Riad Sattouf′s coming-of-age story fascination | Books | DW | 16.10.2017
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Riad Sattouf's coming-of-age story fascination

The French graphic novelist Riad Sattouf is best known for his memoir, "The Arab of the Future." DW met him to discuss his latest series, "Esther's Notebooks," which tells stories from the perspective of a young girl.

DW: Mr. Sattouf, most of your comics, but also your award-winning film "The French Kissers," look at childhood and growing up. Why are you so fascinated with this topic?

Riad Sattouf: That is difficult to answer since a lot of things occur unconsciously when I am developing a story. Youth is a transitional time of emerging from the protective cocoon of one's parents' home and entering reality. You suddenly have to fend for yourself. Hormones start to play a role, and the body changes. I find it fascinating to describe this period of development because it is so rich in new perspectives on various things.

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In "The Arab of the Future" and "Esther's Notebooks," you take on the perspective of a child to describe this particular period of life. Most adults are likely to have forgotten how one thinks as a child and how they view their surroundings. How do you manage to adopt this perspective so accurately?

With "Esther's Notebooks," for instance, Esther is actually inspired by a real girl who tells me about her daily life and what she likes. I try to write that down as accurately as possible.

As far as my own story goes: I actually have very clear memories; I can recall situations very well. I remember colors, smells, sounds, atmospheres, and the way places looked. The memories I have of my younger childhood are very rich in information. I can remember particular places and see them in my mind's eye —  the way they looked, the streets, the rocks, even the types of rocks they were. I am actually transported back into that time. It's as if I had a photo of it and can zoom in.

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But I have to say that I naturally reconstruct things too. For instance, in "The Arab of the Future," I have clear images of my younger childhood, but I cannot recall dialogues. So I reconstruct them so that readers can interpret the images more easily.

Now on the books in the Esther series, I remember dialogues that really occurred, and I write them down exactly as they were.

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Ten-year-old Esther is the daughter of a Parisian couple with whom you are friends. You thought of writing down Esther's story because you thought it could be interesting to juxtapose Esther with the way you were as a 10-year-old. What are the differences and the commonalities between you two?

The biggest difference between Esther and me is that back then technology was more or less science fiction. But for Esther, a cell phone is something tangible that she desperately wants to have and which offers her a possibility to communicate and access a world of information. It changes the way she sees the world.

When I was little, on really long trips, you didn't always know which direction to take. There was no information that was constantly updated… The world was more terrestrial and bigger. Esther, who has never been on a trip, types "Africa" into her phone and four images pop up, giving her the feeling that she has already been there.

As far as relationships between boys and girls go, there are some similarities between her and me. For instance, my school in Syria was not co-ed. The boys were on one side of the schoolyard, and girls on the other. The boys played soccer together, and the girls played games amongst themselves. But that was also the law; that's the way the school was organized.

Still from film The French Kissers (picture-alliance/Everett Collection/Pathe)

Sattouf's award-winning film "The French Kissers" also deals with boy-girl relationships

Esther's school in Paris is a private one and is co-ed, but during recess, the boys and girls separately and do not play with each other. It's the same separation, only that in Syria, it was obligatory and in France, people can do what they want. They actually choose to do that. That surprised me.

In the Esther episode "Charlie," which addresses the day on which the attack on the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo occurred, Esther says at the end: "I think people should probably not mock the gods." How did you respond to her in your real conversation?

"Esther's Notebooks" are a little bit like an animal documentary — I cannot intervene. I never do that. But what I sometimes do is ask a question about a particular topic. I never pass judgement on what she says to me, however.  If I did that, she would never tell me anything again. It's up to her parents to get her to think about things…

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It's hard to imagine that you were really able to keep yourself from saying anything. After all, you were also a cartoonist for "Charlie Hebdo" for nine years.

Yes, I was and am able to do that. That's exactly what makes the Esther project so special — that she says things that are shocking from a moral standpoint. For instance, she is very cruel to a little boy who seems to be quite nice, but whom she treats badly. But that is also a part of childhood, and I am forced to stand by her — even if I would tend to identify with the little boy. Still, I sit down with her and interact, even if there are sometimes things that are morally questionable, and I write about them.