Édouard Louis: ‘We didn’t reject literature – it rejected us’

The enfant terrible of French writing talks about the violence perpetrated by the political system on the working class

Édouard Louis became an international literary sensation aged 21, when The End of Eddy, his debut autobiographical novel about growing up poor, gay and bullied in northern France, was published in 2014. Last year, History of Violence recounted how he was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met and is out now in paperback. In his third book Who Killed My Father, published earlier this year, Louis uses personal experience again – in this case the story of his father whose back was damaged in a factory accident – to launch a scathing social and political critique of the violence he sees perpetrated against the working class. “I want to be a writer of violence,” he has said. “The more you talk about violence, the more you can undo violence.”

There is no question mark in the title of your most recent book. Is that because you know who killed your father?
It’s not a question; it’s a declaration.

When we spoke two years ago, you said this book would be a tragedy. Is that how you would describe it now?
I believe so, in that it describes how the bodies of working-class people are destroyed by the system. This book transmits my anger against that violence. Who Killed My Father is the truth about politics and politicians; a question, literally, of life and death. We know if you are a factory worker in France you have a 50% higher chance of dying before 55 compared with executives. Working-class women are more likely to suffer violence; blacks and Arabs are more likely to die. Politicians like Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron deny this reality. I have tried to restore the truth of this through my father’s story.

So the book is more political than personal?
It is both political and intimate. When I was very young, perhaps eight, nine, they changed the benefits system in France and started asking people to return to work, whatever the state of their bodies. The administration contacted my father, whose back had been destroyed, and said: “You have to go back to work”, so he did, as a road sweeper, which destroyed his body even more. Politicians like Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Macron… they took political decisions whose impact was as personal and intimate for my father as his first kiss or the first time he made love.

Some French editors have defined the book as a love letter to your father. Is it?
I don’t think so. I have to admit I don’t know if I love my father or not. But it’s not the point – the violence is the point. When I write about politics and ask questions, I don’t ask if I love the person I’m writing about or if they love me. And I will fight for them, whether they love me or not.

In your first novel, The End of Eddy, you were hard on your father; this is a much kinder portrait. What changed?
In The End of Eddy, I showed the complexity of my father. He was a violent person and I have many, very clear, memories of his violence. After History of Violence came out, he called me and I went to see him. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for about five years. When he opened the door and I saw his body was destroyed by poverty and the suffering he had endured, it helped me see another angle: I was capable of seeing him as a whole. I’m not denying what I wrote in The End of Eddy, but I’d written about the violence he made others suffer, not the violence he himself suffered.

You describe a concert you organised at home as a child to entertain your parents and friends and how desperate you were to have your father’s attention. Is this book trying to get that attention?
When I was growing up, my father was ashamed of me and said I was bringing shame on my family, but he was also capable of defending me. After I Ieft home, I didn’t speak to my father. We didn’t argue, it was just our lives became too different. He was in the north of France voting for the National Front and I was in Paris, studying philosophy and living my gay life as a militant left-winger. Today, in my daily existence, I don’t concern myself at all with what my parents think of me.

You have written that you supported the gilets jaunes movement because the photos you saw of their bodies, “ravaged by work, fatigue, hunger and the permanent humiliation of the dominated by the dominant”, resembled those of your father, brother, aunt…
I was bowled over when the movement started and suddenly I saw these bodies we see very little in public spaces and that I try to make visible in my books. The gilets jaunes movement made reality smash right into politics. You hear politicians on the radio and television and you think, what in the world are they talking about? Here we saw the reality. These gilets jaunes finally made us feel something had changed, politics had changed. People realised they could revolt and the politicians were reminded of that too. What was wonderful for me was that the dominant class panicked, they had a real sense of fear. Fear is something the people I grew up with feel every single day. Of course, I’d like something more revolutionary, but for the dominant class to be afraid… It was like: finally, they know how it feels.

What did you read when you were young?
When I was very young, I didn’t read at all. I detested books. I grew up in a social class where books were absent. Reading was something nobody did. It took years for me to get the habit of reading books. Like my father and those around him, I believed reading was boring and useless and there was even a mistrust for literature. It wasn’t that we’d rejected literature, but that it had rejected us. It was the same with politics. An exception was made for old authors like Émile Zola and Victor Hugo because we knew they were on our side and fought for us.

What was the first book you read?
I finally discovered reading with the Harry Potter series. Those books really marked me. Here was this boy growing up in a place he didn’t belong to and didn’t connect with and suddenly discovering there was another place, another world, where he did. There were also books studied at school by Marcel Proust, André Gide, Christopher Isherwood, and I felt that the story they were telling was my story. After that it was my friend Didier Eribon’s book Returning to Reims. Suddenly, I realised it was possible to be working class and gay and still succeed.

What books should every young person read?
That depends on the person. A child should read Harry Potter; an adolescent Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

What are you reading now?
Books that particularly appeal to me: We, the Survivors by Tash Aw, which tells of a Malaysian man who kills an immigrant worker during a dispute, someone he considers less worthy as a human; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, about a gay migrant in the US, which is the whole history of American homophobia, and I’ve just finished translating Anne Carson’s Antigonick into French. It’s about political violence and how we speak of it now, and seemed so important that I offered to translate it myself.

• Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis is published by Harvill Secker (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

• History of Violence by Édouard Louis is published by Harvill Secker (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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