(Europa Editions, translated by Tina Kover)
(Europa Editions, translated by Tina Kover)
Josephine struggles with the mundanity and apparent futility of her teaching job at a Parisian college. She trawls through the same classes day in, day out, with students who barely listen and a principal whose expectations are far removed from the reality of teaching adolescents. This is until she comes across the glitz and glamour of the night, as she stumbles into a job as a stripper in a nightclub. Shimmering by night, drab by day, Josephine balances two opposing lifestyles in a novel that reassesses the role of feminism and the male gaze. A moving story of liberation, No Touching won the prestigious French literary prize Prix du Premier Roman 2020 – for first novels – for the Italy-born France-based author.
As it’s your debut novel, how did you find the writing process? Did you allocate set periods of time to work on it or would inspiration come to you continually?
At the very beginning, during the stage when I was cautiously beginning to work out my characters, ideas and the outline of the novel, I only wrote occasionally. Little by little, the book became a serious project that was clear in my mind, and I wrote whenever I could. The inspiration was there in the sense that, at a more advanced stage in the process, writing was the only thing I thought about!
Josephine spends a lot of time in her own head, and her actions and speech often mask how she feels internally. Why did you choose to write this novel as an internal monologue as opposed to having an omniscient narrator?
I decided to write in the first person because I wanted the reader to be as close to the character as possible and experience the same emotions. At the same time, I wanted to give the protagonist a form of coherence stemming from her philosophical baggage and her desire to reflect on her own existence.
All the strippers in the novel are portrayed as strong and powerful, but do they too have an internal monologue which is as hesitant and self-conscious as Josephine’s? And are their behaviours themselves slightly self-destructive?
The women that Josephine meets at night are much more instinctive than she is. They possess a form of knowledge that comes from their experiences in life and the night world. They are less afraid than Josephine, put themselves out there more. There isn’t always a moment of reflection, just very strong intuition. It’s this innate energy that, paradoxically, can lead to a self-destructive attitude. Their behaviour embodies their desire – a desire that, Josephine would say paraphrasing Spinoza, may be poorly understood.
The story revolves around female empowerment and a reversal of the male gaze. How does this relationship work, between a female selling her body and still remaining in control, and do you believe in it?
Ideally, strippers are conscious of the fact that they aren’t selling their bodies but rather the spectacle of them. And this is truest in establishments that have the same rules described in the Parisian strip club in the novel. I’m conscious of the fact that practising this profession can lead to all kinds of dangers. But it can also be a means of self-control, of having power over one’s self and over men. I asked a young woman who went from working as a cashier in a supermarket to becoming a stripper what this job did for her and she said: “I learned to say ‘no’ to men and to set my own boundaries for relationships.” In this sense, working as a stripper taught her a greater level of self-respect. Is that the case for all the performers? Maybe not.
What does the book explore about female friendships?
The novel tries to show that friendship between women, sisterhood, is a force, especially when women come together, not against men but against sexism and stereotypes.
Josephine finds teaching draining and mundane. Having yourself worked in teaching, how much of an influence did your experience play while you were setting the scene for Josephine’s daily life?
My own experience played a large role, but so did the experiences of several teacher friends who confided in me. In France, people talk a lot about the crisis in education. There are books on the subject, but nothing changes. For me, I understood right away that I wouldn’t be able to continue in that profession. I left rather quickly, but my experience gave me the chance to develop Josephine’s character. Her life is not the same as mine was, but I might have had that life had I continued.
Throughout the novel you use plenty of interesting metaphors and imagery, and you maintain French references. Did you face any difficult decisions in the translation process and how much input did you have in it?
I think Tina Kover’s translation is excellent. For example, I think that the decision to keep “Madame” helps situate the reader in a specific French context, and I approve of that choice. Translation is a balancing act and the most important thing is to transport the reader into a world that is often unknown to them, but which can become familiar by means of their mother tongue.