicle for social cohesion in the countryside and in poorer neighborhoods. For a hundred years, the French state has invested in this area. In fact, sports stars have almost always come from working class backgrounds. It is just more obvious today that poor people tend to be foreign. This scene is really about young people’s passion for soccer and how seriously devoted to it they are. They are capable of doing great things when we let them express themselves. But I wanted to show how someone’s dreams can be broken in a simple accident, how it can destroy your life and take you off track.
Finally, social advantage is more important than ethnic background. When I moved to Paris, I became friends with rich Moroccans from Casablanca. They had no problem studying and finding work. They knew all the social codes. Social codes are the most important thing.
JRR: Both brothers struggle with identity in France and abroad. They are not just children of immigrants but are also mixed race via their Breton mother. I loved this line from the Older Brother: “Aliens without knowing why.” What is your idea of home these days, and how do you identify in terms of ethnic and/or national identity?
MG: I am so happy you asked me this. We haven’t talked about race in France for a long time, for the simple reason that scientists told us that race didn’t exist. I agree with that. Race doesn’t exist. It’s imaginary. My mother had white skin and green eyes, she looked Russian, but she was Turkish and had a strong accent. She was called a dirty Arab, a dirty white woman. Try to find the logic in that. It’s incredibly stupid.
I am still amazed that a country like the United States, which prides itself on its liberalism, is still so attached to the concept of race. We can talk about discrimination without talking about race. It is enough to say, “people who have black skin experience discrimination.” This phrasing humanizes the individual, it doesn’t reduce them to the color of their skin and discriminating against a group based on a physical characteristic is clearly absurd. Right now, I am writing a book about a parallel world where people with red hair discriminate against people with blond hair. A person from our world appears and doesn’t understand what’s happening.
On another note, I was in Madagascar a few months ago. When I came back, I told my friend that I had felt incredibly guilty about how rich I was there, basically a walking gold bar. I was ashamed to have been born in Europe when I saw children picking bananas that would be sold for less than apples in France. My friend told me, “They thought you were white, that’s why.” And I was annoyed. In Madagascar, people are identified by their tribal origin or their status. I was a vasaha, a foreigner. Even if I were Senegalese and had black skin, I would still have been a foreigner. It’s a different way of seeing the world. To say that I’m white is to impose a European and Anglo-Saxon concept onto a different reality and dismiss this culture. By the way, my friend in this story is French and a militant antiracist.
We have to get past the idea of a unique identity. It’s completely outdated. Identity is individual. And it is unique to each individual. Identity is made up of all the cultural patterns that help us form groups, friendships, nations. Our identities are formed at the start by the identities of our parents, the neighborhoods where we grow up, our cities, our regions, and our countries. On top of that are layered our passions and the languages that we speak. All of this forms an identity and all these cultural patterns help us form relationships with other individuals. For example, when I lived in Germany, I quickly became friends with people who played basketball like me, who also spoke French, or who liked to cook like I do. I believe that each individual should define their own identity: everyone can define it however they like and ignore what others might think.
JRR: The conflict between the Older Brother and his taxi driver father includes amongst other things, Uber. I wonder after dwelling into much of the economics and ethics of ride sharing via the Older Brother, do you take Ubers yourself?
MG: Not anymore. To be totally frank, before Uber, it was very hard to get a taxi in Paris. The taxi union was very powerful and stopped the government from giving out more taxi licenses by blocking roads and striking. Then, almost twenty thousand young people found work in the Paris area. That is one hell of an achievement. However, these people didn’t gain any real work status, they didn’t get any benefits or unemployment. I support a tech economy that doesn’t destroy working conditions. I can’t just think about my own comfort. It’s stupid. I have had all kinds of odd jobs: I picked flowers in the fields, sold antivirus software, worked in a fast-food restaurant, but I always had rights. Uber doesn’t pay taxes in France and pays very little in the United States. They take advantage of common property, laws, traffic rules, the asphalt on the roads, without paying taxes. They can go fuck themselves.
JRR: I laughed so hard when the Older Brother pulls a minor con on the English couple he’s driving in his Uber and then says: “If you do it with Parisians, man, it makes them vote for the National Front. Gotta be on your best behavior with them.” Your novel is often hilarious. I feel like amongst all the perceptions of people of Arab descent, a fantastic, wry sense of humor doesn’t get mentioned often enough. I am not sure if it’s general culture or language but I never laugh as much as when my Arab friends are telling stories. Would you discuss how you inserted humor into what is a serious book?
MG: In truth, humor is a characteristic of working-class neighborhoods. It’s very important. I have never laughed as much as I laughed in my childhood. It’s not an Arab cultural trait, but popular humor that has always existed in France. Poor people entertain themselves, they’re funny because they don’t worry about what “people will say.” I have never been as happy as when I was poor. We laughed all the time. Everything was serious because we had no money and so we kept things light. I wanted to capture that spirit in the book. Also, the main character likes to smoke joints, which makes him a bit odd (which isn’t true of me. I only smoke marijuana two or three times a year).
JRR: What an ending! I won’t give it away, but I want to ask you about the power of stories in our times. Throughout the book, you reflect on words and the Older Brother is towards the end, writing. In our current world, what do you think stories can do for us?
MG: Our perception of the world is fictional. Right now, as I’m writing this, I don’t know what’s actually happening in Japan, so if I think about Japan, my mind comes up with images to represent it. Fiction began with stories told around the fire by prehistoric humans and cave paintings are fictitious representations that attempt to make sense of the world. Books help us understand the world. They reach into the depths of the human soul, more than any other art form. Internal monologue is one of the precious tools that only novels can use. Films and paintings have other strengths, but they can’t do that. There is nothing better than literature for understanding another person’s mind. And reading is an active practice, like sports, you have to concentrate. Reading is pleasure. Reading helps you grow, helps you relax. Reading saved me from my crazy adolescence and my infinite energy.
JRR: I was reading about your book in the French press and saw this piece mentioning Michel Houellebecq in relation to Older Brother. What do you think about this and his work in general? To English-speaking and American readers, who are maybe less familiar with contemporary French literature, your book would seem to be on some level in conversation with Submission.
MG: Michel Houellebecq is a great writer. A seismograph of the contemporary world and the devaluation of masculinity. In France, I have the feeling that he is angrier with men than with women. Michel Houellebecq idealizes women, which is why he also often writes crudely about them. He refuses sexuality and is too romantic, which transforms him into a pessimist. Submission is a racist novel. When he published it, people called him a genius too fast. His best book, in my opinion, is The Map and the Territory. The writing doesn’t feel labored, but it is grandiose. Even the title of Submission is a fraud. Submission is how the far-right in France translates the Arabic word “Islam,” which really means submission to peace. You see the mistake? It’s terrible. It’s dishonest.
So, I am happy to be compared to Michel Houellebecq because he’s a great writer, maybe because we are both realist writers, sharing the artistic current of dirty realism. But otherwise, I am an enthusiastic hyper-humanist. I believe in trust, I love my country, I love its past, its present, and also its future. Michel Houllebecq has a death wish. I would like Michel to have a life wish, which pulls us upwards and doesn’t make us depressed. He is close with populists, like Laurent Obertone, who he introduced to Nicolas Sarkozy. Their ideas are similar to Steve Bannon’s. And I can’t accept that. These fucking populists, we’ll show them how to live together and what civilization means, we’ll kick their asses. Sorry, I am getting carried away. He spreads hate everywhere, he plays with nations like he’s going bowling. These are Hitler’s grandchildren who got a keyboard and a mouse and who toy around with the internet.
JRR: Would you share some of the new writing in French that you are excited about?
MG: Some must-reads are Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, Vernon Subutex 1 and King-Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes, Un océan, deux mers, trois continentsby Wilfried N’Sondé, and The Life Before Us by Romain Gary, which is a masterpiece. I also recently discovered Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, who is a German author, and German Autumn by Stig Dagerman, which are two extraordinary books.