Samira Sedira discusses race, class, resentment and crime.
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Samira – thanks so much for speaking to me. I want to start at the end of your book People Like Them, with your Author’s Note. You talk about the 2003 mass homicide that ‘inspired’ the book, and the lack of media engagement with issues of race. Could you speak a little about that? Was it the story or the message that acted as a touchstone for you when writing this book? Which was the vehicle for which?
At the time, no journalist had dared to look at the case from this angle. It was, however, a glaring case of racial hatred. I’m not saying that the whole book was based on it – far from it – but choosing to ignore this major element would also raise questions.
Xavier Flactif is of Chadian origin. One fine day, he arrives with his family in a small village where nobody has ever seen a black person. He’s rich, and he doesn’t hide it – plays up to it, even. He’s also a bit of a crook. And subconsciously, collectively, the village believes that a black person – even more a rich black person – is a black person who has taken the place of a white person. In France, racism is founded in discourses and representations that have been developed within the framework of the French Colonial Empire. You can’t deny that there is a specific, stronger, and more lasting form of rejection and contempt against immigrants who came and come from colonised countries. It’s become a reflex, almost.
The actual facts are always incredibly complex, and there are several ways of reading them. That was why it was so important, for me, to restore what the media and the justice system in our country had chosen to cover up; to give this story its full dimensions, and indeed its incredible complexity. The murder of the Flactif family is “also” a hate crime.
For you, was writing this book an exercise in sympathy or empathy?
When you’re a novelist, empathy is essential. It’s second nature. Imagine an author who judged her characters. The result would be awful: that’s absolutely not the author’s job. We should leave it to the magistrates. Just as Jim Harrison said, a writer must be ready to put himself in absolutely anyone else’s shoes.
You must be prepared to become someone else, and, beyond that, you must forbid yourself from judging, from taking a stand, from being too cautious. It is necessary to trample over everything, to not respect anything, in order to get a little closer to the light. To speak about the complexity of the world, you can’t be too vulnerable; you have, in Louis Ferdinand Céline’s words, to ‘put your guts on the table … don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty in the grease of human nature’.
People Like Them is a whydunit. After your time with this story, do you know why, in the world you have rendered, Constant did it?
I have my own thoughts on this, but I’d rather leave the reader to answer this question. The only thing I can say is that Bakary’s arrival in Constant’s life has a devastating effect. The whole organisation of the village is upturned. Bakary’s charisma; Bakary and his great strangeness; Bakary the crook; Bakary, whose mere appearance questions, fascinates, repels: Constant can’t stand this “intrusion” and the mess it creates. The only way to get back on track is to remove the person who caused it. Constant wants to restore order, the order he’s been trying to contain since his accident.
The book bridges what we might call ‘commercial’ fiction (particularly in terms of its plot and shape) and ‘literary’ fiction (particularly in its style and points of reference). How would you characterise it? Is this something you were conscious of in the act of writing? Are those categories even necessary?
No, I absolutely wasn’t conscious of it. I never think about literature in these terms, and I never have any idea how the book I’m writing will eventually turn out. I’m progressing the writing through the darkness. All I can say to myself is Write the book you’d like to read.
A while ago, I received a literary prize, the Eugène Dabit Prize, which defines itself as follows: ‘Writing about common people with style’. It’s a brilliant programme, and that’s exactly what I’d like to tend towards.
Categorising literature seems obsolete to me. The boundaries between genres are increasingly less clear. We are witnessing the birth of some very interesting hybrid works. It’s a way of reviewing literature, and I’m all in favour of the abolition of borders!
This is your first book translated into English – by the wonderful Lara Vergnaud. How involved were you with this process? How do you feel the book ‘travels’ across languages and contexts?
We communicated over email a lot. She asked me lots of questions and got me to clarify things. Lara Vergnaud is a very precise translator; she didn’t leave a single word to chance. She’s brilliant, in fact. I don’t really know how the book will travel across languages and contexts, but one thing is for certain: crime is universal. Every society has its criminals. The dread it sparks in us is common for all of us. That’s the thread that connects us.
A few weeks ago, we published an interview with the great Françoise Vergès, in which she asked and answered the question Who cleans the world? Your own experience of cleaning, after a career as an actor, comes to bear on People Like Them, and indeed much of your other writing. Could you talk a little about that?
‘Who cleans the world?’ What an incredible question.
Do you know what it immediately made me think of? Public transport in Paris. It’s a good representation of the way society is organised. When you take the metro or a commuter train at different times of the day, you notice that, as the day goes on, the population changes (the complexion gets brighter as the day goes on). Very early in the morning, around 5am, it’s the people who ‘clean the world’ who fill the carriages. It’s mostly women: African women, Arab women, Pakistani women. They travel alone or in groups. They come from the suburbs, sometimes from far out, and they’re on their way to clean offices, banks, hotels, airports. Later in the morning, it’s the employees of these establishments who fill the carriages. It’s interesting that this is the direction in which workers’ journeys are made. From the suburb into Paris. The suburbs are at the service of the capital.
Personally, I never intended to ‘clean the world’. But, alas, I didn’t have a choice. After twenty years spent on stage, I had to resign myself to housework. France is a country that loves qualifications. Apart from my school leavers’ baccalaureate and my training as an actress, I didn’t have anything else. As a result, I only had access to jobs that required no or very few qualifications. I thought it would just be a temporary solution, but it became a temporary solution that lasted three years. At more than 44 years old, it wasn’t easy … The most difficult thing, I think, was being in the same economic situation as the previous generation who emigrated to France. The immigrants who arrived in the sixties only had access to the types of jobs that nobody wanted. France was swarming with invisible workers. I was joining the working class, even though I was supposed to do better. It was quite a traumatic experience, to rally a generation that had nothing to do with mine. The paradoxical thing about it is that I did suffer from it, but I also felt comfort. I felt like I had found them, and I finally understood what they had gone through for us, their children.
I’m interested also in the way class and race intersect in your work. Related to my previous question, the fact that we have a read-as-white character cleaning in the Langlois house does something to complicate the social and structural issues involved – othering is complicated; the ‘Them’ of the title complicated; disprivilege, morality and normality are complicated. How do race and class intersect in your work?
Yes, it is absolute chaos. Everything is inverted. Without a doubt, it’s this unravelling of class which leads to the drama. For the villagers, nothing functions as it should. Bakary and his family don’t match the patterns in which their own fantasies had led them to believe. In their minds, a Black person can be neither rich nor powerful. A Black person cannot employ a white person to do their housework. It is simply not in the order of things. The thread that binds the racial issue and the class issue together is the feeling of humiliation. Humiliation for Bakary of not being recognised for his soul, and humiliation for Constant of not being given due recognition.
Finally, what hope did you take from writing People Like Them?
I have unwavering faith in humankind. When you see the misfortunes and abuses the world produces, it can seem delusional to continue to have faith. But that is just how I am. I love humanity, I love everything about it: its weaknesses, its darkness, its light too. I never tire of observing it in all its complexity. And every time I finish reading a book, I hope to learn a little more from it about the human being. But the truth is that I know even less: I’m like Sisyphus, I am climbing and descending the same mountain, tirelessly, again and again.
Samira Sedira is a novelist, playwright and actress who was born in Algeria and moved to France with her family when she was four months old. In 2008, after two decades of acting for film and the stage, she became a cleaning woman, an experience that filtered into the events of this novel.
People Like Them by Samira Sedira is published by Raven Books at Bloomsbury, price £12.99
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Pascal Martos.