Friday, January 20, 2017

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faïza Guène, a YA Book By A Young Author

Review time! Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is a young adult novel by a young adult, so I was very interested to read it. There's also a #MuslimShelfSpace tag going around, and this review is a nod to that. The idea is that there's been a lot of stereotypes and anti-Muslim sentiment spread around, so buying and boosting books about and by Muslims can help educate people and break down harmful stereotypes. 

The author is French with an Algerian background, and Guène wrote Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow when she was in her late teens. Although the novel is not autobiographical, she shares many things with its main character. Doria, like her creator, is the child of immigrants and lives in poor suburban housing projects. Guène wrote that she realized girls like herself weren't really represented in books, and felt that Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow was a way to tell the stories of people in the suburbs who are ignored by the elites of French literature.


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Plot: Life Sucks, Until It Doesn't 

Doria is an unhappy teenager reeling after her father left to marry another woman back in Morocco. She deals with mandated counselling, flunking out of school, feeling abandoned, an unrequited crush on an older guy, social workers, having adult responsibilities she isn't ready for, and generally staving off despair as she wonders whether this is all there is to life. 

But despite Doria's glum prospects in the beginning, her life steadily improves. Her mom is able to leave her old job and start literacy courses. Doria gets a babysitting job. She starts trade school to learn hairdressing. She even cultivates a relationship with a potential boyfriend, though they got off to a terrible start. Life looks up and Doria decides that things aren't perfect, but they're OK for now. 

Language: This Title Is Awesome

"Kif-kif demain" is a phrase which means, as Doria puts it, "same shit, different day" or "same old, same old." "Kiffer," however, is a French verb which means "to really like someone or something." At the end of the book, when her life starts looking up, Doria coins her own phrase: "Kiffe-kiffe tomorrow," which is the title of the book. It's her own invented combination of the Arabic "kif-kif" and French "kiffer." 

The very title of the book is both the culmination of Doria's journey and a middle finger to French linguistic elitism. I read this book translated into English. The translation was excellent; Doria's voice really came across in all its barbed sarcasm, humor, pain, and occasional poetry. The book also includes a reference list of French and Arabic phrases at the beginning, including "kiffer" and "kif-kif" along with some others which Doria uses. Doria navigates reality with pop culture as a reference and an escape -- another jab at cultural elitism.

What annoyed me was discovering that the British English title is Just Like Tomorrow. I'm glad that the American version kept the non-English word in the title, because it has a meaning all its own -- it's literally an invented word, and any translation would have been dishonest.


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Dislike. And Doria isn't white, either. Extra dislike.

The Flawed Narrator: Everyone Sucks (Except For Me)

This is written in first person, and Doria is...well...a teenager. The novel reads almost like diary entries. She slides on a scale between severely depressed and the more typical angst that comes with growing up. She doesn't have an objective view of the world. The narration makes this pretty clear; for instance, our attention is called to the dissonance between Doria missing her father and what her father was really like. When Doria says that it would be better for her family if he was still around, we're shown the sharp divide between events and her opinions. 

Because this is a character-focused book, her growth is the most important thing. She doesn't come out of it wise or all-knowing, but she does become more self-aware. For instance, she grudgingly allows that she judges other people even though she hates when other people judge her. She becomes less judgmental, even seeing sympathetic sides of despised figures like her social worker. 

It's also curious to see what she will and won't censor. She'll censor herself from using slurs against females (in funny asides, she'll remind the reader, "Censoring myself here!!!") but she'll use other -isms casually, employing ableist, anti-fat, and the occasional anti-gay insult. This is mostly when she's really pissed off about something. 


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I think that most people believe depression is just feeling mopey and sad all the time. There's plenty of that, but Doria's primarily manifests itself as anger -- anger at her father for leaving, at her mom's boss, at school, at her tutor, at everyone who tries to help her. She lashes out with nasty words because she's in a lot of pain. This is also a reason for much of the sarcasm and barbed humor in the book; it's how she copes. Occasionally she slips from sarcastic humor to vicious anger. These instances reveal when the topic is too hurtful to joke about or deflect -- such as when she's thinking about her future half-brother. 

I guess I'm more OK with characters using offensive words and slurs than I am with authors. I was way less bothered by the slurs in this first-person narrative than I was by the same kinds of language in Jim Butcher's omniscient author-voice in The Aeronaut's WindlassIt definitely fits Doria's perspective as a bitter, hurting, sarcastic teen. In an interview with Fatimah Keheller, the author said of writing Doria that she wanted her to be both funny and a jerk. It's a deliberate choice, not another author just being oblivious.

I encourage you to read the full interview. It's relatively short, but provides a lot of insight.

Culture and Diversity

This is an #ownvoices work by a French woman of Algerian descent from a neighborhood much like Doria's. It explores the dissonance created by being of two cultures and not feeling super at home in either one. 

Another area of dissonance is Doria's scorn for the practices and beliefs of her father and his town in Morocco, while she herself is a practicing Muslim. This is a consequence of having an unreliable narrator; also, her scorn seems to be more for her father than her religion. 

This book highlighted some of the difficulties of trying to be a good Muslim while poor; for instance, Doria's mom keeps the fast during Ramadan even though her job is physically strenuous and her boss is a racist jerk. They also have to be able to buy food that's halal on a tiny budget. It made the characters' religious practice seem more meaningful because it would have been much easier to just give it up. I can't speak from personal experience as to whether Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is an accurate portrayal of Islam; you'd have to find a Muslim reviewer. However, it was written by a young woman about teens like herself. 


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Author Faïza Guène. (source)

So many aspects of Doria's life are also dictated by poverty, down to whether or not she can afford pads when she gets her period. This contributes to her anger at her father: he left them out to dry financially. Other kids tease her for having the "wrong" clothes, and even her lone sort-of-friend's mom forbids him from hanging out with Doria because she's a "bad influence." 

One thing Doria does have access to is healthcare. She can still see her therapist and her dentist. As an American, that difference between here and there was striking. 

Rating

For me, this is a five-star read; however, I like depressing, sarcastic books. Others don't. I also cringe when Doria uses words like "ret*rded" but again, if it's appropriate to the character, I am not as bothered as I would be by different usage. I prefer in-context, character-appropriate slurs or offensive language -- even when it's aimed at groups I belong to -- like in Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow or A Wish After Midnight, to authors casually and obliviously using -isms like this. Obviously, neither are super great, but also, that is how many teens talk. Doria is a jerk, and this was a deliberate choice on the part of the author. It's been compared a lot to The Catcher In The Rye, and I can see the similarities.

I believe Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is written in such a way that we are supposed to critique its teen narrator and her cruelty, even as we sympathize with her situation. Faïza Guène is dryly self-aware, even though Doria is not. However, that can be a dealbreaker for some people. I'm giving it 5 stars, with the caveat that it may not be for everyone.



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2 comments:

  1. Wow this sounds like an amazing book. I love the phrase in the title and agree that trying to translate it kills the meaning. Sounds like quite a read and cool that it was first written by the author while still in her teens. That Bridget Jones comparison just sounds stupid. I'm definitely not buying that version. Thanks for reviewing this Laura and catching my attention.

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    1. Yep, it's definitely way more depressing than Bridget Jones, and way more like Catcher in the Rye. It's good! Even the bits I didn't like had good qualities like theme and whatnot. Plus the author sounds like a cool person. :)

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