Fatima Daas on names. Translated by Lara Vergnaud.
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If you look up the word ‘pseudonym’ in the dictionary, you’ll find something like the following: a fictitious name, often used by an author; from French pseudonyme, from Greek pseudōnymos, from pseudēs ‘false’ + onuma ‘name’. Also: pen name, alias, nom de guerre.
The standard French legal dictionary, Le dictionnaire du droit privé, notes:
Pseudonyms are used in particular by writers of novels, and other literary works, as well as by various categories of artists. A ‘pseudonym’ is an alias assumed by an individual in the course of performing their profession or art. It is chosen by an individual who does not wish to be known to the public with the family name with which they are listed on official records.
There are as many reasons to want a pseudonym as there are people, as there are individual personalities. For me, to the question why did I choose a pseudonym to write? my first response would be: why not?
When you publish a book, you have the possibility – the opportunity – to choose to assume a name different from the one you were given at birth, the one imposed by your parents, the one that links you to others. The pseudonym allows you to decide: you can choose to break from your birth name, from your father’s name – a way to overthrow the patriarchy and liberate yourself from it.
A pseudonym also offers a way not to drag your loved ones into your life as a writer; to leave them out of it; to break your links to them.
There comes a feeling of freedom when you choose a pen name. You decide what the outside world will call you. You can navigate freely between genders. You can reinvent yourself, in essence. A pseudonym allows you to reveal yourself while being someone else, someone completely made up who nonetheless grows inside of you, free to evolve at will.
Using a pseudonym allows for a division between a person and their persona. When my first novel was published, I needed to separate my private life from the public sphere of writing.
In my creative endeavour, there’s Fatima Daas, the main character of my novel: the youngest of three sisters, French of Algerian origin, a rebellious teenager but still a good student, someone from the banlieue, an asthmatic, a lesbian, and a Muslim. I created this character using parts of my own life.
A character close to me, but still someone else.
A character with whom I could identify, but who, at moments, seemed distant; a character who would help me project this voice and carry this story, to talk about it with my readers and be present publicly without ever hiding behind “anonymity” in the strict sense of the word. I never wanted to hide behind a pseudonym. It was out of the question that I stay back, that I stay quiet after having written this kind of story.
It was my responsibility to accompany the novel after writing it; to be present, available, visible.
Often, the use of a pseudonym is confused with the act of disappearing behind a new name, after which multiple interpretations emerge (the risk being that they’re wrong).
I detected a growing inability to distance myself, the author, from the character of my novel as I decided to embody that character. So much so that, from the very beginning, I maintained that my novel didn’t fit into any one box or label (autobiography, for example).
And so, in this creative endeavour, there’s also Fatima Daas, the author. The decision to embody my character came very early on. I felt an incredible urgency to write about this quest for identity, and I chose to switch back and forth between fiction and reality. I used an autobiographical foundation. I wrote memories from childhood, emotions I experienced – shame, guilt, self-hate, love…
I wasn’t interested in merely writing a diary that I would offer to anyone who wanted it. I wanted to write a story that belonged both to me and to other people; all the events I wrote about were distorted and transformed, with the goal of blurring the lines between autobiography and autofiction; of experimenting, having fun with it, creating, cobbling together, tricking my readers, kindly and respectfully; arousing their curiosity, constantly and increasingly…
Finally, within this endeavour, there’s the other person: the person I am in everyday life who has a different name; the person outside of the media, outside of my writing; the person I am in private, who’s not exactly the same as my character, not exactly the same as the author, though not entirely different either.
To me, using a pseudonym means you’re protected by only partial anonymity – without wearing a mask, without dissimulating, without hiding, without staying in the shadows, without masking your global identity, while also protecting your private life, protecting yourself from the literary world, with the ability to enter and exit that universe.
Following the publication of my first novel, The Last One, I was almost immediately propelled into the limelight. I found myself dealing with several situations and problems as a result.
I very quickly realised that the interest in my work was influenced by the “themes” within it, namely Islam and homosexuality, which are both hot topics in France. Various questions would pop into my head every time I was invited somewhere. Am I being invited for the right reasons? Am I being invited to fill the woman quota, the young, lesbian, or North African quota? Am I being invited to show that a girl from the banlieue can write if she wants to? Am I being invited to speak out against religion, against Islam? To tell France “Thank you”? Did they really read my book? Understand the story?
The attention I received was not always solely due to the literary merit of my novel, but often more as if I was a circus freak being asked to justify their existence, to choose between their sexual orientation and their faith, who was being asked to talk about politics, theology, and social issues all while being distanced from my real work: writing and literature.
Furthermore, I felt like I was being invited to represent young women from immigrant homes, from the banlieue, Muslim women, lesbians. I unwillingly became the spokesperson for a group of people whose individual identities were never considered. I bore a responsibility for visibility and representation that isn’t forced upon other French writers (older, white, cisgender, heterosexual, upper-middle-class writers…).
At that point, anything I might have said could be turned against me; every clumsily worded stance could prompt a hateful backlash. I needed every minute I had to clarify my thoughts. Media exposure doesn’t always give you the time to express a nuanced, clear, sincere train of thought.
My novel recounts the life of a young French woman of Algerian descent who comes from an immigrant family and a working-class neighbourhood. A lesbian and a Muslim who simultaneously endures multiple forms of discrimination. Media exposure exacerbated those assaults. I was living out the very things I was writing about, that I was denouncing, in an even more intense way, because I was visible, because I was speaking out. I became dangerous – no doubt because I was talking from the margins and that was disrupting the centre. People tried to put me into a box, to trip me up, to twist my novel, simplify my words, take away my right to write, take away my status as a writer…. It didn’t work!
The publication of my novel forced me to take personal and professional risks, but my pseudonym is like a shield that’s able to protect me from the outside world and keep me at a distance from the public persona that I became.
Fatima Daas (the author’s pseudonym) was born in 1995 and grew up in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, where her parents settled after arriving from Algeria. In high school Daas participated in writing workshops led by Tanguy Viel. Well aware of the contradictions, she defines herself as Muslim, feminist and gay. Published in French in 2020, The Last One was the winner of the prestigious Prix Les Inrockuptibles in 2020, and Germany’s International Literature Prize in 2021.
Lara Vergnaud is a translator of prose, creative nonfiction, and scholarly works from the French. She has translated books by Zahia Rahmani, Ahmed Bounani, Mohamed Leftah, Samira Sedira, and Joy Sorman, among others. She is the recipient of two PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and a French Voices Grand Prize, and has been nominated for the National Translation Award. She lives in Washington, D.C
Photo credit: Olivier Roller