Monday, 27 May 2024

Édouard Louis

The French author who reinvented himself from scratch

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The most exciting French author in recent times is just 24 years old; ten years ago he had barely read a book. Born in a factory town in the poor region of Picardy, a young Édouard Louis found he could never live up to the machismo expected of him, but could also never quite shrug it off once he’d run away to join the bourgeoisie. Life is hard, but miracles do exist. His debut book, a novel named ‘The End of Eddy’ that is also an autobiography, incredibly sold 300,000 copies in France and has since been translated into a plethora of other languages. Not everyone is pleased, though, with Édouard ’s candidness. He doesn’t often go back to his birthplace.

From Fantastic Man n° 25 — 2017
Text by NADJA SPIEGELMAN
Photography by LAURENCE ELLIS

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At 24 years old, Édouard Louis is likely the youngest person in the café Le Select. With its dark-green and gold walls and wicker chairs, Le Select is one of Paris’ legendary cafés. And, far from most tourists’ itineraries, it is one of the few that continues to serve as a centre of gravity for Parisian intellectuals. Édouard has the coveted status of being a regular here. As he enters, the waiters in stiff white shirts and black aprons pause, trays aloft, to greet him. The middle-aged mid-day diners, in professorial tan overcoats and glasses, look up from their meals to say hello. Hemingway, Beckett, Picasso, Baldwin and Godard all passed through these doors, but it is Michel Foucault, the left-wing gay French philosopher and theorist, that Édouard references as he sits down.

“For me, it’s as if this café were the site of my own history,” Édouard tells me, in French. “When I first came to Paris, when I first saw places like this one, where Foucault and Hervé Guibert fought for the right to be homosexual, for the right to transform and reinvent themselves freely, I had the strange impression I was encountering my own history for the first time – as if my whole childhood, up until I was 15 or 16 years old, my family had hidden from me my true origins. And that mythic Paris, it’s always a little bit false, it’s always a bit of a myth, but it was a myth that saved my life.”

The Édouard who sits in front of me is poised, eloquent and confident. He has a boyish smile and exudes warmth, occasionally reaching across the table to grip my arm as he speaks. His white collar is folded carefully over his blue sweater and the comforting smell of freshly laundered clothes wafts towards me each time he shifts in his seat. He is a far cry from the miserable, lost younger self who narrates his autobiographical novel, ‘The End of Eddy’. Between the years during which that book is set and now, a laborious self-transformation has taken place. Édouard has not merely grown up. As the title of the novel implies, in order to become himself, he first had to kill Eddy Bellegueule.

Édouard Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule, underwent the arduous French procedure of changing his name. He was raised in a small town in Picardy, one of France’s poorest regions. ‘The End of Eddy’ was published in France in 2014, when he was only 21 years old. It was originally scheduled for a print-run of 1,500, but has since sold over 300,000 copies in France alone and has been translated into over 20 languages. It describes his childhood as a slight, effeminate boy growing up in a world defined by violence, homophobia, alcoholism and a masculine ideal of the “tough guy” he could never, despite his best efforts, become. In spare and unsparing prose, Édouard writes of bullying and brutality with an immediacy and an anger that feels unique to youth – unmitigated by the passage of time.

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Titles of Édouard’s other writings include ‘Manifesto for an intellectual and political counteroffensive’ and ‘Pierre Bourdieu: Insubordination in inheritance’.

Though the pain is raw, the construction of the novel is rigorously intellectual. Édouard claims as an influence (and mentor) the French writer and public intellectual Didier Eribon, the author of several seminal French texts on gay identity, as well as, much later in his life, a semi-autobiographical book about his working-class upbringing. Édouard is also inspired by the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote from the ’60s onwards about class and the dynamics of power in society. Édouard’s book, though a novel, pulls on the structure of these academic texts: for example, it is organised into brief sections with titles such as “A man’s role,” and “The lives of girls, mothers and grandmothers.” The book’s most artful architecture is a narration in duelling languages: the language of the narrator, in proper literary French, sliced through with italicised fragments of dialogue in the rough, broken language of his hometown. Unfortunately, this last suffers in translation – in part because written and spoken English hold fewer distinctions, and in part because certain translations (“Tough guy” for dur, “Fancy ways” for airs, “Fat cats” for bourge) ring more of Manhattan dockworkers in the 1950s than of today’s working class.

The narrative is graphic, gripping and startling in its lack of pudeur, the French value of reserve which mandates, in particular, that family conflicts should remain private. Eddy Bellegueule describes his hulking father’s alcoholism and indigence, his brother’s violence towards women, his mother’s habit of peeing with the bathroom door open, her yellowed skin and cigarette-rasped voice, the sounds and comments his parents made as they had sex on the other side of paper-thin walls, and, most damningly, their inability to accept their gay son. In one of the book’s rare moments of ecstasy, ten-year-old Eddy is sodomised by his own cousin. His mother walks in on them and then tells Eddy’s father, who beats him, silently and viciously.

When I ask Édouard what he is nostalgic for about his childhood, he tells me: “Not much. My childhood is a childhood I hated. I was an effeminate child in a world where the values of masculinity dictated all social interactions – because when you deprive the poor of money, of diplomas, of culture, it’s no surprise that they turn to an elegy of the body. So as an effeminate boy, I was told right away that I was different. But I didn’t feel different. That’s very important to me. I wanted to break from the classic way of telling the outsider story that we see in James Baldwin or even Marguerite Duras – that of the miracle child who escapes his surroundings by virtue of being born different. Eddy wanted to stay in the world of his childhood but he failed. It was a terrible failure – though one that later saved his life.”

The book is a startling portrait of a community in poverty, both cultural and financial. It is often difficult to remember that Édouard is describing a contemporary moment – ‘The End of Eddy’ is mostly set in the early 2000s. There is no internet in their home. There are no books or newspapers. His father’s pornography is kept on VHS tapes in the cabinet. Televisions blare from morning to night, always tuned to the same two channels. As Eddy grows older, his world expands in concentric circles that only add to a mounting claustrophobia. There is their tiny home, where the mother’s cigarette smoke chokes asthmatic young Eddy and the five children sleep in bunk beds in tiny rooms, combatting drafts and rainwater from the holes in the wall. There is the town, where Eddy is sent to beg the shopkeeper for food given on credit and the youth gather by the bus stop to get plastered each night. There is the middle school, where Eddy goes to meet his tormentors, two slightly older bullies, who beat him daily in a quiet hallway. And on the outskirts there is only the factory, where almost all the local men work, and the prison.

‘The End of Eddy’ was not only a commercial success, it was heralded as a literary triumph. Édouard, braces still on his teeth, became a media darling. He framed his work as a defence of the working class and an attack on literature, which had for too long either romanticised the poor or rendered them invisible. Some were shocked by Édouard’s unblinking descriptions of close-minded cruelty and violence. They argued that he only reinforced the most negative stereotypes we hold of the poor. When I mention this criticism, Édouard tells me that it is a “meritocratic capitalist construction” to insist that in order to be saved, the poor must deserve to be saved. “I could have titled the book ‘The Sociological Excuses’,” he has often said, on the news.

One of Pierre Bourdieu’s most well-known theories, and one which has had a profound influence on Édouard’s work, is that of the “law of the conservation of violence,” which, put simply, states that all violence is the same violence, and that violence trickles downwards. When the CEO humiliates his manager, the manager abuses his factory employee, the factory employee beats his wife, the wife rejects her gay son. So when Édouard shows us the brutality of his family, he hopes we will read it as a condemnation of society, rather than as a condemnation of his family themselves.

When I speak to Édouard’s good friend Justin Torres, himself the author of a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up gay in a working-class neighborhood in America, he has just finished reading the ‘The End of Eddy’. He met Édouard at a literary festival in Paris and they immediately recognised each other as brothers. “Or maybe we said ‘sisters’,” Justin says, with a laugh.

“It’s tricky,” Justin says. “If you’re upper middle class and you don’t know anything about the working class you could read this book and it would just reinforce everything you already thought: that their world is without grace and beauty and that this world itself is undeserving of compassion. But if you follow that argument to the end, then what? Then you only get rosy portrayals that ignore the fact that the bitterness that is sewn only begets bitterness. And that the bitter take out their bitterness on the most vulnerable. Writing about race and sexuality, you can’t avoid certain representations. But how you read it depends on your vantage point.”

‘The End of Eddy’ was published as a novel, but Édouard insisted on the truth of his story. Journalists descended on his hometown. His mother told them she was shocked by how unflatteringly she’d been portrayed in the book. “I love my children deeply, and Eddy, he’s my son, he’s my pride, he was even my favourite,” she told a regional newspaper, hand on her heart. “I don’t understand.” Édouard tells me journalists filmed his mother in her best dress, in a house that was not the one he had grown up in. To prove it, he posted pictures of his childhood home, with its gaping holes and crumbling walls, on his personal blog. “I was telling the truth in my book and the journalists were inventing fictions,” he says. “People don’t want it to be true. It’s a way of returning these lives to the unsayable, the invisible, to avoid speaking of this suffering, of this misery, of this exclusion. And that’s grave. Terribly grave.”

“I wanted to publish it as a novel to focus on the literary construction of the book, not the fiction,” he tells me.

I ask him what he means by construction.

“Well, for example, Pierre Bourdieu makes tables of the social world – you know, statistical tables – and they allow you to see the truth better than if you were simply sitting watching two people talk in a café. It’s a graphic, with lines and colours. It’s a construction.”

But in speaking of literary construction, Édouard opens the door to questions about what was included, and how, and why.

At some point during our conversation, I catch the glint of the thin gold band Édouard wears on the pinky of his left hand. He is an expressive speaker, and his hands often swoop through the air. When they settle, he fiddles with a sugar packet, or gently rubs the tip of his thumb along the curved edge of a spoon.

“Can I ask you about the story behind your ring?” I say.

“Oh…euh,” he says, pausing for longer than usual, though perhaps because I’ve interrupted him in the middle of a thought. “Yes. It was the ring of one of my grandmothers. Who was, as it happens, the only person to whom I was close when I was young. Well, close. I liked her well enough. She was less hard than the others. She protected me a lot.”

“The one you talk about in your book?” I ask him.

“No, the other one. She died when I was very very very young. I barely knew her. But…she’d always said her wedding ring would belong to me. So I got it when I was less than ten years old, and I never took it off. But it’s more…it doesn’t mean much to me, I was too young. I wasn’t able to have a real relationship with her.”

“How old were you when she died?” I ask.

“Eight or nine, maybe, about,” he says.

“And you don’t mention her in the book?” I ask.

“No, because I was too young, as I said, and the book begins, really, around the time I’m nine or ten, just after her death,” he replies. Though of course, that the book begins just after the death of the one family member with whom he was close, is a choice made in its construction.

Much later in our conversation, when we are discussing the very few physical possessions he holds dear – a Jeff Koons dog purchased for him by his closest friends, a signed copy of Toni Morrison’s novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ – Édouard returns to the topic. “Other than that,” he says, “this ring, I only wear it out of habit. If I lost it, I wouldn’t be devastated.” It is difficult to imagine that one would not be upset to lose a ring they have worn since they were nine years old. It leaves me wondering if perhaps Édouard’s reluctance to express any love for the people who populated his childhood is an indication of how categorical, how black and white, his break from his past needed to be in order for him to survive.

‘The End of Eddy’ opens with the following lines: “From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.” On the second page, Eddy describes witnessing his father’s drunken brawls, then tells us how his father slipped new born kittens into plastic grocery bags, slamming them against a concrete block until the mewling ceased, and how his father would slit the throats of pigs in their backyard and drink straight from their necks. An urbanite might see a continuity between these acts of brutality, but for many who grow up in the country, killing animals is simply a normal part of their life. I ask Édouard if he felt he had a responsibility to provide a bourgeois reader with the necessary context to see violence against animals as different from the other violence.

“No, justement, for me that kind of scene was very important to include,” he says. “I am sensitive to the suffering of animals. I had read Derrida on the animal condition. There’s a cosmology of violence, from the violence against animals, to the violence against minorities – do you see? And I say in the book, that for my family, the things that I call violent today did not seem violent. They were things that seemed natural, the way of the world. And it’s only because I left that I could show them as violent.”

Reading ‘The End of Eddy’ can at times be uncomfortable, and this is partly down to a sense that anything that doesn’t fit the system has been excluded, that the book is written to condemn and convince more than it is to portray. I ask Édouard about the lack of tenderness he often shows for his parents.

“People want you to love your mommy and daddy, but for me that’s the Middle Ages,” he says. “Mom and dad. That’s the movement against gay marriage. I see more of myself in Toni Morrison than in my mother. And no one would reproach me for writing a book criticising Toni Morrison – which would be absurd, because there’s nothing negative to say about her – but people are capable of saying, ‘Why are you mean with your mother?’ If people want to love their families, that’s fine for them, but if I don’t love my family, that’s my own business. The importance is that it doesn’t enter into the way we talk about reality. I think that maybe even if I don’t love my mother very much, I show all the facets of her suffering, and her moments of empathy and generosity and violence. I show everything. But yes, there’s a lot of violence. And people don’t want to see that.”

And though it’s uncomfortable, perhaps this is also what’s most politically powerful about Édouard’s book: his refusal to comply with society’s expectations about filial love. It is an intrinsically queer act – homosexuals are often silenced by their obligations to protect their families, at the hands of whom they often suffer most – and a subversive one.

In the book’s final pages, young Eddy is accepted into the theatre programme of a secondary school in Amiens, Picardy’s capital, and is finally able to flee the suffocating confines of his unloving home. As a parting gift, Eddy’s mother saves up to buy him an Airness jacket, a coveted item among the “tough guys.” But as Eddy wears the jacket for the first time on his new school’s campus, he realises that it is all wrong. The other students, in men’s coats or wool jackets, gently mock his attire. Filled with shame, he tosses the jacket into a public rubbish bin. And with that gesture, he kills Eddy Bellegueule, and his transformation begins.

In some ways, ‘The End of Eddy’ ends right where the reader hopes it will begin. After following his agonising middle-school years, we hunger to watch sensitive, tortured young Eddy find joy in a larger, more accepting world. But, Édouard tells me, he chose to end the book there because he was uninterested in writing about the bourgeoisie. He is similarly reluctant to discuss his current life as an international literary success. He threatened to pull the plug on a film adaptation of ‘The End of Eddy’ when the director presented him with a script that extended far beyond the end of the book, focusing instead on heavily romanticised scenes of Édouard ’s life as a writer, reinventing the world with his famous intellectual friends. Édouard does not want his life told as a ‘Billy Elliot’ story. And he would prefer it if nobody focused on the trappings of his current life and success – he feels that by doing so, journalists spill yet more ink on the bourgeois class he is now a part of rather than giving much-needed attention to the hardships of the poor.

Édouard Louis is almost irresistibly charismatic. It’s not the crafted charm of a politician but a genuine charm, composed of generosity, passion, honesty and a vulnerability held so openly that it becomes strength. It takes active imagination to remember that he is only 24 years old. He speaks with a combination of intelligence and self-possession that is rare at any age. As we speak, he references, with humble ardour, everyone from Émile Zola to Ta-Nehisi Coates. He sits with his legs crossed, or rather, crossed and constantly re-crossed (he is in constant motion) and an elbow leaning, for a moment, on a small dividing wall beside him. When I ask him how, if he had read no books until he was 17 years old, he became the person he is today, the story he tells me is fascinating.

After being accepted into the secondary school in Amiens, Édouard began to rid himself of the markings of his social class. Where once his difference had been marked by his femininity, it was now his rough working-class origins, and the masculinity he’d so desperately tried to emulate, that set him apart. He scrubbed his voice of his clipped, loud Picardy accent. His name, Eddy Bellegeule, haunted him. France is a country where much of a person’s identity, their ethnicity as well as their class, is immediately read through their name. His classmates thought it “geniale!” – it was as if he were named Puck Dashing in a world of Guillaumes and Maries – but he changed it as soon as he could. He lied to his friends, told them his parents were journalists and university professors. When he heard other students discussing Wagner, he went home, stayed up all night reading everything there was to know about the German composer on the internet, and came in the next day an expert. But still, his horizons were limited. In the mornings he worked at a bakery. In the evenings he worked in a local theatre. In his spare time, he volunteered with the Communist Party. His dream was to become a professor.

One day, his best friend’s mother thrust a book into his hands: ‘Returning to Reims’, by the internationally-renowned historian Didier Eribon.

“Read this,” the friend’s mother said (she was one of the very few people who knew about Édouard’s working-class background). “It’s exactly your story, except he’s a fag.” It was a phrase that set Édouard free. It gave him permission to read the book for every reason “except” for Didier’s sexuality. He read eagerly. It joined ‘Harry Potter’ in the handful of books he had then read. “This is my life!” Édouard recalls feeling, “It’s my life.” He attended a speech Didier gave, and felt within himself the beginnings of a violent change. Everything had yet to be done, everything had yet to begin. He needed to read. He emailed Didier to ask him for recommendations. Didier responded with a list:

— ‘Specters of Marx’ by Jacques Derrida
— ‘Distinction’ by Pierre Bourdieu
— ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
— ‘Stigma’ by Erving Goffman

Édouard read ten, twelve hours a day. He stopped sleeping. At first, he understood nothing. But slowly the words resolved into meaning. Didier sent more recommendations: Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc. Édouard learnt that Sartre had read a book a day, and he developed an obsession to do the same. It is a habit he still maintains – though less severely – now reading four or five books a week. He tells me he recently unplugged the refrigerator in his small Paris flat so that he could fill it with books.

To describe himself now, Édouard uses the term transfuge de classe. The word transfuge, historically, relates to war, to those who’ve renounced allegiance to the country they’ve fled and pledged allegiance to a new country. The corresponding English term is “class defector” but Édouard sticks to the French words even when speaking English.

As he began to read, Édouard became, as he says, “drunk on metamorphosis.” He spent hours practising his laugh in front of a mirror, trying to modulate it to a bourgeois tinkle. One of his few close friends in secondary school who knew of his working-class roots helped him practise his manners by placing pieces of bread on a plate and teaching him the proper ways to hold a knife and fork. When Édouard went home to his family in Picardy, he ostentatiously read the broadsheet ‘Le Monde’ at the table, demonstrating the distance he had come. He threw away all his clothes and, with the money he’d earned at the bakery, bought himself a new wardrobe: huge silk ties and stiff button-down shirts. “I fooled no one,” Édouard tells me. “Most 17-year-old Parisians were wearing fashionable polos. When I see photos of myself today, I’m horrified. But I wasn’t thinking. I was fleeing.”

Somewhere during his brief, intense transformation, Édouard realised that all the great writers he admired, including Didier himself, had attended one of France’s most elite universities, the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He applied and was accepted.

Upon moving to Paris, he was warmly accepted by Didier Eribon and his circle of intellectuals. But he remained uncomfortable at school, afraid his birth name would somehow be discovered, his origins unearthed.

“I was ashamed,” he tells me. “I was so ashamed. And now I am ashamed of having been ashamed. But we don’t choose shame. It is a social construction, stronger than we are. It is the invisible foundation of our lives.”

One of the first times Didier invited him over for dinner, shortly after Édouard had moved there, Didier suggested that Édouard put on some music. Nervous, eager to prove himself, Édouard chose Brahms’ ‘Ein deutsches Requiem’. Didier, who understood, gently suggested that he play something lighter. He was also the one who managed to delicately tell him not to wear silk scarves. And it was in part for him, to impress him, that Édouard began, laboriously, to write the first drafts of his book.

FANTASTIC MAN - On the right and on page 164, he’s in a black jumper by MARGARET HOWELL and navy trousers by NORSE PROJECTS.

“I learnt my life like a theatre role,” Édouard tells me. “I played the role until it became me, and the more I play it, the more it will become me.”

Édouard’s international success has catapulted him into the highest echelons of literary society. He counts many artists – from conceptual artist Sophie Calle to celebrated author Annie Ernaux – among his friends. Though whilst he is quick in his admiration and praise of other artists, he says he is not interested in the prestige of belonging to the literary world. It’s a social urgency that motivates him. He wants to create a coalition of thinkers with whom to reinvent the structures of society. At some point during our conversation, he begins to list the many colloquiums and conferences he is organising, the tracts and books of essays he is publishing, and I cannot write fast enough to keep up.

“To become a celebrity was the dream of my childhood,” he tells me. “I grew up during the moment of the explosion of reality TV. But when it actually happened, it felt so much less real. Now, I have the same life: I write, I see my friends. At first I had a desire to belong to the literary bourgeoisie, but very early on I was disgusted by it. For them, politics didn’t mean much. Politics weren’t going to stop them from eating, from getting health care, from travelling. Whereas for me, when I was young, politics were everything. A new law meant we could go to the dentist for the first time. When I arrived and I saw this Parisian mentality, I felt an incompatibility. I could never sleep with a man from the Right. I couldn’t. It’s because of those people that we had no dental care when I was little. Politics is not about opinions and discussions. It’s about dispossession and suffering.”

When I ask him what he seeks in a friend, his first answer is: “That they be of the Left. Not just in terms of politics, but like the most beautiful definition that can exist of an individual: that they be generous, open and always trying to understand the world through the point of view of minorities. I need friends who are angry, friends who can’t stand the world as it is.”

Part of what makes Édouard fascinating is the dazzling glint of steel that underlies his charm. “He’s so fluid in this intellectual world, among the elite. He’s very educated – he can hold his own with rich people. And yet he never loses himself in any of it or loses sight of his principles,” said Justin Torres. He is “passionate, brave, determined, kind and gentle in presence, but fierce and strong in his heart and work,” the poet Ocean Vuong, also a friend of Édouard’s, told me.

Édouard himself is circumspect about his current life. He admits that he has a boyfriend, but adds quickly, blushing: “But I’m terrible at talking about love. I think that love is made to be lived and violence is made to be written about.”

The title of Édouard’s second book is ‘History of Violence’ (published in France in 2016 with English-language translations forthcoming in the US and the UK). It tells of a rape he suffered in his early twenties at the hands of a young man of Algerian origin, whom he met walking home through Paris one evening. In the book, Édouard places little blame upon his rapist. Instead, he seeks to excuse him through an understanding of the forces of racism that have shaped the man’s life and family history. Édouard’s anger, a potent driving force in his writing, is here directed primarily at the institutions, from the French justice system to the hospitals, which failed to protect both him and his aggressor. He tells us he had been reluctant to press charges against his rapist, unwilling to prosecute a man he saw as already overly persecuted for his race, though in the end he does so, at the urging of two friends.

The second book is a significant evolution from the first. Where the sentences in ‘The End of Eddy’ were spare and utilitarian, in ‘History of Violence’ they twist and turn, filled with embedded clauses that both reinforce and contradict each sentence from the inside. Édouard openly examines his own prejudices and faults, and his writing lays bare the full tumult of his own emotions. But whilst it was largely celebrated, the second book ignited its own storm of controversy upon publication, arguably bigger than the first. Whilst the events in ‘History of Violence’ are true, Édouard uses a fictional frame to present them: the narrator listens to his sister from behind a closed door as she narrates the story of his rape to her husband. He occasionally interrupts her monologue with asides to the reader that contradict her interpretations. This allows Édouard to include the same local northern dialect and broken language that he uses in the first book. But here, perhaps because the sister’s voice is clearly imagined rather than reported, French readers took far greater issue with the dialect’s use. Édouard tells me that his third novel, which he is working on now, will perhaps be his first truly fictional work. It will deal with the question of racism in France.

Édouard has been spending a lot of time in New York City lately. He is galvanised by America – both by its liberal discourse and its profound societal dysfunction. He is inspired by the country’s new generation of black American writers and the Black Lives Matter movement. He is angered by the word “victimisation.”

“It’s as if we spoke too much about victims when in fact it’s the opposite. It’s so difficult to call oneself a victim. People are against complaining. I think it’s magnificent to complain. There is nothing more beautiful than a complaint as a scream.”

In France, the Left places an emphasis on fighting all of society’s battles as one. There is little in the way of “political correctness” or “identity politics.” With American intellectuals, Édouard has finally found echoes of his own approach. But there’s a certain irony in Édouard ’s embrace of identity politics right at the moment when the American Left has begun to call it into question, fearing that it led to the exclusion that made the white working class vote for Trump. For Édouard, the racism he witnesses in the United States weighs on him physically. He tells me that American politics, so much less liberal than in France, suffocate and choke him. But he looks forward to returning to New York City. It is a place where he can finally be free of his past. There he is, finally, simply “French.”

When I ask him where “home” is for him today, he replies simply “with my friends.” Visits to his childhood home remain fraught.

“There have been many times I have tried to see my family again,” Édouard tells me. “It was very hard, almost impossible. There’s an objective distance between my family and me, a distance that transcends us as individuals. As soon as I arrive, my mother says, ‘Why are you dressed like that? You dress like a minister. Why do you speak like you think you’re better than us?’ Every movement I make becomes an act of aggression. Because when she sees me, she sees the bourgeoisie, she sees the dominants. And I, too, feel aggressed. She says, ‘Arabs today, they are all so dangerous, and women today, they are all sluts.’ She talks of Marine Le Pen and I say, ‘But Marine Le Pen argues for the destruction of people like me. You cannot defend her in front of me; I am your son.’ I try to speak to my mother, my mother tries to speak to me – but we never hear each other.”

“I wonder,” he says, a bit wistfully. “Is that difficulty because we’re never finished with what we were? Or perhaps, instead, it’s because we finish with it each day, but every morning we must start again.”

CONTRIBUTIONS

Styling by Julian Ganio. Photographic assistance by John Cronin. Styling assistance by Stuart Williamson and Louis Gabriel. Grooming by Alexander Soltermann using Aesop.