Julien Suaudeau, French lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, discussed his new book, Le sang noir des hommes (The bad blood of men), in an interview with French Major Hallie Novak ‘19. His previous published works include the novels Ni le feu ni la foudre (Neither fire nor lightning, 2016), Le Français (2015), and Dawa (2014), as well as several documentary films. During the interview, Suaudeau talked about his approach to writing and filmmaking, and how teaching has influenced his literature. He will be in Paris during the spring break for a book tour.
Q. Could you tell us a little about the book, how it came to be, and what inspired you to write it?
A. The origin is a screenplay I wrote in 2009 that had some of the features of the book in it. The central element is the antagonism of two brothers who are vying for both the recognition and the empire of their father. They’re both soldiers who have served overseas; in the screenplay it was in Afghanistan, because France was part of the international coalition in Afghanistan. In the book it’s West Africa, in Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania, as part of the ongoing operation that France has in the Sahara to curtail jihadist activities. The screenplay was completed; a producer financed its development, but the film didn’t get made. It’s very hard for me to create something and then just abandon the characters in limbo. I always go back to them in my dreams and daydreams until I find another way in. Things move in mysterious ways. The book, if I had to pitch it: A soldier who has been left for dead 10 years ago somewhere in the Sahara, who everyone assumes has died, comes back.
The original script didn’t have any fantasy or ghost story elements. The book is very much a ghost story. The only person waiting for the revenant is not his wife, who’s still around, but his daughter who was five when he left and is now almost grown up—she’s 16. The thing is, he does not come back alone; he’s possessed by the spirit of a young Senegalese boy who was the victim of physical abuse and, on a metaphorical level, of colonial rape during colonial times. That boy lived in a little town, a stone’s throw away from where he [the soldier] disappeared.
Q. The screenplay connection draws me to another question. Many on campus know you as a prolific author, although not everyone may know you as a filmmaker. Why are you drawn to these two media? Would you ever be inspired to turn your books into films, or vice versa, or do you feel these two are separate?
A. I’ve always been drawn to literature and film. I read mostly fiction. Nonfiction is more interesting to me on the screen than on the page, although I am not sure why. The difference between the two and the reason that I actually enjoy writing more than filmmaking is that there’s no one else aboard with writing. When you’re directing a movie, especially with fiction, you’re the captain of a huge enterprise [he motions to a DVD of Zé, his 2009 film]— that’s short fiction, 20 minutes long; I had a crew of 25 or 30 people. It made me realize that I don’t enjoy management and working on the skills that it requires. It feels like you’re steering a cruise ship with a rudder the size of a penny… Whenever you need to change course, to improvise, all hell breaks loose. I love writing and developing a screenplay. But the execution of the screenplay turns into this social monster that gives me no pleasure. I wouldn’t dream of making my own books into films, but I would be open to working on developing a screenplay out of them. A production company bought the rights to adapt Dawa four years ago but eventually decided not to, because of the terrorist attacks that happened at the same time. It [Dawa] became real and something that France had to deal with as a country and not as fiction anymore, and as much as you could enjoy the plot as a reader, to turn it into a film after Charlie Hebdo, after Nov. 13, it became a whole different thing.
Q. You’ve already published three well-received books, which concern similar themes, such as jihadism and the radicalization of Islam. Do you view this book as a sequel of sorts, or as a departure from your other works?
A. It’s very much a departure. After Ni le feu ni la foudre, I felt that I had said everything I had to say about terrorism. Nov. 13 really sucked the fiction out of me. I wrote a lot of op-eds to comment on it [terrorism], and I enjoy making presentations just like the one I’ve done here [at Bryn Mawr] to bring my perspective as an author on terrorism, but I can’t write on terrorism anymore. It’s something that I don’t have in me. It’s gone. And I know it’s gone for good. And so Le sang noir des hommes is a departure and a new start. The topic that is now at the center of my universe as a writer is colonization and the bad blood between France and its former colonies—especially in West Africa, which is a part of the continent that I know well from having spent a lot of time there as a kid and that I’m very attached to. I think that the ghost story element is a very powerful way to question the idea of vengeance, the resentment build-up after a traumatizing historical event.
Q. I had the pleasure of being a student in your creative writing class at the Bryn Mawr program in Avignon. Do you think that teaching creative writing to students has an effect on your own work?
A. It does. Every day. Because, first of all, I write as I teach, and I teach as I write. Reading the students’ creative writing and hearing their comments to each other on the writing process informs my own writing process. I think I’m not the same writer as the writer I was before I started teaching creative writing.
Q. The cover image on your book is very striking. Did you choose this intentionally?
A. Yes. Early on there is a scene, a hunting scene, where a deer is killed by the characters in the woods in the Alps. The sanctity of the deer is why I picked it. You can see the deer as an animal god, which you can’t necessarily say about other animals. The deer scene takes place in the past when the two brothers are still kids, they’re 13. And the father, who is this very bullish figure, makes one [of them] pull the trigger and the other slit the throat of the deer. It’s very visceral, and it’s the original sin for the two sons. It’s the first time the kids have blood on their hands.
Q. I’m looking forward to reading your novel. Are you interested in seeing your novels published in different languages?
A. It would make me very happy to be read in the country where I have lived since 2006. The way it works, at least in France, for an English translation, is that you have to make it onto the best-seller list. That is what will draw the attention of American publishers or agents. French publishers don’t care about translations. They’re really focused on the domestic market, [plus] Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, all other French-speaking countries across the world. A translation costs money, and so it’s okay if [a publisher] overseas picks it up and pays for the translation, but they [the French publishers] don’t even want to pay for a sample translation to market books overseas. It’s a whole different economy than in the U.S.
Q. What do you most want your readers to take away from this book?
A. I don’t write fiction to send a political message, but politics and history are a very important part of what I write about. I’m an author, and I’m not giving a history lesson, I’m not judging. So without seeing myself as someone who sends a message, I would like the French readership to understand that there’s another side to the way that we’ve learned the story of colonization, and French history. Our perception of French history is that the French empire brought civilization, progress, and modernity to the world, and we don’t realize that of course the other party has a different, very antagonistic perception of that. It’s important that this realization happens now. Because of immigration, a lot of people who were colonized are now part of the French people, and a great deal of that misunderstanding sets the ground for the issues we’re seeing today with regard to Islam and with regard to immigration. I think that literature, through identification, has the magical power to put yourself in the shoes of another who could be your enemy, and it makes you smarter in your interpretation of history.