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Book Cover
An Interview with Najat El-Hachmi
Edited by Rachel Hayes and Lois Ava-Matthew

This is the story of Mimoun, son of Driouch, son of Allal, son of Mohammed, son of Mohand, son of Bouziane, who we shall simply call Mimoun. It is his story and the story of the last of the great patriarchs who make up the log line of Driouch's forbears. Every single one lived, acted and intervened in the lives of those around them as resolutely as the imposing figures in the Bible.

We know little about what shares a great or mediocre patriarch, their origin is lost in the beginning of time, and origins are of no interest to us here, There are many theories that attempt to explain the longevity of this kind of social order, which has always existed and survives even to this day. Whether determinist or pseudo-magical, the explanations are of little consequence. The fact is Mimoun represents the abrupt curtailment of this particular line of succession. No son of his will identify with the spirit of authority that preceded him or try to emulate similar discriminatory and dictatorial attitudes.

This is only the truth we want to tell you, the truth about a father who has to grapple with the frustration of seeing his destiny unfulfilled and a daughter who, entirely unintentionally, changed the history of the Driouchs forever.

———————————————from the beginning of The Last Patriarch

The Last Patriarch, the debut novel of Moroccan-Catalan writer Najat El-Hachmi, is, as the excerpt above suggests, the story of two people, Mimoun Driouch, the patriarch of the title, and his daughter. Narrated by the daughter in a mesmerizing voice, light and laced with black humor, she tells the story from the birth of her father to her entrance to University. There is little to like in Mimoun, he's a tyrant, an abuser, and often mentally unstable. The stranglehold he has over his family is complete. They suffer but carry on day to day attempting to make the days as normal as possible. The daughter, a bright and promising student, takes refuge in the Catalan dictionary, and later, when she is older, in literature. These things will help her to assimilate into the foreign culture around her, and will be a foundation for her eventual escape.

The book is about many things: immigration, integration, identity, language, legacies, violence, and yes, overcoming oppression. There are vivid pictures of family life in rural Morocco, and of life for immigrants in urban Catalonia. The Last Patriarch is often difficult to read; it is full of relentless abuse and violence of various kinds and yet, El-Hachmi's storytelling is exquisite, hypnotically leading the reader through the book to the daughter's final desperate and revengeful act. In the end, when the last pages are closed, we are left less with the darker content, than with a sense of victory and hope.

Late this past April, during the PEN World Voices festival in New York City, Lois Ava-Matthew, our founder and managing editor, sat down with Najat El-Hachmi to talk about her novel. Najat is a cheerful, outgoing young woman in her early 30s. She speaks thoughtfully and perhaps a bit hesitantly in English (which must be her 4 or 5th language) of her life, her influences, her other books, and The Last Patriarch.

Photo of Najat El Hachmi L: First, let me say that I really loved your book. It's tough to read in places, but it's a book that really stays with you. Even now, when I look back on it, I don't think so much of all the bad things, as much as I think of moment at the end where she becomes free of her father and takes control of her own life. That's what stays with you.

N: Well, I'm glad to hear that.

L. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, you were born in Morocco, correct?

N. I was born in Morocco, in the north area of Morocco, near Melilla. Did you know Melilla is a Spanish enclave? It was the countryside. I grew up with an extended family—with my grandmother, grandfather, uncles, aunts and cousins—in the same house (L. Similar to the family in the book? N: Yes. ) My father moved to Catalonia before we joined him. Years before. It's a very common story. Most of the families in Catalonia are from a Moroccan background; they have the same family story because it was very usual that a father emigrates to look for a job, and then when he's settled in the place, he would bring the family to him.

I moved to Catalonia when I was eight—when we were eight (I used to have a twin brother). We went to live in a small neighborhood with a school and we felt very comfortable there. They treated us like family so we never felt different for any reason. While we were at school when I was a teenager, I started "real life" then I realized that there were a lot of differences, but I was very lucky because in the beginning I didn't have bad experiences with people in Catalonia. Some people do, and they have a very different relationship with the Catalan people…with the language, with the country, with the whole new country.

L. Clearly you identify with being more Catalan than Moroccan. (N: yes) Now that you are an adult, which qualities do you think that you carry with you that are more Moroccan, and which things about you are more Catalan?

N. My first book was I Am Catalan, Too. I used to think I wanted to be more Catalan than anything else because I was fed up with giving explanations about being Moroccan. Having to behave as a "typical" Moroccan, you know, because there was a pressure around us to integrate and not look like. I was fed up with answering questions about couscous and mint tea and all that stuff, so it was very helpful for me during some years to try to live in the place I lived, and to live the way people lived there. But now, and maybe in part through having written The Last Patriarch, I feel more integrated with myself. I feel that finally I can choose the parts I want to choose from my background and that of the place I'm living in. So now, I feel completely free to be exactly the way I want to be and not because there are some people who want me to act in a certain way.

Two or three months ago I went to Casablanca and we were reading a passage from the book, the first chapter, chapter 0, and we read it in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic and French. Then there was a surprise for me that the organization prepared— a translation into Amazigh, my mother tongue. This language is spoken in Morocco. It's not an official language, nor a written language, or not yet. There are people trying to recover the alphabet and publishing books but it's still an oral language. When I heard the translation I realized that the book was written in both languages, both my mother tongues. In Catalan, and then, in a way, in Amazigh. When they read the translation, it was exactly the same style as the stories the women in my family used to tell me. I realized for the first time that I write a lot because I read a lot and I read Catalan literature, but I write because before that I was in touch with literature in its very pure or primary form—the oral literature of my family.

I remember when I was very, very young, when I was little, having stories around me all the time. In the morning while we were having breakfast, women would tell their dreams, and they would try to understand them, so there was a sort of symbolic way of reading the dreams. Then during the day while they were doing their cleaning, or washing the clothes in the river, they used to tell stories about things that happened in the family, or things that happened everywhere else—it was just telling what happened. It was a very literary way of relating the stories. It was something especially magical that I still remember now—I still can feel it. At night we used to sleep with my mother, one next to the other. She used to turn off the light and then start telling a story, but it would be fiction. During the day, it was not allowed to tell fiction because there was a superstition about it. If you told short stories during the day, you would have bald children! I remember at night in the darkness, listening to my mother telling the stories and I can still see the images that I had to develop in my imagination because we didn't have any electricity and television. So it was really magical. I'm sure now, if it wasn't for that experience of literature in its pureness, I would never have become a writer.

So I keep that from my background and then I started recovering things that I really love but tried to avoid because they were very exotic. I started cooking couscous again. I'm not ashamed of it now, but I used to be. When you're in this situation you try to avoid being exoticized so you tend to censor yourself. But if something is mine it's not exotic, it's mine. For other people it's exotic. It depends on the point of view and the place you are in. Of course, for a Catalan my couscous would be very exotic, but for me it's not because I used to have it every Friday at my mother's place and I really love it! I'm recovering the things that are supposed to be very ethnic, it's a very strengthening process. I did the same with femininity; I realized, for example, that The Last Patriarch is focused more on the figure of the father than the figure of the mother—it means something. I'm just starting to think about it. In the 21st century we still have a conflict with femininity. And if you are a writer, you experience while you are writing. Sometimes you avoid some topics because people would think you are a very feminine writer, something you wouldn't consciously choose to be.

I just finished a book about a woman who is having different sexual experiences. She's a hunter of bodies, collecting different type of lovers, but in a very fast way. In the end she's starts thinking about herself and about the way she acts as a lover, as a woman. It's been a very interesting thing for me to see that we're not free at all. At the end of The Last Patriarch, the young woman is out of the family, she's free, but after that, I think she has to decide what she wants to be happy. Being free is more complicated if you are to be free the way you want.

L: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

N: Yes, I remember the first time when I was 12 or so, I was reading a lot, and Sunday evenings were boring at home. I couldn't have the remote to change the TV channels, so I started writing things then. There was one day when our teacher told us in class to write a short story. I wrote a detective story. It was short but she liked it a lot. She was so enthusiastic and encouraging. She's still a friend, too. I think it's very important in the beginning that there is someone who pays attention to what you do. It doesn't matter if you are the best in the world, or the worst in the world if you are creating something. To create something is a very important thing to do, so to have somebody sensitive around you to pay attention to what you are trying to say, what you are trying to communicate, is a very, very important thing. I guess I was very lucky back then.

L. Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?

N. Well, I'm a very catholic reader, I mean, I don't have any plan when I read. I guess everyone is catholic with their reading. In the beginning I read a lot of Catalan literature, names like Mercè Rodoreda, who is a very important author for me. She was Catalan, but she was telling stories about women in their houses. For me that was very important because for the first time I could see women in houses were not second class. And that there could also be a tragedy that happens inside a house and that had a lot to do with my own background—I really experienced the fact women and men were very separate from each other. Also names like the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz. He was a very good writer to find, because—have you read the trilogy?—there is a father who has some similarities to the father in The Last Patriarch

I loved some of the French writers of Moroccan and Algerian background. Driss Chraibi. He is a very good one, and has a very tough story about a father as well, Passé simple. Then he has another small and delicious novel about a mother, La Civilisation, ma mere!… Mohamed Choukri, Carson McCullers, Zadie Smith, I loved Sandra Cisneros's, The House on Mango Street. I used to read in her beginning. You need something different at different times in your life.

L: Since we are talking about the father, the first part of the book tells the story of Mimoun, who is the last patriarch of the title, and it seems to me that in telling his story you are saying that monsters are not so much born as they are made. You tell about the abuse that he suffers that may be at root of his madness…

N. Well, in the book there are different theories.

L. That's why I say "may" —there could be something organically wrong with him. Was it also your intention to show that there are things in the culture which contribute to, or allow him to become, what he becomes?

N: Some of the things that happen around him justify what he does. I was very surprised when I was writing the book that women in the family were so important in making him become the monster he becomes.

L. So their behavior allows him to become that way?

N. Yes, and you can see that. His sisters seem to coddle and protect him, his mother a little less so, and less so as she gets older. I think that wasn't very helpful for him. It's something that's really shocking because they're women, but I've seen in that area of Morocco that sometimes you receive more compassion from men than from women. Or from the older women in the families because they are becoming more powerful as they get older.

L. But then his wife, I think a lot about his wife, the mother in the book. One wonders if she ever gets free of him too. You want her to do what the daughter eventually does, you want her to speak up and say "no more."

N. I know, but freedom is a choice. I know she has no help to decide, but in the end it's a choice. There's always a way to decide your own fate, some people just don't want to choose freedom because its easier not to. I've met similar women who grew up in Catalonia with a Moroccan background and found that when they had to choose between freedom or getting married and having children in a very traditional way, they choose to marry and stay home. I never understood that but I had to realize that for some people it's a lot easier to not decide anything about their life. It's so exhausting to decide everything!

L. The narrator, Mimoun's daughter, remains nameless throughout the book, did you do that on purpose?

N. Yes. It was something very conscious I did, but I don't know why. There are some characters in the book that have no names.

L. The book is not just a family story but a story of immigration and the joys and difficulties of assimilating into a new culture. Mimoun's daughter finds refuge in the language and later the literature—do you think this was instrumental in her ultimate ability to break free?

N. By learning the language, by learning the words, and reading the dictionary, she starts to name what happens around her, and the first step to get out of an abusive situation is to know what's happening and have the ability to name it. So that's very important. If you think about therapy, when we go to therapy the only thing we do is name the things that are happening around us and inside us. So, if you don't have enough words to name the things, you are not able to be free. And literature is a way to see different lives—lives that can be deeper and end happily. That is very important in the second part of the book, because she is always comparing her mother with other women in books, even the father's lovers with other women in books. That has allowed her to see that she can choose another way to be a woman that is not the mother's, and not Mimoun's lovers . She has no model of womanhood, well, maybe the teachers (but one of them is not {she is one of Mimoun's lovers}). If you're growing up in that environment you see all those women being treated badly, and you would think the only thing you can do is follow their examples and become the lover or the submissive wife or the teacher. In the end she decides to follow her own way of being a woman.

L. Her final act of betrayal and revenge is one that I think most readers will not expect, and it is not what you would hope her way out would be, yet it is powerful. It leaves you with the sense that, at that moment, she takes control of her life…

N. Yes, she has to take control of her life and it doesn't matter if she does the best thing for herself… For me, it's a very open ending, because we don't know if she does that because she wants to, or because she is enjoying it—because that's a possibility that we have—or it's just an act of revenge against the father. I think the ending is a good start towards a new life. You take control first and then decide what to do with your life. I couldn't imagine another ending. Actually, the first thing I thought about this book was the ending. I had the title and the ending. I remember I wrote the title in a calendar and said maybe someday I'm going to write a book and then I just started it. The book has to end like that because it has to be a very strong, symbolic act. I would like readers to take it more in a symbolic way than a literal one.

L: I know a lot of readers who would say that 'oh, it's too grim, I can't read that', but I found that, despite the very grim content, the narrator's voice is what carries you through the story—not only because she can find humor in the strangest times, but because she's narrating from what you sense is a safe and good place somewhere in the future, and that gives the reader hope through the whole story.

N. We all have this sense of being in a safe and peaceful place. I think we are born with it. And even when everything is a mess around you, you still believe in that, because there's something—there's a word I really love and it comes from psychiatry or psychology—resilience. We are more resilient than we think. There are situations that you would never think a human being could endure—and then it happens—and it's amazing.

L. I thought her voice really is what carries you through all that. There were times where I would think, I can't read that, especially when I got to the big scene when he's got the knife, but it's that voice that carries you through. It's a real credit to your storytelling ability.

N. Thank you. It's because of my family, and…that's the power that makes you see clearly that literature is very, very helpful. It's something that we need because, if not, I think we would become mad.

L. Why do you think this story was important to tell?

N. It was important for me to tell because I think there's more violence than we realize…and I think it's very important to deal with violence. In this case it's with literature and with language, telling the story—because the book is a story about how to deal with violence…how to understand it or at least make sense of it.

We don't talk a lot about violence and sometimes there is something very dangerous about people that are violent, and that is the silence. Silence makes you part of this violence. In a way the book is an exorcism because it's something that I can understand, something that can hurt me a lot—violence of any kind towards people I know and towards people I don't know, as well. Writing that book was like facing violence very closely, so I could forget about it after writing the book.

L. You are clearly a very gifted writer and you have mentioned the book you have been working on; is that finished and do you already have several more ideas?

N. The book was published 3 or 4 weeks ago in Catalan.

L. Is there already any interest in translating it into English?

N. Yes, Serpent's Tail has. (note: According to the publisher, The Body Hunter will be translated and ready for publication in 2013). It's a tough story as well, at least at the beginning. It's tough because there's a lot of sexual experiences related in a very literal way. But it's not erotic because there is a lot of demystification of feminine sexuality. We grew up thinking we had to act in a one way or in another and there are a lot of things not working in that area. It's a woman who starts out acting in a very superficial way in her sexual life, and in the end she learns to live in a deeper way.

L. So, it's a sort of woman coming into her own…

N. Yes, maturing. She tends to internalize some things she was avoiding…love and affection. While she's collecting different lovers she's kind of running away from being loved.

L. So, what's after that? Do you already have something started?

N. I want to start a book about the mother. I have to do that. It's going to be more difficult because the relationship with the mother is more difficult than with the father. With the mother its you—yourself in the mirror—and at the same time it's not you because you want to become somebody else, so it's a very strange relationship. I think now I'm ready to write about that.

L. When you say "the mother", do you mean the mother generally or this specific mother (Mimoun's wife)?

N. I guess there will be many things that will be similar. We don't know a lot about her. And I would really love to know what she thinks…what was her life like. My own mother tells me things now that she never told me before, and you suddenly realize that your mother is a woman, that she has a story. When you are maturing, when you are becoming an adult, you change your relationship with your parents because you stop idolizing them. You start to see them as human beings, normal human beings who can be wrong…or not. I just started having that kind of relationship with my own mother. We communicate like two adults and, for me, it was so, so important that that happened because my mother, you know, she doesn't read and she doesn't understand anything about my life, the way I live now (L: So she's not read your book? N: No) She's a housewife and has six children and in a way she's a very smart woman. Even though she doesn't understand anything about what I do, she trusts me and she's kind of proud of me. That's why I love that book I told you about, La Civilisation, ma Mére!... by Chraibi because it's the relationship between the writer when he was young and his mother, who is illiterate. She's seeing the world change around her. I would really like to write a more tender book and control a lot of the violence. Of course, there is always some violence but I don't really need to focus on it anymore. I would really like to focus on a woman like my mother. I think I should write about the mother, to be fair, but we'll see.

L.: Well, thank you for your time.

N. Thank you.

The Last Patriarch is published by Serpent's Tale and is available through the publisher, or your local or online bookseller.