Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam on 2021 Albertine Prize Finalist ‘Arcadia’

When she isn’t teaching French literature in the outskirts of Paris, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam writes sophisticated literary fictions under her name, and enthralling dark novels–bordering on crime fiction–under the pseudo Rebecca Lighieri. Both bodies of work (equally remarkable and powerful) investigate the world of outcasts, dropouts and losers. That is mainly because —according to Bayamack Tam–“the mechanism of domination and their consequences are easier to spot and describe from the margins”. In Arcadia (tr Ruth Diver, Seven Stories), the novelist offers another deeply felt exploration of teenage years, dysfunctional families, and loss of illusions. It is our great pleasure to invite you to read our conversation with Bayamack-Tam about Arcadia, her cruel tale about the downside of utopia and a finalist in this year’s Albertine Prize.

Albertine Prize Committee: Arcadie tells the story of Farah, a child and then teenager in search of her identity. Why did you choose a queer person to be the main character?

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam: I have always had queer characters, even queer narrators. Rai-de-cœur, the first novel I published with P.O.L. Editions in 1996, was a story about a boy who felt like a girl, wore dresses, and liked boys. As a matter of fact, I used this character, Daniel, to be the hero of La Princesse de. in 2010. And in Arcadie, Daniel returns as a young gay man. In general, my fictional characters evade gender labels. I have a lot of characters whose gender is fluid, but also characters whose ethnic backgrounds are murky: Charonne, another one of my recurring characters is non-white, but we don’t know if it she is mixed race, Arab, Latino…I conceived my characters as free electrons on a social chessboard: their indeterminacy is a freedom. This doesn’t mean that I idealize their situation: Charron is the victim of racism, the characters in La Princess de. face transphobia, and Farah’s intersex status attracts ridicule. Let’s say again, to conclude, that I do not conceive of literature to be anything other than queer, transgender, non-binary—free, in short. The novel in particular must bring us back (critically) to the alienation and coercion that we submit to—or accept too compliantly.

A.P.C.: With the appearance of a migrant in this ultra-protected territory, your novel addresses the issue of the refugee crisis. Would you characterize your novel as political?

E.B.-T.: All of my novels are political (see previous answer). This one (and the last one published under the pseudonym Il est des Hommes qui se perdront toujours) is perhaps more explicitly political than the previous ones. I conceived Liberty House as a microcosm to reflect what is happening on a national scale in France: we have nothing against migrants, we would prefer that they don’t die in the Mediterranean or the Libyan desert, but when it comes to opening up our borders to them…there is a gap between our grand humanitarian principles and the reality of our admission policy. Arcady advocates for love, altruism, and tolerance, but it closes its doors as soon as an Eritrean refugee arrives. For Farah, the contradiction between theory and practice is unbearable.

A.P.C.: Through Liberty House, a wavering/shaky utopian and libertarian paradise, do you draw a portrait of a modern society that will succumb to the apocalypse?

E.B.-T.: I don’t know if modern society will succumb to the apocalypse, for, after all, reality has refuted all the apocalyptic predictions, but extinction is the normal fate of all species: it is survival that is the exception. I believe that now we are more acutely aware of this precarity and vulnerability of the human species. This is doubled by a sense of guilt, since if extinction does occur, it will be of our own doing. I integrated ecological concerns into my text that I didn’t have last century, and I imagined Liberty House as a refuge from every contemporary threat. I have long been fascinated by sects, communities, attempts to secede, to dissent. We should and could live differently, more soberly, more frugally, more in harmony with the living but also more in accordance with our desires. Our western way of life, energy-consuming and irresponsible, can only be sustained by the planet if others vegetate in misery, make our clothes, bury our waste, and witness the desertification of their land. That said, degrowth on an individual scale is all well and good, but if there is no political will for change, it is only a drop in the ocean.

A.P.C.: The question of the body is omnipresent: through the character of Farah of course, half gir,l half boy, but also with the metamorphoses of old, obese, emaciated, unattractive bodies. Is this a topic that obsesses/bothers (?) you?

E.B.-T.: I have always said that all of my novels could be called Metamorphosis or Metamorphoses. And that’s good, Ovid and Kafka are two major references for me! I am not obsessed with the subject of the body, but it interests me. The body is a form of house arrest: we cannot choose it, we put up with it, and we can only transform it on the margins. That said, what we can choose is our way of looking at the body, our own or those of others. Here again, we are bombarded with orders and labels: ultimately the only desirable bodies are those that are young, beautiful, and fit. But desire breathes where it wants, and it can bring us towards bodies that do not live up to these standards. That is more or less the message that Arcady promotes: we can love dilapidated, damaged, and poorly functioning bodies. My writing is very pansexual: it keeps everyone in a circle of desires.

A.P.C.: Your writing is unique, between lyricism and raw descriptions, full of literary references. How do you write? What are your references?

E.B.-T.: The driving force behind my writing is hybridization, intermixing, blending. I like to create a clash between academia (Proust, Racine, Nerval) and popular culture (George Michael, Rihanna). The two nourish and inspire me. The sociologist Bernard Lahire has shown and theorized this very well in La Culture des individus: today, we are made up of different cultural strata. In Arcadie, this lends itself to a very exuberant and whimsical writing style that changes in tone: I hope the dialogues are realistic and modern but also composed of acrobatic sentences, a sophisticated syntax and a proliferation of distorted and triturated quotations interwoven with each other but also braided with my own style. I love lyricism, but my lyricism is well suited to the trivial and satirical, even the grotesque. Fiction can become “friction,” a collision between ethereal poetry, sublime feelings, and the crudity of the stage, suburban slang, etc.

Arcadia, a novel by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, tr. by Ruth Diver, Seven Stories Press, published in France by P.O.L.

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The Albertine Prize, co-presented by Van Cleef & Arpels and the French Embassy, recognizes American readers’ favorite French-language fiction title that has been translated recently into English. Media partner: The New York Review of Books.