Performing Language: An Interview with Abdellah Taia

In late April, Abdellah Taïa arrives in New York City for the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival. Two days before he is to sit down in conversation with Dale Peck for an interview hosted by PEN and the French Institute Alliance Française, we meet for tea on West Eighteenth Street to catch up. The last time I saw him, in Paris, it was late 2009 and he was living in a tiny Belleville apartment in the building in which Édith Piaf had been born. Recently he's moved into spacious lodgings in a more bourgeois neighborhood, and he isn't sure yet how to feel about this. The best thing about the new apartment, however, is that it can house his large dining table. “It's an all-purpose table,” he says. “I can eat on it, work on it, sleep on it, make love on it. Only I will be very quiet at first because the neighbors hear everything.”

“Quiet?”

“At first,” he repeats.

The first writer to openly come out in Morocco, Taïa is concerned with how the word and the body create complicity in any spatial exchange—mundanely, casually, ecstatically. "Sex is language," he says, “and language is space. My neighbor above me walks much too hard on her floor, especially when she has a lover over. It is annoying, it is disruptive—yet I have become interested in what kinds of stories these rhythms accumulate. The body in that space, as everywhere, performs language.”

To write honestly about language and sex, then, one must access one's elemental sexuality. He calls this the primaire space. It is an exhausting exercise, though, whether one is homosexual, heterosexual, pansexual. The pressure to conform to societal rules and definitions, to maintain an innocence in one's sexuality and relationship to such complicity, is constant and can be confounding. "Western civilization wants to keep sex clean, tranquilized, safe," Taïa says, "but in sex, the body is capable of pushing past these boundaries through imagination and narrative."

One can enter this primaire space in Taïa's new novel, An Arab Melancholy. Published by Seuil in 2008 and forthcoming from Semiotext(e) later this year in an English translation, a portion of which is translated by Lydia Beyoud in this issue of Words Without Borders, the novel documents a turbulent love affair in Paris between the narrator, Abdellah Taïa, and an Algerian named Slimane. The love had first been affirmed in the form of two large notebooks, in which the lovers had written intimate stories to each other; the love is later denied, in a cruel act of erasure, when Slimane returns only a handful of pages after their breakup. The narrator writes him a “letter of vengeance”—which, in tender increments, also becomes a mode of reclamation. Here, sex and love are an enactment of a shared language—Arabic—and history, and of the imagination, of documentation. “Encountering love in Arabic is an unhoped-for miracle,” the narrator laments to his ex-lover. In an especially moving passage about compromise, the narrator takes Slimane to a church:

“We watched others pray. Churches weren't meant for us originally, it represented nothing in our spiritual memory. Nothing tied us to them and yet we returned there several times and in the end found a new spirituality. We invented it together, this religion, this faith, this chapel, this solemn and luminous corner, this time outside of time. This Christianity not far from Barbès.”

In any language one chooses for sexual communication, one must constantly interpret or create elements of storytelling, in metaphor, idiom, arc, climax, anti-climax, denouement, and so on. Taïa had grown up with religious texts that refer to entering the body of God, and from this influence arose a freedom in the expression of sex, at least until he reached adolescence. “In Muslim countries today, the relationship between God and the body is missing," he says. "But for me, being gay—that is, being free in my sexuality—helps to cement my relationship to family, environment, God, the universe."

In childhood, playing with various roles helps not only to designate place in society but also to explore boundaries in sexuality. When Taïa was a child, on the rare occasion that he had the house to himself he would walk from room to room naked, reveling in this secret act of freedom. Today he can say he was negating the pressure of maintaining the façade of a commonly perceived masculinity, but at the time he thought only of feeling the air on his skin during a moment of solitude. To be naked was to be free.

His household had consisted of eleven people—his parents, six sisters, and two brothers. “When there are eleven bodies in such close proximity,” he says, “they constitute your entire world.” It was through this intimacy that boundaries of the body became nebulous for him: the children could sense whenever their parents would—and would not—make love (“We knew,” Taïa writes in his third novel, Salvation Army. “We knew everything that happened at home”); his sisters dressed him up as a Barbie doll; his older brother, the taciturn and imposing Abdelkébir, was the object of his idolizing and sexual adoration. Eventually Taïa came to the conclusion that sex should never be frightening. “In my mind,” he explains in Salvation Army, “my family's reality has a strong sexual quality, it is as if we have all been one another's partners, we blended together ceaselessly, without guilt.”

Still, for years Taïa had been ashamed of memories of his sisters using him as a dress-up doll. But today he remembers this with amusement, and most important, he's realized that the playacting had been more than a mere childhood game. With delight, he calls this playacting the “Temptation of the Red Lipstick.” In childhood is the exploration of gender and sexuality, of metaphor and storytelling, of asking the right questions without knowing what the associations are. “For example,” says Taïa, “when children draw pictures of the sky, they always refer to the sun as masculine and the moon as feminine. Where, they ask, does one place the sun? And where does Allah go—behind the sun, or beside it? To write, then, is to also contextualize your surroundings, to question perceived ideas that are not usually questioned. This is a presentation of the personal. It is truth. Once again we return to the primaire space, the elemental," he insists. "We must always go back there.”