Fathia Debech’s Katara Prize-winning ‘Melanin’: A Look at Racism and Identity

This year, Tunisian writer and activist Fathia Debech won a Katara prize in the category of published Arabic novels. Each prize in this category brings its author $60,000 US and a translation into English, organized by the prize:

By Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour

With her debut novel, Tunisian author and translator Fathia Debech won a prestigious Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel.

Debech, who lives in Lyon, France, won the prize for her novel Melanin (ميلانين). Since its publication, the novel has received broad critical praise for its enjoyable narrative, which strips bare to the hidden cultural politics of racism and the uncertain destiny that awaits those who venture across the Mediterranean to become part of an unwelcome community.

The novel takes its title from the chemical biological substance that produces the pigment in human skin, creating the multiple signifying shades that form a basis for one’s identity. The novel also raises the question of identity in the context of narrative exile, immigration, racism, and cross-cultural expressions. The events and characters that shape the narrative structure take place between a village in a remembered Tunis and in Paris, where the narrator experiences a collision of values and views.  

Melanin raises questions about the paradox of identity when reflected back at the Other, whether they be immigrant, Black, or outsider. 

In short, Melanin tells the story of black Tunisian journalist in exile, facing down the Paris cold, as well as her own anxiety and search of identity. In it are two stories: that of Anisah Azuz, who despite her eminent qualifications and sense of humanity, suffers from marginalization because of her Blackness, and who finds that nobody cares about her career as a successful journalist. The second story is that of Rugayia AlGaid, who also suffers as an immigrant. Both women are unfairly treated on the basis of their race and their sex.

The novel opens with the narrator’s description of daily events. Although the narrator’s voice dominates, many other voices embroider the text’s central theme, using poetry, idioms, folkloric anthropological tales, and literary quotations. This gifted writer has set out her own way of writing, different from the conventional Arabic style of narrative writing, by crafting a hypertext work that evolves around the way identity is understood and viewed through various lenses. Added to the writer’s imagination are real characters and places. 

The novel tells its stories in a long monologue and flashbacks that craft a mosaic of historical and imaginative tales. The main character faces the unspoken racism and repression that has been faced by the consecutive generations of North African immigrants, who couldn’t become a part of the society and state where they were born, and grew up in marginalized neighborhoods called le banlieues.

Yet the novel is not only about lamenting the sorrows of the marginalized person’s identity, but is also about other aspects of identity, such linguistic, religious, cultural, national, and ontological aspects, in addition to the dichotomy of white/black. The novel maps and distills the daily discourse on identity that is used against the “other” everywhere they may happen to exist. Critically, the narrative hasn’t set out events in a documentary fashion, but rather raises the questions of racism and otherness of that have been deliberately ignored.

Through an interesting narrative and creative language, the novel maintains an exuberant narrative flow. It describes identity as matter of core human right: “identity won’t be transformed, it is what we have inherited and maintained, it means our religion, language, and our land… Everyone who is rooted in a new identity is nothing but an uprooted being.” 

There is a layer of nostalgia, as the writer compares a past to the present enforced alien reality. However, like postcolonial literary discourse, Debech has attempted to restore a measure of resistance to the features of indigenous cultural identity.

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour is a critic, author, and translator.