"No one is capable of freeing oneself from society."

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An Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Abdellah Taïa

Born in Salé, Abdellah Taïa was the first Moroccan author to come out as homosexual. He moved to Paris in 1998 and published his first book, Mon Maroc, two years later. His novels depict social, economic, and sexual hierarchies by describing human relationships and emotions. A few of his books include, Lu Jour du Roi (The King’s Day),An Arab Melancholia, and the autobiographical novel Salvation Army, published in English in 2009with a preface by Edmund White, and was made into a film, directed by Taïa.

Abdellah Taïa and I spoke at his sparsely furnished apartment in the Marais, Paris, where we sat at a huge table. The writer and filmmaker poured me a cup of green tea that had, lettered onto the yellow mug, the words Miami Beach. 

—Rebecka Bülow 

I. THE CONTROL ISN’T IDEOLOGICAL BUT PHYSICAL

THE BELIEVER: What is your position today in Morocco? 

ABDELLAH TAÏA: My books are published and known—especially the second one, Le Rouge du Tarbouche [The Red of the Fez]. After I wrote that book I started to write and talk about homosexuality. And since then, rich and powerful families—and even some writers and intellectuals—won’t officially accept me, because it would mean that they’re alright with homosexuality. But their support and blessing isn’t important to me. So many people and institutions are against homosexuals that, as a homosexual, you can’t waste your time by trying to convince them that you’re a good person. I understood that by the time I was twelve or thirteen.

There are also a lot of people in Morocco who support me. I’ve lectured in bookshops and I’m tolerated, maybe because of the fact that I’m published in Paris and in French. There is a little prestige in that, which gives protection.

BLVR: How was it to grow up as a gay person in Morocco?

AT: As a homosexual in Morocco I think that you understand very early that there’s no protection and that no one will defend you. If someone takes your arm and wants to have sex with you, it’s a kind of rape, but you can’t scream or tell you parents because they’ll just say that it was your own fault. They can’t even talk about homosexuality, that would mean that they’ve already thought about it. 

Any gay person understands at some point that he or she has to disappear, to become invisible. That’s very difficult. You somehow have to kill yourself. This is asked of people who haven’t got the tools to understand that it’s all  a social construction, and that they shouldn’t inferiorize themselves. This is asked of little kids. But I still live in the same outcome, and I’ll be forty-one in two days.

Once I began to talk openly again, people told me to shut up. After I published my second book, my brother told me that it was time to write fiction. The control isn’t ideological but physical. Someone is always there to keep you in your position.

BLVR: When I was in Morocco earlier this year I was struck by the constant presence of the monarchy. I saw the king’s portrait everywhere. The prosperity was a stark contrast to the people who struggled just to eat.

AT: For me, Le jour du roi investigates the relationship between someone with power, who is both very real and something beyond real, and the people who live in submission without even giving themselves the right to question their situation. The king has all kinds of power in Morocco, he’s the biggest star, he’s everything. 

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DISCUSS RULES BEFOREHAND

The following is an excerpt from Chris Kraus’s essay on Kathy Acker, available in full on Believermag.com

FEROCITY AND VULNERABILITY IN A POSTHUMOUSLY PUBLISHED COLLECTION OF EMAILS FROM WRITER/ARTIST/FEMINIST ICON KATHY ACKER

DISCUSSED: Disjunctive Narrative Style, Butch/Femmeness, The German, Het Shit, Miss X, An Awkward Niche, Brigantine Pirate Girls, Rats without Working Maps, The Fistfucking Closet, Vanilla Sex, Untweezed Brows, Susan Sontag

Kathy Acker died of cancer on November 30, 1997, the same year that her older contemporaries William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg passed away. At the time, many observed that these three deaths marked the “end of the avant-garde”—or, at least, the end of the avant-garde as it was known in the twentieth century.

In the years succeeding her death at age fifty, Acker’s work has been the subject of a documentary film, a symposium, and several scholarly works. Attention has mostly been focused on her as an exemplar of the “transgressive” genre of writing, performance, and art popular in the 1980s. Promoting herself more as a rock star than as a writer, she appears in numerous studio portraits taken during that era posed as a precocious child whore in a Victorian boudoir, displaying her extravagant tattoos and bulked-up biceps. Although she’d been actively writing and publishing in the East and West Coast art world and poetry communities since the early 1970s, it was not until the mid-’80s that her work was presented commercially. When her inventive, aggressive bricolage novel Blood and Guts in High School was reissued by Picador in London in 1984, she was hailed as “the high priestess of punk,” an avatar of resistance to the grim resignation of the Bush/Thatcher era. As her image solidified, so did her writing. While the writings that built Acker’s reputation are insouciant samplings of pornography, plagiarized classics, confessional memoir, and political satire, she began taking herself even more seriously than her fans and critics did. From the late ’80s onward, she adopted a somber high-modernist style, identifying herself as a postmodern poète maudit.

While Acker’s work has retained its underground cred during the seventeen years since her death, it’s only recently that her work has been embraced as a powerful influence on a new generation of (mostly female) contemporary writers. Her appropriating compositional style prefigures the oft-debated narrative strategies of writers whose recent novels are littered with emails, transcribed conversations, text messages, found conversations, and diary entries (as if a disjunctive narrative style had never been used before the advent of digital media). In a recent informal survey of Acker’s female contemporaries conducted by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry of Emily Books, an indie e-bookstore, Acker’s name recurs as a primary influence. Her image has faded but her writing remains vivid. This shift makes Semiotext(e)’s publication of Acker’s 1995 email correspondence with media theorist McKenzie Wark extremely well timed.

I’m Very Into You is a collection that includes 103 pages of emails that Acker and Ken Wark exchanged over seventeen days at the dawn of the internet era. Acker met Wark in Sydney during the summer of 1995, and the two had a brief but intense affair before she returned home to San Francisco. Wark, now a professor at the New School for Social Research and a renowned media theorist, was thirty-four when he met Acker (she was forty-eight). At the time, Wark was part of a Melbourne-based post-Marxist anarchist group that produced the political and cultural journal Arena. He had just published his first book, Virtual Geography, about the emergence of global media space and the transmission of world events as media spectacles. He was enjoying a precocious career as a national media commentator in Australia and advising government ministers on media access, while still living a kind of post-student life among artists and activists. He had boyfriends and girlfriends, often concurrently, and wondered about his identity, queerness and straightness, performance, butch/femme-ness, masculinity. Of course he’d read Acker. He’d been following her work since the ’80s.

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You Should Really Be Reading This…

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In this series, Noah Charney asks an author to choose a favorite novel that he or she thinks is a hidden gem, deserving of more attention.

Noah Charney talks to Eimear McBride about Agota Kristof’s The Notebook.

When Slavoj Zizek writes of a book that, “awoke in [him] a cruel and cold passion,” attention is due. And when a novelist of the talents of Eimear McBride says to read it, I grab the nearest Kindle and get moving. Agota Kristof’s The Notebook is actually a novella, one of three linked works (along with The Proof and The Third Lie) but it functions perfectly well as a stand-alone book. Set nominally in Kristof’s native post-war Hungary, and originally written in French, The Notebook tells the story of twin boys who are left at their grandmother’s house in the country, very much against the will of all parties. The work is written in a minimalist style, stripped of adjectives and emotion, which is something of a mercy, because horrible things happen here, and thanks to Kristof’s remarkable narrative voice, we are able to approach them. Eimear McBride selected in the first installment of The Believer’s new monthly series, “You Should Really Be Reading This…”

Eimear McBride was born in Liverpool to Irish parents and tore onto the literary scene in 2013, with her acclaimed novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Written in six months, it took nine years for the novel to find a publisher, and was finally released by Galley Beggar, a small press in Norwich, England. The novel won her the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Literature Award and the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, sent her on a world tour, and made her a household name among those who love literary fiction. Her novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness that recalls the final chapter of UlyssesBeckett’s monologuesor Arthur Kopit’s Wings

Read along with us for next month, when we will speak with Kate Zambreno about A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning by Catherine Mavrikakis.

—Noah Charney 

I. MORE THAN HUMAN

NOAH CHARNEY: Why did you choose The Notebook?

EIMEAR MCBRIDE: It’s a book that I was only introduced to, myself, at the beginning of the year. I was amazed that I had never heard of it before. I found it profoundly disturbing, incredibly well-written, and very brave.  And the fact that it was written by a woman—it has a startling brutality and ferocity about the style that I find very inspiring. 

NC: The voice is very simple, fairy-tale-like, masking the brutality. What do you feel that narrative choice allows, that another style of writing might not permit?  From an author’s perspective, does it let you get away with something more stark and brutal than something that might, for instance, be hyper-realist?

EM: I think it’s a sophisticated technique, and there are not a lot of writers who can do that well. The paired-down style is in fashion, but there aren’t many writers who can make it their own, and make it individual. Kristof really does that. That she strips everything she does of emotion, entirely, and forces these really horrific scenes to be played out in a simple, straightforward, unemotional text makes it doubly powerful. 

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"In order to be free enough, you have to love deep enough."

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An Interview with Cornel West

Deep love is the chief motivator for demanding justice, according to Cornel West, a trailblazing philosopher, theologian and uncompromising activist who wields a fist for justice powered by an empathetic heart heavy with radical love for all his neighbors. Tim Keller, a theologian, like West, and the closest person the broad Christian sphere has to a spotless guru, once stated that misplaced love is the force behind all violence and destructive actions. James Baldwin, author of Another Country and The Fire Next Time, believes it is a “battle,” a “war” in which we are torn “limb from limb” in its name. Classic literature insists love is worthy of our death. Looking at our summer of widely publicized police brutality and harassment through the lens of love as motivator, it is clear the love of power and authority that corroborates superiority—once safeguarded by the guarantee of white skin’s historical reign, now verified by blue uniform’s proven invincibility—led a California Highway Patrol officer to pound Marlene Pinnock’s head into a highway median strip fifteen times. That same love clutched Eric Garner’s neck until he relinquished his last breath to a gum-crusted, spit-soaked Staten Island street. In Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson fired six rounds into Michael Brown’s reportedly surrendered body and ended an 18-year life with miles of unfulfilled triumphs and mistakes in its future, love pulled the trigger.

Love does not limit its influence to zealous law enforcement; it abounds throughout life’s public and private, astronomical and misdemeanor offenses. Hatred didn’t lead jihadists to hijack and steer commercial planes into New York’s two tallest buildings or ISIL operatives to behead kidnapped westerners; unconditional love for culture, religion and belief in its supreme truth did. Likewise, a love for religious supremacy leads fundamentalist Christians to terrorize the secular and coerce LGBT congregants into identity-destroying conversion therapy. Love of control and dominance drives an abuser’s fist into a victim’s face. This is not to disclaim hatred as an operative force guiding cruel offense. On the contrary, it is love’s ever-present calling card, a symptom of its existence. Hatred, the heart’s allergic reaction to that which threatens its reason to beat, is always poised to defend love’s honor.

On my walk back from police detainment with dozens of other protestors at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan on August 14, 2014, following the Day of Resistance protest that led thousands of us from Union Square to Midtown with a failed attempt to return via the same mode we came—the street, I thought of Cornel West. I’d witnessed raw love in the streets that night and throughout the week following Ferguson, Missouri protest livestreams. At the time, Twitter.com’s @theanonmessage, Ferguson’s most vigilant, omnipresent, and thoroughly unidentifiable avenger, was my rallying source. I hadn’t a clue Dr. West was behind Stop Mass Incarceration’s leading presence at the march and defiant stance against the injustices inflicted on Brown, Garner, and Pinnock. At protests, on network television, in popular film, songs, and lecture halls at Yale, Princeton, Harvard and lastly Union Theological Seminary, Cornel has offered us decades of insight on race as defined, categorized and subjugated by the political sphere, and mobilized movements to further civil rights for the marginalized. Stop Mass Incarceration, one of his most recent endeavors, co-founded with Carl Dix, was birthed as a direct response to New York’s Stop and Frisk. SMI is upheld by a band of activists determined to educate groups targeted by police brutality, racial profiling, and mass criminalization while bringing officers whom engage in misconduct to task. October 2014 will bring their nationwide Month of Resistance, with demonstrations scheduled to launch simultaneously in cities across the country. I visited him at Union Theological Seminary to discuss police brutality and efforts to combat it, limitations on the black-American male image, passing his torch, and our hot summer of love.

Riayn Fergins

I. WE NEED TO HAVE FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS WHO HAVE ENOUGH SPIRITUAL MATURITY TO EMPATHIZE WITH PEOPLE

THE BELIEVER: What is Stop Mass Incarceration’s October Month of Resistance?

CORNEL WEST: Different events around the country making the connection that mass incarceration and miseducation equals genocide. By genocide, we mean the psychic, social, and in some ways the physical annihilation of significant groups of people—especially black, poor males and females, disproportionately poor black males. It’s one project and one voice among many others. We’ve got the revolutionary activist Carl Dix, the Organization for Black Struggle; they’ve been at it twenty-five years. All of these are coalescing to connect mass incarceration, arbitrary police power, the decrepit school system, indecent housing, not enough jobs with the living wage, and what was happening in Gaza. Because the young people in Ferguson got contacted by young people in Gaza telling them how to deal with the teargas. That was a beautiful connection.

BLVR: Can you think of anyone who’s coming close to taking some of your flame?

CW: There’s a young brother by the name of Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defendants. He is part of the rich legacy of Martin King—which is my own legacy—of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I met him in 2006 at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University and was deeply impressed with him. He surfaced when they took over the governor’s office right after Stand Your Ground with Trayvon Martin. They took over that office thirty-one days, pushed through and got some major concessions. He emerged as a very important person of integrity.

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