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The City and the Writer: In Paris with Négar Djavadi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Paris as you feel/see it?

Of all the cities in the world, Paris is probably one of the rare ones where reality is constantly rubbing shoulders with fantasy. Whether you live there or not, whether you’ve been there once or even never, every person has his or her own idea of Paris. It’s a city of many faces, even for people who live there. It can be very difficult at times, with a high population density that doesn’t always obey the rules, which isn’t much given to politeness or civility (oh, the reputation of Parisians!), but all you have to do is find yourself in a particular quarter or street or in front of a monument to have the sudden feeling of having been transported to some open-air museum, or into a story filled with incredible characters. Its beauty is sometimes so intimidating that it seems to exist for its own sake, quite apart from we who mill about invasively in its streets. It’s that permanent paradox that always strikes me.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The attacks that took place on November 13 in the tenth and eleventh arrondissements and at the Bataclan theater, partly because I’ve lived in the tenth arrondissement for more than fifteen years, and the restaurants that were targeted (The Petit Cambodge and Carillon) are just a few steps from my house. And also because the Bataclan is a legendary place, a symbol of rock music and youth and friendship. Generation after generation, we’ve gone there; we all have memories of that place. Since November 13 I’ve wondered why, why this neighborhood in particular was targeted, and those two restaurants tucked away on the corner of a little street. A neighborhood where there is a great deal of social and cultural diversity, where people live, despite their differences, in a degree of harmony with one another. At any rate, if the goal was to create a rift between these different populations, to start a conflict, it failed.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Paris doesn’t have a city center. Each quarter is a city center in itself. That’s why you can live in your neighborhood without ever needing to go into another one, unless you have to!


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The author that springs to mind immediately when talking about writing and Paris is Patrick Modiano. But everyone should read Modiano, even without making a connection between his work and Paris.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I’ve lived in the eleventh arrondissement for a very long time, and there is a famous market there called the Marché Aligre, in the Place Aligre, where I go almost every Sunday. It’s a typically Parisian market, a blend of old Paris and modern Paris. There are actually two markets; one open-air one which takes up a whole street and a covered market. The quarter has changed a great deal—it has become gentrified, as they say—but the Marché Aligre is trying to resist that. On the weekends, the quarter is buzzing with activity. Between the cafés, the vendors, the bakeries, the bars, and the oyster-sellers, you can spend a whole morning there.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There are lots of them—it depends on the era you’re interested in! They range from the bar in the Ritz Hotel, Hemingway Bar, where the writer often went (he was very fond of the place), to the Café Deux Magots (in Saint Germain), where Louis Argon, André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir were regulars. Or there’s Victor Hugo’s house in the Place des Vosges. You have to look around when you’re walking in Paris, because here and there you can see plaques on the fronts of the buildings that describe which writer (or painter, philosopher, dancer, etc.) lived there.  


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Although this city is so beautiful, and incredibly luxurious in parts, there are still areas where homeless people live, as well as people who in recent years have been called “les migrants.” Even as I write these words, on the quaysides along the Canal Saint Martin there are dozens and dozens of tents where foreign refugees are sheltering. Elsewhere, toward the eighteenth arrondissement, other tents have been set up next to the aboveground metro line. These “places,” this population that lives on the fringes of Parisian society, reflect one of the most tragic and worrisome realities of the modern world. They are there, right now, in the city, and no one really knows what to do with them.  


Where does passion live here?

What’s incredible about Paris is that you have easy access to culture everywhere—the cinemas, theaters, museums, concert halls, exhibitions, festivals. The city is full of possibilities, and what’s both comforting and surprising is that these places remain extremely vibrant despite the attacks, despite the difficulties of daily life. People go out: they go to concerts or the theater, and every day they show their attachment to the cultural life that makes this city so rich and strong.


What is the title of one of your works about Paris and what inspired it exactly?

My book Désorientale (recently published in English translation by Europa Editions as Disoriental, translated by Tina Kover) is set largely in Paris, since the novel’s narrator has grown up in Paris and lives there. I live in Paris; it’s where I grew up, even though I wasn’t born here, and it was only natural for me to want to write about this city.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Paris does an outside exist?”

Of course. Even more so for me, who was born in another country, Iran, on another continent, with another language. The awareness of this “elsewhere” is always with me, all the time, at every moment. Also, here, we often say, “Paris isn’t France!” This shows the privileged status of Paris, both from an economic and cultural point of view, and the fact that we must keep in mind that the rest of the country doesn’t have the same privileges.


Translated from the French by Tina Kover.

Négar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to a family of intellectuals opposed to the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini. She arrived in France at the age of eleven, having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. She is a screenwriter and lives in Paris. Disoriental (Europa Editions) is her first novel.

Tina Kover’s translations include the Modern Library edition of Georges by Alexandre Dumas, The Black City by George Sand, and Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better. In 2009, she received a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship for her translation of Manette Salomon by the Goncourt brothers.


Read an excerpt from Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental (Europa Editions, 2018), translated by Tina Kover

Published Apr 17, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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