A conversation with Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, author of ‘Salvation Army’ and the first openly gay Arab writer
Novelist Abdellah Taïa burst onto France’s literary scene in 2006 with “Salvation Army”, an autobiographical novel of growing up poor and gay in Morocco. The book, which represented a very public coming out, won him the title of the “first openly gay Arab writer” and turned Taïa, a soft-spoken slip of a man, into a sort of go-to talking head about all things related to Islam and the Muslim world.
Since then, Taïa has written another more than half a dozen books – some of them still heavily autobiographical, others less so – and also directed a feature film adaptation of “Salvation Army” which premiered at the Venice International Film CriticsWeek in 2013. “The Day of the King” won him France’s prestigious Prix de Flore in 2010. His latest novel, 2017’s “Celui Qui Est Digne d’Etre Aimé” – an epistolary novel in the style of 17th Century French classic “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” – explores Taïa’s hallmark theme of being gay in the Arab world but also takes on a more overtly political stance, exploring colonialism and its lingering legacy. The Athena Journal spoke to Taïa from his home in Paris’s Belleville neighbourhood.
Growing up, reading and books were not a very prominent part of your childhood. How did you come to writing, and what role does it play in your life?
I was born into a big, poor Moroccan family. Reading was seen as something bourgeois – something for those who didn’t have money problems; something for those who weren’t hungry. I knew I needed to find a way of escaping poverty, but without rejecting my origins. I started learning French because it was the language of riches and power in Morocco. I told myself I would steal their language and use it for something else: I would perfectly master French so that I could infuse it with other meanings, other realities – the realities of Arabic-speaking people, poor people and gay people. My realities. I became a writer by accident. I realized that my family’s stories, the stories of my mother, my sisters and my neighbourhood, were inside me and they needed to come out. I was exploding with stories. I had no other choice but to write them down. My writing is the product not of the books that I didn’t have the chance to read as a child but rather of the extremely intense – almost bewitched or possessed – milieu I grew up in Morocco.
Your early work, especially, focused on the experience of being gay in Morocco, and you are often described as one of the most prominent openly gay voices in the Muslim world. How has your understanding of what it means to be a sort of “spokesman” for the LGBT community of the Arab world changed in recent years?
First, I want to make clear that I don’t have any problem with that role. Homosexuality is still a serious problem in many countries. Even in the West, we have seen of late that it’s still not as universally accepted as we would like to think. Therefore, writing about gay lives, defending them and speaking about them in the proper way – without clichés – is something that I take very, very seriously. For me, literature has the responsibility to allow for those who are trampled, abandoned and scorned to exist. In other words, LBGT people. But not only LGBT people. Being gay means having a critical perspective, and criticizing everything. Like Jean Genet, I wanted my work to have that critical eye, and to take on the struggles of others. I wanted to be a powerful gay voice, a strong and political voice.
Your work has always been intensely personal, drawing largely on your own experiences. But of late it has taken on more of a political tenor, dealing with issues of colonialism and its legacy. Do you see yourself as someone affected by the fallout from colonialism?
I come from poor Moroccan stock, from a family that speaks only Arabic, but today I write in French and my books are published in Paris. My connections to the structures of colonialism are extremely obvious. And the older I get, the more I realize that even my imagination has been shaped by French colonialism. I understand that the West seems to believe it has resolved its own colonial past, when in reality all it’s done it turns its back on it. But all it takes care a few days of walking through the streets of Paris to understand how they treat us, immigrants, how they talk about us, how they belittle us and how they fence us into ghettos and banlieues. As a gay man, these issues are of crucial import to me, which of course means that they inform my writing. We must confront the past to better understand the looming catastrophes that are hanging over all of our heads.