Telling the Abdellah Taïa Story

This month in Asymptote, there are two pieces in the voice of Moroccan-French author Abdellah Taïa: one a short memoir published in French in 2007, “Homosexuality Explained To My Mother,”  and the other a recent Q&A with the author.

It goes without saying that, in the contemporary literary world, an author’s (life) story is enmeshed with his literary appeal; all the more so when the author also writes charged memoir and “autobiographical” fiction.

In some cases, this is  unfortunate, particularly when the (Arab) stories are dust-jacketed to feed a certain (Western) appetite: a nationalist vision that supports an “us” as superior to a “them.” For instance, the life stories that can be summed up as: “I discovered [Western country] and tossed off my [headscarf, religion, poor fashion choices].”

Abdellah Taïa — certainly not the most well-known Moroccan author in France, although he has a growing audience in French, as well as in English translation — does feed a certain sort of nationalist hunger (yes! “we’re” better than “them” because we heart our gays!). What little I’ve read of his often puts me in two minds. His forceful letter to his mother has a smooth appeal, but also some strangely off notes; he cites a changing Moroccan youth, although simultaneously paints the country as a hopeless case. His Morocco feels, at some points, like a sterile Morocco that belongs to him alone.

And yet he also has some fierce shouting sentences, as with the love-hate-shouting at his mother (and we can envision his mother love-hate-shouting right back). In other fragments of his work that I’ve read, his relationship with his mother is interestingly crafted, explained, staged. It moves beyond itself and calls to all relationships between strong-willed mothers and their rebel-children.

But then, as he says in the interview with Asymptote:

Because of my novels I have become a sort of ambassador for Moroccan literature.

I don’t suppose it was his choice to become “a sort of ambassador” for Moroccan literature (and a sort of shrunk-down Morocco). And who would ask him to try to write less ferociously? But, somehow, I would like us jingoists to stop scratching ourselves.


NYTimes: A Boy to Be Sacrificed

WWB: The Algerian and the Moroccan

Excerpt: Chapter One of Taia’s Salvation Army.


  1. I can’t tell you how sad it made me to hear you to address Abdellah’s suffering, his betrayal by his family and his culture, only as it relates to how you presume Westerners (of which I am one) will interpret his story as a “see how much better we are than them” scenario. Your casual dismissal of what he, and so many others who share his experience, have endured, without support from you or the wider Arab media, does not serve you. The only “jingoist” scratches I see here are self-inflicted.

    1. Not at all, I appreciate many aspects of his work, as I noted above. And good if it’s only me. In this case, I’m perfectly delighted to be wrong.

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