To write a novel is to inhabit a dream. A dream that can last months or years, that transpires in everyday life; a dream that sometimes takes place in its very own dreamscape, but that mostly happens in the light of day, whether it’s in front of a computer, in a notebook, or in the numerous minutes we spend thinking about it during the day. That’s why, very often, we writers are only present in body. Not right at the beginning of course, there isn’t that sense of parallel lives when the thing still hasn’t taken shape, but as the setting becomes clearer, the characters become flesh and bone, the situations and conflicts that appear become more complex, then the novel slowly envelops us, layer by layer, until it becomes a world that can sustain itself, a space in which the writer simply lives. Of course this doesn’t happen overnight. At the beginning the idea is ethereal, the content is blurred, but as we spend more time, space, and energy, it becomes something more palpable, with a corporeality we never imagined. It’s a shame that this critical moment occurs just when it’s time to finish, when we’re at the end of the process.When we write we always create something to be given away, we lose something we’ve spent months developing.And so the feeling we get when we finish a book is usually dejection rather than euphoria. I’ve never been able to insert the last full stop without a certain regret, sometimes prolonging my writing unnecessarily so the dream will last a little longer. Maybe it’s because I know that once I’ve closed the document for the last time, the dream for me will disappear and pass on to somebody else who’s willing to take over, a reader who’s interested enough to inhabit it for as long as may last.
It doesn’t matter if the writer is grounded, or if she’s the type of writer who wants to grab a little piece of reality, this doesn’t deny the fact a novel is a dream. Reality is impossible to capture, the description of an object is never the same as the physical object itself. Memory transforms things but language that wants to be literary transforms things even more so.
To write is to live in a dream but dreams aren’t spoken, they don’t happen in any one language. Only the characters who appear say what they say in a particular language.What is the language of my dreams? In what language do I write?
Not long ago I bumped into someone I used to know as a child. She owned a stationery shop near my house that also sold a few books. I used to go there often just after we arrived in Vic. The lady remembered me because I always used to ask for books in Catalan. At the time I still couldn’t read or write but I’d ask her if this book or that one was in Catalan; it seems I didn’t want to take the wrong one. I remember the shop, my visits, looking through the books, but I don’t remember asking for books in Catalan. And yet, it makes sense: if the neighbours spoke Catalan, if my dad spoke Catalan and if we were also taught Catalan at school, it’s logical that I wouldn’t want to confuse myself with another language. The problem is I’d always thought I’d never chosen between Catalan and Castilian because the place we ended up was so irrefutably Catalan it didn’t even occur to us that there was an alternative. And yet, if the lady was telling the truth and I actively and consciously chose the books I bought, then the fact that you don’t make a choice isn’t true; I didn’t simply speak and ended up writing in the language I was surrounded by. And if, as was the case for me, the process of acquiring a language is produced in such an intensive way, something strange happens: you cannot go through this process and at the same time be aware of the way in which it’s happening. In the same way as it’s impossible to remember your own birth or the way you learnt to talk in the first stages of life, neither can you remember, or at least I can’t, how we learn a language that was not previously our own. Sometimes I make myself re-live that time and I see images, I remember events, or conversations, but it’s always after I’d learnt the language and I can only formulate it all in Catalan, not in Tamazight, even though I must have been able to until I was eight years old. What is even more disconcerting is that I can remember moments of family life before we emigrated but I cannot remember myself speaking in Tamazight. Not myself or my siblings who also changed their language. Yet I can remember my mother, my father and other adults having whole conversations in their original language. Memory betrays reality, it turns things into fiction with no conscience, it adapts what happened in another world, in another language, in another time, to the way of thinking in the present. Memory is hybrid.
I guess I could just say I write in Catalan and it would avoid any complication. But that doesn’t say anything, it’s an affirmation that’s empty of meaning, because nobody just writes in their language, nobody who calls themselves a writer just transposes the language they speak to the language they write in. Apart from the fact that it would be impossible, a written mother tongue doesn’t exist. Literary writing is, above all, a work of language. It’s the same for any writer, but in my case it’s an unavoidable fact: from the first time I tried to write, from my very first word, I had to ask myself in which language I wanted my text to be. And I don’t mean choosing between Tamazight or Catalan or Castilian, I’m talking about the need to discover the most appropriate way of saying what I wanted to say. Write in Catalan, yes, but which Catalan? How should I choose? How to decide each sentence, each word, every page? What resonance did I want it to have? Can I really choose? I know that all the authors I’ve read and who have permeated me are contained in my way of writing. I know I have rejected the ways of some for whatever reason and I have reread and devoured others I thought were doing the things I wanted to be doing as a writer.
But it’s one thing to see yourself reflected in certain references as you grow but finding your own way of writing is another thing altogether. There is no winning formula: one day you write and you just know how you want to do it. In my case I was condemned to having to search for my own way of saying things due to the simple fact that the majority of my characters speak an invisible language in the text, one that is camouflaged by the Catalan language and which only emerges on the odd occasion. And yet, it’s there. It’s there because it’s the language that I learned to write. No, not to write, but to narrate for the first time. If Tamazight had merely been the language spoken by my mother, maybe it wouldn’t be so important in my writing, but it’s much more than that. It’s the language in which I drank my first literature, spoken of course, not written, but it was present in the first years of my life, and I still feel marked by the experience. A language which is doubly maternal as is the case for everyone in Rif: biologically and literarily maternal (although I must ask myself here: if literary language is never maternal, can the literary form of a language that has still not been written down also be?). And it is a world in which day-to-day language is intermingled with elaborate language, in which genders and forms co-exist without problem, where all levels are presented as equal and in reach of children.
I’ve just finished the novel Mare de llet i mel (Mother of Milk and Honey). It’s the story of the mother from the La lla estrangera (The Foreign Daughter). I wanted to tell the story of her life, understand where she was born, how she grew up and was educated, I wanted to remember the many women I’ve met who told me about their lives or told others while I stood close by. I wanted to understand what it means to be a foreigner from the moment you are born, because, in the place you come from, women always are. I wanted to understand what it meant to live without having the power to make decisions over the important events of your own existence, or what it was for your only destiny to be your husband’s bedroom, or what it meant to not be able to go further than your own front yard or the narrow streets that lead to your obligatory daily chores. And I also wanted to understand what it meant to emigrate knowing nothing of geography, not understanding the language, what it means to cross borders blindly, trying to escape a system which abuses women and in doing so abuses maternity. I have spent years developing this novel, going over all these questions. But when I started to actually write, to give a final shape to the dream, suddenly I found something wasn’t working. I had all the material I needed, I knew what I wanted to do. But when I started to type, something grated. I spoke about the protagonist in the third person. I had a narrator who knew everything about her, what happened to her, her past and her future, but the result wasn’t what I imagined, the text was missing something that took a few months to discover. One day I realised, I still don’t know how: I was missing the mother’s voice.
I believe this last novel, which is still to be published as I write this, started to develop after The Last Patriarch. In that book there was a flagrant injustice: all the women in the book ended up being completely eclipsed by Mimoun. I realised this when I spoke to my readers. And it was also thanks to the readers that I became aware for the first time of the fact that I’d written the novel in a hybrid language made up of Catalan, the obvious language, and Tamazight, the underground language. But more importantly still, I realised the text contained, without expressly trying to do so, the world of orality of my early years that I believed I had irretrievably lost. In fact I felt great nostalgia for that world.This discovery eased my longing but also allowed me to create the ties once again to those women I’d lived with and from whom I’d distanced myself. I was dragging along this feeling of uprootedness that had been present in The Foreign Daughter. I felt very different to that environment because my world was literary not oral. But when I understood that I could unite the two things, that writing had in fact enabled me to combine my two literary roots, I felt a huge relief. And what had seemed an unresolvable conflict became a stroke of luck. Suddenly I felt enormously fortunate to have grown up in a world in which everything revolved around the word, the story.That which had given me a complex my whole life, the fact of having been born in a place where almost everybody was illiterate, suddenly became a privilege: I’d had the opportunity to observe, first hand and without filter, literature in its most primitive form. The need to write the story of a mother narrator also comes from this awareness of the importance of orality.
For that reason, when I spoke of the protagonist I was missing something vital: I needed her voice, I needed her to tell her story, and explain for the rst time the things that happened to her. And also because nobody actually ever gives our mothers a voice. People say they don’t speak: you see them, the women with their headscarves that only speak their own language. We, their daughters, have so often been their translators. They’ve been analysed in detail by the experts. They’ve been the subject of so many discussions in which they’ve never been present, in public spaces, in debate forums and all kinds of commissions. No, this time I couldn’t just describe my protagonist, this time she had to speak. And my job was to make this happen, to make Tamazight and Catalan produce the exact ring that stories based on pictures have, with a rich prosody, a narration that often comes and goes to the rhythm of memory, with the emotion and the energy aimed to give pleasure to those gathered around in a circle listening. But our mothers don’t tell stories just for pleasure. Their stories explain the painful facts that therapy will never cure, the injustices that would never be reported unless it is was verbal, or the suffering they suppose is inherent because they are women.
If I’m honest, I don’t know exactly how this fusion between the literary Catalan I’ve read and the vivid voice of the women I carry inside me has come about, but I think, more than ever before, this is what has happened in my last novel. The reader will be the judge of the text, but for the time being I’ll savour the feeling of having recognised my literary origin and of having given it the place it deserves.