'The End of Eddy' Recounts Growing Up Amid Homophobia And Violence

Jun 24, 2017
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Edouard Louis never dreamed he'd be a writer. He grew up poor in industrial northern France. And he grew up gay in a family stewing in raw violence, alcoholism, racism and homophobia. Edouard Louis tells the story of his tortured youth, fighting against and later coming to terms with his sexuality in his autobiographical novel titled "The End Of Eddy." In this section, he describes his effeminate mannerisms that made him the target of cruelty in school and at home.

EDOUARD LOUIS: (Reading) I had not chosen that high-pitched voice. I had not chosen my way of walking, the pronounced, much too pronounced way my hips swayed from side to side, all the shrill cries that escaped my body - not cries that I uttered but ones that literally escaped through my throat whenever I was surprised, delighted or frightened.

BLOCK: Each morning when he was about 12, Edouard Louis says he would repeat this mantra. Today, I'm going to be a tough guy. And a caution - our conversation includes language about the abuse he endured that listeners will likely find offensive.

LOUIS: In telling the story, I wanted to kind of break the traditional narrative of the outsider of the kid whose dream is to escape. You know, I wanted to show the contrary. I wanted to show that when I was a kid, when I was Eddy, my biggest dream was not to escape, was not to be different. My biggest dream was to fit in, to conform. I just wanted my father not to be ashamed of me.

In my childhood, the way of building your working-class identity was a way of building a masculine identity. When my father was saying, I am a man from the working class. I am not a bourgeois. He always meant, I am not effeminate like the bourgeoisie - like the men of the bourgeoisie who cross the leg when they talk.

BLOCK: You write in your book that mannerisms made you the target of horrifying physical abuse in school. How did you learn to protect yourself, and how, ultimately, did you escape to go onto to university and to graduate school?

LOUIS: You know, I - at that time, I was not trying to protect myself. I was ashamed of being assaulted. So all the story of the book is the story of myself protecting these two boys that would run to me every day at school to spit on me - to telling me, you're a faggot. You're a pussy. You have to die. And every day, I went there to meet them in the corridor. I didn't protect myself. I didn't try to escape. I just escaped at the end of my childhood because I felt that I had no choice that my queer body would be destroyed if I stayed.

BLOCK: You describe the town in northern France where you grew up. In your book, you describe it as a place where the school looks just like the factory. And people go from school right into factory jobs. And it seems like it's a place of the French dispossessed, the invisible working poor - much like we hear a lot of talk about here in the States.

LOUIS: It's true. It's true that, you know, I started to write "The End Of Eddy" because when I went to the city to study, I went to high school. I went to university. And I realized that the people of my childhood - that my mother or my father - the kind of lives that we had - that they still have - were absent from literature - was invisible. I couldn't see the life. I couldn't read about the life.

And, you know, we were suffering from that invisibility. We knew that my mother or my father would say all the time, nobody cares about us. Nobody wants to talk about us. And books were completely, like, absent from the house. There were no books in my childhood. When they saw literature, this was a representation of our lives that we would never have. For us, a book was an aggression.

BLOCK: You describe trying to give them a voice - give your parents a voice and this town a voice in your book. The portrait, though, that you paint of your parents in this book is not at all flattering. Have they read it? What do they think about it if they have?

LOUIS: My mother was crazy. She went to TV shows. She went on the radio, and she said, my son is a liar. That was terrible for me. And when I talked with her, she told me, why do you say we are poor? For her, it was the biggest shame. She didn't care about the fact that I described the homophobia or the racism. But she told me, why do you say we are poor?

Because she was so ashamed of that. She suffers, but she's ashamed of suffering. And, you know, I explain in the book that all her violence is due to the violence that she's suffering from. And so my mother was violent because society was violent to us. And I'm not angry to the two boys that spit on me every day. I'm not angry at my mom that insulted me because now I see why. I see that she was - that my mother was a victim of the violence she was suffering from.

BLOCK: For people who are trying to understand the power of the message of the far right in France - of the National Front and Marine Le Pen - what do you think the town where you're from illustrates or illuminates about that?

LOUIS: You know, it illustrates what's happening everywhere in the world - in the United States, in England, in France, in Germany - which is the rise of the extreme right, of the far right who are mostly elected by people who suffer from exclusion and from invisibility.

And when my parents would go to vote for Marine Le Pen, for the far right, they would always say, oh, you know, we do it because she's the only one who cares about us. You know, the way my parents were voting for the populists were a way of existing in the voice of the others. And we won't stop this dynamic if we don't understand the causes.

BLOCK: Edouard Louis - his book "The End of Eddy" was recently published in translation in the U.S. Mr. Louis, thanks so much for talking with us.

LOUIS: Thanks to you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.