Nina Bouraoui and her first UK-published book, All Men Want to Know

Getty Images/Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

“I begin to write when I first start going to the Kat,” asserts Nina Bouraoui early in her autobiographical novel All Men Want to Know.

The Paris nightclub isn’t just a location but a central character in Bouraoui’s work of autofiction, one whose demise is already foretold when she introduces it on the novel’s second page: “Rue du Vieux Colombier, the Katmandou, a women-only club in the 1980s, a theatre now.”

Mere pages later she reiterates, “I can’t separate the Kat from my first urge to write.” It’s clear the author wants us to know: this is the locus of her first foray into a life of literature.

And what a life it’s been: Bouraoui, a literary household name in her native France, is the author of over a dozen novels and works of autofiction, and a commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (the French equivalent of the Order of the British Empire) alongside names like T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges. She’s written songs for Celine Dion, and won the prestigious Prix Renaudot for her 2005 novel, Mes Mauvaises Pensées.

All Men Want to Know, the English-language translation of her 2018 novel Tous les hommes désirent naturellement savoir and her long-overdue, first-ever publication in the UK, continues Bouraoui’s longstanding tradition of excavating the nuances of identity. A coming-of-age work of autofiction, it traces Bouraoui’s childhood through to adulthood, though not in that order. The book’s chapters – short bursts of prose never more than a couple of pages long – leap back and forth through time, distinguished by just three alternating chapter titles until the novel’s end: some are named Remembering, some Becoming, and some Knowing, depending on when they happen.

To new (read: Anglophone) readers, it might seem an unremarkable detail that Bouraoui’s desire to write started at the Kat. But for anyone familiar with Bouraoui’s career, in which she’s made a trademark of sharing and baring her the intimate details of her life – her childhood spent between Algeria and France, her queerness, and her family, always in stark but poetic prose – for artistic purpose, the question demands asking: why, in her lifetime of bold, self-expressive writing, did it take until her 50s for her to open up about the site of her literary awakening? What else might Nina Bouraoui holding back?

  • All Men Want to Know

  • 'Intense, gorgeous, troubling, seductive - a novel that has to be surrendered to rather than read' Sarah Waters

    AN INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
    WINNER OF AN ENGLISH PEN TRANSLATES AWARD

    All Men Want to Know traces Nina Bouraoui's blissful childhood in Algeria, a wild, sun-soaked paradise, with hazy summer afternoons spent swimming, diving, and driving across the desert. Her mother is French, her father Algerian; when racial tensions begin to surface in their neighbourhood, her mother suffers an unspeakable act of violence that forces the family to flee the country.

    In Paris, eighteen-year-old Nina lives alone. It's the 1980s. Four nights a week she makes her way to The Kat, a legendary gay nightclub, where she watches women from the sidelines, afraid of her own desires, her sudden and intoxicating freedom. In her solitude, she starts to write - and finds herself writing about her mother.

    All Men Want to Know is a haunting, lyrical international bestseller about mothers and daughters, about shame and sexuality, about existing between two cultures and belonging to neither. A phenomenon in France, this is a defining portrait of womanhood from one of Europe's greatest living writers.

    'Blown away by the power and lyricism of All Men Want to Know. What a book. Read it' Niven Govinden, author of THIS BRUTAL HOUSE

    'Magnificent... a captivating autobiographical novel' Elle

    'It's easy to see why this novel dominated the bestseller charts for so long in France' Monocle

  • Buy the book

“I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a child,” says Bouraoui today through Aneesa Abbas Higgins, her translator who helped bring Tous les hommes to an English audience.

Bouraoui was born in Rennes, France in 1967, but was raised in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Hers was a tumultuous childhood; as civil war loomed, her family moved her back to France, and after bouncing from Brittany to Zurich and Abu Dhabi in her teen years, Bouraoui relocated to the City of Light at 18, where she settled to study.

It’s there that the story of All Men Want to Know – and, says Bouraoui, her career as a writer ­– begins.

“Once I started going to the Kat, writing became an urgent need,” she says. “I learned so much from my nights there – about passion, shame, fear, human nature. I was the youngest, the women I was hanging out with were much older and from very different backgrounds to my own. For a writer, it was a gift. I’d come home in the early hours and write, probably as a way of ‘purging’ myself – tensions were rife among these women. And I thought I could somehow ‘fix’ my homosexuality. I thought if I managed to become a writer and be published, the reality of my queer nature would fade into the background. Foolish, yes, but it did give me the strength to finally accept who I was.”

All Men Want to Know is, Bouraoui has said, the “most autobiographical” of all her books. “This is the first time I’ve described the Katmandou, from the inside, as it were: the nights, the shame I felt at going so often to a women-only nightclub, and the thrill of it, too.”

It’s through writing that she finds the words to express her desires. One chapter, after a night at the Kat, a young Bouraoui returns home to write about a woman she can only watch, never speak to: “In my imagination, we spend the night together. I write to love and be loved, on the page. I live out my dreams as I write – I have affair after affair, fictional liaisons in which I conquer my fear of women, of the unknown.”

Revelations like these, told with such honesty and intimacy, have made Bouraoui a queer icon.

“I’ve always considered it my mission to bring light to the spaces occupied by the weakest,” she says, “to use my books as a way of giving voice to those who’ve never had the opportunity to speak. My readers are aged between 15 and 85! They all thank me when they meet me. Cutting through the loneliness of a young gay person, helping them with my words – for me, that’s a great victory and a source of immense pride.”

But while her revelations about the Kat might be the first to surface, as All Men Want to Know proceeds, and probes deeper into her past, ever more intimate revelations come to light.

“It’s the most upfront of my books” she says. “It reveals some of my mother’s secrets: [the character] Monsieur B., and the time she was assaulted in Algeria.”

In All Men, Bouraoui’s childhood, adolescence and sexual awakening are juxtaposed and interwoven closely with those of her mother, whose own experiences as a young woman the young Bouraoui can’t help but internalise. In one particularly disturbing chapter, her mother returns home from a violent assault with “her dress torn, drops of spit in her hair, her skin streaked with grime”; in response, Bouraoui vows to “make it my duty to protect other women from danger”. A man at the grocery shop in a later chapter “puts his hand on my mother’s crotch”, which Bouraoui’s mother ignores for a short time before turning to her daughter and uttering words that provide the novel’s thematic thrust: “I’ve learned how to ignore things for which there are no words. Without a name, nothing can exist.”

Nina Bouraouri, author of 'All Men Want to Know' and commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Nina Bouraouri, author of 'All Men Want to Know' and commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

There are even further, more traumatic reasons Bouraoui’s mother might not want those words: Monsieur B., a veteran who stays at Bouraoui’s grandparents’ house after the Algerian War of Independence, for whom, writes Bouraoui, “children were what he loved more than anything else in the world, slipping into their bed to embrace them as they had never been embraced before.” Her mother was one of those children.

From these moments stem Bouraoui’s impulses: she spends All Men Want to Know disentangling her desire for women from male violence while simultaneously finding the words to do so. It’s new and difficult territory for Bouraoui, who credits her age with the ability to discuss her mother-daughter relationship, and the trauma that came with it.

“Being over 50 has made it easier for me to write with fewer filters. I really wanted to write something autobiographical that was poetic and that hid nothing. I’ve written in this book about a disturbing and violent episode in her childhood for the first time and also about an assault she suffered that was a turning point in my own childhood.”

But where her mother found solace in the absence of names, Bouraoui was never, she says, “capable of hiding who I am, of lying”. It’s what has made Bouraoui an icon, what makes All Men Want to Know her most fearless work.

“In those days, refusing to name things was a way of denying their existence. I chose to do the opposite: to spend my time searching for the words that let me get as close to the truth as possible without ever forsaking the vital, poetic aspect of my work.”

By the end of All Men Want to Know, Bouraoui uses a fourth chapter title: Being. In that handful of chapters, she inhabits both the past and present, at once.

“I wanted my writing to flow like the workings of memory,” she explains. “Memories arise at random, but in the end, they overlap and fit together. I hadn’t given the titles chapters when I started, but I came to realise that this book was actually a sort of handbook for living for the heroine, who is able to accept and fully embrace her queerness through becoming a writer.”

All Men Want to Know reflects Bouraoui’s deep, empowering belief in language.

“I’ve never stopped writing. Being creative has helped me get over my neuroses, my anxiety, my fear of emptiness. I believe it’s possible to move things forward with gentleness and sincerity: fearsome weapons, far more powerful than violence.”

 

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  • All Men Want to Know

  • 'Intense, gorgeous, troubling, seductive - a novel that has to be surrendered to rather than read' Sarah Waters

    AN INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
    WINNER OF AN ENGLISH PEN TRANSLATES AWARD

    All Men Want to Know traces Nina Bouraoui's blissful childhood in Algeria, a wild, sun-soaked paradise, with hazy summer afternoons spent swimming, diving, and driving across the desert. Her mother is French, her father Algerian; when racial tensions begin to surface in their neighbourhood, her mother suffers an unspeakable act of violence that forces the family to flee the country.

    In Paris, eighteen-year-old Nina lives alone. It's the 1980s. Four nights a week she makes her way to The Kat, a legendary gay nightclub, where she watches women from the sidelines, afraid of her own desires, her sudden and intoxicating freedom. In her solitude, she starts to write - and finds herself writing about her mother.

    All Men Want to Know is a haunting, lyrical international bestseller about mothers and daughters, about shame and sexuality, about existing between two cultures and belonging to neither. A phenomenon in France, this is a defining portrait of womanhood from one of Europe's greatest living writers.

    'Blown away by the power and lyricism of All Men Want to Know. What a book. Read it' Niven Govinden, author of THIS BRUTAL HOUSE

    'Magnificent... a captivating autobiographical novel' Elle

    'It's easy to see why this novel dominated the bestseller charts for so long in France' Monocle

  • Buy the book

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