Men Don't Cry: A captivating inquiry into the dualities of French immigrant life
Men Don’t Cry is the story of an Algerian family living in Nice, France.
It was originally written in French by the literary sensation, Faïza Guène and it was brought to English readers by Sarah Ardizzone.
The narrator of Men Don’t Cry, Mourad, is the last child of the Chennouns, and through him, readers witness the goings-on in a family where parents clamour for their children to stay connected to their roots (when the bogeyman that is the French society, constantly threatens to snatch them away).
"Guène chooses to tackle the perils of living as an Algerian – and really, any African – immigrant in France with the exact stereotypes Arabs that are rife in the society"
In a way, Guène crafts a stereotypical immigrant family in French society with the Chennouns – stereotypical yet accurate.
Baba Chennoun is a man of few words who does not actively discourage the stifling parenting of the overbearing Mama Chennoun; he somehow magically finds his voice when it’s time to remind Mourad that “men do not cry.”
The first child, Dounia, is a free spirit who believes her family is holding her back from true French liberation. There is the second daughter, Muna, who is the good girl in the family.
Lastly, Mourad, the overpampered and over sheltered boy of the household, who tries to emerge from the watchful gaze of his mother after taking a job in Paris.
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 29, 2022
I find it interesting that Guène chooses to tackle the perils of living as an Algerian – and really, any African – immigrant in France with the exact stereotypes of Arabs that are rife in the society.
It cannot get more satirical than that. For much of the book, Mourad’s narration does not outrightly point to these perils; readers just witness them from his point of view of the family’s typical dealings.
For example, how he and his siblings never felt like Algiers is home enough whenever the family visited; the immigration predicaments of his cousin, and how this increases his vulnerability to sexual exploitation; among others.
Through Mourad’s often harmless commentaries, readers get to witness all these experiences tied to migration for many from the ‘global south’ to the ‘global north’.
Mama Chennoun is an interesting character. She is impossibly overbearing, a fact that all other family members agree on. She also wields the emotional extortion card with dexterity – a skill many immigrant parents have mastered.
But it is not sufficient to only ascribe these traits to the fear of losing her kids to the western bogyman.
It says something that a woman who grew up in very communal culture, now possesses all that love that she can only pour into her children – of course, this does not excuse how suffocating the love will get. It just points to another one of the many trade-offs of immigration.
"Men Don’t Cry is a brilliant, funny, and sharp-witted book that feels like an onion – the more you tug at it, the many mesmerizing layers it is ready to reveal to you"
Muna, the only family member that does not feature as much in Men Don’t Cry, is another intriguing character.
She especially catches attention because it is easy to write her off as the “goody two shoes.” However, sometimes girls like Muna exist whose personal goals conveniently align with the aspirations that their parents have for them.
This is not always the case, but since Muna is Algerian by roots, she automatically earns the label of the girl on whom her backwards parents must have enforced their rules.
In one of the few places where Mourad’s narration outrightly examines a social issue, he defends Muna in a conversation with Dounia. When the latter learns that Muna is married to a French Algerian man with three kids, she expresses shock that Muna’s life must be as bland as their mother's – she even suggests that Muna’s husband might keep her at home or force her to veil.
The notion that Muna might have wanted to walk the same path as their mother never occurs to Dounia. This scene is where readers see first-hand the white feminist ideas that she (Dounia) adopts in the quest for freedom.
Nuances in the female (immigrant) experience – that are ignored by French white feminist ideology – is another one of the concepts Guène tackles in Men Don’t Cry.
— Nobel Women (@NobelWomen) July 11, 2022
Through Dounia’s character, I realised that any woman could claim that patriarchal ideas influence the desires of another woman, and that is a type of violence that is arrogant.
It is common knowledge that patriarchy has many social settings in a throttlehold, so some women do not know they can want better. But examining this influence on the desires of every woman is an issue that requires so much nuance.
Hence, for one group of women to automatically assume that another group is incapable of wanting something (free of that influence) is profoundly violent, with racist undertones.
In the blurb, Men Don’t Cry is described as coming-of-age, which does not completely characterize the book. Mourad’s narrative, as well as his experiences when he moves out to Paris, do not reward him with a grand personal discovery.
Instead, he’s forced to examine the constant state of duality in which he exists: whether he is French or Algerian enough; and whether to give into his feelings or stick to one of society’s mantras – that men do not cry.
It is nice to see a book with a male Arab narrator explore the theme of “characters in their twenties contemplating life, with a dash of sarcasm and satire”.
Books of this sort typically have female characters, often white.
The fact that Mourad keeps trying to suppress his emotions with the mantra “men don’t cry” may hint at the unspoken societal law that makes it okay for women to express their emotional turmoil (even more so when they are white) but considers it a taboo for men – especially when they fit the stereotype of the “savage” Arab.
Men Don’t Cry is a brilliant, funny, and sharp-witted book that feels like an onion – the more you tug at it, the many mesmerizing layers it is ready to reveal to you.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha