People Like Her Didn’t Exist in French Novels. Until She Wrote One.

Fatima Daas’s debut book explores the writer’s conflicted identities as a lesbian, Muslim woman with an immigrant background. In France, it was an unlikely literary hit.

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By Julia Webster Ayuso

PARIS — Fatima Daas was used to not reading about people like her. Her debut novel was a chance to remedy this.

Based on her own life, that book, “The Last One,” follows a young, lesbian Muslim woman in a tough Paris suburb who struggles to reconcile her conflicting identities.

“I grew up with the idea, whether in films or in books, that I did not exist,” Daas, 26, said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t exist as a young lesbian, Muslim woman, with an immigrant background,” she added. “So the question I have asked myself a lot is, ‘How do we shape ourselves when we have absolutely no representation?’”

Representation and identity are fraught topics now in France, a country that prides itself on a universalist tradition that unites all citizens under a single French identity — regardless of their ethnicity or faith. Identity politics are often seen as a threat to social cohesion.

So Daas’s book was an unlikely hit when it came out here last year. Critics praised the novel’s powerful lyricism, and hailed the author for breaking taboos around gender, sexuality and religion. “The Last One” won best debut novel in the 2020 Les Inrockuptibles Literary Prize, organized by the French cultural magazine, and has since been translated into eight languages. It will be released in the United States by Other Press on Nov. 23.

“Fatima Daas” is a pseudonym, and it is also the name of the novel’s main character. The author said her book was autofiction, a form of fictionalized autobiography, but how much is true and how much is made up is left for the reader to guess.

Daas declined to give her real name, partly because she didn’t want to involve her family, she said. But she added that using a pseudonym was in line with her playful exploration of multiple identities: It was about “creating and embodying a character, of reinventing myself” she said.

Each chapter of the novel begins “My name is Fatima,” and is followed by an affirmation, like, “I am French,” “I am Algerian,” “I’m named after a symbolic figure in Islam.”

The narrative is punctuated with flashbacks to the main character’s childhood and adolescence. The youngest of three sisters in a Muslim family from Algeria, and the only one born in France, Fatima struggles to fit in at school and has romantic relationships with women, even though she considers homosexuality a sin. She battles feelings of shame, but refuses to give up any part of herself.

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    Daas said her novel was more than an affirmation of identity; it was “a way of saying that it’s possible, I can be this if I want to. And if I want to say that I am a lesbian and a Muslim, I have the right, the capacity, the freedom to do so,” she said.

    Salima Amari, a sociologist at the Centre for Political and Sociological Research in Paris and author of the book “Lesbians of Immigration,” said the novel was powerful because it exposed contradictions that many struggled with. “A woman who defines herself clearly as lesbian and a Muslim, who writes, and therefore who has a voice, exists,” Amari said. “This brings a very rare voice to the French landscape.”

    Daas said she began writing in high school, where she attended workshops by Tanguy Viel, a writer of mystery and detective novels. It took her a while to find other writers she liked, she added, but something clicked when she discovered Annie Ernaux and Marguerite Duras, two French authors whose work Daas quotes throughout “The Last One.”

    She wrote the novel in 18 months, as part of a master’s degree in creative writing at Paris 8 University. There, she met the novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes, who had come to talk about her career as part of the course. When Daas told Despentes about the book she was working on, Despentes spurred her on, Daas recalled. “She said a lot of people would see themselves in what I was talking about,” Daas added. “So it was very important that I keep writing.”

    Perhaps the most significant taboo Daas addresses in the novel is the issue of internalized homophobia. Throughout, its main character describes herself as “a sinner” and feels embarrassed and ashamed of herself.

    Two weeks after the book’s publication, in September, 2020, Daas appeared as a guest on the public radio station France Inter. When asked if, like her character, she believed that being a lesbian made her a sinner, Daas said yes. “I am searching for complexity,” she added. A wave of criticism followed on social media, in which L.G.B.T. people accused Daas of encouraging homophobia.

    In the interview, Daas said she wanted to explain her internal conflicts, but she was not interested in acting as the spokeswoman for any group. The question by the France Inter interviewer was “a way to move the conversation away from my work and instead talk about the subject of Islam,” she added: “There has been this obsession with Islam and homosexuality, because they are hot topics.”

    Faïza Guène, a writer who shot to fame in France at 19 with her first novel “Kiffe kiffe demain” (“More of the Same Tomorrow”), said in an interview that “a lot of people would have preferred it if Fatima Daas had written a book about giving up Islam because she is a lesbian.”

    “If you want to be French today, a fully French citizen, you have to give up one of the fragments of your identity,” she said. “But we are full of paradoxes.”

    While “The Last One” doesn’t offer solutions to the problem of conflicting identities, Daas said she hoped readers from different backgrounds would relate to the experience of struggling to find one’s place in society.

    “Growing up like that wasn’t easy,” she said. Though writing had helped her say things she never thought she would say, she added, publishing a hit novel had not eased her feelings of shame.

    “I don’t think literature can save people, but it can be liberating,” she said. “That’s what this book has given me.”

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