In this excerpt from Négar Djavadi's novel Désorientale, an Iranian teen finds sexual and cultural identity in the Parisian punk rock scene.
The revelation came to me a bit later, through the TV (an old, poorly-functioning set left by previous renters and installed in our room by my sister Leïli), which I watched until late at night. That evening, a concert in a small venue was being shown on Les Enfants du Rock. Because Leïli and Mina were asleep, I’d turned the sound off, so it wasn’t the music that struck me—but rather, the dangerous energy emanating from four young guys dressed in black, barely older than my sisters, strutting across the stage like they owned the world. They were feline, powerful, Dionysian. Their clothes were ripped and their fists raised, rage made the veins in their necks stand out. It was dark and luminous. Secretive. Subversive. In front of them, human waves, dense and insatiable, crashed against the edge of the stage before rising up and shouting in unison. They kept their backs turned to the world, to its values and obligations, to the past; they were drunk with the joy of being there, of living in a different way, of living at all.
I wanted to be there with them.
There, where Iran and France didn’t exist.
Alone and insurgent.
I was so enthralled by the images thumping against my retina that I didn’t hear Sara come into the room. Her hips blocked the screen. Her finger pressed the power button, and a black veil fell over the picture.
“Good lord, Kimiâ, it’s one-thirty in the morning. You need to sleep!”
Don’t count on it, I thought, staring at her.
I am fourteen, but I look older because of my height (almost five foot seven), my large hands, and my eyes, which have lost their innocence. I wear jeans and whatever blouses my mother, Sara, buys me on sale. Despite her efforts she can never find skirts in my size. Maybe in the adult section, but I’m not old enough to wear those yet. I am thin, but strong; a confusing physique.
For the first time ever, I skip afternoon classes and go to the Fnac in Montparnasse, trawling the rock section in search of the group I’d seen on TV. I find it at the very back, under “U.” U2. There are two LPs in the bin, October and War. I can’t afford to buy them, and we don’t have a record player anyway, but I discover that I can read the lyrics on the sleeve. I understand a few words here and there, but the rest remain a mystery. I copy the lyrics to Sunday Bloody Sunday into one of my notebooks.
From that day onward, my life changes. Music bridges the gap between the past and the present; childhood and adolescence; what has been and what will be. A new world has opened up for me, where it is better to be clever and resourceful than to have money.
As a result of the hours spent carefully translating song lyrics so I can understand them, I become a whiz at English. My vocabulary is far more advanced than that of the other students, and I can pronounce the “th,” sliding my tongue easily between my teeth. I spend my Sundays at the movies, watching dubbed and subtitled American films. I buy one ticket and sneak into another theater for a double-feature. One day I go into the wrong one and stumble across Alain Resnais’s Love unto Death. Shaken, I watch it twice in a row. I discover the flea market at Saint-Ouen, where I unearth an old record player, second-hand albums, and previously-worn clothes. Perversely, the outfits I assemble for pennies give me a new style all my own. Velvet jacket, ruffled 1970s blouse, fringed suede trousers, work boots. Horrified by the dirty things I keep lugging home in plastic bags, Sara stuffs it all straight into the washing machine.
I plunge headlong into punk and postpunk. Johnny Rotten, Ari Up, Ian Curtis, Joe Strummer, Peter Murphy, Siouxsie, Martin L. Gore. Their music fills every emotional and intellectual hole in my life. It becomes my daily bread, my life preserver. Because it puts the world back in its right place and tears away the facades. Because it is aware of the rage and the sweat and the strikes, the working-class quarters and the revolts and the gunpowder. Because it denounces the hypocrisy of power, and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me.
I shave my head on the sides with some old clippers and cut it short as a boy’s in back. Sara, appalled, doesn’t speak to me for weeks, and Leïli rebukes me for adding to her suffering. I promise her I will keep up my good grades; as for the rest, I tell her it’s none of her business. Oh, and I begin swimming every day. At noon, instead of going home for lunch, I go to the pool next door to the high school. The official reason: I love sports. The secret reason: I dream of having a body like Peter Murphy, the sexy lead singer of Bauhaus, instead of my hybrid body whose strangeness sometimes makes me ashamed. I think my flat bum and narrow hips are already a good start; the rest—long, slender muscles, straight shoulders, well-defined thighs—depends on my own perseverance. I think of my body as my only country, my only homeland, and I will draw its contours the way I want them.
Now I’m sixteen. My in-depth knowledge of the underground scene enables me to go out in search of people who listen to the same music as I do. I’ve reached my adult height of nearly five foot eight, and I propel my lanky, solid body curiously through the city streets. I stamp Paris with my own footprints. It has become my city, a liberating and insidious place.
My route takes me to the Forum des Halles one Saturday afternoon. It’s a meeting place for teenagers estranged from their families; social services cases, gutter punks, Goths, young homosexuals rejected by their parents, and marginal members of society just passing through. A motley, aimless group that grows and shrinks with the season and the vagaries of chance. My looks are unusual enough that they elbow each other to make room for me. No one asks me where I’m from. No one cares. No one’s waiting for me to let slip a grammatical error. They call me by whatever nickname occurs to them, or just “K,” the initial of a first name most of them don’t know. They’re defensive, unpredictable, disruptive, loudmouthed, brazen. Sometimes in the metro, when they’re sprawled out on the bench seats singing at the top of their lungs, they offend the reserved politeness instilled in me during my upbringing—but they’re not cruel. Some of the girls react to my presence in a way I find comforting. They make sure to stand close to me, ask me to walk them home, play with my hair. One of them, Barbabeau (a nickname given because of her elaborate witch-clown makeup), always sits in my lap, exclaiming: “You’ve got knees like a guy!” I love it when she says that, because she’s acknowledging my bizarre physique while, at the same time, letting me know that it’s no big deal. Every time I see her I wait impatiently for her to come and sit in my lap so I can hear her say those words.
With these people, I learn to exist in an infinite now. To drink beer and cheap wine, smoke, drop acid, and spend wild nights in abandoned buildings and crowded dance clubs and tiny bars with battered stools. I learn to talk to the bouncers, guys who let me slip into concert venues without a ticket. I learn what “hit on” means. And above all, I learn, to my relief, that sexuality has no boundaries except the ones we impose on it. Being homosexual or heterosexual doesn’t mean anything. These considerations, so contentious and polemic in the harsh light of day, are too porous to resist the nights of this restless decade as it winds down. After a certain hour and in a certain light, edges blur. The middle-class wives, taking advantage of their husbands’ absence on work trips, slum it in lesbian nightclubs. They come early and sit in the corner with a glass of wine, patiently watching the girls dance, looking for the right one. Men in business suits ditch their girlfriends and slip into the bathroom to join the young guy who smiled at them before turning away petulantly. Couples arrive together and then, by mutual agreement, split up to go on the prowl. AIDS is still just a distant rumor, a disease too exotic to find its way into these dark basements, thumping with savage urban sounds.
From Désorientale. © Négar Djavadi. Published 2016 by Éditions Liana Levi. Translation © Europa Editions. Forthcoming from Europa Editions as Disoriental. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.