The Last One
by Fatima Daas, translated by Lara Vergnaud
Penguin Random House
Published November 2021
The protagonist of Fatima Daas’ debut novel The Last One, who is also called Fatima Daas, does what good students do in France. She works hard, gets into an elite ‘préparatoire’ program in literature, learns things by heart and analyses texts ‘written exclusively by white hetero cis men’. When Fatima hands in an excellent assignment after several months in the program she is taken outside by her teacher and told to explain who did the work for her. She begins to defend herself but quickly gives up:
I realized that justifying, proving, legitimizing myself, showing my worth wasn’t a fate shared by the other students who were inside, in the warmth. No one had to argue for ten minutes, in a T-shirt, in the cold, to prove that they had in fact deserved a 17/20.
A queer Muslim woman from the banlieue, Fatima does not fit the French ideal and is treated differently to the other students. She feels pressure to conform at the same time as she feels pressure to rebel. She cannot simply be.
In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed critiques the way societies force a binary choice on certain individuals to assimilate or transgress. Such a set-up supports and fixes distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate lives and puts the onus on the individual to strive to fit norms and ideals which they will in fact never be allowed to inhabit. Fatima’s stand-off with her teacher was only ever going to go one way. The teacher (speaking with a ‘strong masculine voice’, looking Fatima straight in the eyes and telling her, ‘I’m not going to do anything, you don’t have to worry’) assumes the role of authoritative but kindly ‘ally’; Fatima is meanwhile doingall the right things but has already been designated a failure.
The release of this short but wrenching debut novel, first published in French as La petite dernière (2020) and translated by Lara Vergnaud as The Last One (2021), comes with a backdrop of rising Islamophobia in France. Recent years have seen heated and circular debates about the place of Islam (and often, about the wearing of the hijab) in contemporary French society. Eric Zémmour, media personality and far-right former French presidential candidate, has been responsible for some of the more violent efforts to place Islam squarely on the wrong side of legitimate. In a fashion not dissimilar to Fatima’s teacher, Zémmour proclaimed himself a friend to ‘Muslims who want to be our brothers’ while fiercely attacking the belief in and practice of Islam. In Zémmour’s logic, Islam is incompatible with French values and its very existence poses a threat to national identity, but Muslims can be ‘frenchified’, and indeed he purports to hold out his hand to any who might wish to take this path. While such a stance is extreme, it also takes as its basis a long history of French Republicanism which works to smooth away differences (ethnic, cultural, religious…) in the name of an ‘equal’ and exclusively national belonging.
Fatima’s efforts to forge an identity in The Last One involve comparing herself with perfectly ‘frenchified’ classmate Amina. Like Fatima, Amina is Algerian Muslim but she ‘doesn’t wear it on her forehead’. Not only does this mean that her father doesn’t have a beard and her mother doesn’t wear the veil, but that she does gymnastics, studies at the conservatory of music, plays piano. She’s also in love with a boy. Frenchness here takes on intersecting heteronormative and class-based distinctions. It’s easy in this scenario to pinpoint what a French ideal is not: it’s not visibly Muslim. But it’s much harder to work out what it is.
After the incident with her teacher, Fatima drops out and begins to write. As she explains: ‘I write stories so I don’t have to live my own’. The character’s effort to carve out a space in language is reflected in the author’s act of producing this work of autofiction. The Last One purposefully presents a mirroring and screening between author and protagonist: the author’s name a pseudonym, the narrator’s the same. Within the narrative, Fatima says: ‘Before I allowed myself to write, I satisfied others’ expectations’. And Daas, as author, expertly maps out intersecting distinctions in the novelbetween legitimate and illegitimate lives, navigating what it is to be a girl, but not really a girl; a Muslim, but not a good one; Algerian, French, but also neither.
The novel tackles its central project of forging identity in language through fragments, repetition, accumulation and rhythm. Short sentences layer and build, chapters jump between different times and places, French and Arabic come together (as Daas explains in an interview, ‘Arabic is the language that pervades me, French the language I master, English the language of my musical references’), so that new connections form.
About a month after La petite dernière was published in France, the avowedly centrist French president Emmanuel Macron was in the news for declaring that ‘Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world’. He clarified that he wished to target ‘Islamist separatism’ (which led to the discriminatory ‘separatist’ law passed in September 2021), but his initial statement takes the rare acts of radical individuals to be evidence of a problem with Islam as a whole. Macron’s words also separate the issue of radicalisation from France and from Frenchness by placing it within a transnational Muslim community. Not only does this make very little sense, when many French people are Muslim, and many Muslims have ‘French values’, but it also fails to acknowledge the important role of an idealised Frenchness in any such ‘crisis’ and in those few instances of radicalisation. The very French issues of colonisation, Islamophobia and racism are in Macron’s statement carefully erased.
As she writes, rewrites and revises her identity, Fatima gives many versions of her nationality, origins, religion. Different chapters begin with slight variations on set formulae:
My name is Fatima.
I’m French. I’m of Algerian descent.
I’m rebeu, Arab, and therefore Muslim.
I’m French. I’m Algerian. I’m French of Algerian descent.
I was born in France.
The switching this way and that makes the reader contemplate the connections between these identifiers, but it never allows their separation. Daas points to a deep ambivalence in the relationship between Algeria and France (for example, Fatima explains that ‘in Algeria, France is both a shithole and a paradise’) but always shows meaning and identity to emerge from the relations between the two countries. Even the languages come together to repeat yet make meaning differently. The term ‘rebeu’, for example, kept in Vergnaud’s translation, comes from the French ‘arabe’ but is a slang form, flipped in ‘verlan’ (‘arabe’ – ‘beur’ – ‘rebeu’). While the word is a French representation of Arab identity, and writers like Kaoutar Harchi say it has been co-opted by the mainstream to exoticise and stereotype, it comes from a subversive practice, at least historically: a type of slang popular in the banlieue and amongst immigrant groups who wished to make French their own.
The Last One received attention in the French press upon its release, won the prize for best first novel from popular publication Les Inrockuptibles, and was praised by French writer Virginie Despentes, whose words line the inside cover and the promotional material. Despentes describes Daas’ writing as seeking to ‘invent the impossible: how to reconcile everything, how to breathe in shame, how to dance in front of an impasse until a door opens where before there stood a wall’. The text’s effort to ‘reconcile everything’, to squeeze different origins and influences side by side, comes with a deep attentiveness to order and organisation: to which objects are next to which others, to what is ‘natural’ and what is not.
In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed approaches the question of legitimacy/illegitimacy in terms of orientation. Her core argument is that the body gets directed in some ways more than others, and that these directions tend to be organised rather than casual. We can speak of a collective direction: which way a nation or community is going; to have a ‘good’ life in this community, we must follow a similar path to others, pay attention to similar objects.
When Fatima falls in love with a woman named Nina, the happiness she experiences emerges from simple shared moments, such as when two people look the same way, together:
Nina is seated to my left.
I’m seated to her right.…
A pigeon goes by.
It attracts my attention, hers too, and we both turn around, at the same time, as if to watch it fly away. …
She smiles and says, “That feels good.”
I watch her.
I dumbly repeat, “That feels good.”
I remember sitting in the same spot, with someone else.
A boy whom I didn’t watch.
Fatima doesn’t only tell us that Nina is on her left, but also that she is on Nina’s right. Not only does Fatima look at the pigeon, she tells us that both of them, at the same moment, turn to look at the pigeon. The text also draws our attention to who isn’t there: the boy who should be by Fatima’s side, even though nothing would be the same if he were. In Ahmed’s argument, the well-worn (heteronormative, white, ableist…) collective paths exclude and alienate, but also disappear, with many of us not noticing they are there. While Fatima points out her diversion from a straight path, we would not expect the same from someone already turned towards objects of a heterosexual culture. We forget then that straightness too is a becoming, and a turning away.
The first time I read The Last One, I read it quickly in French. You can easily get lost in the rhythm of it, rush over the short sentences. But to slow down on Daas’ language is to be surprised, moved, curious. We see this even when Fatima explains the origins of her name:
Fatima means ‘little weaned she-camel.’
To wean, in Arabic: fatm.
Stop the nursing of a child or a young animal to transition it to a new mode of feeding: feel frustration; separate someone from something or something from someone or someone from someone.
To stop breastfeeding a baby is not only to separate the baby from the breast but also the breast from the baby. Perhaps the breast returns to the woman and no longer symbolises motherhood and maternity but sensuality or femininity, age or youth or selfhood. The baby too turns towards a new mode of feeding. To wean is to separate, yes, but also to create new connections.
The Last One takes us with Fatima as she builds both an individual and collective identity through old and new connections and orientations. Geographic: Paris, Algiers, Algiers, Paris. Sexual: boy, girl, straight, girl, queer. Symbolic: the whole family turned towards the kitchen.
Like others in the suburbs, Fatima looks to, and commutes into, the centre of Paris. She writes:
My name is Fatima.
I’m the girl from the banlieue who observes how the Parisians act.
My name is Fatima.
The name of a girl from Clichy who spends more than three hours a day on public transportation.
Her name is connected to a place on the margins (a place which demands travel rather than enabling ease) and her observation of Parisians marks her a ‘banlieuesarde’. In French, the association between geographic orientation and identity is more explicit: there, Fatima is not ‘a girl from the banlieue’ but a sort of suburbanite. Not ‘a girl from Clichy’ but a ‘Clichoise’.
Despite dropping out of the elite ‘prépa’ program, Fatima eventually enrols in university. In her first year commuting, she enjoys the journey, in contrast with everyone else on the metro who appears depressed, tired, irritable. Just as the description of this commute (‘from Clichy-sous-Bois to Paris. From Paris to Clichy-sous-Bois’) breaks the hierarchy of the city-suburb binary, the character herself tries to ‘explore this new dimension of space and time’ that the commute opens up. When Fatima tires, however, of going back and forth, she considers moving closer. And yet she wonders what she would miss: ‘Moving closer means leaving. Left: betrayed, renounced, abandoned.’
As Fatima travels around the city, she carves out different routes, not just in and out but between parts of the banlieue, revealing the immense difference in what is sometimes presented as a homogenous mass (for example the largely white and well-off Saint-Germain-en-Laye in contrast to the disadvantaged Clichy-sous-Bois which she describes as ‘a city of Muslims in Paris’). Her regular trip between two suburbs, Clichy and Montfermeil, (which outsiders often confuse as the same place) for asthma treatment wears down a new path. The reader moves with her as she describes taking Allée de Bellevue, waiting for the bus 613 or 601, walking through the housing complex.
Elsewhere, the reader inhabits Fatima’s body as she prays. An entire chapter takes us through the motions, looking down, forehead touching the floor, turning towards qibla. Through some passages in Arabic and others in French (Arabic and English in the translation), Fatima recites:
Guide us on the straight path.
The path of those on whom you have showered favors, not the path of those who have strayed or incurred Your wrath.
And describes the different positions of her body:
I bend over as I say Allahu Akbar. I keep my head in a straight line and I place both hands on my knees, spreading my fingers. I say Soubhaana rabi al’athim, “Glory to my Lord the Almighty,” three times.
Looking in the direction of qibla.
I sit up, I raise my head, my chest is straight.
The hypnotic rhythm of the text echoes the language of prayer. It brings together straight lines and the queer body and goes over different gestures, rendering them familiar, if they weren’t already.
Daas said that she sought musicality above all in her writing of The Last One, sometimes ‘vomiting’ the text out, in its rawest form, other times searching for ‘the right word, the right sound’. Vergnaud beautifully reproduces the sounds in her English translation, keeping cognates where possible to mirror assonance, getting creative with slang to make something new (‘keep zigging around like that and people gonna think you’re coked up, Fati-gangstar’), replicating the gentle cadence of the original syntax (‘for me to know my place as a girl, for me to love what I’m supposed to love, to do what girls do’). It follows that the easy rhythm of the text hides the reworking that lingers behind both writing and translation. All this pushing and moving to make what might be disorienting feel right. Or to make what society says is right sound wrong?
As Fatima explores her sexual orientation and gender identity, her descriptions challenge heteronormative assumptions:
My name is Fatima.
I’m a girl.
I like boys.
The ‘of course’ (‘naturellement’) undermines the naturalness of this logic, especially following previous descriptions of easy, sensual relations between women. Fatima wrestles with the idea that the bodies she is oriented towards must determine her gender identity. She dwells on the opposite conclusion of the above logic: I like girls, I must be a boy. And indeed, at the age of 11, Fatima starts dressing ‘like a boy’, or so she is told, and spends most of her time with boys, doing boy things. When she says she has a crush on classmate Ibrahim (something she has made up precisely to fit in), her friends are shocked, disgusted: ‘Shut up! You’re a dude, you can’t dig another dude. That’s sketch, Fatima.’ The well-worn straight paths are enough to erase the queer relationship altogether and shift gender identity.
The Last One portrays the difficulty Fatima has reconciling her sexuality with her religion but never suggests that the problem lies with Islam. In fact, Fatima’s beliefs continue to bring her peace: ‘The Koran soothes me,’ she says. When she isn’t sure what to do, Fatima goes to speak to an imam. She explains what she is going through, attributing her struggle to that of an anonymous friend. In response, the imam tells her: ‘homosexuality is forbidden in Islam; it must be avoided. Your friend should increase her invocations, continue her practice, and do even more.’ He goes on: ‘Half of religion is marriage. Maybe she should marry a man and start a family.’
Fatima tries to follow this advice to distance herself from homosexuality (in the French to ‘s’en éloigner’) and turn towards God – but she doesn’t turn towards men or stop (for very long) seeing women. She takes issue with the imam’s claim, thinking to herself, but not daring to say, that female homosexuality isn’t prohibited in Islam, it simply isn’t addressed at all. It’s not the religious texts that forbid women loving other women but the fact that there aren’t any happy paths mapped out (something which, with The Last One, Daas is working to change).
At one point, Fatima appears to be jealous of the freedom that some queer women in France might enjoy, and speaks with interest of the way Cassandra, a woman she dates for a while, is only 22 but has made her own life and is completely independent:
At seventeen, she left Toulouse for Paris, leaving behind her parents and younger brothers.
I say “leaving behind’, but Cassandra didn’t leave anything.
I understood that leaving doesn’t necessarily equate to rupture and abandonment.
This description makes it apparent that Cassandra was able to turn towards – new bodies, places, new directions (Ahmed says ‘lesbian desires create spaces’) – without experiencing the loss of turning away. But, even here, The Last One does not go where we might expect in terms of portraying religion and specifically Islam as constraining and a Western liberalism or aestheticism as freeing. Or even: a regulated heteronormative institution as constraining, and a queer life as free. Cassandra’s transgression and mobility, which are only available to certain individuals, equally involves rules; in her efforts to deviate from the norms of heterosexual coupledom, Cassandra imposes other ways of being and curtails certain comforts and ways of loving.
Nothing about The Last One suggests there are answers, joys, or freedom in detachment. Rather than push for a breaking from social norms, the novel seeks to create new options for belonging with others and within the realms of family, religion, French society. Fatima wants to embrace Algeria and France, to move closer to Islam, as well as enjoy her sexuality. ‘I think I’m still converting to Islam’, she says, ‘I try to respect my religion as much as I can, to bring myself closer, to make it a way of life.’ And the French is even more repetitive: ‘au plus proche’, as close as possible, ‘de m’en approcher’, to get nearer.
Fatima’s/Daas’ writing of The Last One is where this closeness materialises. When her mother gives her a notebook as a present, Fatima’s feelings, identity, sexuality, all taboo, symbolically enter the kitchen and the family home through the page. In the novel, Islam and homosexuality exist together, layered and intimate. Chapters set in Paris and Algiers sit side by side, and at times alternate, so that Frenchness is part of both, shifting and transforming.
In a significant moment of hesitation and immobility, Fatima goes to see a therapist but can’t bring herself to knock at the door. As the sessions go on, she frequently stands outside before her appointments, fist at the ready, poised in mid-air:
Mrs. Guérin, on the other side, knows perfectly well I’m out here flailing about, waiting for her to decide for me.
Sometimes she doesn’t make things easy for me. She calls me back once I’ve done a one-eighty.
The Last One does the work of making some movements easier. It exposes the burden of fitting in or transgressing. It disorients and reorients to carve out new paths for those who may not have any good choices available to them and either do not want to or cannot (should not have to) turn against the crowd. Explaining her behaviour at Mrs. Guérin’s door, Fatima says: I left so someone would hold me back.
Translations from French of Daas’ interviews, Eric Zémmour, Emmanuel Macron and Virginie Despentes are my own.
Kaoutar Harchi, ‘Une carte d’identité littéraire ? L’invention de l’écrivain « beur » dans la France des années 1980’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 3, no. 238, 2021, pp. 4-21.
Sara Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, Duke University Press, 2006.