Just north of Paris, behind the tower blocks of Pantin, snakes the Serpentin council block, a bizarre monument to 60s architecture. Hundreds of council flats stretch for more than a mile in an undulating pale-blue concrete “ripple” inspired by Italian medieval towns. Some call it a design classic; others see it as a concrete prison. With its flaking paint, limited amount of graffiti and small share of gangs, the Courtillières estate is not as bad as other dire wastelands of Paris’s suburbs. At least it has public transport and workers’ allotments, and there is a government plan to finally freshen it up. But the people here are poor. They carry the stigma of the “most-discriminated-against postcode in France”: 93, Seine-Saint-Denis, where the riots of 2005 started and where the high rises are still a byword for racism, youth unemployment and lack of hope.
The Courtillières estate should by now be a literary pilgrimage site. It produced the novelist sensation Faïza Guène, currently France’s youngest bestselling writer, who at 19 became the defining new voice of a generation with her book, Kiffe Kiffe Demain. Told in a language peppered with verlan – France’s back-to-front Arabic-influenced slang – it is the funny and ironic saga of 15-year-old Doria, whose dad has left for Morocco to find a younger wife, and whose mum toils as a cleaner in a formula-one-themed motel. When the book came out in 2004, Guène was hailed as the “Françoise Sagan of the high-rises”, the antidote to the navel-gazing French novel in crisis. The book has sold more than 300,000 copies in France and has been a hit in 27 countries, including Britain, translated as Just Like Tomorrow.
Despite her success, Guène refused to leave the estate and continued living in a small flat with her parents, brother and sister. This week, her second novel, written when she was 21, is published in Britain as Dreams from the Endz. It’s the story of Ahlème, a 24-year-old Algerian-born, “almost French” woman, whose teenage brother is going off the rails and whose greatest comfort is her neighbour and mother-figure Tantie Mariatou, a hairdresser at Afro-Star in Paris’s Chateau d’Eau who yearns to go to America – she might not speak English but she speaks “the language of hair”. The book, dedicated to Guène’s family and to Courtillières, earned her a new tag in one French newspaper: “Bridget Jones of the banlieues.” But her gentle irony is far more scathing than that. If her first novel predated the 2005 riots and car-burnings on the estates, Dreams from the Endz captures the post-riot mood, with reflections on curfews, and Ahlème locked in a constant battle to get her French identity papers – now the symbol of Nicolas Sarkozy’s France as his government hunts down and deports those immigrants without papers.
Guène, 23, is sitting at a cafe near Paris’s science museum. She is beaming, having just handed her publishers her third novel, set in a bar in a small town at the end of a suburban rail line. “I like telling stories about ordinary people, anti-heroes of modest means,” she says.
Guène should have a charmed life, a famous Frenchwoman who embodies her country’s cultural mix. But discrimination in France is so widespread, that even she – a star writer and currently one of the country’s biggest literary exports – is plagued by it. Last year, Guène married in a religious ceremony and the couple looked for a flat to rent near her parents in Pantin. Her husband is black and was born in Ivory Coast. “When people said estate agents were racist, I always told them to stop exaggerating. Then it hit me in the face. Just walking into an estate agent’s office was a nightmare,” she says. She found herself telling her husband to stay at home while she went alone – being north African and having slightly lighter skintone would be “less bad”, she reasoned. When she made bookings to see flats over the phone, the name Mademoiselle Guène didn’t sound “too north African”. But when she arrived at appointments and they saw her, she was not allowed to see the flats. Seven months later, they still had no home. “I’d seen an apartment I liked but heard nothing. Then one of the women from the estate agents’ called and whispered: ‘Look I live with a Moroccan guy, I know it’s not easy. The boss is away. Come in and sign the contract, so at least when she gets back there’s nothing she can do about it.’ I felt like I was stealing it; that it wasn’t legitimate; that I’d got in through a trap door.”
Then Guène needed to find a high-earning friend or relative to act as guarantor. But no one she knew had a salary above the bare minimum, so she had to ask her publisher. “In France when you’re born poor, the whole system is set up for you to stay poor,” she says. She has called her generation of young French people born of immigrant parents the “bastard children of France”. In theory, France follows the republican model of integration where everyone is equal. But as Guène and her French teenager friends of different races went through school doors engraved with the words liberty, equality, fraternity, they realised that was a “lie”. “Young people ask themselves: why? Why can’t we have access to that? And there’s no answer. Raw, brute racism is clear, it’s easy to identify. But there’s something more subtle and dangerous, a neo-colonialist feeling that still infuses society … It’s not about racism, it’s about treating people differently.” Having foreign roots is like “a defect, a complex because we’re always being pulled back to that fact, reduced to it”. Being poor plus having foreign roots is a double smear, she says.
Guène’s father was 17 in 1952 when French recruiters came to his rural village in western Algeria in search of manual workers to relocate to France and help reconstruct the country’s ruined industries. He worked in the mines in northern France, staying throughout Algeria’s bloody war of independence, and only going home aged 46, after having become a builder, to meet a wife. She was a 30-year-old villager who had been allowed by her family to choose her own husband. But when she arrived in France in the early 1980s with him, to live in a small flat on an estate north of Paris, she was hit with depression for two years. They had two daughters and a son, and moved to their flat on the Courtillières estate.
As a teenager, Guène wrote constantly, reading passages to her family and filling notebooks that her mother would eventually throw away when they took up too much space in the flat. She was discovered by chance. “Write it large that I was discovered by accident,” she says. “I reject this idea that my success is down to the ‘good workings of the republican school system’. I slipped through the net.” A teacher from a neighbouring school set up a screenwriting workshop at the estate’s community centre. Guène arrived with ideas for films. When one day he read 30 pages of the beginning of a novel the 17-year-old was writing, he asked if he could show them to someone else. It was his sister who ran a publishing house in Paris. Guène was immediately signed up. If it hadn’t happened she would probably have continued writing for the rest of her life and never shown anyone. Her experience of school was not positive. She talks of teachers reluctantly sent to the suburbs on their first job “almost as a punishment”, so “the desire to impart wisdom is nonexistent”.
When Guène’s first novel came out, the high-rise estates dumped in the hinterland beyond ring-roads and motorways seemed like another planet to the Parisian establishment. They still do. First, she was courted by Dominique de Villepin’s government. Since Sarkozy became president, she has been invited to an official dinner and even called by a minister. She has declined every government approach. She thinks Sarkozy’s appointment of women ministers of immigrant origin – Rachida Dati, Fadela Amera and Rama Yade – was cynical. He uses them as “alibis” while the daily struggle of the rest of the French population called Rachida or Fadela hasn’t changed. His constant references to having placed them where they are makes it seem “almost as if he appointed them out of charity”.
One thing Guène notices as she tours the world, attends book fairs in Britain and lectures on the evolution of slang in the US, is that back in France, she tends to take up more space on the “society” rather than the “literary” pages of the papers. She is still trying to escape the tag of “the little girl from the banlieue” or “the beurette who writes” – (“beur” is the verlan slang for Arab). Verlan itself, a mix of inverted French words, old French slang, Arabic, African and Gypsy words, at least now has a dictionary compiled by young people. Since the hit 1995 film La Haine, set on an estate, verlan has been the height of cool for foreign audiences. “But France hasn’t yet understood that this is a part of the French language, it isn’t some sort of separate language, and it’s very rich,” Guène says.
She feels France’s attitude to her as a French writer with immigrant roots is different to everywhere else she has travelled to promote her books. In Britain, the idea of a bestselling novelist whose characters deal with mixed cultural identities has been so mainstream for so long – a vast spectrum including giants like Hanif Kureishi or more recently Zadie Smith and Monica Ali – that it would seem too commonplace to shock. Even the notion of writing about a working-class, high-rise council estate, with the slang wordplay of Irvine Welsh, has long been the norm.
But in France, despite her huge readership, the elite still see fiction set in the suburbs as something exotic and alien. Society is so polarised that the world Guène writes about is not something the establishment has ever seen close up; they are not streets they might ever have walked down, even by accident. She is still asked with wide-eyed fascination about the forbidden lands. “I feel ridiculous explaining things like people there love each other too, that they decide to have babies out of love and not just to claim benefits.”
She says every time she lands in London she finds herself marvelling at women going about their lives in headscarves, without the state deciding where they can or can’t wear them. She meets people in London from the estates of “93”, Seine-Saint-Denis, hoping to find a job without their race, name or postcode putting a brake on them. She thinks nothing has improved on French estates since the riots. “If that hasn’t changed things, what will? Apart from civil war or revolution?”
The elite of Paris writers haven’t accepted Guène into their fold. She’s not alone in feeling that France’s stilted, hidebound literary scene badly needs “new blood”. But she thinks the literary establishment still believes the suburbs and poor people are “not noble or interesting enough to belong to literature or fiction”. It’s fine for people from the high-rises to play football, or rap but the idea of intellectuals existing there is still taboo. Oddly, considering her huge international success, she hasn’t won any prizes in France, just small informal awards voted by young people and readers. Does she think that will change? “The big prizes? Are you crazy? Never, never in my life will I get a prize. That would mean recognising that what I write is literature, that there are intellectuals in the banlieues. That’s where nothing’s changing and the neo-colonialist vision comes in to play … the idea that the ‘natives’ can do sport, sing and dance but not think.”
Does she ever hang out with the French writing elite? “The rare times I meet these people they look right through me,” she says.
Dreams from the Endz by Faïza Guène is published by Chatto & Windus
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