Moroccan author Fouad Laroui: Funny and Clever in English at Last
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Fouad Laroui has a gift for simultaneously expanding his readers’ minds, spinning a yarn, and making us roll our eyes and laugh. Fellow Moroccan writer Laila Lalami has been calling for translations of his work into English for at least a decade. Finally, a collection of his short stories, The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers, has been translated by Emma Ramadan and published by Deep Vellum.
Laroui, who is also an economist, writes scientific work in English and has published two poetry collections in Dutch. He writes poetry in Dutch, he says, to keep it private. “Short stories are different: you are not expected to lay bare your soul, you just tell a story. For me, it’s like telling it to a couple of good friends – or good listeners, it is usually the same thing.”
Fouad Laroui and his translator Emma Ramadan both sat down, like a few good listeners, to talk with Marcia Lynx Qualey for Bookwitty about The Strange Affair of Dassoukine’s Trousers, the titular of which won France’s Prix Goncourt in 2013.
Emma, what element of this collection particularly grabbed you?
Emma Ramadan: What I loved about these stories was how funny they were, how clever they were, while still shedding a new and valuable light on Morocco, on language, on our globalized world. It's so rare that truly funny books are published in translation—almost as if there's this idea that translated literature has to be incredibly serious, "important," heavy. These stories show a book doesn't have to be a chore to read to expand our minds, to teach us something new about a particular place or way of life.
Fouad, do you ever think of expanding a reader’s mind as you work?
Fouad Laroui: I do, from time to time. As a reader, I want to learn something, almost in every page of the book I am reading – that’s why I love biographies (I am currently reading Abraham Pais’ book on Einstein). As a writer, I want to reciprocate. My publisher hates it. “Fouad, it’s not a lecture, it’s a novel!” In my new novel (Ce vain combat que tu mènes au monde) which Julliard publishes next month (August 2016), there is a whole chapter on the History of science – my publisher has succeeded in reducing that chapter from 100 pages to 20… On the other hand, you don’t have to give a lecture when you write. The reader can learn a lot “about a particular place or way of life,” as Emma says, in a novel which does not look like a college course. That is why I love reading Jane Austen.
Many of your stories have a strong oral element, stories that foreground storytellers. It would be quite a feat to shoehorn them into classical literary Arabic, but was there ever a time when you thought of writing in Darija?
FL: I have thought of writing in darija, as an act of heroic folly. Someone has to start. But how do you do it? There is no established tradition you can refer to. What alphabet would you use? If you use the Latin alphabet, you could be accused of being a traitor who wants to undermine the Arabic language and, as a consequence, Islam (think of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk). If you use the Arabic alphabet, there are some redoubtable technical problems… It will take 2, 3 or 4 generations of daredevil writers before darija is established. I can’t wait that long. I shall continue to write in French.
You’ve said that a Dutch translation of your work seemed "cruder, less polished" than the original. How do you see yourself in the English-language mirror? Do you look different?
FL: No. I like what I see in the mirror. The English translation is much closer to the original tone and nuances. I suspect that this has to do with the fact that English has been used by all kinds of people, of cultures, of temperaments. Dutch seems cruder because the Dutch tend to be straightforward: they ‘tell it as it is’. I remember an occurrence when I had to use the word… shall we say 'derrière', in describing a young lady. I used an old and cute little French word, 'popotin', to do so. The Dutch translator used ‘kont’, which is the Dutch equivalent of ‘ass’… The nuance was gone. I was mortified when I read the translation.
Emma, did any aspect of the humor resist translation?
ER: Fouad is really, really good with plays on words, and this book is full of them. Translating that sort of thing is always quite difficult, but I managed to find solutions I liked for all of them but one. One thing he does in the story Bennani's Bodyguard is he misspells the French word for bodyguard (garde du corps) throughout the story (once as gardkor, once as gardicor, etc), to reflect and poke fun at the accent of Moroccans speaking French. And once in the same story the characters call a BMW a BM, which Fouad explained to me was to poke fun at how these young Moroccan kids were so unfamiliar with expensive cars that they couldn't even get the name of a BMW right. Things like that I ended up dropping in English for the most part, this play with accents and dialects that works so well in French but didn't seem to in English.
But overall I think the humorous story arcs work in English. The idea of swimming in sand or on grass is just as ridiculous in English as in French, and in Born Nowhere too, poking fun at Morocco's bureaucratic systems or at this uncle who goes to these extreme lengths to ensure his nephew can vote for him in an election twenty-one years later—the situations are absurd but also believable, and therein lies the humor, which I think translates.
I see that "Dislocation" has been read as an anti-feminist story, because of its ending. But I'm most interested in why you chose that incantatory, repetitive manner, why that was the path to get to the wife-takes-off-slippers relief of the final moment.
FL: When I was a student, I was fascinated by a question posed by Freud: how come badly injured soldiers keep on re-living their horrible trauma, the moment that the bullet hit them? Would it not be more natural, from a Darwinian point of view, that we evolved with a mechanism with which we could forget traumatic memories? When I started writing Dislocation, I put myself in a kind of trance in which I started by asking myself a “traumatic” question: how would it feel to be an absolute foreigner, with nothing familiar in the world around me? And then, remembering Freud, I kept on asking and asking the same question, with some increment, a new idea, a new memory, every time. I wrote the whole story in one go, till the last word. I then “woke up” and realized that I had been writing for hours… The slippers-off relief had brought me down to Earth, to life, to the familiar and reassuring world.
Emma, how did you see the ending of "Dislocation," where the wife takes off the husband’s slippers?
ER: I was surprised when someone at the event Fouad and I did at CUNY [City University of New York] in March brought this up as a point of contention. I read the ending as a man who feels completely out of place in the country he lives in coming back home, to the only place on earth where he feels like himself, because it is filled with love and acceptance and above all, habit. That moment when his wife removes his slippers, he's reminded of why all of his dislocation is worth it - he has chosen this life for himself because of his love for his wife, the love they share makes his discomfort as a Moroccan living in Utrecht worth it, and in that moment when she takes his slippers off, all of his panic disappears. Maybe some readers are tempted to interpret it that way because the character is a Moroccan man and we have that preconceived notion of Arab/Islamic culture.
Fouad, you use a wide range of humor, from dark to buffoonish, and it seeps out everywhere. Well, why?
FL: My uncle, the famous historian Abdallah Laroui, once told my French publisher: “My nephew’s style is ironic and humorous. I have no idea where it comes from: we Larouis are renowned for our lack of humor.” If my uncle the genius cannot answer the question, how could I?