Autumn 2016: The Calais “Jungle” is demolished and Reception and Orientation Centers (“Centre d’Accueil et d’Orientation”—CAO) for refugee migrants are opened all over France. From the Head of State to his ministers, policy texts in the media, CAO staff and assistance networks, everyone has something to say about the refugees. Nathalie Quintane collects every word, phrase, statement, and fragments from official texts as material for her book Les enfants vont bien (The Children are Doing Fine). Upon reading, it has a radical effect. Page after dramatic page of a drowning humanity… To analyze the book, Switch (on Paper) proposes a text by Marie Fouquet published in the magazine En attendant Nadeau, December 9, 2009, followed by an exclusive interview with Nathalie Quintane, conducted in January 2020
Actions visant à montrer un visage faussement exemplaire d’une personne ou d’une entreprise pour le respect de l’environnement ou des minorités sexuelles.
Tous des assassins français.
Macbeth de William Shakespeare (1605).
“From the heart, of course, but from the intelligent heart.” “There can be no humanity if there is no firmness” “I’m not spelling it out for you.” “I propose that any foreigner who enters France illegally should never again have the possibility of being regularized.” “We beg you earnestly to reconsider.” “There will be no riots. There will be increased surveillance of the territory and security guards at night and on weekends.” “In a tunnel there is nowhere to escape…”
The whole forms a highly visual text of poetry, with particular care given to economy of page, treated like a music score, of what could almost become an object-book. Through these sentences, some cut and suspended in a void from the rest of the page, voices echo in different tones, oppose each other, seem to bear no relation or, on the contrary, respond directly to each other. All are related to the conditions and treatment of refugees in France today.
At first reading, the words come out in a cacophony, prompting the question: who is speaking, to whom? Who is defending what, for what reasons? In what context? And it is also the empty space, the blank, the silence surrounding each of these voices that creates a disturbance, a feeling of rupture.
From the outset, Nathalie Quintane introduces in a few lines the reason, form and context of her work: it is a “montage book” that shows the violence against refugees in France at the beginning of the 21st century. A violence which, she says, cannot be sufficiently translated by the “narrative bias” she used in her previous book, Un œil en moins, in which she already evoked, in the midst of the violently repressed movements that were agitating France in 2016 around the labour law, the living and reception conditions of refugees.
“In truth, she wrote, I must constantly fight against the memory of what I have not experienced, constantly remember the connections that come to me when I hear migrant management and beatings with sticks, torture with electricity and detention camp. Memory must constantly be divided when the narrative continuity is again imposed with the return of History that has never gone away. After the – ultimately – brief suspension in which it everything is declared to be fiction”. “Dividing memory” also means recalling the different forces at play in history that is being made.
From 2014 to 2017, the writer collected these words, which she then transcribed from five different types of sources. “The unbridled cynicism and opportunism of politicians” are placed at the top of the page, in a bold font. At the very bottom is the expression of the often tired and discouraged aid networks in small font, spidery writing. In between are: “the apparent neutrality of laws”, the “debonair and at the same time implacably bureaucratic and interventionist administrative management of the reception centres” and the “editorial routine” of the press.
These “selected, cut, structured fragments and sentences” are archives of reality, but are not sourced in detail (names of the media, reception centres, politicians, places or dates). Isolated from one another on each page, they nevertheless draw the contours of a plot and a revived memory, that of a present that settles permanently in the violence and trivialisation of the tragic situations experienced by the exiled.
“The new asylum measures are complex (we don’t prohibit in our country, we make things unattainable).” “We will give the police and gendarmes in Calais an exceptional performance bonus.” “On the other hand, I would ask you to remain discreet about the TS [suicide attempts – editor’s note].”
Thus, the author is certainly not the one who writes, who “invents” and composes the sentences, but is, for the duration of a piece, the conductor of words that more or less intensely pervade daily speeches, to the extent that they are depersonalized. Breaking with the narrative and the position of an author who translates in a single voice what he/she perceives and reflects through his/her writer’s glasses, Nathalie Quintane in no way distances herself from a very literary approach. Rather, she adopts the art of transcription and re-composition with a technique initiated by the objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, whom she quotes and thanks at the same time as Jacques-Henri Michot and Heimrad Bäker.
With Testimony or Holocaust, Reznikoff referred to court archives from the end of the 20th century, whose testimonies he selected and assembled according to a precise composition, in order to “create a state of mind“. “There is an analogy between testimony in the courts and the testimony of a poet,” he wrote aptly in Europe (1977), reiterated in Holocaust (ed. Pretext).
Jacques-Henri Michot, in a similar vein, presented press clippings in ABC de la barbarie (Al Dante) (ABC of barbarity), highlighting the absurdity of certain media statements and the platitudes of journalistic language.
Apart from the aesthetic dimension of the relationship between text and image found in both Reznikoff and Quintane, there is a powerful political act in making these voices heard in medias res of history, in their original tone. They float through the pages, often leaving a sense of anger, anger that then passes to the “inside page”, succeeded by more neutral language and accompanied by a similar feeling; sometimes the anger is doubled, the mind strays, gets used to it.
Today, the conditions of refugees are increasingly difficult and the setting up of makeshift camps, the violent expulsions, the hounding of undocumented migrants or of those who help them – often found guilty of solidarity by the courts – obviously have not lead to their improvement, quite the contrary.
Les enfants vont bien (the children are fine), a gently ironic title, reminds us of how we come to terms with the unsustainable rhetoric of violence and injustice. The extent to which we admit the absurdity of tragic situations by agreeing to allow words to be uttered that slowly lead to hatred and exclusion, far from the humanist orientations sadly suspended from the dusty decorations of the French Republic.
“Do not abuse our trust.” “What’s increasing is the exasperation of good people, well-raised people who can’t take it anymore”. “Frightened by the noise, six migrants took flight and fell into a storm drain several metres below.” “An arm wrestling match would not be the best solution, but….” “One man was burning.”
The last sentence of the book, which could have been pronounced by Nathalie Quintane herself, recalls the performativity of language, as a warning to each of us: “It is up to us to speak and write differently.”
Entretien avec Nathalie Quintane
PAR SWITCH (ON PAPER)
Switch (on Paper): The book is composed out of excerpts from the press, political speeches, statements and all other forms of public literature on how migrants are treated in France. It seems the collection started in autumn 2016 after the Calais Jungle was closed.
Nathalie Quintane: The collecting began much later, actually… There was a conjunction of many factors that pushed me to invest energy and ideas into this book: certain events, indeed (the closing of Calais and opening of the Reception and Orientation Center not far from my house, plus a brief volunteer experience in said center…); a previous book (Un oeil en moins) in which, at one point, there are refugees; and finally, reading Transcription by Heimrad Bäcker, which was determinant—I’ve rarely been so blown away by a work consisting entirely of archive fragments…
Switch (on Paper): You are a socially engaged writer and activist with strong convictions. We often feel it in your texts, notably in Que faire des classes moyennes? (2010, P.O.L.). But with Les enfants vont bien, you don’t try to skirt around the political subject, you tackle it head-on, without, or with barely, any literary artifice. It seems that the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement may have inspired this change.
Nathalie Quintane: I still have a hard time with this word “engaged”… For me, the socially engaged person is Louis Aragon, fellow party member, part of an established, well-heard cause. These past few years, France Insoumise cautiously approached me. I don’t have any problem in particular with their party, but I simply cannot see how my writings would motivate them to approach me (them or others). I’m quite sure which side of the barrier or barricade I’ve been on—since birth—, but I never write things I already know… Why bother writing if you actually know what you have to say… how boring! Jean-Luc Godard once said: We shouldn’t make political films, we should make films politically! That is most certainly why the Nuit Debout events had such an impact on me… We were finally talking, without having to support this or that tendency a priori… If my books seem too critical, too overwhelming sometimes (Que faire des classes moyennes?), it’s due in part to the fact that I myself am more and more overwhelmed, like everyone, or almost everyone. Overwhelmed by what? Every day my jaw drops at the new levels of idiocy attained particularly by those in power—they supposedly know what they are doing; so what? Perfect mastery does not make you immune to stupid mistakes. The most recent book by Grégoire Chamayou, La société ingouvernable (La Fabrique), which looks at neo-liberalism and its ‘theoretical’ position, is rather edifying: deep down, he boils this “strategy” down to a choice: either you wash1 (greenwashing, pinkwashing, etc…) or you strike back (or both).
With regard to Les enfants vont bien… I’d say it’s the most poetic book I’ve written so far… Les enfants vont bien is pretty much a poetic procedure, in a sense: re-transcription (and I only cite from poets). Christian Prigent said in a letter that the book is a rejection of, or non-receptivity to, literature… I admit that I hadn’t asked myself that question… I was simply interested in these ordinary yet nevertheless terrible phrases.
Switch (on Paper): Christophe Kantcheff, the journalist, wrote in the December 2019 issue of Politis that this book showed a “resolute inhumanity” or the “shameful side of language”. Certain phrases are indeed terrible, such as: “He was 28 years old, he was Gambian”. But what stands out from the book in general, for us, is the widespread drowning feeling in which impotence, absurdity, paternalism and cynicism are all mixed up. More than inhumanity, we find ourselves face to face with a humanity that longs to exist but isn’t able to. This extreme failure is actually quite shocking.
Nathalie Quintane: I couldn’t put it better… the wars of the 20th century, Hiroshima… You’d think we would forever be immunized against the temptation of thinking that humanity is necessarily humane just because the word ‘human’ is in both. But we don’t believe in what we know, and therein lies the problem. We keep insisting we are humane (more that Michel Fourniret, more than Guy Georges, more than Jean-Claude Romand2, etc); in fact, we need criminals, and will continue to need them in order to forget what lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean, the carpet of children’s bodies, those whisked aboard inflatable boats after having been raped or enslaved with the financial backing of Europe… Spoiled, tyrant children… what a joke… what child? What tyrant? How many boats abided by maritime law and tried to fish them out? Only one to this day. Neptune’s entire ocean kingdom could never suffice to wash this blood from our hands, as one famous Brexiter3 put it. The enormity of the crime demands the proportional repression.
Switch (on Paper): The title is an excerpt from the book, a reassuring bubble in the midst of phrases that are anything but. Christophe Kantcheff, again, interpreted it as “biting irony”. Is that really so?
Nathalie Quintane: It’s an anti-phrase, yes, Kantcheff is right. I often think about Jonathan Swift’s text A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burden to Their Parents… He basically suggests that parents eat their children… I’m not very compassionate, when it comes to literature…
Switch (on Paper): In the press release it says, “everyone has something to say about the refugees.” However, in the book’s introduction, you say it isn’t a “bag”, because not “everybody can be lumped in the same bag”. How did you manage to distinguish between different statements?
Nathalie Quintane: I didn’t do it alone! Pierre le Pillouër was the first to point the problem out to me… the possible amalgamation…. I was thinking of using various typographic fonts, but it made for uncomfortable reading, it was a slower read… Ultimately, I wanted it to be read quickly, and that after glancing at a phrase or page, you’d say… Gee, did I really just read that?… Is that what I just saw?… A friend who knows about layout, Nicolas Marquet, suggested I put each phrase on a different “level” of the page, to materialize a form of hierarchy (at the top, the Presidents of the Republic and Ministers of the Interior; on the bottom, RESF (Educational Network Without Borders); between them, the policies, CAO volunteers, regional press). Finally, with Antonie Delebecque, who is in charge of the mock-ups at P.O.L., we decided to go for a unified font but in different “styles”, and to adopt Nicolas’ proposition. A book is always a collective endeavor.
Switch (on Paper): You suggest to your readers that they “follow an incomplete progression, a broken chronology, that begins with the opening of a migrant center in the provinces”. What does that mean, exactly?
Nathalie Quintane: That another story is hiding in there! A beginning, with the opening of a migrant center, and an end, if you will, when the refugees receive an ‘Obligation de Quitter le Territoire Français’ (OQTF – Order to Leave the French Territory) and that from one day to the next they have nothing, cooped up in hotels close to the airport… And despite their intentions, the CAO volunteers ultimately help the French authorities by “distracting” the refugees as they await their papers or expulsion… A network like the ‘Réseau Education Sans Frontières’ has fewer illusions…. RESF is undoubtedly more familiar with the administrative imbroglio, the bureaucratic hell that governs ordinary life for asylum-seekers. It’s not about separating the “good” volunteers from the “bad”! It’s just about bringing attention to the fact that in this domain, more than in others, lucidity is capital. Making this book was, for me, first and foremost an exercise in lucidity.
Switch (on Paper): In the introduction, you also write that “this book has inherited from forms and approaches invented or used by others; I shall now cite and thank them.” Notably, you name Témoignage by Charles Reznikoff or ABC de la barbarie by Jacques-Henri Michot. The former is a fresco describing the USA’s entry into the modern era through the meticulous restitution and formatting of courtroom reports on neighborhood and estate disputes as well as on workplace accidents or other miscellaneous events. The latter is an inventory of common spaces punctuating journalistic language like so many positive slogans, and which end up infiltrating, unbeknownst to us, language itself. It is quite rare for an author to so clearly state their influences or references. But neither author you cite was busy with the immediate, burning events of the here and now. They constructed their works with a certain distance. Was this lack of distance something difficult for you to manage?
Nathalie Quintane: That was the risk! And what basically motivated me to make this book—why else would it be interesting to employ procedures invented by others? But this renewal in “documental” literature since the early 2000s (I’m thinking in particular of Christophe Hanna or Franck Leibovici’s books) is also one of the motors behind Enfants… Their books and performances are proof that this kind of research and writing can truly heighten poetic efficacy (by incidentally transforming what we usually understand to be “poetry” or “literature”). And they address problems that are absolutely relevant right now: Money, or even one of the first trials at the International Court of Justice in the Hague… But these books are much more sophisticated than Les enfants…, which is simply composed of displaced phrases—basically, the fact of moving ordinary phrases into a work of literature, phrases that have been dwelled on, validated, no longer heard, enables us to focus on what they hide by being exposed.
Essay translated by Angela Kent
Interview translated by Maya Dalinsky
My name is Nathalie Quintane. I haven’t changed my birth date. I still live in the same place. I’m few in number but I’m determined.
Books published by P.O.L : Chaussure (1997), JeanneDarc (1998), Début (1999), Mortinsteinck (1999), Saint-Tropez – Une Américaine (2001), Les Quasi-Monténégrins (2003), Formage (2003), Antonia Bellivetti (2004), Cavale (2006), Grand ensemble (concernant une ancienne colonie) (2008), Tomates (2010), Crâne chaud (2012), Descente de médiums (2014), Que faire des classes moyennes (2016), Un œil en moins (2018), Les enfants vont bien (2019)
Cover: Migrants evacuated from their illegal camps at Porte de La Chapelle, Paris, France, november 2019 © Louise Méresse / SIPA