By David Dumortier
This translation was a collective effort of the students of the M.A. in Literary Translation (French/English) at New York University. You can read more about them on their blog, French and the City.
I live in a lower-class neighborhood of Paris, at the end of a small, dark street, one of the last refuges for some dealers. Once there, you have to come inside the building through a pretty large entryway, walk across the courtyard, then take the correct staircase, follow a corridor, make a right, and it’s at that door that hundreds of men have come knocking.
I am a writer and I am a transvestite. I prefer that people call me a poet when speaking about my books. I don’t write novels because I don’t like watering down the nectar of language. But beyond these literary classifications, I think I don’t write fine romances because I always try to be a little different. I like poetry for its marginality. I recognize myself in it, because of the contempt it often stirs up in people. And I’m a transvestite. That is to say, when I’m at home I dress up as a woman to see men. And I’ve had men by the truckload. In pursuing these two activities, I’ve multiplied my life by two. Of course, no one wakes up one day and chooses to be a poet, much less a transvestite. For this, I’ve gathered a lot of strength and dealt with many circumstances. I remember, I lived in Syria to study Arabic. At night, coming home, I’d often pass two transvestites on President’s Bridge. Syria is a country still under close surveillance by the political police — the Moukhabarat — and its people have been subjected to silence for decades. No one, other than a few communists and valiant democrats, dares rebelling against the dictatorship of the Assads. And yet, these two creatures, done up in wigs and make-up, confronted one of the toughest regimes on earth, despite the risks they faced. In my eyes, they were the regime’s two fiercest dissenters. My parents were farmers by trade and lived in accordance with the tradition of French peasantry. When I first started cross-dressing, at the age of five, I had to brave the dangers of stares and punishment, just like my Syrian sisters.
As for the poet’s strength, I forged it through struggle. I don’t really like poets who haven’t had to fight. I despise the poets hiding out in universities, their diplomas on display. I love René Char the Resistance fighter, Lorca the homosexual, Genet the thief, Karl Valentin the knife grinder, Artaud the madman, Fondane the Jew, Saint Theresa of the Infant Jesus the tuberculosis-stricken mystic, Saint John of the Cross the church outcast, Pessoa the wretched, Kavvadias the sailor, Marcelle Delpastre the peasant, Thierry Metz the construction worker… Like so many artists in France, I live without any salary. About ten years ago, I parted ways with my boss. I can still see myself leaving the post office with the certified letter in my hand. I felt all light and sugary, like a strawberry. No more schedule, no more unpleasant comments, no more pressure, no more colleagues, no more strained smiles, no more paid leave, no more rankings… I was finally free.
Free to make my own way, to earn money with my small output of poetry books! It’s really more gratifying than bowing down before a boss. Self-starters as well as handy men have always fascinated me for their independence. Carpenters, plumbers, stone masons and, of course, clothing designers. I recently saw a fashion show. All the models wore torn, unstitched, patched-up outfits. In these unique pieces, I recognized my own writing style. I often choose not to say everything, writing with a pair of scissors – I remove, I deconstruct. I avoid adding meteorological descriptions to all the scenes I compose... There won’t be much rain streaming down windowpanes in my tale. This book, which you’ve just opened, I’ve stitched like a dress made of sun-dappled shade.
Call out in the middle of the night. In the ten second message say that you’re a beautiful transvestite, a slut in bed, give your telephone number and end with some parting words, “See you soon,” for example, in an even more sensual voice. Three to four minutes later, the message has been heard and a man calls.
“Hey Sophia! You recorded an ad?”
“Yes, what’s your name?”
“It’s Morad. What’re you like, Sophia?”
“And you sweetheart, tell me everything, what are you like?”
“Yeah! I’m 5’4”, 140 pounds, I have a shaved head...”
“How old are you?”
“And do you work out? What kind of job do you have? Is it physical?”
“Uh, well, actually I work in a store.”
The answer is evasive, it’s three in the morning, he tells me he’s in Barbès. What does he want? To rob me, kill me or fuck me and be on his way.
“You take hormones, Sophia?”
Alright, now he’s taken an interest in me, I’ll have to describe myself: my long black hair, my leopard-print leotard, my red shoes, my red g-string, my black stockings. I’m thin, with a great ass and luscious, extra-sweet lips. I’m completely shaved and very feminine. I whisper that I’m very slutty in bed, and no, I don’t take hormones, I’m a counterfeit woman, a woman on the outside and in my head, without ovaries or a uterus. I’ve been cross-dressing for a very long time, even when I didn’t know how to. I don’t tell him this last detail but I suggest to him that cross-dressing is a deeply rooted part of my nature.
“Would you prefer it if I took hormones?”
“It depends, I don’t care.”
I’ll make him wait. He seems to have what it takes to make me happy. He wants it, but how will he act after he gets off? I pretend to have an appointment booked with someone. I’m a woman of my word, and I’ve decided to wait for this so-called guest.
“If he doesn’t show, can I come? If you want, I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.”
Okay, he can call me back in 15 minutes. We’ll see. If he’s ready to wait, that means he wants to empty his balls. A thief often doesn’t have such time to lose. I make up theories to reassure myself.
Fifteen minutes later, Morad calls again. He’s at Stalingrad. He’s closer. I keep him waiting a little more.
“Call me back in ten minutes. If my handsome soldier’s not here I’ll see you.”
Another ten minutes of reflection. Will I be seeing him?
Ten minutes exactly and he’s calling again. I give him the address. My heart races, but I’m ready to face him.
I open the door for him. He walks in, a pretty good-looking guy. He tells me he’s from Montreuil.
Like an escort, I suggest a little something to drink. He declines.
“Well then, get comfortable sweetheart!”
Which is another way of saying he should undress since he doesn’t want to drink and, therefore, talk. He lies down on the bed, watches the porno, he gets terribly hard, I do what I do, he comes. I suggest that he wash himself but he seems in a hurry to leave. He’ll take a shower at home. I don’t insist; everyone is their own person at this hour of the night. I ask him for a cigarette; he is happy to give me something and leaves two cigarettes on the table. His sports jacket back on, he leaves. Maybe we’ll see each other in three or four years, who knows?
When I’m playing the hostess, it’s not a day like any other. I put on a lot of lipstick, I wear flashy colors, and I pick out some arousing music so that the minds of my boys might be swept away to a grand carnival. And I’m flirtatious, my mouth gleams like a candy apple, I smile like the lady behind the counter at a candy store. Boys have fallen in love with me on occasion, but I don’t like being loved. I know that it’s prideful to reject what human love God has placed in us, so that we would connect with each other and know one another. But I am in search of an Absolute and when I unzip a pair of pants, Lord, I want to see that which you have made. I often see men who’ve been denied the sun, who haven’t touched a woman for a long time. Men who can’t remember the last time someone told them they were handsome – I always tell them that they’re handsome by making myself beautiful for them. One day, a young Jew, twenty-two years old, came to see my business. He was a beautiful boy. His skin was like dough, no longer flour but not yet bread. He was enamored with me, would call me constantly. He loved my wig, my stilettos, and everything that I wrap around my body to become both light and voluminous. He loved an illusion of a woman, strands of sugar, a doll that has been stretched around a naked stick. When his cotton candy was gone, he didn’t take it well, and because of that I never wore a pink dress for him again. Farewell Michaël, deal with what’s missing in your life and don’t go looking for women of the carnival; they live on the road, in a world that isn’t yours and they will always betray you in some other abandoned terrain.
My father is thinking of giving his farm to his children. That’s all he has left, after receiving a nice dowry and a decent inheritance, after careless spending, after a divorce and daily squandering. It’s an old farmhouse, falling apart, overrun with weeds and trash. As a result, the little property’s main body is wounded; the shingles fall between the farm’s cracked walls. I look at the fields he never loved, the little hill swollen by the hormonal injection of stones. I see my childhood again, when I would have tea parties with vinegar bottles.
I never could rid myself of my father’s violence, of his insults thrown at my mother’s face, of the beatings inflicted on our animals and his lack of respect towards his tools. It’s a burden. I’ve often tried to rid myself of it by throwing it into the river, but every time it remained stuck between my hands. I hoisted it onto my back, I grated myself against the walls, I tried to crush it beneath my feet and it still followed me like a ball and chain. I’m in ruins. I dress myself in thorns, briers and moss. Slowly, I’m following the same path as this little poppy-lipped farm; it hasn’t only ever yielded pigs and corn, it also sent a transvestite to the city.
My mother tells me over the phone that Martine is dead. Fifty years old, cirrhosis of the liver. She was a small, gruff woman, not particularly cheerful, who shaved her eyebrows and replaced them with a stroke of pencil. Her fingers remained untouched by diamonds until the end of her life, and her hands only ever caressed the stones on mushroom farms. I knew her when I was a child. A daughter of welfare services entrusted to mama Brutte, a foster mother by trade. As a young girl she married our neighbor, who didn’t love her enough. He didn’t make up for the love she’d missed, her need to be cradled day and night. She took care of the ducks at my parents’ house for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. One day, she crossed paths with our laborer Dédé, an ex-convict, and gave herself to him right then and there, maybe on the barn floor. She hit the road a few days later with her new man, abandoning her three-year-old daughter and son. This affair didn’t last, just like the others that started at bars, harvest celebrations, carnivals, country-dances, and places where men drink and fight. She died at the end of her table. There were only ten people at her funeral. The tears of all the Martines filled the sea – those that were not shed stayed down in the humid quarries, or even deeper in the rocky bones of abandoned girls. She asked for love all her life, to the point of vomiting blood with her wine. If I’d been her girlfriend, I would have stolen her laborer. Everyone fights over those scoundrels who kiss you one time as if it were forever. After that your lips are free for whomever you want, and nobody gets jealous. Martine entered the heaven of transvestites and whores. She was awaited at the bottom of the stairs by a bird holding two sets of blue eyelashes in its beak for her to glue on so she would look glamorous in God’s presence, and a new dress full of stardust. Even the devil, on that day, bowed as she passed by. To me, there are only two kinds of people. Not the rich and the poor, not the Whites and the Blacks – these are false distinctions. There are only those who’ve been showered with affection and those who must’ve been fed just a little bit of it, since they’re still alive.
My mother is the first woman I dressed up. My parents were farmers by trade, and my mother would never made herself up in front of the mirror. She did have lipstick samples in her medicine cabinet, along with “blue eyestuff” and a little face cream, but she didn’t use any of them. At school, I would say that my mother wore makeup, made appointments with the hairdresser every week, and sometimes smoked a cigarette to relax. Since my mother never came to pick me up from boarding school on Fridays, I could tell whatever stories I wanted. I would have liked so much for her to be inspired by Dalida, the glamorous singer from Cairo, for her to change the color of her hair and wear flashy dresses, and more than anything I would’ve liked to see her smile as if she weren’t worried about money. Her house looked the way she dressed –always disheveled, dirty, and never any sweets to offer to guests. This interior was nothing like those houses with waxed and polished furniture, where the wife has smoothed every surface to the point where her words, before even leaving her mouth, are lacquered by the humidity she seems to secrete, as patiently as fingernails grow. My mother did not have this femininity. Maybe this caused my father pain. Still, he couldn’t ask her to break her back doing farm work and at the same time play the pretty housewife. The more time passed, the more I sensed that my father suffered because he didn’t have a gentle wife at his side – one with a high, thin voice, a compliment always on her lips, especially in the presence of guests.
You might think that I'm a transvestite because I wanted to seduce my father and bring him what he seemed to be missing. And there you have it, the resolution of this Oedipal affair. Except I didn't love my father, I didn't desire him, I always fled from him. When he started beating my mother in front of us, when he humiliated her, telling neighbors she didn’t know how to make love, when he started breaking everything in the house – one day the oven, another the chairs, then the table, the tiles, the pepper grinder, the plates and the atmosphere – then I started hating him, and even became disgusted with him. I could fill this page with all the things I shouldn't have had to see: the peaches he threw at my mother, the dress she wore that he ripped, shredding it ever so decoratively, the nights he’d disappear, the alarm clock he violently hurled against the wall, never to be replaced, even though I had lent it to him. With these fragments of the past so numerous in the fields of my memory, I would only need to bend down and I could fill baskets and valleys with them, but who would buy my harvest?
The culmination of this entire ruined childhood came when he asked my mother for a divorce, in front of all of us, that is, my brothers, my sister, and me. For a while, we’d been hearing that he’d divorce her, but that evening, with all of us together for once, he made his request official. My mother didn't know what to say. Tired from the years of carrying buckets of flour to groom the animals, she listened, hunched over, the white hair she’d cut in front of the mirror falling over her eyes. Her mouth went crooked. She probably wanted to cry, but it was her defenselessness, above all, that touched me. She should have made herself beautiful, as if for a soirée, stood up in all of her female insolence, looked down on him, a cigarette in her mouth, and given him a piece of her mind. But she remained all slumped and simply asked why he wanted to get divorced, was there someone else? He answered that he wanted to leave her because she was a bad lay. Word for word. "I gave you four children! Look—they're right here!" My father sniggered and, with scorn taken from the devil himself, he retorted that when he gives a sow to a male, in five minutes she too will give you a litter. I knew that my mother made love to him the best she could, she didn’t believe love could be learned.
There, my mother was an animal. Saying this, he acknowledged he was a pig; unfortunately my mother didn’t think to throw this back at him.
I spent my vacation days at the farm with my father's workers. Some were hoboes: day laborers, minimum wage workers, boys who rented themselves from farm to farm. Others were ex-convicts, alcoholics, and sometimes locals. Lucien worked for us for several years. I loved spending entire afternoons working with him. We would fix the roofs, gather stones in the fields, and sometimes we’d stop for a bit and Lucien would talk to me. His mother had eight children, none with the same father, I’d learned through local gossip. He was a handsome boy, very thin, brave, a true handyman, and always on the lookout for rabbit burrows. He appreciated old houses, the tiles of our region, the countryside where he liked to hunt woodcock. In the evening, he’d take me on walks, without his gun, and show me the tracks of hares and foxes – he could smell game. When he was young, he poached to help his mother. His mother, a woman somewhere between a prostitute and a witch, always sat in the last row during Sunday mass. Maybe that’s what I would become. Because of his frail mother’s life, he never made fun of me when I played with dolls, dressed in slips snuck from my mom’s wardrobe.
One day, I brought the radio with me to liven up our time in the workshop. What were we doing there? I don’t know anymore, but I do remember that every fifteen minutes, the show played a Mike Brant song. These songs sounded like an enamored Lucien. I would’ve liked him to sit down for a little bit, for him to really get to know me, for him to open his shorts and invite me to stroke his penis, for us to kiss and do what he did with his girls on Saturday nights in his car and not say anything to my parents. I kept waiting for a worker to make me feel the hardness of a man, but sadly, my father never hired a pedophile. So I settled for observing them: the open overalls, the bare chests, their sweat, the pay stub that they would look at, counting it again and again as if it had already been spent. I didn’t supervise my father’s workers, unlike my brother who intended to become a farmer himself. One day, he made out their work schedule for the day and hung it up in the shed, an organizational method that he’d learned in his agricultural school. Lucien hated my brother more and more. He found him too pretentious. My older brother had saved a lot of money raising Barbary ducks that he sold to a wholesaler, and bought himself a brand new little motorbike. I wanted a motorbike too, but the amount of effort required to earn the necessary funds seemed too costly to me. I told Lucien that an old moped covered with stickers and key-chains hanging from the handlebars would be enough for me. He found this idea very appealing. As the years go by, I understand Lucien better. He had become a stuntman when he was around eighteen. I imagined sprucing up my moped’s frame, whereas he’d crushed fenders, broken bumpers, wrecked cars that had been done up before the show. Push the engine to its limit and, with a final jolt, hear the car give its last roar. A world of chiffon and people who tear it apart. And that’s why Lucien took me under his wing and kept my brother from hitting me. I was a girl applauding from the sidelines. He was so handsome, Lucien, getting all excited about dressing up the moped in frills and accessories. I had indirectly chosen my side: my disapproval of my brother’s new motorbike showed my lack of interest in work. I was delighted to betray the only praiseworthy value in my father’s eyes.
On that farm, I was treated like an orphan who rips apart his bread while looking over his shoulder. Sometimes, I passed by my mother, hoping for an embrace that would cover me with a downpour of love; the same onslaught of affection that my grandmother sometimes gave on New Year’s Day to all her grandchildren, hugging them one by one. My mother too allowed herself on occasions to dote on her son, before asking him for a favor. Usually, she asked him to spend a nice afternoon weeding the garden with her, pulling out that goddamn couch grass or gathering the green beans. Those little vegetables that he’d be so happy to eat that evening – because work inevitably leads to happiness – after trimming them at the end of the table, feeling shameful like an old or mentally disabled woman assigned to menial tasks. Those afternoons weren’t painful ones. They were almost fun compared to the days the men spent harvesting, the 100 pound sacks of grain they carried on their backs for the animals. Days of little wicker baskets, clothes pins, gooseberries, jams, as it were… Did my mother really have to charm me to make a daughter out of her son? I contorted with shame, twisting my wrists and ankles in every possible way, to flee the vegetable garden and become a weed myself, a bindweed that only strives to escape its stem, destined to grow nowhere but in ditches, and when in bloom doesn’t offer a flower, but a little bell on the landscape.
One day, my father fought with a sow because she didn’t want to go back to her pen. He threw her down on the ground, screaming at her viciously, then kicked her several times in the gut and beat her over the eyes with a rigid pipe. He knew how to wrench the backbone of my childhood. I also saw how you go about beating females: to gain the upper hand, you make a terrifying, red face. The animal died during the night, at the height of her pregnancy. I made her my friend, admiring her refusal to give in to death right away. Another time he beat the crap out of our worker Michel, without giving him a chance to get off his bike, because he was drunk and had forgotten to give water to our livestock. I was afraid he’d kill him like the sow, but with people my father must have known better than I did where to stop. Scene by scene, I imagined the beauty of the town where Michel went and forget about watering the pigs. You should always have alcohol on your breath to keep from ever returning to that farm, which waits there to trip me up.
You entered the farm by a fairly wide central path, lined by large buildings made of the white stones from our fields. Like a town, this farm had its little streets leading to pig pens, chicken coops, a workshop and also a vinegar cellar. Farther out, my father had set up an industrial zone with concrete pigsties. The center had retained its well, hollowed out in the past by anonymous workers. To the right of the entrance, a pond never quit steeping its sludgy waters, where bulrush and ducks’ feet waded. Despite the planned demolitions, the repeated, senseless bombings, despite the war that was waged against all the founders of that old farm, poetry stubbornly prevailed. It was the poem of stinging nettles, attics visited by stone martens, overalls hanging on a bent nail, the poem of slaughtered roosters choking in the wine of their blood, of the empty tool rack or the weed-covered path that led to the river of my Sundays. I hung around in these linguistic ruins. Their words belonged to another time but seemed to stand up to my father and perhaps even to the disappearance of their own pronunciation.
Often imagining my passionate encounters taking place in that setting that still frightens me, I bring my childhood farm back to life. It resurrects its harvests, its heaps of hay, its winters, mean and muddy up to your knees. I became its final overseer, the one who, deep down, never stopped loving it.
After a week at boarding school, I’d return to the farm. Up early, I’d put on my dirty clothes, pull on my boots and go to work. I knew the routine well; there was no need to order me around anymore. I’d scrape two whole pigsties clean. One housed four hundred pigs. The other, two hundred. The pigs lived side by side, ten to twelve per pen. They’re relatively clean animals. They always defecate in a precise place and instinctually reserve a separate space for sleeping. To help them, all I had to do was spread hay at the back of their pen. They felt at home there, and so they left their manure at the entryway of the pen near the waste scraper. My work consisted of stopping at each pen, shoveling the manure, and then, once I’d done the entire sty, activating the electric scraper that sent all of it outside of the building. On my second pass, I’d distribute the barley straw, tossing it, as I was telling you, all the way to the back of the pen. The pigs then took to playing with the straw, as if I’d invited summer into this sunless breeding farm. After those few golden minutes, they went to sleep to begin the task of fattening themselves up. The less pigs move, the better they fatten. That’s why we crammed them in together, raised them in the dark, overstuffed their stomachs; that’s why, once the process was done, we couldn’t enter the pens for any reason so that, to the greatest extent possible, the pigs were kept lying in their own fat.
Some afternoons, I’d risk it and enter one of the pigsties to watch them sleep. Through the main hallway, I’d pass a full-blown ice floe of fat. Awaiting their massacre at the slaughterhouse, they all breathed deeply, in the purity of their own grease. If one of them jumped unto its four legs it would be enough for the rest of those seals, in the middle of their digestion, to become wild boars.
A pig will never confront a human, especially if he’s armed with a pitchfork. Nevertheless, together these animals can attack a body sprawled on the floor and consume it rapidly. I’ve often seen them set upon one of their fellow creatures, sick or dead. The pig is not only an omnivore, but also a cannibal. If I had fainted from the effects of ammoniac fumes brought out by the manure, they would’ve devoured me like any old piece of ham. But I never thought of that when I was with them. Farmers have always employed their own children. Thus, those who succeed their parents know every detail of the job they’ve signed up for. As for those who won’t take over the farm, they owe their renouncement to those early trials. My chore completed, I would sometimes go to the woods, in peak season, to gather bolete, mutton’s foot or black trumpets mushrooms. Even my strolls had to be productive if I wanted them to be allowed.
We also had a dog that was there to bark if someone approached. His barking seemed truly insufficient to justify his place on the farm. That’s why he often got a kick in the ass when he cried for food.
My father used to be young, handsome, blond, tall, strong, and ambitious. He got himself into debt in order to buy his first property. He worked day and night: he weeded, prepared the lands, spread shelly sand and whitewashed, all to make the investment profitable and turn the land into an industrialized grain and porcine farm. The first year he took on an illiterate man with no family, a guy named Daniel who he put up in an abandoned building. That orphan had nothing but a gray moped and some rough cotton clothes. He stuttered; he’d already been badly beaten by his evil stepmothers. He wanted to live, that guy. He spent his nights working his penis: a woman’s chiffon interior was not for him.
One afternoon, he’s behind the wheel of the tractor. The largest farmable plot has been cleared of walnut tree stumps, which could damage the plows. Daniel can quickly go over it with the big four-wheel engine. Except, the land hasn’t been leveled yet. He needs to avoid the stiff banks even if it takes more time. But Daniel is afraid of not getting the job done fast enough. My old man has been breathing down his neck; he’s scared, the man who plows the fields of others. He knows that that kick in the ass is never far away. He begins the furrow with his machine. He lifts the arm when he gets to the rut, makes a U-turn and dumps the clay. It’s good soil – thick, moist, slippery, you could really get deep into it… Daniel loves it as if it’s momentarily his own. Perhaps he’ll finally be a man who’s earned his soup tonight if he’s turned over all of it. What a great job he’s doing… Shading his eyes, my father watches Daniel wearing himself out to please him. He’ll say nothing when Daniel comes back, not a single compliment. But when Daniel doesn’t get chewed out, that’s already a compliment. And all of a sudden our Daniel goes a little too far; noticing his boss’ shadow, he hurtles towards a very stiff bank to go tear a plot of land below. But wait! He hasn’t finished plowing the top and he already wants to start somewhere else; he stalls wanting to take shortcuts through this flood of clumpy soil; the tractor rolls over twice. Thick smoke rises up. A black diesel bomb… He died on the spot. The soil was turned over on him and another guy was hired. We purchased a plastic wreath for him. Real flowers grew all by themselves on his grave, and his gray moped rotted from the tires up in our storeroom.