French-Algerian author and actress Samira Sedira’s People Like Them, her first novel to be translated into English, is a fictional retelling of a real-life multiple murder in a mountain village in Haute-Savoie, in which a recently arrived wealthy black property developer, his white wife and their three young children were brutally killed by a neighbour.

Bakary and Sylvia Langlois build and move into a luxurious chalet directly opposite the distinctly modest home of Constant and Anna Guillot in the sleepy backwater of Carmac. For all their flashy cars and ostentatious hospitality, Bakary and Sylvia are welcomed into the habitually wary and reserved community, and the two couples become friends of sorts. But Constant is surprised and alarmed when Anna agrees to work for the Langoises as a domestic cleaner to supplement his lowly wage as a garage mechanic, and something in the couples’ relationship snaps out of shape. Worse is to come when Constant takes a cue from a friend and invests his parents’ €8,000 life savings in an apparent get-rich-quick investment scheme of Bakary’s, which turns out to be a scam. In the weeks leading up to the murders, Constant is in a perpetual frenzy, harassing Bakary and his family daily and demanding a return of the missing cash.

The novel is narrated by Anna, addressed to Constant, as she tries to make sense of the events that drove her husband to kill, his faltering evidence at the trial, and his inevitable incarceration. Her confusion, shame and feelings of abandonment add a deeply personal layer to this disturbing account of financial strain, hierarchical assumptions, insidious racism, niggling jealousy and excessively violent retribution. 

Mark: People Like Them draws on a real-life murder case from 2003, but the events unfold in 2015, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. What drew you to the case, and why did you decide to blur the timeframe?

Samira: I think that what attracted me to this story was the intersection of racial and class conflict. The story is complex, unusual. The patterns and the stereotypes are switched: here the black man is powerful and the white man is submissive. The victim is a crook and the murderer a victim. What is fascinating to observe is how this disorganisation led to tragedy and how this kind of configuration can be intolerable for people.

I set the story in 2015, at the time of the attacks in France, to strengthen the feeling of isolation of the village. The inhabitants of the village are observing this violence with great distancing, as if Paris (the site of the attacks) was a faraway place. Constant’s act of murder will bring this isolated France where nothing happens into collision with the France of the attacks, which crystallises all the tensions.

The initial friendship between Constant and Bakary is built on admiration and charisma, but this is quickly toppled by racial tension, a clash between their social standing – and ultimately a financial con. Which of these elements relate directly to the original case, and which are pure invention?

All the elements you mention are directly related to the original case. It is in this same order that the real drama unfolded. Of course, I have changed the names of places, characters and their personalities. I played with dates, situations, etc. But the different stages leading up to the quintuple murder are those that are relevant to the 2003 case.

That’s what racism is about: using the other in order to establish superiority. Choosing who will be inferior and who will not, based on crazy standards like skin colour, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

Casual racism abounds throughout the village and across the generations. To what extent is it human nature to be wary of outsiders, whether from the next village or from distant nations? And how and why do we need to overcome such suspicions?

Unfortunately, racism is universal and no society is exempt from it. James Baldwin said of racism and racists: “If you think I’m a Negro, it’s because you need to believe it.” That’s what racism is about: using the other in order to establish superiority. Choosing who will be inferior and who will not, based on crazy standards like skin colour, ethnicity or sexual orientation. To be a racist is to be absolutely presumptuous, to have a high opinion of oneself. The racist is a kind of dictator in the making.

How has your perception of nationalism, racism and tolerance in France altered in your lifetime? It seemed from afar that the French World Cup-winning team of 1998 led by Zinedine Zidane broke down barriers and united the nation. How real was that perception, and what has happened since?

If you could solve a nation’s tensions through football, you’d know it! It would be great, but it is unrealistic! Personally, I never believed in the Black, Blanc, Beur slogan of 1998’s France. Nothing really serious can be built on emotion, no matter how strong it is. Jubilation is like a storm: it sweeps away everything in its path but it always ends up falling back. We experienced a fraternity of circumstance, an incredible moment of grace that lasted a few days, a few weeks, the time for our heroes to regain their human appearance… And then the problems returned.

Racism in France is deeply rooted. It is based on institutions, practices, speeches and representations that were developed within the framework of the French colonial empire. It cannot be denied that there is a stronger and more enduring form of specific rejection and contempt for immigrants from colonised countries. For example between Algeria and France relations are complex, often filled with resentment and unspoken words.

Things have not really changed. They have even worsened. The terrorist threat has not helped either; it has accentuated the climate of suspicion and given rise to real nationalist delirium.

For France, the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have long since sunk! We see every day that they are being flouted. One only has to look at the way minorities and the most modest people are being treated.”

What are the worst cases of outright racism or casual disdain that you have personally encountered?

I am lucky to be in an artistic environment. It is a privileged and tolerant environment. When I became a cleaning lady, I noticed that people looked at me differently. They didn’t really look at me anymore, as if I had become invisible. Acting is the opposite! Everything is based on the image. You are constantly being watched and listened to. I moved from visible to invisible. It was very disconcerting, and yet I had remained the same – I had just changed jobs. It’s terrible to be defined only by the job you do and to have value only if you have an ‘attractive’ job.

I remember an event that is quite representative of the way precarious workers are perceived: my first employer received me at his place and asked me straightaway for my criminal record. We then spent a good hour together and at the end of the interview he gave me the keys to his flat so that I could come and clean there while he was away.

Sometime later, I bumped into him in a supermarket. He looked at me, but he didn’t recognise me. This terrified me. I suddenly realised that I was just a function, and a function has no face. He was paying me to improve his everyday life and it didn’t matter to him who I was. This was perhaps the most disturbing and humiliating episode I have ever experienced.

To what extent would you say that France and other nations stand up for the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité?

It is difficult to speak for other nations, but for France, the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have long since sunk! We see every day that they are being flouted. One only has to look at the way minorities and the most modest people are being treated. The only organisations that still defend these ideals and keep them alive are certain charities. Within these ‘fraternity groups’ there are people who are totally committed and who fight every day for the right of everyone to a decent life. They are the guardians of the principles of the French Republic.

Your first book, L’odeur des planches is a novel based on your experience of the pragmatism and shame of working for three years as a domestic cleaner after your acting work dried up in your 40s. How thin is the line between autobiography and fiction in that book?

That’s really what I experienced. After twenty years on the stage, I had to resolve to do some cleaning in private homes to provide for myself. I thought it would be temporary, but it was permanent for three years! The most difficult thing, I think, was to be in the same economic situation as the previous generation of migrants. When these men and women arrived in France in the 1960s, they only had access to hard work, the kind of jobs that nobody wanted. France was full of docile, low-paid foreign workers. I joined this working class although I was supposed to do better. I joined the cohort of precarious workers. It’s quite a traumatic experience to join a generation that has nothing to do with your own, a generation that has worked hard to make your life better and that you end up deceiving. The paradox is that I suffered from this downgrading, but I also felt comforted. I felt like I was reunited with them and that I finally realised what they had been through and endured.

In People Like Them, Anna has to move away from the village to start a new life. What would you say is her biggest regret?

I think what she regrets most is that she is no longer a part of a community, that she no longer has that sense of belonging that men and women treasure. Her husband’s crime has made her a kind of stateless person. She is a homeless widow.

What themes and concerns connect these two books and your other novels Madja en août – about a middle-aged woman returning to her parents’ home after a stay in a psychiatric hospital – and La faute à Saddam – about two male friends caught up in the first Gulf War?

I think the recurring themes in all my novels are the relationship between class, the place of the stranger and the quest for identity. My characters are often drifting, searching for themselves.

How closely did you work with Lara Vergnaud on the translation of People Like Them?

We exchanged a lot of emails. She asked me a lot of questions, requested that I clarify certain things. Lara is a very precise translator: she left no word to chance. I am very pleased with this collaboration, and although I am not an expert in English, I was amazed by her translation.

Which of your earlier books might we see translated next?

I have absolutely no clue! I am not the decision-maker. I would like them all to be translated and as widely as possible!

What have you been writing since?

I have written a play (a comedy) called The Wedding, which has been performed on stage many times. I am also working on my fifth novel.

Are you still acting, or are you now a full-time writer?

No, I am alternately an actress and a novelist. So I divide my time between acting and writing. It’s pretty great because they are two complementary disciplines. Writing requires silence and solitude; theatre is the opposite; it’s the art of speaking combined with the art of living together.

You co-adapted L’odeur des planches as a stage play. Do you have any further plans to write – or direct – for the stage and screen?

Yes, a theatre director suggested that I adapt People Like Them for the stage. This is my next writing project.

People Like Them has been compared with French-Moroccan Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce (Lullaby), and she in turn has praised your book. Which other French writers with ties to the Maghreb do you particularly admire?

Yes, Leïla Slimani praised the book and I thank her for that. She is a woman I admire for her stance, her political and her literary commitment. Nevertheless, the comparison between our two books never seemed so obvious to me. Apart from the fact that our books are inspired by true stories, I don’t see any great similarities.

To answer your question, I know only a few authors from the Maghreb. Besides, I never define myself as such. I write and it doesn’t matter where I come from. Of course, my writing is inevitably marked by my personal history and my two cultures, but I believe that we must avoid ethnicising art. The strength of art is its freedom, its indomitability. But there is one Algerian author whom I particularly admire for his work, his strength and his commitment: the great Kateb Yacine.

Who do you count among your literary heroes?

Do you mean the authors I like? If that’s the case, then I’ll mention Gustave Flaubert, Louis Ferdinand Céline, Paul Morand, Jules Vallès… For me, they are the greatest novelists of all time: their literary style is unique.

Maupassant is an incredible storyteller of reality, Raymond Carver a wonderful chronicler of the unspeakable, Jack London wrote one of the jewels of world literature: Martin Eden, and Shakespeare and Beckett gave me my finest acting hours.

 

Samira Sedira is a novelist, playwright and actress who was born in Algeria and moved to France with her family as a young girl. People Like Them (Des gens comme eux), her fourth novel and the first to be published in English, is out now in paperback and eBook from Raven Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury.
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Instagram: samira.sedira
@BloomsburyRaven

 Author portrait © Pascal Martos

Lara Vergnaud’s previous translations include Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital (New Directions, 2018), Zahia Rahmani’s France, Story of a Childhood (Yale University Press, 2016) and Yamen Manai’s The Ardent Swarm (Amazon Crossing, 2021), as well as works by Mohamed Leftah, Joy Sorman and Scholastique Mukasonga, among others. She is the recipient of two PEN/Heim Translation Grants and a French Voices Grand Prize and has been nominated for the National Translation Award.
@laravergnaud

Photo © Pascal Michel

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
@bookanista
wearebookanista
bookanista.com/author/mark

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