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French Version

French-Algerian author hits big time with novel about life in Paris projects

Nineteen-year old Faiza Guene's "Kiffe kiffe demain" sells 70,000 copies worldwide

When Faiza Guene turned 19 last June she could never have imagined what would soon be in store for her.

The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Guene, a writer and aspiring filmmaker, grew up in Les Courtillieres, one of Paris' large public housing projects in the northeastern suburbs. Her novel, "Kiffe kiffe demain (More of the Same Tomorrow)," recounts the life of a heroine named Doria.

(The title loses a lot in the English translation - "Kif kif demain" would be the correct spelling but Guene changed it to reflect the verb "kiffer," slang for liking something, so the title would have an upbeat connotation.) The book was published in August 2004. It was an instant hit.

Since then, Guene has been good-naturedly traipsing from interviews with The New York Times or Elle magazine, to television and radio studios.

"I used to tell my mother I'd be a writer some day but it was a dream - this was totally unexpected," she says, talking to The Daily Star in a cafe in the Bastille area of Paris.

Her publisher, Hachette Litteratures, has sold the rights for "Kiffe kiffe demain" to European, British, North American and Japanese publishers. The book is on the Associated Press' international bestseller list and so far 70,000 copies of the novel have been sold.

Guene, alternately earnest and giggly and wearing an olive-green knit beanie and dangling earrings, has written stories practically from the day she could read and write. At 13 she became involved in a publicly financed neighborhood cultural center, which offers theater, film and writing workshops. One of the founders of the center read the first 40 pages of the "Kiffe kiffe demain" manuscript and showed it to his sister who works at Hachette. Guene still marvels over the fact that very little of her manuscript was changed.

By 14 she had written several scripts and finished her first short film, "La Zonzoniere", (zonzon is slang for prison) about an adolescent girl whose zealously traditional father and brother keep her imprisoned in the family apartment.

In "Kiffe kiffe demain," Doria's neighbor Samra has the same fate. Guene says an acquaintance of hers lived a similar situation and was the inspiration for both her film and the book.

It is clear from her writing and her open manner that Guene grew up with a healthy dose of freedom compared with most girls in the Parisian projects who are of North African origins.

"I'm incredibly lucky. My parents are very open-minded. They are religious, but for them, your relationship with god is a personal one," she recounts. "My mother always trusted her children and I could come and go as I pleased. She knew I'd respect the rules."

Mrs. Guene was the eldest of ten children and according to her daughter is a born teacher.

"My friends were always getting smacked by their parents. My mother never hit us. She talked and explained everything to the point that sometimes I'd say, 'Okay c'mon just hit me and get it over with!'"

Guene, who lives with her parents and two siblings, apparently handles her newfound celebrity with aplomb, and doesn't take herself too seriously.

"For a TV show you get your make-up done and everything is all glittery and shiny. Then you go home and the elevator is broken and the hallway smells of urine!"

From the outset, Hachette had Guene fielding journalists on her own.

"I was never nervous about giving interviews. In the beginning I'd say the first thing that came to mind. Nobody told me what to say and what not to say so I've been learning along the way," she says. "At the same time I'm glad I've always been sincere. When I do big stuff like TV shows, someone from my publishing company is with me. Sometimes I feel out of place on talk shows, but I've always tried to make my point."

Part of Guene's point is that being from the often-grim suburbs doesn't have to have negative connotations. She has long felt that what has been written about neighborhoods like hers only involves cliches such as violence, drugs or unemployment.

While these subjects are part of the backdrop in "Kiffe kiffe demain," the novel is primarily about Doria's coming of age and her Moroccan mother's slow path to empowerment once her husband has left her for a younger wife who can produce the son that she wasn't able to.

Guene's character Doria is only autobiographical in her sense of humor and a vicious eye for detail. Whether Guene is describing the procession of social workers that come to Doria's apartment or people in the metro, no one is spared her merciless scrutiny. Another theme Guene is interested in is the isolation felt by the inhabitants of the housing projects. Paris may be nearby but the psychological distance is tremendous.

"It's easier for me to get to Paris than to the center of the area where I live. But people are afraid to cross the barrier - it seems so far away. I first started coming to Paris when I was 14 and realized it was right there, and also not that big of a deal!"

Even before crossing the "barrier," a journalist who met Guene in 1999 wrote about her while reporting on the first workshops run by the Courtillieres cultural center: "Without having moved from Pantin [a northeastern suburb of Paris] Faiza already slips back and forth between the troubled urban zone and the other world."

Indeed, Guene remembers doing what she has Doria do: She opens an atlas and traces an imaginary itinerary around the world. Doria also rides the metro from one end of the line to the other just for a change of scene.

The young author is wary of being easily categorized as a writer from an urban ghetto.

"A lot of journalists I've met have already decided what they're going to say about the suburbs and they just want to meet you to prove their point," she says.

She was also put out by a recent call from the French Interior Ministry. They offered her a job to work on "positive discrimination," the controversial French version of what in the United States is called affirmative action, often seen as an invention that enhances differences and encourages divisions.

"I stopped them right away," she scoffs. Guene feels very strongly about being French as well as Algerian. "How can discrimination be positive, anyway?"

For the time being she is studying sociology at the University of St. Denis in Paris, but she is mainly interested in telling stories, whether through film or writing. Her backbone, however, remains her family where little has changed since she has gained fame.

"If I told my parents I walked on the moon they would say, 'That's great sweetie. Now wash your hands before lunch.'"

"Kiffe kiffe demain" by Faiza Guene is published by Hachette Litteratures

Beirut,12 20 2004
Olivia Snaije
The Daily Star
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