Champion of the most ‘punk’ feminism and a true bestseller in France, the writer returns with ‘Apocalypse baby’, a ‘thriller’ with lesbian overtones set in Barcelona
Virginie Despentes (Nancy, 1969) stopped being a writer a long time ago underground to become one of the great authors of France: her trilogy Vernon Subutex (2015-2017) was a true publishing phenomenon and his last Cher Connard (Dear cocoon) has risen like the best seller incontestable of the rent, with a print run of 250,000 copies and accounting for almost 20% of sales of new releases. In Spain she continues to predominate her facet as a feminist punkwith its mythical manifesto King Kong theory (2006), where #MeToo was advanced and she confessed to the rape she suffered at the age of 17 and her period as a prostitute. Penguin Random House now translates apocalypse babya 2010 novel I wrote while living in Barcelona, a city I have never quite left.
- This book is a kind of feminist thriller, starring two female detectives, one a lesbian and the other in the process of becoming one?
- I wanted to write a black novel but without death. Well, in the end there is. But starting with the disappearance of a teenage girl, I liked the idea of two women looking for a girl. At that time I really liked the not to go Scandinavian, where there is also a different typology of detectives, with a different perspective from the American: pregnant women or Lisbeth Salander herself from Millennium. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books: the protagonists are men but she is a lesbian. All this is mixed in baby apocalypse It is a black novel without being a black novel.
- It is set in Barcelona, at the time of the most effervescent post-porn. To what extent has Barcelona influenced your feminist criticism?
- I was not feeling well in Paris and it was a relief to arrive in Barcelona, they welcomed me very well. It was a very politicized city, very punk, very open and group… You don’t find that in Paris, there you have the impression that feminists come from the university and from a bourgeois family… you can get a little bored. It is not an area of friends, more group and festive. It is very interesting for a French woman to arrive in Barcelona: You ask yourself other questions, more local, about Spain, but also about the entire area of Latin America, there are many things that happen there and that you discover here because in France they don’t talk about it. If today I wrote apocalypse baby It will not be the same Barcelona.
- That more political and hooligan scene has been lost?
- It has been transformed. Since 2006 many things have happened, not only the economic crisis but also the impact of tourism that has really changed the city. Before, the Gtico still existed as a neighborhood, with shops and local people… Many people have left. The independence process also had an influence… However, for me, as I am French, it is very pleasant to arrive in Barcelona: the discussions and the topics in the newspapers change. In France we are so attacked by the extreme right, there is constant talk of racism and Islam… Here they talk about the Trans law.
- But it is a law that has divided feminism, including the government.
- Feminism has always been divided. In France, the United States or here, it has always been divided between the provide and the abolitionists. Before #MeToo, in France we had very violent struggles over the veil and they still continue. What surprises me is the degree of violence that these discussions can reach. I think it’s because femininity is a story of abuse and when we do politics it seems normal for us to hit without respect or affection. Yes, we are violent, although not physically. Centuries of mistreatment are not erased with a decade of feminism.
- Heterosexuals are used to being treated like dogs, it seems normal to them, says one of its protagonists. Is this book also a vindication of lesbianism?
- Of political lesbianism, yes. It was my first novel after meeting Paul Preciado [entonces an era Beatriz] and my early years as a lesbian. I was surprised that sometimes your intimate decisions turn into political gestures. In this situation of not being heterosexual, I understood very well Monique Wittig’s phrase: Lesbians are not women. If you get out of heterosexual femininity you get out of a lot of problems, I didn’t expect it to change so much. I thought you could fall in love with a man or a woman but that it didn’t make much difference. And yes there is, a lot.
- If I hadn’t experienced that lesbian side, King Kong theory would it have been very different?
- Yes, a lot. I would not have written it so freely. And I would not have enjoyed the success of the book so much. I would have worried that they would say that I am a feminist who is angry with the poor men… They put shit like this on you.
- A feminazi? What do you think that there is a word that mixes feminism and Nazism?
- For machismo there is no such harsh word. I wonder what exactly it describes: feminism has not caused any deaths in Spain or France, in the world in general. They call us feminazis when there is not a single political regime that is against men: not one feminist political power has mistreated men as the Arab governments, the Taliban, the Russians, the Poles have done… It has to do with politics from Internet. In the last two decades, we have seen how the right and the most reactionary right have used the networks to introduce very pejorative words. Social networks, TikTok, YouTube, video games… The violence of the attacks suffered by young girls to make them disappear from the internet space had not happened until now, a true hatred towards women is fostered. In the 90s I published call me, there was controversy but I did not suffer violence on this level: pornographic photomontages, death and rape threats, disclosure of intimacies, harassment day and night… The Internet is hurting a whole generation of young girls and we will find out in 10 years . However, it is us who are called feminazis. You’re not going to find 200 women on the internet harassing a man just because he’s handsome or cute, you’re not going to find women creating a montage of a sodomized man, ever.
- In France his Cher Connard It has been the great success of the rent. Your argument is surprising, coming from you: do you put yourself in the shoes of a writer canceled by the #MeToo movement?
- One of the two protagonists is a man from the east of France and a writer, like me. I was very interested in the point of view of the canceled. He is not a rapist. They accuse him of something, and he has done it. He’s guilty of something, but he’s not a sex offender and he does a self-reflection that canceled men don’t normally do. I’m very interested in internet violence in general. And the idea that many French feminists talk about gender all the time but never about class. The canceled men who really disappear are always the ones who don’t come from powerful families. Those who come from power, even if they are really guilty or rapists, do not suffer this cancellation. They suffer, yes, they receive a few bad articles but they have an army of lawyers preparing their trial and cleaning up the internet and social networks… But the main theme of the book is that of two characters who have stopped using drugs, in different ways. That’s what it’s all about: what happens when you quit drugs and change your behavior?
- You are a champion of #MeToo, but do you think there has been excess in the movement?
- No. I have not seen the powerful fall outside of Weinstein, who is a criminal. The excess continues to be violence against women and not only sexual. We have many shocking testimonies of young people who have suffered harassment on the internet, there is the excess, a true hatred towards women is promoted. It is not the same to be canceled or if your reputation is damaged than to be violated.
- Earlier you were referring to class membership. In all his books there is always that sociopolitical critique and class consciousness?
- Yes. These last decades have created an abysmal class gap. I come from a middle class but in France it has totally disappeared. Growing up in a class and seeing it disappear in real time is brutal. For me it was a good class, I liked the social class where I come from. In the 1980s we had access to a good education and excellent healthcare. With limits, of course. The middle class was a solution, services were shared. But now it has disappeared and when you live in Paris you notice it more. In Barcelona you don’t see so much misery on the street. But in Paris you take the train and you go through immense fields of misery, the homeless keep increasing, there is an incredible explosion of crack… But you go to the VIe Arrondissement and the contrast with luxury is overwhelming. There is a real culture of luxury in Paris. I grew up in a France where there was no such misery.
- How was your adolescence in Nancy?
- Growing up in the east of France in the 1980s was bleak. I remember my adolescence as a very tough period, but I really lived in a tough environment: drugs were everywhere, the city was grey, unemployment kept growing, it was an industrial zone where the factories were closing down. … We live in great precariousness. Everything was centralized in Paris. To go to a concert we had to go to Germany, or to be in contact with more alternative circles…