The Path to Freedom, by Édouard LouisTranslated by Tash Aw

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From the introduction to A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, a book about the author’s mother, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the French.

Everything started with a photo. I didn’t know that this image existed or that I possessed it—who gave it to me, and when?

The photo was taken by her the year she turned twenty. I imagine that she must have held the camera backward to capture her face in the lens. It was a time when cell phones didn’t exist, when taking a picture of oneself wasn’t a straightforward thing to do.

She is tilting her head and smiling slightly, her blond hair brushed and falling in immaculate bangs around her green eyes.

It was as if she was trying to be seductive.

I can’t find the words to explain, but everything about the snapshot—her pose, her gaze, the movement of her hair—evokes freedom, the infinite possibilities ahead of her, and perhaps, also, happiness.

I think I’d forgotten that she had been free before my birth—even joyful?

It must have occurred to me sometimes, when I was still living with her, that she had once been young and full of dreams, but when I found the photo I hadn’t thought about this for a long time—her freedom and contentment had become an abstract notion, something I vaguely knew. Nothing, or almost nothing, of what I knew of her in my childhood, through the closeness I had with her body for fifteen years, could have helped me remember all that.

Looking at this image, I felt language disappear from me. To see her free, hurtling fulsomely toward the future, made me think back to the life she shared with my father, the humiliation she endured from him, the poverty, the twenty years of her life deformed and almost destroyed by misery and masculine violence, between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, a time when others experience life, freedom, travel, learning about oneself.

The photo reminded me that those twenty years of devastation were not anything natural but were the result of external forces—society, masculinity, my father—and that things could have been otherwise.

The vision of her happiness made me feel the injustice of her destruction.

I cried when I saw this image because I was, despite myself—or perhaps, rather, along with her, and sometimes against her—one of the agents of this destruction.

I still remember the day of the argument with my little brother—it was summer. I came home after an afternoon spent hanging out on the steps of the mairie, and a fight broke out with my youngest brother, right in front of you. Amid the shouting and the insults, my brother said, using the most hurtful tone he could muster, Everybody in the village makes fun of you behind your back. Everyone says you’re a faggot.

It wasn’t so much what he said that hurt me, or the fact that I knew it was true, but that he’d said it in your presence.

I went to my room and grabbed the bottle of colored sand that stood on my chest of drawers, then returned to my brother and shattered it on the floor in front of him. It was a trinket he’d created at school.

The teacher had suggested that the kids fill Coke bottles with grains of sand soaked in dye to make colorful ornaments; she’d asked my brother if he’d wanted to make something and he’d chosen to make one for me. It was for me that he’d taken on this burden, for me that he’d spent an entire day making this pretty thing.

When I smashed the bottle at his feet he screamed sharply and began to cry, burying his face in a sofa cushion. You came up to me, slapped me, and told me that you’d never seen such a cruel child. I already regretted what I’d done, but I hadn’t been able to stop myself. I was mad at him for having revealed to you something of me, of my life, of my suffering.

I didn’t want you to know who I was.

Throughout the first years of my life, I was terrified that you would really know me. In collège, whenever meetings were arranged between parents and teachers, unlike other children who had good grades, I made sure that you didn’t find out about them. I hid the invitations, I burned them. When an end-of-the-year variety show with sketches, songs, and dance routines was put on in the village hall, the other kids brought their parents and families along. I did everything I could to ensure your absence. I told you that the dances and songs would be boring; I made up stories about technical problems; I didn’t give you the real dates for the show. I lied to you. Later I would discover an image, so often repeated in movies and TV shows, of a child onstage, waiting for his parents to appear in the hall to admire the performance that he has tirelessly worked on during that year, just for them. I never recognized myself in that child—neither in his waiting for his parents nor in his disappointment in their absence. It was as though all my childhood had been lived in reverse.

I didn’t want you to know that at school the other kids refused to be friends with me because it was frowned on to be close to someone thought to be a faggot. I didn’t want you to know that several times a week two boys waited for me in the hallway of the school library to slap me and spit on my face, to punish me for being who I was. “Is it true you’re a fag?”

I didn’t want you to know that at the age of nine or ten I already knew the taste of melancholy and despair, that I was prematurely aged by these feelings, that every morning I woke up with the same questions in my head: Why was I the person that I was? Why was I born with the mannerisms of a girl—mannerisms that the others identified, and rightly so, as proof of my abnormality? Why was I born with this desire for other boys instead of for girls, unlike my father and brothers? Why wasn’t I someone else? Once, several years after all this, when I told you during an argument that I’d hated my childhood, you looked at me as though I was mad and said: But you were always smiling!

How could I criticize your reaction that day when it was, in a way, a symbol of my victory, of the fact that I had succeeded, throughout my childhood, in keeping you ignorant of what my life was—and ultimately, in preventing you from becoming my mother?

The first pages of this story could have been called: A Son’s Struggle Not to Become a Son.

The year she wanted to take a vacation—she came into the kitchen and told us that she had made up her mind. We would be going on holiday. She recalled her childhood stays in the mountains, where doctors had sent her to treat her severe asthma. I was with my father, watching TV next to him. She announced: We’re going to the mountains. My father laughed. He kept watching his show and said, What the hell is that all about?

She had met with a social worker the previous day and learned that there were programs run by the state for families like ours who couldn’t afford to go on vacation. She began to hope.

She started by shuttling to and from the little building that housed the social services office, on the edge of the fields near the metal factory. She came back with stacks of paper under her arms, all sorts of forms and documents freshly photocopied, still warm from the printer, and she was charged with an energy that I had never before seen in her, both in her body and on her face.

She placed the documents on the table and spread them out to show my father, but he never looked up from the television. He replied that it didn’t interest him, so she just stayed there, immobile. She turned to me, but I didn’t listen to her either. I don’t know why.

Perhaps I was unconsciously imitating my father, or maybe I was just bored by her description of the application process.

My father continued to make fun of her, but she didn’t give up. I saw her heading toward the grocery store, often several times a day, to use the photocopier next to the checkout.

She asked my father for the administrative documents that he had sorted out and filed away the previous year, but he replied that he couldn’t remember where he’d put them. He said it with a faint, cruel smile on his face.

So she waited. She waited for him to go to the café before rummaging through the chest of drawers. She didn’t just open them, she pulled the trays out completely and placed them on the floor, sat next to them and took out the piles of paper one after the other; she made phone calls, left messages, called back when she didn’t get a reply, crossed the street again, filled in yet more forms, until the day she told us that it was done, she had won. Her words smothered the noise of the TV: We’re going on vacation next summer. She smiled. (Your face suddenly became so luminous.) My father said that he wouldn’t go with us, that he was better off staying at home, chez lui, but nothing he said mattered to her at this stage: she looked down on him now, thanks to her victory over him.

In her files, she had photos of the small mountain resort that I would be going to with her, as well as of our lodgings, and for months before our departure she would look at them every day—in the morning, at night before going to bed, hundreds of times. The day that she announced the news to us, our vacation guaranteed, she whispered to me so my father wouldn’t hear, “At last I’m going to be happy.”

I’ve been told that literature should never attempt to explain, only to capture reality, but I’m writing to explain and understand her life.

I’ve been told that literature should never repeat itself, but I want to write only the same story again and again, returning to it until it reveals fragments of its truth, digging hole after hole until all that is hidden begins to seep out.

I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a display of feelings, but I write only to allow emotions to spring forth, those sentiments that the body cannot express.

I’ve been told that literature should never resemble a political manifesto, but already I’m sharpening each of my sentences the way I would sharpen the blade of a knife.

Because I know now that what is called literature has been constructed against lives and bodies like my mother’s. Because I know, from here on, that to write about her, and to write about her life, is to write against literature.


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