Discretion: Unpacking the duality of Algerian anguish living in the diaspora

Discretion: Unpacking the duality of Algerian anguish living in the diaspora
Book Club: The first generation to migrate are often referred to as the 'silent generation' for their resilience to succeed, whatever the cost. In Faïza Guène's latest novel, Discretion, she unpacks two generations of Algerian women living in France.
6 min read
20 September, 2023
Moving between Algeria and Paris, Discretion touchingly evokes the realities of a first- and second-generation family as they carve out a future for themselves in France, finding one another as they go along [Saqi Books]

Discretion, the latest novel by award-winning French-Algerian writer, Faïza Guène (translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone), is another brilliant depiction of the French-Algerian experience through a familial lens — offering a different, unique outlook compared to her previous novel, Men Don’t Cry.

This story centres on a French-Algerian family, the Talebs, living in Paris, France, and our main character/narrator is the matriarch, Yamina, a woman just approaching her 70th birthday.

Right off the bat, we see into Yamina’s busy mind through her musings on growing old and the societal benefits that seem to come with it (people standing up for her in buses and youngsters helping her with grocery bags and other heavy loads).

Just as quickly, we learn that while the story of Yamina growing up in Algeria during the War of Independence serves as a connector to the past, her children’s experiences with the duality of their identity as French-Algerian will offer different perspectives on the present.

"At its heart, Discretion is about the traumas we carry around as immigrants, as victims of colonialism, and as children born into dualities – and how we pass down those traumas, yielding generations carrying around a burning anger"

There is her first daughter, Malika, a divorcee working as a band C registrar with the French government; Hannah, the second Taleb daughter, who is opinionated and feels injustice quite deeply that Yamina describes her as ‘nitroglycerin’ — to be handled with care.

Imane, 31 years old, is the third daughter, who struggles with the rising cost of living after moving out of the Taleb family home in search of independence.

Lastly, there is Omar, the baby and only boy in the house, who feels unfulfilled with his job, as an Uber driver, and his inability to find love. In addition to their personal worries and the various microaggressions they continue to encounter for being French-Algerian, each child buckles under the anxiety that they cannot live up to the sacrifices that their parents made with immigrating.

The narration style in Discretion is riveting because it feels like pictures in motion, with Yasmin being the opening sequence (as she is the main narrator), but then the focus occasionally zooms in on other characters, even the bigoted white French characters.

Because of this style, readers get to hear from each Taleb child from their own perspectives, providing a collage of how each generation of the family processes the effect of that first migration. However, I would have appreciated more chapters from Yamina's perspective because it is uncommon to encounter older female Arab protagonists.

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Guène has a knack for portraying the day-to-day lives of her characters with much-needed nuances and highlighting how these immigrant experiences affect every fragment of their existence.

It is a startling way to highlight how draining living in duality is when — like Hannah points out in a conversation with Yamina — “our coming here is hardly a coincidence” – signifying that the existence of a French-Algerian identity is not an unusual occurrence given France’s escapades in Algeria.

The many chapters where Yamina details the effects of the War of Independence on life in Algeria further solidify the aforementioned.

Additionally, I love how Guène portrays the love in the Taleb family. Theirs is assuredly a family riddled with flaws, but their familial love is undeniable. Despite how the weight of migration and racism affects them as individuals (especially in their reactions to racism), their love and tenderness for one another are evident in how they interact with and think of one another. I like this seeming contradiction because it portrays the greyness of the human experience, and through their love, Guène crafts a family that defies the Arab stereotype in French society.

Furthermore, Guène examines the ‘eldest daughter experience’ —which she had also explored subtly in Men Don’t Cry — in a clearer and more nuanced way through the eldest Taleb child, Malaika.

As expected of a Guène book, patriarchy and societal misogyny are also explored in this story, with their own ironies. For instance, Yamina bemuses how her husband, Brahim, is lucky to not be aware of his privileges as a man, and in the same breath, she privileges Omar over his sisters.

When one of the latter points out Yamina’s preference for the son – and how that stems from his male privileges – she refuses to hear a word of it. “Misogyny is handed down from mother to daughter”, was Malika’s response to her mother’s vehement denials.

The above is salient because Yamina’s father had curtailed her schooling — despite her love for education — so that her brothers could continue while she helped on the farm. Not even when he acknowledges that Yamina “was worth more than all his six sons put together” does he see the irony.

In Brahim, we see a father who wants his children to exercise their autonomy as much as possible. Yet, he worries that Omar is “too sensitive” for a man; Imane should not have moved out before getting married because “daughters don’t leave home before they are married”; and Malika is “on the shelf because divorce is a kind of death for women”. Such complex contradictions!

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Another poignant theme that Guène explores in Discretion is the stigma attributed to seeking professional therapeutic help to combat the heavy generational trauma accompanying migration and dual identities.

Hannah, the nitroglycerin, is the perfect Taleb child to examine this stigma through. She believes that dealing with the trauma of migration in therapy will provide a safer space for her children (and their children) to, perhaps, live free of that trauma.

Yet, she hides her sessions behind Zumba classes and feels immense shame and weakness for “needing help”. It is beautiful to experience her plough through that shame to arrive at a sturdy resolution.

At its heart, Discretion is about the traumas we carry around as immigrants, as victims of colonialism, and as children born into dualities – and how we pass down those traumas, yielding generations carrying around a burning anger. Guène’s dedication to crafting authentic French-Algerian stories is ever present in each character in the Taleb family.

Many readers who share these dual identities will certainly appreciate the existence of this book.

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