I’ve been working on a curriculum project involving novels and memoirs about Muslim women, so the next few posts from me will probably be focusing on some of the books I’ve come across, even if none of them were published especially recently. So, for those of you who like following our posts about literature (some directed specifically to young adults, although not all of it): enjoy!
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is written by Faïza Guène, a young French woman of Algerian origin, who wrote the book when she was nineteen, and follows a year in the life of Doria, a 15-year-old girl of Moroccan background who lives in a low-income housing project outside of Paris. Doria’s father has recently left to return to Morocco (with hopes to remarry and have a son), and Doria lives alone with her mother and narrates her experiences and relationships with her family, neighbors, friends, classmates, counselor, and social worker.
The first three pages right inside the cover are full of praise from international sources, describing the novel as “a compelling portrait of the Parisian suburbs” (Newsweek International), “packed with talent” (Cosmopolitan), and “[h]ighly praised internationally” (Gioia). I picked it up excited to read something that would be exceptionally poignant, funny and clever.
Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed when I read the novel. It wasn’t that it was bad; I just didn’t find it remarkably good, either. The snarky, sarcastic tone was often funny but felt grating at other times, and never really let up. (It’s possible that part of this is that the book was awkwardly translated at times; it would be interesting to read it in the original French version as a comparison.) There were also a lot of places where I wanted the narrator to go into more detail, but instead a lot of the discussions seemed superficial.
That said, there is a huge value to presenting stories that aren’t widely told; this doesn’t mean that good literature will always arise, but it means that the literature is often worth reading for other reasons, which is certainly the case here. Muslim immigrants in French suburbs represent a marginalized population that is often viewed with suspicion, and the author of this book has succeeded in telling a story from a perspective that doesn’t often get published. The national and international attention that this book received becomes a lot more significant given this context.
The divide between Doria’s community and the mainstream French community isn’t always in the foreground of the narrative, but its presence is clear and constant. The disconnect presents itself, for example, when Doria’s mother visits the Eiffel Tower for the first time, despite having lived just outside of Paris for almost two decades.
One of the ways where the book succeeds is in its ability to talk about sexism without giving off an image of poor Muslim women who need saving. Doria explains that her father has left because he wanted a son (she later learns that he has indeed remarried and fathered a baby boy), and that he cares little for his daughter (because she is not a boy), or for her mother (because she did not give birth to a son.) Doria describes this as “a shitty destiny” but also just rolls with it, without asking for pity or saviors.
In fact, she expresses a lot of suspicion towards those who do try to help her family, particularly with her constant silent mocking of the social workers who visit her apartment. She is also dismissive of a teacher who she thinks feels sorry for her, saying that his efforts to help are “just so he can feel good about himself and tell his friends in some hip Paris bar how hard it is teaching at-risk youth in the ghetto suburbs.”
This is a story full of strong Muslim women responding to difficult circumstances: Doria’s mother, who is fired from a terrible job with a racist employer and eventually finds confidence and independence through taking literacy classes; Lila, a single mother raising a four-year-old daughter; Samra, a neighbor who escaped an oppressive family to live with the man she loves. Doria herself recognizes by the end of the book how much she has grown, especially in the time that her father has been away, and dreams of changing her world in the future.
To paraphrase Melinda’s comments a while ago about the novel Does My Head Look Big In This?, if there were a lot of books about young Muslim women out there to choose from, this one might not be at the top of the list. As it is, this one is still valuable for the stories it contains that don’t make it into mainstream young adult literature often enough.