Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?
Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him.
Eddy grows up gay in a world where narrow norms of masculinity are strictly enforced.
The real subject of the book is how people like the ones in my village suffer from exclusion, domination, poverty. In the novel, a series of vignettes—scenes taken from real life—expose this, the constant lack of money for food, how my mother would steal wood from the neighbors in order to heat the house, and so on. And it’s clear these circumstances produce brutality through what Pierre Bourdieu called the principle of the conservation of violence. When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life, you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means. One of the instruments of this daily violence is the cult of masculinity. I always hated typical masculine activities. I was incapable of them—the sight of me playing football was hilarious—and so from the beginning I was excluded. But the book describes how the boy doesn’t want to be different, how he struggles to be like everyone else.
You were ashamed?
My father used to say, You are the shame of the family. He would tell me the community mocked our family because I acted like a girl, that I was too flamboyant. So I did all I could to change. Wanting so desperately to fit in made me look at class from a different angle than I’d previously encountered in literature. Even from the greatest writers, I always had the impression that the loners in these kinds of books—the literature of the outsider—were already free. They were always so unique, so gifted, so different from the environment they were predestined to escape. When I read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, or Thomas Bernhard, I was unsettled by the impression that these authors had always been so much freer than those around them, how the story of first part of their life always looked like a struggle against the circumstances into which they had accidentally been born. But I never dreamed of fleeing. My dream was that my parents would look me in the eyes.
I wanted to invert the way the story of the outsider is told. If you say that those who flee have always been different, then you’ll just keep waiting for those individuals to reveal themselves, to set themselves apart. But if you say, Eddy wasn’t born very different, and he certainly did not want to be different, then it’s a story about how this difference is produced—how so much of what we are is created by the words of others.
You write so unflinchingly about your family.
Some scenes were difficult to write. I kept thinking, This is too intimate, too personal. But then I would think, That’s precisely what I must write. The rest, no one cares about. When the first gay or feminist movements emerged, conservatives responded by saying that sexuality or the role of women in daily life weren’t proper subjects for political debate. We often dismiss as too intimate those things we prefer to not talk about. Literature must persist in moving this border, to speak of the things society has relegated to silence and privacy.
Mixed in with the details of the violence you suffered and how you discovered your sexuality, there are chapters with analytical titles like “The Norms of Masculinity”—here the book sounds almost like a sociological survey.
I really believe you can tap into the deepest emotions by way of knowledge. Think about Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex. She writes in her own voice and relates real stories from women’s lives, but she also brings in history, sociology, even biology. By setting the history of the suffering of women in that larger context, the book was able to effect change. When Eddy cries at school because he was bullied, he thinks his tears are the result of the single wicked act of those who call him a faggot. But to write Eddy was, for me, a means of seeing Eddy’s tears as the product of the entire history of homophobia, of masculine domination, and of social violence which had preceded them. When I wrote it down, I understood that even our tears are political. That’s why this book is both a novel and an analysis. I don’t see any difference.
In France you’re often referred to as a kind of spokesperson for the working class—but you’ve been criticized for painting an unflattering picture of that very same class.
I wrote the book to give a voice to these people, to fight for them and with them, because they seem to have disappeared from the public eye. In the novel I use two languages—the one I use now, which is more “literary,” and the one I grew up with, the language of the excluded classes, which is completely absent from the public arena. When you make a language disappear you make the people who speak it disappear. My family would vote for Marine Le Pen, saying, We do it because she’s the only one who talk about us, the little people.” That wasn’t true, but it reveals the sentiment of invisibility that strikes the dispossessed. But I also critique the values of that culture. I don’t need to show that working-class values are above reproach in order to write against the social violence that produces them. To me it’s a crucial distinction—we don’t have to love a culture to support the people who comprise it. For many years we’ve made the mistake of confusing love with politics, as if supporting something politically meant loving everything associated with it, to the point of romanticizing poverty and misery to support the people who endure them. I’ll support prisoners who fight unjust conditions in jail, but that doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with them every day.
The full version of the interview is here.