From Paris Suburbs, a Different Voice

PANTIN, France - Elle magazine called the heroine of Faïza Guène's first novel "a Bridget Jones teenager of the suburbs."

Indeed, "Kiffe Kiffe Demain" is not at all like the tragic tales of victimization, alienation and rage written by young Arab-French women about life in the grim immigrant suburbs ringing France's big cities.

Ms. Guène, the 19-year-old daughter of Algerians who moved to France before she was born, has taken her experiences growing up in public housing projects outside Paris and whipped them into a confection that is tender, funny and even wise.

Her story of 15-year-old Doria, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants living in a housing project called Paradise, challenges the conventional wisdom that the suburbs are only dangerous, crime-infested wastelands where hatred runs deep and hope is nonexistent.

"Here in the suburbs everyone fantasizes about the lives of Parisians and imagines they all have good jobs and a lot of money," Ms. Guène said in an interview at a community youth center here in Pantin, a suburb northeast of Paris. "And on the other side, they imagine that we are all wild animals in zoos."

"Kiffe Kiffe Demain" ("More of the Same Tomorrow") is a necessary corrective, she said. "I was sick and tired of hearing only black stories about the suburbs, so I wrote about the trivial, daily things that happen here," she said. "It's important to show that the suburbs are not only about cars that are set on fire, or girls who get gang-raped in basements."

The novel is set around the departure of "the bearded one," Doria's father, a ne'er-do-well so obsessed with having a male heir that he abandons his wife and daughter, returning to Morocco, where he takes a second, younger wife, who dutifully produces a son.

"Destiny is misery because you can do nothing about it," Doria says early in the book. "My mother, she says that if my father left us, it was because it was written."

Unskilled and illiterate, Doria's mother struggles to support herself and her daughter with the help of social services and a job as a chambermaid in a cheap hotel. The boss, a Frenchman, calls the female Arab workers Fatma, and the Chinese workers Ping-Pong.

Angry and friendless, Doria staves off boredom watching American sitcoms dubbed into French. She is ordered by her high school to see a therapist -- paid for by France's generous health care system -- who "wears a garter belt and smells of anti-lice shampoo, but still is nice."

Only three stops away by métro, Paris is a world apart. Doria lures her mother to the city, taking her to the Eiffel Tower; it is the first time her mother has been there, though she has lived in France for 20 years. They do not take the elevator to see the view. It is too expensive.

Doria makes fun of an acne-prone classmate nicknamed Nabil the Nul (Nabil the Zero) until he helps her make it through math class. She discovers the possibility of shaping her own destiny after a neighbor, Hamoudi, who smokes hashish and steals cars, recites the poems of Rimbaud to her.

Eventually mother and daughter discover their strength and feel liberated without a domineering man in their lives.

Doria's mother quits her job to learn how to read and write under a program paid for by the suburb. Doria fantasizes about becoming an actress "walking on a red carpet in Cannes" or, even better, a politician who will fight for the rights of her neighbors.

"I will lead the revolt of the neighborhood of Paradise," she says at the book's end. She writes a fictitious headline about herself: "The pasionaria of the suburbs pours oil on the fire."

A passionate writer, Ms. Guène began by creating fairy tales when she was 8, casting her friends as princesses and heroines. They paid her back with candy. She became editor of a middle school literary magazine at 13, using the profits from sales for school outings.

For several years, she has been part of a publicly financed neighborhood film project writing scripts for television. This fall, she began her freshman year as a sociology major at a college in St. Denis, another Paris suburb.

She started "Kiffe Kiffe" two years ago, writing in longhand in cafes and on her parents' bed in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with them and her two siblings.

She showed the first 40 pages to one of her film project advisers, who took it to his sister, an editor at Hachette Littératures, one of France's top publishing houses. Ms. Guène was paid a $900 advance and another $900 when she delivered the finished manuscript.

"I didn't write this book thinking it would be published," she said. "I always had this image of a writer as someone who always had to struggle." As for the advance, she added, "I gave it all to my mother because what else would I do with it?"

The book is only partially drawn from her own family life. Like the fictional mother, Ms. Guène said her own mother "is a strong character who always sacrificed everything for the family." Her father, a retired construction worker, is "quiet, but wise."

Asked if she ever feared he would leave them, she replied, "He'd never find another woman as good as my mother."

Ms. Guène credits her parents with allowing her a degree of independence unusual in an immigrant world steeped in a tradition that sometimes forces girls into submission or drives them to wear head scarves. Yet she still fears her parents. "If they knew I smoked, they'd kill me!" she said. "I'd be a posthumous author."

Despite the book's upbeat tone, Ms. Guène admits struggling with her own identity.

"We speak Arabic and watch Algerian satellite and listen to Algerian music at home," she said. "Even what I have on my plate is Algerian. You can't easily just tell yourself one day you're French. You're betrayed by your face, your hair. It takes time."

She has been called "dirty Arab" on the streets of Paris and told to "go home," she said.

Her book, which has sold 25,000 copies, according to the publisher, has already appeared among the top 20 best sellers on at least one book list. It is to be published in Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch, and negotiations with American publishers are under way.

In her torn jeans, scuffed Adidas and zipped-up sweatshirt, Ms. Guène seems alternately pleased and uncomfortable with her success. She doesn't like being a symbol of the suburbs or being likened to Françoise Sagan, the French writer who died last month and who wrote her best-selling first novel, "Bonjour Tristesse," when she was 18.

"I don't want to be the Sagan of the housing projects," she said. "That's a bit much. I don't want to be called the Arab girl from the suburbs who had a tough life and made good because I don't think I had a tough life."

Still, she is pleased that it is not only soccer players and rap musicians from the suburbs who can make good, and proud that a neighbor told her that her book was the first he had ever read.

"I want to be known as a girl who is very lucky," she said, "a girl who wrote a book that has done well."