I Love, I Hate, I Miss My Sister

I love, I hate, I miss my sister by Amelie Sarn, translated by Y. Maudet

I love I hate I miss my sister is a young adult book by Amelie Sarn, translated from the French by Y. Maudet. It is contemporary realistic fiction and is based on a true story. In her acknowledgements, Sarn states her purpose: “I hope [it] sparks conversations about civil liberties for girls and women–and the ways we can fight to prevent violence against women globally.” The book’s theme is liberty, in particular for women and girls.

The story is set in a poor community of Algerian immigrants in France. The protagonist and narrator is Sohane, a teenager of Algerian descent in France. Her journey in the story is to grapple with the conflicting thoughts and emotions she has about her murdered sister. The book moves between past (before the murder) and present (after.) Sohane addresses her dead sister throughout.

I think to understand the emotional potency of the book I need to give a little history. Much of this is knowledge gained from my own association with French and Algerian people, but you can find detailed accounts online.

France maintained its colonial control of Algeria until 1962, when a lengthy and bloody revolution pushed them out. This long relationship (well over a century) is why there are a large number of people with Algerian heritage in France. Like many immigrant communities around the world, they struggle with poverty and cultural isolation. They are less integrated into French society than we as Americans might expect an immigrant community to be after so many decades. (Although I also think we as Americans over-estimate our supposed integration.)

France takes pride in its secular civil society, and in general sees religion as an entirely private matter. But the Algerian immigrants do not share the history that brought the French to this cultural outlook. Instead, Algeria’s independence from France was in part led by religious men and women, and expressed in Islamic terms. Islam was suppressed under French rule. I’ve had both French and Algerians tell me that the French citizens with Algerian heritage “are like the blacks in the US.” In other words, they’re isolated by racism, and discrimination on every front leads to a lack of opportunity.

The two main characters–the narrator and her murdered sister–are two young women who are in the process of discovering who they are. One of them becomes defiantly more religious and one becomes defiantly secular. I say defiantly because both are pulled by the two poles of their cultural milieu: French secularism and Algerian religiosity. They each rebel against the opposite force.

As the murdered Djelila says: “You know what’s so stupid? Those guys bother me because I don’t cover my hair and you’re expelled because you want to cover yours. Isn’t it ironic?”

But only one of them ends up murdered horrifically, Djelila, in a hate crime perpetrated because she is female. She doesn’t live long enough to escape the poverty and conservatism of the projects. What is the thesis here? On the dust jacket, there’s an indication: “Every choice has a price.” I would say that the book presents the case that for women and girls, the price is very high–no matter what the choice is.

The issues explored in the book, as I discussed above, are possibly more poignant and potent for the French audience. I lack the context in which a ban on headscarves even makes sense at an emotional level–why would anyone think banning a scarf was a good idea? For the French, it’s a cultural flashpoint that generates a lot of heat on both sides of the issue. All you have to say is “headscarf” and French people immediately start experiencing all sorts of emotions.

What happens on the pages of this book is a meditation on guilt and love. For me, possibly because I am an American reader, the book feels strangely sterile. There’s not a lot of sensory detail in the narration–this is a book about thinking. Sohane the narrator thinks about her murdered sister. She thinks about her emotions. That’s it, and for a French audience, a character thinking might indeed be a rewarding read. My favorite bits are the scenes in apartments of relatives, the array of aunts and uncles, and it might be because the world came into focus, the details became more tactile. I wish I could have spent more time there.

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