📖 🇩🇿 #10: Raw autofiction from Algeria

Nina Bouraoui on life between Algeria and France

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All Men Want to Know is an autofictional novel by Nina Bouraoui, a writer with a French mother and an Algerian father. The novel spans the author’s childhood in Algiers and follows her move to France, where she struggles to make friends in school before immersing herself in Paris’s nightlife and examining her identity as a gay woman. 

All Men Want to Know is written in short, vignette-like chapters—bursts of prose often shorter than a page—that leap backwards and forwards in time. These chapters are distinguished by four alternating titles: ‘Remembering’; ‘Becoming’; ‘Knowing’; and ‘Being’.

In ‘Remembering’, Nina explores the contradictions of her childhood in Algiers, as she whiles away hazy summer afternoons on the beach while the civil war is fast approaching. When Nina’s mother is attacked, she makes the difficult decision to return to France and relocate her family, forcing her daughter to start anew. “I’m fourteen years old and I’m erasing my past,” says Nina.

In ‘Becoming’, the novel flashes forwards to 1980s Paris, where an eighteen year old Nina is exploring her identity at a legendary women-only nightclub called The Kat. She pays for her drinks in cash, avoids using the club’s coat check in case of a police raid, and refuses to give out her phone number, afraid that word will get out that she’s gay.

“I watch the women on the dance floor. This place exists in a time zone of its own, inside and outside of time. We’re a realm apart. We always will be. Lesbians.”

This feeling of otherness is a central theme of All Men Want to Know. “I’m a victim of my own homophobia,” Nina reflects, writing about her first experiences of love and the challenges she comes up against as she navigates a relationship with Julia and struggles to embrace her new life. Later, in ‘Being’, we see Nina turn to writing as a means of starting to accept her identity.

Violence, and the threat thereof, underpin the entire novel as the attack on Nina’s mother is repeatedly referenced and eluded to. Eventually, in ‘Knowing’, Nina explores her mother’s past, including her youth spent in France during the Second World War as well as the forces that drove her decision to move to Algiers against the will of her parents. In one especially vivid scene, Nina visits her disapproving grandparents in Rennes, where she is weighed, measured, examined, and subjected to a series of medical tests. “They’re determined to find something wrong,” she says, “they must find something.” 

At 192-pages, All Men Want to Know is not a long book. But it’s by no means an easy read; its disjointed structure demands attention. With some scenes no longer than a paragraph, the novel shifts from one country to another, from past to present and back again every few pages and I have to admit that at times this fragmented structure had me feeling a little lost.

Nonetheless, Bouraoui is a talented writer; her language crackles and sings as the book leaps from the sun-baked streets of Algiers to the clandestine world of Parisian gay bars. “France is an outfit I wear,” she muses, “Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.” A frustrating, heart-breaking, yet ultimately uplifting read.

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Viking, 2020)

More books by Algerian authors

Here’s a list of the other books I was recommended this week:

  • Do You Hear in the Mountains… and Other Stories by Maïssa Bey, tr. Erin Lamm

  • The Obstinate Snail by Rachid Boudjedra, tr. Leon Stephen

  • The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, tr. John Cullen

  • Algerian White by Assia Djebar, tr. David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager

  • Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar, tr. Marjolijn de Jager and Clarisse Zimra

  • Memory in the Flesh by Ahlam Mosteghanemi, tr. Peter Clark

  • Chaos of the Senses by Ahlem Mosteghanemi, tr. Nancy Roberts

  • Muslim by Zahia Rahmani, tr. Matt Reek

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Joe Bates and Joe Ford from the School of Advanced Study for their recommendations for this issue. If you’ve been forwarded this email and you enjoyed it, you can subscribe below.