Édouard Louis: Your Identity Isn’t Private Property

Author Édouard Louis was asked if he thought someone lacking his experience of homophobia could stage a theater adaptation of one of his books. In his response, he argues against a restrictive idea of identity as a property some of us own.

Édouard Louis speaking at an event. (Courtesy of Édouard Louis)

Yesterday a theater director who wanted to stage an adaptation of one of my books wrote to me. He said he was not sure if he could legitimately tell my story, since he is straight and I am gay, writing about homosexuality. Here is what I answered — and I thought it would be a good idea to share it, to say once and for all what I think about these questions.

  1. You are always legitimate to do whatever you want, no one else can tell you what you can or cannot do. People who think they are left-wing but put a line between who gets to talk and who should shut up are right-wing.
  2. Experience is not truth. It can be a source, it can help, but it’s never a guarantee. All my life, I saw homophobic gay people, I met some racist non-white people, some misogynistic women. Experience is not shielding anyone from ideologies. So, the question is never who is talking, but what are they saying. It’s about the content of your discourse. The question is: Are you saying something that helps gay people or something that insults them? Are you saying something that can help working-class people or something that makes them more invisible? Are you saying something that gives them weapons or something that reproduces their situation of oppression?
  3. People who think about identity as something that belongs only to a certain group of people are capitalistic. They are part of capitalist oppression. They talk about identity as a little private property — my house, my car, my purse, my identity, my queerness. This is a mistake. My identity doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. My homosexuality is not something I own, so anyone can talk about it — again, the only question is what people say about it, rather than who is talking.
  4. I don’t believe in the idea of appropriation because I don’t believe in property. And anyway, I prefer to live in a society of thieves than in a society of landlords. I love Jean Genet more than I love Steve Jobs. (Of course, I know that landlords, historically, became landlords because they stole. So, there is a connection between the two, a complex one. But symbolic goods, such as language, don’t work the same way that money or land do. If I take fifty euros from you, or if I take your land, you don’t have it anymore. But if I take your story, you still have it. Language is not something you can divide, it multiplies, contrary to material things. That’s why, in the field of art and literature, the losers of history are always the winners. The ones who were dispossessed of everything are the ones who get to talk, in the end. They are the ones who create beauty because language is not something you can steal, at least not forever. It always reemerges. That’s why the greatest writers — or a huge majority of them — come from oppressed population categories. That’s why the greatest writers are Toni Morrison, Annie Ernaux, James Baldwin, Svetlana Alexievich, Jamaica Kincaid, Yiyun Li, Tash Aw.)
  5. We are talking about theater, here. Theater is about the beauty of being dispossessed. When you adapt a piece about my life, you take my life, I’m dispossessed, and it is a good thing. Because I didn’t choose my life. I didn’t choose to be gay, or working-class, or to be born in a certain world. Because I didn’t choose, it’s also vital to have someone else looking after my story for me, and in my place. We should have a fundamental right to not carry the pain or the violence that we never chose, to have someone else do it for us. People who think they are progressive but force us to talk about what we experienced, and only about what we experienced, are violent. They want us to carry with our mouth what we already carried with our bodies, with our flesh, against our will. They don’t want us to get out. Ask women who have experienced sexual violence: many of them don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to live it again through the act of talking, don’t want to be in charge. To have someone talking on their behalf is a liberation. It was for me. I wrote a book about rape. Thomas Ostermeier adapted it for the theater. In the last couple of years, I haven’t felt strong enough to talk about this issue, it hurts me, so every time Thomas does it, I don’t have to do it. It’s a positive appropriation. The kind of appropriation that gives to those who suffer the privilege of silence.
  6. It reminds me of people saying that gay people are less and less politically committed. I heard someone saying a few months ago, “When you go to the LGBT Pride, you see less and less gays, they all want to buy a house and have a dog now.” But why should it be gay people’s role to fight? Why can’t others fight for us, in our place? We have already suffered so much in our lives, very often. Why should we suffer again by fighting? Fighting is exhausting. Fighting creates pain, it makes you vulnerable, it makes you a target again. Politics create exhaustion, tension, anxiety, and as gay people we are already exhausted by our lives, by the insults we received in our childhood, by the rejection we faced. We have a fundamental right to rest, and therefore, a fundamental right to have other people talking on our behalf. Obviously, I want people to fight. I fight, I try to fight, I write — it’s the only thing I do. But it’s something I want to decide, not something other people can impose on me because of my identity. I am mostly thinking of my homosexuality, here. But I believe that what I am saying works for other people, too. My mother is a working-class woman, and she doesn’t want to talk about poverty, she doesn’t want to have a political discussion about it, she is too exhausted by fifty years of poverty. In the working-class environment in which I grew up, people often spoke about the left-wing parties ignoring them — “No one is talking about us.” They didn’t say, “We want to talk.” They said, “No one is talking about us.” Many people who suffered a lot want other people to talk. It’s a fantasy of the petty bourgeoisie to think that everyone is dreaming of talking about themselves, of adding this pain to all the other forms of pain they already went through. The problem with the political field today is that it is more and more controlled by this bourgeoisie, and they think that their fantasy of the world is the real world.
  7. If gay or trans people want to talk about themselves, they should be able to do it. If working-class people want to talk about themselves, they should be able to do it. It’s true that we have been silenced for so long, that we have been caricatured by many. But this is a different issue. It shouldn’t prevent other people from talking. Giving new rights to people, such as the access to speech, doesn’t mean dispossessing other people of that right. This is, again, a conservative urge. All right-wing politicians play with this idea: they say that we need to deprive some people of their rights in order to make other people’s life better. This is a lie.
  8. Of course, if you have questions, if you have doubts, you can ask some gay people around you. We always do that when we work. This is art. This is a collective process. This is about exchanging, trying to get to the truth. Even me, when I write about a gay character, or any other character, or about my mother, I’m afraid of not being fair, not being just, afraid of being simplistic, or caricatural, or missing a point. I ask my friends, they reread my work, they offer me suggestions. And sometimes I make mistakes, even if I’m gay, when I write about homosexuality. Because experience is not everything. So, it will be something similar for you to stage a play with a gay character, even if you are heterosexual. You will work. It’s art. You will talk. You will make mistakes. You will try to fix them. No matter where you come from, no matter what is on your ID, no matter who you sleep with at night. Because once again, the only pressing matter is what you are willing to say — and I’m sure you are willing to say emancipatory things. Because once again, no one can tell you what to talk about or not. Because we live in a shared world, and everything belongs to everyone.

I hope these few words will give you strength.

Have a beautiful day,