In the partly sun-lit café of Alliance Francaise, Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun fills the room — like shadow, like sun.
A leading French littérateur, who has been shortlisted twice for the Nobel Prize, he wants to remain in shade; perhaps weathered by the Jaipur Literature Festival that he has returned from, or is it the writer’s restlessness that he wants to — but cannot ever — put to rest?
“I am tired, and I speak broken English,” he almost warns, settling in reluctantly for a talk aided by an interpreter. And, like beams from the window, his words begin to filter through the drowse of the day.
French is the language he chose over Arabic — and not consciously — because it came naturally to him when he decided to write poetry and fiction. “Not to write for a foreign market but because I knew it,” says Jelloun, explaining that French also allowed him to be translated in many languages. Some of his novels are translated in 43 languages.
His characters — mostly the marginalised such as women, migrants, exiled and unlettered people —speak a language that evolves as an answer to suppression.
“It is a writer’s function to give voice to those who don’t have it. When you come from a country where there are less writers, this becomes even more important,” says the Paris-based writer who was born in Fez, Morocco, in a modest family.
His first novel Harrouda was published in 1973. Among the body of work, including novels, poems and short stories, produced by the 68-year-old, some of the important ones are The Sand Child (1985), The Sacred Night, Racism Explained to My Daughter (1998), This Blinding Absence of Light (2000).
For the writer who discovered injustice and repression in his college days and eventually sought exile in Paris, “Political condemnation of a writer” is uncalled for.
Jelloun was at a session called ‘Maps of Love and Hate: Nationalism and Arab Literature’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival, while putting in context the row over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, insists, “He is a very good writer and should not be reduced to this one literary work.”
Jelloun, who takes Arundhati Roy’s name instantly when asked about Indian writers he likes, is a celebrated and awarded francophone. But, for him “it is not the question of being from the East or West. “If the writer is good, his writing will be rewarded,” he says, his face beaming in the blinding presence of light which literature can use to bring shadows alive.