People Like Them
People Like Them
Anna, Constant and their two daughters live a bucolic life in France but their peace is disturbed when a new family arrive in the tight-knit community. Bakary, Sylvia and their three children do not look like their new neighbours and their flash lifestyle only serves to alienate them further. Despite their differences an uneasy friendship forms between the families but the simmering tensions soon boil over and an atrocious crime is committed. An actor and playwright, Samira Sedira’s debut English language novel is a tense and gripping exploration of race and class, inspired by a true story.
What are the differences and similarities in your creative processes for acting, playwriting and novel writing?
What all these disciplines have in common is “speaking”. Whether written or performed, words are at the heart of creation. Writing novels is the only space in which I feel totally free and autonomous. Acting, on the other hand, depends on the desire of others: I only act when a director suggests it. The same goes for writing for the theatre: I only write plays on commission. Theatre is a team effort; writing is a solitary task. Acting is addressing an audience. When I write I feel like I’m talking to my ghosts.
This is your debut English language novel. Did you have any involvement in the translation process?
Fortunately, not! My English is very bad! However, I worked closely with the translator Lara Vergnaud. We exchanged a lot of emails. She asked me many questions and told me to clarify certain things. Everything went wonderfully well.
Tell us about the true crime story that inspired this story and why you felt compelled to fill in the gaps via fictionalisation.
Literature tries to name the unnamable. It dwells in darkness and tries to bring forth light. It inhabits the silences and tries to give meaning to what so often escapes us. Writers don’t take the place of justice; that’s not their role. They mustn’t judge or choose a side, or even presume to deliver justice.
“L’affaire Flactif ”, as it is known in France, was one of the most terrifying murders that France has ever seen. Firstly, because two adults and three children (ages six, nine, and 10) were literally massacred; secondly, because the motive, which seemed to be rather ridiculous, was in fact extremely complex.
If we stuck only to the facts reported by the police and the media, we would believe that David Hotyat murdered an entire five-person family for the sake of a chalet and a few knickknacks (a camera, telephone, DVD, etc). We would believe that it was a murder committed out of jealousy. David Hotyat’s jealousy was cited as the motive for the crime, while racism was completely dismissed. Born to a Chadian father and Guadeloupean mother, Xavier Flactif was adopted at the age of three by loving parents. Not a single journalist had the courage to mention the hatred, clearly racist in nature, that factored into this case – and yet it is a perfect example of the violence that the material success of a foreign-born French person can provoke for some people. Over the course of the trial, it emerged that more or less everyone in the village hated Xavier Flactif. Firstly, because he was rich and dishonest; secondly, because he was black, and because the success of a black person often does not sit well with others. It also emerged during the course of the trial that the people of the village had given Flactif unflattering nicknames that were racial slurs.
Does France have a significantly worse racial discrimination problem than other countries in Europe, and if so why do you think that is?
I don’t know if there is more racial discrimination in France than in other European countries, I’m not well-versed enough in geopolitics. What I do know is that racism is universal and that no country is exempt from it. Racism in France is based on institutions, practices, discourses and representations that were developed within the framework of the French colonial empire. It cannot be denied that there is a specific, stronger and longer-lasting form of rejection and contempt towards immigrants from colonised countries. Between Algeria and France, for example, relations are complex, often fraught with resentment and unspoken words. Each European country has its own history. The relationship that each country has with its foreign nationals is unique and is a direct result of that history.
As a failed athlete Constant is struggling with diminished physical prowess and the arrival of Bakary also threatens his position in society. Does his story reflect the wider position of the white man in society?
I don’t think this particular case can be applied to the whole society. Here, Constant feels threatened because Bakary’s flashy success, as well as his charismatic personality, point to his own failure. Constant could have followed the same trajectory as Bakary if an accident had not broken his momentum. He is the negative of Bakary. Added to this is Bakary’s colour. In the collective unconscious of this small village, a successful black man is a black man who has taken the place of a white man.
After a successful career you spent a period of time working as a cleaner in your forties. Did this experience help you get inside the mind of Constant?
Yes, certainly. Every author uses their own experiences to write their stories. All fiction is in some way autobiographical. What Constant and I have in common is that we have been downgraded. What is difficult about being downgraded is the other person’s view. The day I went from being an actress to a cleaning lady, I was no longer looked at in the same way. And yet I had remained the same – I had just changed jobs. It was a rather traumatic experience! When someone asks you what you do for a living and you answer “actress”, you can feel in the other person’s eyes that something is clear. When you answer that you do “housework”, they look at you condescendingly, as if you had failed in life and that the person you are talking to feels sorry for you. This is called class contempt. It is humiliating to be looked down upon. You feel robbed of yourself. In our society, you are only defined by the profession you have. You only have value if you are at the top of the social ladder. I don’t know how we got here – it’s one of the greatest tragedies of our modern societies.