Books

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam: Utopian Transformations

Farah, 14, lives with her parents in a libertarian commune in Southern France. A funny, transgressive, coming-of-age novel about contemporary utopias, Arcadia was awarded the 2019 Prix du Livre Inter and has just been published in the United States.
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Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam. © Joël Saget/AFP

In Greek mythology, Arcadia is the domain of Pan, the horned, hoofed god of shepherds and flocks. In Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam’s novel, Arcady is a guru with an unbridled libido who has a strange way of protecting his followers. At Liberty House, a green paradise located in a dead zone – an area with no electromagnetic waves from cellular towers, phones, or Wi-Fi – he reigns over a community of “electromagnetic-hypersensitive,” “depigmented,” “multiple drug users,” and “cancer or senile dementia sufferers” who joyfully frolic and romp without a thought for modesty or taboos. This is home for Farah, a 14-year-old teenager, her parents, Bichette and Marqui, and her lesbian grandmother, Kirsten, a former model who flaunts her “skeletal and dilapidated anatomy.”

Embarrassed by her awkward, bulky physique, Farah falls desperately in love with Arcady. Despite being in a relationship with another man, Victor, he has sexual relations with almost everyone in the phalanstery. Arcady has promised Farah to help her lose her virginity after her first period, but just before her 15th birthday she sees a gynecologist and discovers she does not have a uterus and is developing male secondary sex characteristics. This ugly duckling is forced to question her own identity as her only certainty crumbles before her eyes: “Who am I, really?”

With scathing humor, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam follows the transformations of her intersex narrator, caught between her fear of the apocalypse and her desire to discover the vast world around her. Offering a reassuring cocoon for its members, Liberty House (a nod to Hauteville House, Victor Hugo’s residence on the island of Guernsey) is a microsociety faced with very contemporary questions of sexual identity, our relationship with nature, anxiety about the end of the world as we know it, the climate crisis, and welcoming migrants.

Born in Marseille, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam began her career as a teacher in the Paris suburbs, and now alternates between books published in her own name and crime novels written under the pseudonym Rebecca Lighieri. Arcadia is a palimpsest of a novel filled with hidden quotes, a hair-raising style, and the author’s favorite themes of adolescence, dysfunctional families, and the loss of innocence. With this cruel, transgressive fable about the dark sides of utopias, she has left her mark as one of the most original writers on the French literary scene.

Arcadia-Emmanuelle-Bayamack-Tam-Ruth-Diver-Seven-Stories-Press

Arcadia by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Seven Stories Press, 2021. 416 pages, 19.59 dollars.


Article published in the June 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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