Author of novels, theatre and radio fiction, Éric Pessan continues to push the boundaries between genres. Since his first novel, L'Effacement du monde (The erasure of the world), published in 2001, he has focused on growing projects and collaborations, and since 2012 has been focusing on youth literature. Since September 2018, he has been working with on "Digital cultural classes".
Looking at your writing journey, I am struck by the multi-faceted nature of your work. How do you see literary creation?
When I was a teenager, I dreamed of being a writer and never asked myself whether I wanted to be a novelist, drama writer or poet. I first started writing theatre, then published a first novel, and later returned to the theatre. I am interested in writing in the broad sense, and I would be unable to restrict myself to just producing novels year in, year out. There is now a real permeability between literary genres. I feel like I am regenerating myself by moving from novels to poetry. I want to retain this freedom to allow myself to do everything.
What were the most important projects in your literary research?
I have written novels that respect the rule of the three unities of classical theatre, and also plays that question dramaturgy given that we do not know who is speaking to whom. My first foray into youth literature with Plus haut que les oiseaux (Higher than the birds) was in response to a request from my children. I realised how much pleasure I got from writing it, and it was a pivotal moment. I am also very proud of my work Quichotte, autoportrait chevaleresque (Quixote, a chivalrous self-portrait). You could describe it as a synthesis of fiction, autobiography and thinking about literature: it has allowed me to stand at the crossroads of all kinds of writing paths.
Youth literature seems to have taken over in your career in recent years…
I came to youth literature to share literature with my children. It fulfils my love of novels and encourages me to move towards more adventurous, hybrid forms in general literature. I believe that young people are growing up today in a world of anxiety, what with global warming, migratory crises, economic stagnation and rising extremism. Of course, literature does not provide an answer, but I feel as though I have understood things from the world and from myself through works of fiction. When I address novels to teenagers, I want to write stories where solidarity matters, without watering down the reality they experience every day. Referring back to ourselves is one of the pathways of art.
You are taking part in the project "Digital cultural classes", connecting classes of learners from different continents with a writer. What has struck you about the connection these students made with writing?
I designed the workshop around diversity and questions like “What is other? What do I know and don’t know about it? Where will it surprise me?” I have created exercises where the question of how to look is asked: what do we see when we are a high school student in New Zealand, Ukraine or the Democratic Republic of Congo? I also asked each group to read each others’ work and we did an exercise, “What I know about you”, to challenge stereotypes. On Brazil, the non-Brazilians mentioned the festival and the samba while the Brazilians, on the other hand, responded with an implacable text about their feelings of oppression following the last elections! This workshop was a real opportunity for them to express themselves, to tell their stories, but also to define what “other” is.
You will be in Ukraine in June to meet one of these classes. Is it essential that you to go beyond simple online exchanges?
I am interested in all aspects of communication and, while I can't meet everyone on a project, the lack of verbal exchange can be a problem. Some groups may run out of steam and there may be timetable clashes, in particular with regard to holidays which vary by country – some will have changed school year during the project. We live in a world where the digital has an important place, but it is reassuring to think that we are human beings and not machines. The physical encounter makes it possible, as part of a workshop, to make adjustments for the learners’ personalities and to extend discussions.
What do you think of the omnipresence of the written word in the age of the internet?
The paper book continues to resist it, but reading is in a state of collapse. To read, you have to free yourself of time and, neurologically – as some studies show – it is complicated to read. Reading a book means integrating the symbol, transforming it into meaning, generating mental images...it takes the brain ten times more effort than watching images! The book has everything to gain by being kept in paper form, if only for the benefit of the existence of “real” bookshops compared to the abstract nature of downloading. I do not think that digital technology will give young people a taste for reading. But we must find ways to show them that reading is something desirable that brings knowledge and pleasure. We must convince them – and allow them – to take a book into their hands.
The greatest fear of my life by Éric Pessan is one of the young literature works selected in 2018 for "International Nuggets", a youth literature offer for young French learners worldwide.
Éric Pessan also participates in "Digital Cultural Classes". Launched in September 2018, this programme connects classes of French learners from five continents with a writer in residence, online and in class, for six months.
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