Coming of age is a fist in the face for Karim Miske. Filmmaker, detective novelist, son of a Mauritanian diplomat and a French communist mother, Miske both inhabits and illuminates in his work a world of shifting and uncertain French identities. In this excerpt from the first chapter of his memoir, Unbelonging (N’Appartenir), the moment when the fine drapery of a middle class upbringing in Paris began to fray, exposing the rot behind:
In the beginning there is the shame. It circles around inside you, elusive and toxic. A cancer, a miasma that inhabits you, that constitutes you. A god-damned alien whose entire existence is bent on ruining yours, on spreading through you, on strangling you from within.
You are seven years old, or six, or nine. Not fifty like you are today. Words still escape your grasp, and ideas as well. Anger has not been born yet, that emotion which will allow you a wider view.
Shame knows. This whore that feeds on silence and taboo. And since you and she have been stuck together for so long the taboo is you, the forbidden is you. Nothing else exists but this unsayable truth: you should not be.
It is written on the faces of those who see you give your hand to your mother, to your grandmother, to your grandfather. You are the object that is out of place, the product of an unnatural act. The child of a demon succubus or incubus who has since returned to his plane of hell after depositing his pariah’s seed.
You should not exist, but you nevertheless do, that is clear. Might as well then just shut up and pretend that everything is going great. Might as well boast about the virtues of mixture, make you out as the avant-garde of an intermingled humanity, of a radiant future. Might as well talk about something else, but not about the violence. Might as well try to forget about the hate, the bitterness, the rancor.
Might as well make as if. Might as well. And then one day, Boom! The truth. You are nine and a half years old, your whole family is there. Your white family with whom you have grown up your whole life making as if you were, too; doing a strange dance of avoiding the mirror. Your family that loves you, in its dysfunctional way.
Your white family that loves you and that is going through an ordeal. Your grandfather is losing his mind. Too much rich food; business lunches; got to his brain; he’s not going to make it past the autumn. You love him, your grandpa, but today he is scaring you. You’d think he was going to bang into the furniture with all of the pacing back and forth, waving his arms. He shouts, rants–they’ve stolen it, they’ve definitely stolen it. And you? You can’t help thinking of Moliere, The Miser: My purse! Give me back my purse you bunch of bastards!
For what it is worth, on normal days, your grandfather is pleasant, generous. But this evening he’s gone off the rails and nobody seems to be able to get inside this bubble of rage that his neuronal short circuit has trapped him in. The sweetest words do nothing but further stir up his insensate fury. So you get involved too, naively believing in your power as the adored grandson. With your little arms you try to embrace him, give him a ‘love you grandpa.’
But you might as well have tried to reason with an enraged animal! Face red, congested, he shoves you out of his way, but not before striking out in passing with a word that is hard like a fist in the face, venomous like the bite of a viper. It hurts so much that you feel nothing more afterwards.
It is a word that contains far more than his immediate frustration. With it he is expelling something profound and unclean: the encysted pus of a ten-year-old wound that everyone thought was superficial, but which by being ignored, has clearly become deeply infected. His daughter and that Arab: everyone thought the issue was over and done with. He had never even said anything much against the detestable union. Ten years of silence and stewing, and now he throws it all at you.
In front of the whole family. It’s your Karma, your destiny. His beloved daughter, so beautiful, with her blue eyes and porcelain skin. His daughter that the Arab snatched away. Of course you father’s crime falls on your shoulders, since you are its product.
And now that the cholesterol-clogged brain of your grandfather knows that he is entering the final stretch, that his race is run, why should he bother to swallow his words, hold back his rage and his pain? Might as well have done with it, shoot this poisoned arrow right into your heart, strangling the breath right out of the whole family, all gathered here around the stumbling patriarch. No one knows what to say, what to do.
So, then, silence. Shhh! Silence.
You, your mother, your grandmother, even your great-grandmother. All transformed into pillars of salt. Frozen, paralyzed. Nothing will ever be what is was before now. A word pronounced by the person you love more than anyone else in the world. The one who took you to see Sergio Leone movies, Luis Mariano operettas.
You aren’t even ten years old yet, and in the absence of your father, who is always somewhere else, he has been your male role model. Solid as a tree, just and fair, he never gets angry without a reason. His love seems to you to have been acquired without discussion, and for eternity. Your Grandpa, damn it! One foul word from him, and your universe collapses.
The effect is like a flash-bang grenade going off in the living room. Each person stands there dazed, shocked, suddenly alone. Each licking his wounds, looking to see if any bits of shrapnel are stuck in there somewhere. And yes. Of course there are. Everywhere. You’ve been pierced by a multitude of invisible splinters that you will never get out of your heart or your soul.
You are just going to have to learn to live with them. You are just going to have to learn that you have actually always been living with them. The violence, the pain that keeps you apart; impossible to share them. Impossible perhaps to see that your mother too has been wounded in a very deep place. She will never display a trace of the pain that her father has inflicted on her. But she will have her revenge immediately, and her spite will feel good to you, like biting down into a thick and bloody piece of steak.
It is exactly that sort of carnivorous and loathsome feeling. You mother has her vengeance, yes, with a line that is venomous and pleasurable, but one that you will later reproach her for, since it served equally well to sidestep this moment’s injury and shame, so carefully avoiding the gaping hole that has opened in the middle of the family’s unity. A line that she precedes with, “so if it’s like that, then… “
These words, which generally herald trouble for you, are for once directed at someone else, and not just anyone: the person who right until this moment represented for you order and authority. “So if it’s like that, then tomorrow you’re going to the hospital.” With a thin, sharp smile like the edge of a sword, one that says, “and you won’t be coming out again.” The stumbling patriarch overthrown, and we move on.
Karim Miske Translated from French by International Boulevard
21 Sep 2016