“I am for necessary battles. The war I wage with and against Morocco is useful.” —Abdellah Taïa, from “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother”
Abdellah Taïa’s novels are impatient for justice in the streets and homes of Morocco and beyond. Taïa is an iconic gay-rights activist in the Arab world, as well as in France, the country to which he fled for his life in his youth. Since arriving in France, he has published seven novels, directed a film adaptation of his third novel, Salvation Army, and edited the collection of essays, Letters to a Young Moroccan. In 2006, Taïa became the first eminent, openly gay Arab writer ever; in 2013, with Salvation Army, he gave the Arab world its first gay protagonist on the big screen. But Taïa remains little known in the US. That’s despite three of his novels being translated and published in English and a light rain of press in recent years, including two of his own op-eds and an artist profile appearing in the New York Times.
The Times profile headline ran as a triptych: “Muslim, Gay, and Making No Apologies.” Three years earlier, in Out Magazine, Taïa wrote an opinion piece under a nearly identical banner: “Muslim, Gay, and Free.” This list of identities is ponderous but not useless, and adding to it that Taïa is no pacifist, I fear that we avoid engaging with his work because it directly confronts prevailing beliefs about the world that many, if not a majority of, Americans hold close.
There’s no American dream here, not to embrace or shake off. There’s no such privilege. There are other things. Taïa’s portrayal of his homeland is “a Morocco that is not perfect. A Morocco tense and feverish. A surging Morocco. Possessed.” His fiction works—it sweats—to count the uncounted in the community of his childhood. It fights to free ground, not only for gay rights, but for the rights of women as well. Taïa grew up, after all, sharing a bed with one younger brother, six sisters he dearly loved, and a mother he at once cherished and feared, M’Barka, his most important influence. “When I write, she is with me whether I like it or not,” Taïa told Georgia Phillips-Amos in Bomb magazine this spring. “Her screams and her strategies and her sorcery are there, in my phrases, in my style, in my way of bringing the evil things out.”
Taïa says that he never dreamed of being a writer. He has claimed to be free of any literary influences whatsoever. Then again, he has also stated that he has two: his mother, M’Barka, and his aunt, Massauouda, neither of whom ever published a word. His aunt, his father’s sister, lived with his family throughout her seventies, sharing their very tight living quarters and telling the children stories at night. When the lights went out at bedtime, his aunt would begin speaking unprompted, weaving strange tales beyond their years. This past April, at the PEN World Voices Festival, in New York, Taïa recounted how, through prostitution and without shame, this aunt had provided for his family in times of deprivation, even starvation, when no one else could make any money. He explained how she alone fed them, and how, despite this, her memory is not held dear but is nearly lost to his family. She is the inspiration for the prostitute-shaman Slima in the novel Infidels: “The way I write and the way I speak, she is with me. Not as a metaphor.”
Taïa’s feminism is insistent. It’s in the blood, and it only grew stronger through his formative teenage years. In his autobiographical novel, An Arab Melancholia, the protagonist, Abdellah Taïa, recalls that it was the older women in his community who saw him when he felt like he was disappearing: “I did exist, I did. I existed for those traditional women who could be strong when they had to be, women who, like me, had been incarcerated by rules despite themselves.”
Taïa brings the evil things out that few want to acknowledge, much less talk about: every kind of sex, every kind of death, the body in pleasure and pain, poverty, prostitution, torture, and Islamic fundamentalism. He exorcises our hush-hush shared experiences, and, as he does this, his myths screw with ours in their radical openness to difference.
An auspicious exception to my fear of Taïa’s invisibility arose last month, in a comment box on Facebook. The American novelist John Keene, author of Counternarratives, one of last year’s critical hits, remarked that he taught Taïa’s Arab Melancholia last semester at Rutgers University–Newark. Keene’s own artistic mission has been to revivify storylines that American culture has historically worked, by word and knife, to suppress. He is another author who, like Taïa, shows an “affirming flame,” as W.H. Auden describes in the last stanza of his brink-of-war poem “September 1, 1939,” one of the clearest statements of how poetics and politics can be one and the same act.
Taïa’s projects are brave. Witness, for example, the first few lines of his loving but uncompromising letter, “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother.” And, as interviews prove, he himself is fascinating, a quality born of an indomitable spirit. But, beyond all this, something else is happening: his writing is becoming formally original. Through the seven novels he’s written to date, it seems that he has grown so practiced at seeing around expectations in life and art that he is becoming a writer of what Michael Hoffmann recently termed “strong prose” (Hoffmann did so while arguing for reassessment of the inventive but unjustly forgotten German writer Regina Ullmann).
We can see for ourselves the increasing strength of Taïa’s prose across his three novels published in English: Salvation Army (2009), An Arab Melancholia (2012), and this year’s Infidels. In the slim Infidels, he gives voice to a small family whose community never wants to hear from them, and, in fact, would like them to go to hell. To this effect, one neighbor keeps a burnt skillet dangling in her window. During a brief stint working at the publishing house Seven Stories Press, in Tribeca, I first came across Taïa through this book, his sixth, in its English translation. In conversation with the translator, Alison Strayer, it was my job to check on the pulse and breath of the lines after their cliff jump from French into English. I will never forget being confronted with the opening pages.
The first chapter of Infidels is a rant so rhythmic it’s also a song, by Jallal, an eight-year-old boy pleading with his mother on the street. Jallal’s three-page description of clearing his throat and spitting on his mother’s enemies is as memorable—as tender and as ruthless—as Jamaica Kincaid’s canonized, very short story, “Girl.” Jallal’s mother will not answer him as she stands waiting in vain for Johns that do not come. The boy’s voice pours forth in a rap packed with short staccato sentences and sentence fragments, as Taïa tests what poet Jana Prikryl has called the “the tensile strength” of the dramatic monologue, stretching it until it nearly snaps.
The fragments are classic Taïa. He uses them to dig into the page and to get at something that smooth-rolling sentences can’t: “To tell the truth, my truth! To be: Abdellah. To be: Taïa. To be both. Alone. Yet not alone at the same time,” he tells his family, in “Homosexuality Explained to my Mother.” These fragments are everywhere in his novels and essays, and what can easily be a blunt tool—one that draws more attention to itself than to the job at hand—is instead a fine instrument. One of Taïa’s strengths. On the verge of confiding the darkest secrets of her past, Jallal’s grandmother tells his mother: “I’ve always told you everything. Almost.” Standing alone or as a series of fragments scraping each other’s heels in tight succession, these sentence shards, often single words, either emphasize the beat of the speech, or shift it in slight, pleasing twists. With a poet’s mastery, Taïa lets the fragments fall, creating disruptions, slips, stomps, whispers, and shouts. With them, he drums out a tenacious rhythm all his own.
Hosting “The Fictional Other” event at the PEN World Writers Festival, playwright and performer Eisa Davis compared Taïa’s unusual approach to breaking up his sentences to poetry line breaks. It’s a useful comparison, since Taïa’s breaks do set up unexpected and revealing relationships between the lines. But there’s something misleading about this, too, because when a line of poetry stops clean or enjambs, it does so against the open sea of the page. That’s a vista, a physical space the reader can take up, if they choose, for a little breath, some breathing or thinking room. This space is not only a margin, but part of the poem as a living organism. In Taïa’s prose, there’s no such luxury. And the result of these breaks is a sense of urgency as the lines crash into one another, crowd, and crush forward.
As the youngest child of four in my family, I have wondered if Taïa’s punchy prose owes something to growing up with eight siblings. As one of nine, how do you get a word in edgewise if not by jabbing it in there? Or hooking it in? There’s no waiting for an opening; you have to create one yourself. And the intense intimacy between Taïa’s characters makes complete sentences seem unnecessary. Even when these people are not talking to each other—even when one of them is excommunicated—they are so close there’s no need for rounded-out expressions; as with siblings, that’s not their kind of currency. The characters complete each other, or at least the author implies that there’s some hope, or wish, that they might.
Taïa’s writing pulls hard and generously from his life. But while his novels are autobiographical, they contain none of the cloying narcissism that lurks in plenty of popular literary fiction these days. Narcissism, however self-aware, makes the world smaller. Fighting for survival in his youth—facing sexual violence, his community’s apathy and condemnation, and his country’s laws, which still deem homosexuality a crime—Taïa had no choice but to make the world more expansive and inclusive, or fall victim, and this formidable creative capacity is a habit at work in his narratives and characters.
Taïa has claimed that he cannot write, or won’t bother to, unless he feels possessed by something outside himself: “There have to be some jinns there,” he said this April. Jinns rank lower than angels, so we can rub shoulders with them more casually, and in doing so, rub shoulders with the spiritual world and its radical possibilities. Hanging in there and locking voices with jinns while writing may sound like a spiritual exercise, but no sweet peace tumbles out at the ends of Taïa’s books. If it did, it would run counter to the world we live in, and, in any case, maybe these few words from Taïa represent a better kind of enlightenment: he says, “I am permanently questioning.”
Jesse Ruddock is a Canadian-American writer and photographer. Her debut novel, Shot-Blue, is forthcoming with Coach House Books in 2017. She lives in New York and Guelph.