Boys Don't Cry:
Louis’ Body Politics
The French Literary Sensation
Talks Shame, Childhood,
And His New Book
History Of Violence
- Interview: Thora Siemsen
- Photography: Christian Werner
Édouard Louis’s laugh is deep, boyish. Anticipatory. It assures me that while it can be hard for a 25-year-old global literary star (“French literary boy wonder” is but one headline) to find time on the phone, it is not hard to find each other once we do. It holds me in the memory of times I’ve heard Louis’s laugh travel across a dinner table, a Manhattan dance floor, or a video call one friend tilted in my direction for a bisou from Édouard.
I first heard the sound last spring at the New York Public Library. I was taking up floor space in a friend’s office when Édouard and our mutual friend, the writer Ocean Vuong, dropped in for a visit. Louis and I talked about what it means to change your name—a process I was newly undertaking and a fulcrum-like detail in his debut novel The End of Eddy.
Out since 2014 in Louis’s native France, The End of Eddy is a novel replete with eidetic recollections of youth as a queer person in a poor factory town. The book marks a violent break from his past in the village of Hallencourt in northern France, concluding with his departure from provincial life to pursue his studies. In its first year, The End of Eddy sold 300,000 copies. Louis was 21.
Alongside philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Louis then published in 2015, in the French paper Le Monde, “Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive,” which critiqued both the state of the Socialist party in France as well as the extreme right, with a sharp gaze on the spread of austerity and nationalism through Europe. The Anglo version of The End of Eddy arrived last May, five days before Emmanuel Macron would be elected President of France by a decisive margin. Louis’s hometown of Hallencourt was looked towards as an example of a faction that would show up in droves to vote for Marine Le Pen, the incumbent President of France’s National Front, the right-wing populist and nationalist political party founded by Le Pen’s father. Garth Greenwell notes in his review for The New Yorker, “As France has braced itself for the possibility of a Le Pen Presidency, Louis’s book has become the subject of political discussion in a way that novels rarely do.”
Already published in France by the time of the Anglo arrival of The End of Eddy, Louis’s second novel, History of Violence, showcases Louis’s ability to communicate from inside the aftermath of sexual assault. Out this summer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in English, a worn copy of the book sat next to me when I called my friend, its author, on the phone. A New York City morning, a Paris afternoon.
Can you tell me about drinking vodka with Toni Morrison?
She is one of my heroes, as you know. I wrote this essay about her and about her work published in Norway, but I had an English version that someone sent to her and she read it. One day, she wrote to me and she told me that I could come to her place and have lunch. It was obviously a wonderful moment because she means so much to me. It was noon or one PM, very early in the day. We started to drink vodka, and for three hours we were drinking vodka talking about [James] Baldwin, the United States and France, and Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner, talking about our passion for William Faulkner, but with a lot of vodka. When I left her place at maybe five, I was completely drunk. [Laughs] I forgot a lot about what we said to each other, unfortunately. I wanted this moment to be unforgettable, and it is, in a way, but I wanted to keep every single sentence in my mind. It was incredible to see how funny she is, even when she's talking about the worst things. Maybe the vodka helped, I don't know. We laughed a lot.
I’ve heard really sweet stories about your original Paris apartment being covered in books, where the stacks double as furniture. Also, that you’re a sneaky reader, fitting it in at odd hours. How many books do you consume a week, whole or part, would you say?
At some point, when I was 17 or 18, I would try to read one book a day. I read somewhere that Jean-Paul Sartre would read one book a day. I was kind of obsessed and I thought, I will never be a Jean-Paul Sartre if I don't do the same. That was crazy. [Laughs] Now, it really depends. I'm writing and I'm trying to have a life, and I'm trying to sleep. It's a new thing for me, sleeping, living. Maybe one or two books a week.
“I wanted to show how I did everything to fit in and how I failed, and because I failed, my failure saved me.”
In a recent conversation with Zadie Smith, you said, “I’m cut off from the community that I used to belong to. As a writer if your work starts to be translated and you are traveling, suddenly you have a different life.” Most writers don’t really speak to the insularization that comes from success. Can you talk more about how you’ve been navigating these separations from community?
I did everything I could to escape my milieu in order to escape my family. I hated my childhood. I hated what happened during my childhood, even if at the beginning I did everything to fit in. It was the story of The End of Eddy. In the North of France, in the small, poor, working-class village where I grew up, people didn't like me because I'm gay. They would tell me that I'm not like them. The story of The End of Eddy was my struggle to fit in before escaping. It was very central and very important to me to really break free from the narration of the different child who was from a milieu where people are not different, kind of like a Billy Elliot story, you know? I wanted to show how I did everything to fit in and how I failed, and because I failed, my failure saved me.
What do you miss about childhood?
I'm a very nostalgic person. It's very bizarre. Even if I hated my childhood, I am nostalgic for it. How can it be possible? Probably because the past is—in a way—settled. I think that childhood is a moment where the world is growing every day. Every day the world is bigger, reality is bigger, reality is deeper. When you become an adult, everything shrinks. You realize that the world is smaller and smaller, and people's minds are not as big as you thought.
When I originally read The End of Eddy I remember being stuck on certain passages like, “During this period, the idea that I really was a girl in a boy's body, as everyone had always told me, came to seem more and more real.” I think it’s a really worthwhile conversation for gay men and trans women to discuss these similarities and differences in our childhoods, conversations which your literature makes room for and help open up for me.
Your parents, your family, your milieu, your society, they build a body for you, but you don't belong to this body. I think that is, in fact, as you say, very relevant for transgender people and gay people. I could say that for Eddy, he's not the child I used to be, but he's the child that I never succeeded in being. Eddy was the name my father chose for me, and through choosing this name, he chose a body. He was the expression of a body my father wanted as a son. In France, there was this big thing where you give American names to the child, and so Eddy was a very, very working-class name. I was not Eddy. I was not this masculine child. My father wanted to reproduce his own masculinity though my body.
History of Violence, originally published in 2016 in France as Histoire de la violence, arrives this summer in English. In what ways is the anticipation for, or anxiety about, this book’s release different this time around?
I would want History of Violence to create a discussion about the way that we deal with sexual violence. After we talk about it, how can we deal with it? The #MeToo movement emerged, and it was really beautiful, the way it allowed people to talk. In the book I talk about a rape that I endured, so I know in my flesh how difficult it is, and how you need support, structures, discourses to help you be able to talk about it. In my opinion, what is missing today in the US, after this big debate, is: what can we do? For me it's a problem when progressive people, liberal people, left-wing people become in favor of repression and punishment. Our society tends to fix one violence with another violence. If you assaulted someone physically or sexually, then the justice system, the state system, the penal system says, "Okay, this person was violent, so we will be violent. We will put this body in a cage for 10 years. We will take his freedom for 10 years.” For me, there is a discussion that needs to happen. It's the core of the book. After that assault happened to me, I didn't understand why the police would take my story and use it to put someone in jail. If we fight against sexual violence, it means that we fight against violence. If we fight violence we can't fight in favor of punishment. If we are being logical, we know that prison is not stopping violence. On the contrary, prison is creating more violence within our society. I know this from my childhood. My grandfather went to jail. My cousin went to jail. When they came out from jail, they were so violent. In our society people are in love with punishment.
The details of sexual assault in History of Violence are shared through the proxy of your sister’s monologue, recounting what she’s been told by you. Was this meant to buffer or distance you from having to perform this experience, of sharing testimony again and again as you’ve already done for the authorities, doctors, and the courts?
It was obviously complicated. As soon as the sexual assault happened, I realized that everyone around me was talking about it, but I wouldn't recognize what happened anymore in what people were saying. I remember I reported to the police, I told this story to the police, and they wrote it on the computer, and then they printed it. When they printed it and showed me the report and asked me to sign it, I didn't recognize what I said at all. At all. Because they were saying it with the racist language of the police, with the straight ways of thinking of these two police agents. For example, the police would tell me, "Why did you bring a guy you didn't know to your place in the middle of the night?" Obviously it's classic in the gay life, you know?
I told them, "Everyone does that." So I told them, "For the longest time, queer people like me, we didn't have any place to meet. We couldn't meet in restaurants or in cafes or in bars like you, straight people like you. We were taking risks. We created a way of life in the street. We created queer streets. We created new ways of cruising, of seducing." Strangely the people who didn't suffer always want to lecture the people who suffered about the way they should deal with it.
“Shame was my birth certificate. I was born in shame. I am the son of shame. I was created by shame.”
You speak of shame as a tool for your writing. How do you balance the desire to use shame as a device against the desire to escape shame’s everyday toxicity?
Shame was my birth certificate. I was born in shame. I am the son of shame. I was created by shame. As soon as I would talk, my father would lower his eyes, because he was ashamed of the way I would talk. It was not masculine enough for him. I think the best way to lose shame is to talk about shame. One of the very cruel things with shame is that when we are ashamed we start to think we are the only one. Shame always comes with a feeling of solitude, of loneliness. So to write about shame, and to talk about shame, is a way of saying to the world, to people you aren't alone. We are an entire population, we are an entire people full of shame. We are a movement.
I had to give a reading of History of Violence in a university, so I was reading some chapters, and I realized that the working-class milieu of my childhood that I describe in both books was full of rules and norms. Very strong norms. Masculinity. When I read the books closer, I realize no one was really respecting these rules. For example, my father would say, "A man never cries. A boy should never cry. Only women cry." When I think it through, when I think about it, I realize that during my childhood my father was crying all the time. In 16 years, my mother maybe cried one time, or two times maximum. What I realized is that most of the time rules and social norms, they fail to transform us. They don't fully succeed in changing us.
What can you tell me about the new novel?
I just released a book in France. It's a book called Who Killed My Father? It's literally the opposite of The End of Eddy, because it's the story of a tough guy—the story of the little boy I never was. The story of my father. My father had this dream to be young. In his family, his grandfather and his father, they would end school and go to the factory straight away. At 16 they were factory workers. My father came from a different generation when he was discovering the 60s, the ideas, the notion of youth. The book is talking about a body who fights in order to be young, refusing to go directly to the factory. I really have the impression that youth is given to the bourgeoisie and if you come from the working-class you have to fight if you want to get it. It's not given by society. You have to steal it from society. Today my father is 50 years old and he has trouble walking. He has trouble breathing. He's in a horrible physical condition and this condition [is a mirror] of 30 years of French politics against the working-class, against poor people. Withdrawing welfare from them. Not paying medication for the working-class. When you talk about politics, we talk about it in a very theoretical way. When you come from a privileged milieu, you are kind of protected from politics. If you are rich, white, living in Manhattan, even if you hate the government, the government has very few opportunities to impact your body. For my father, politics was living or dying. So, I wrote about that.
Thora Siemsen is a freelance writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Creative Independent, The New Yorker, and more.
- Interview: Thora Siemsen
- Photography: Christian Werner
- Grooming: Débora Emy