An excerpt from Arcadia: A Novel by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, translated by Ruth Diver
Be not afraid
It was about time: my mother suffered from migraines, memory loss, concentration lapses, and chronic fatigue. My father was in the best of health, but empathy being what it is, he was just as affected as his Birdie and had actively searched for a safe haven, a healthcare center, a cave, anywhere she might shield her legendary hypersensitivity from radiation. I know all about the contempt this diagnosis is usually met with, and I can sometimes appear to be ironic myself about the symptoms my mother presented, but I can testify that before her first stay in a quiet zone, her life was a living hell.
In my memories of that distressing period, she is constantly wearing a kind of beekeeper’s outfit, a protective cape, an anti-radiation scarf, and gloves woven with copper thread. This attire means she is the object of suspicion, whereas I am the object of tender compassionate glances, me, whose mother hasconverted to such a strict form of Islam that she doesn’t unveil a square inch of her reassuring flesh or hair. And who’s to know whether she won’t get radicalized and blow herself up, loaded with TATP and screws ready to perforate the infidels, who are legion in the neighborhood? Needless to say the few times we went out for a walk always turned into psychodramas, with a hasty return to home base for Birdie, weeping under her niqab. And so now she never goes out: she reclines on the cushions of her Mahjong couch, talks with a wavering voice and flaps her feeble hands at her staff: Marqui, Kirsten, and me, respectively husband, mother, and daughter of this elegant shipwreck.
We live isolated from the world. Metal blinds have replaced our beautiful velvet curtains: they are supposed to deflect the waves and cut the electromagnetic field down to a third of its strength, but Birdie still feels a strong burning sensation whenever she goes near the windows. To give Marqui his due, I must say he went all out to insulate our home, starting with the master bedroom: shielding wallpaper, bio switches, vitalfield amplifiers that are supposed to convert electro-magnetic pollution into beneficial effects, detoxifying indoor plants — everything has been done so that Birdie can get a little rest. But it’s hopeless: she sleeps only three hours a night, generally in the bathtub, deserting the conjugal bed even though it is enclosed in an anti-radiation curtain. Needless to say we don’t have computers anymore, or cell phones, or an induction stove. Even the electric coffee machine was deemed undesirable. We’re back with a fixed-line phone, a stainless-steel Italian espresso pot, and LED lightbulbs. But here’s the thing, six of our ten neighbors have Wi-Fi. Not to mention the obvious fact that we live near a cell-phone tower. Marqui did everything he could to turn our apartment into a sanctuary, but Birdie is stillwasting away, and the list of her symptoms is growing longer and longer: headaches, joint pain, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, loss of muscle tone, pruritus, tired eyes, irritability, cognitive impairment, intractable anxiety—to name but a few.
But then it seems to me that I’ve never known my mother to be anything except neurasthenic and abulic. The doctors she consulted didn’t hold back in suggesting that her motor deficits and the decline in her mental faculties might have more to do with depression than with any sensitivity to electromagnetic pollution. Except that depression is a diagnosis Birdie considers insulting, so she shoots the medic her withered-lily look. My mother is not Lillian Gish’s doppelgänger for nothing, and although hardly anyone remembers that star of the silent screen, you can count on my mother to perpetuate her memory. It’s worth noting that Lillian Gish lived to a hundred and that Birdie will no doubt do the same, like many a fragile and overprotected princess. I say this with no acrimony at all, for I love my mother deeply and she totally deserves to be loved, since she is as kind as she is beautiful. She would even be funny and cheerful if her depression, or EHS, take your pick, gave her a half a chance. Yes, you might as well get used to all those acronyms that invaded our family, because on top of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, my mother suffers from MCS, multiple chemical sensitivity, and ICEP, idiopathic chronic eosinophilic pneumonia, not to mention IBS, irritable bowel syndrome—but then, of course, all those conditions are really only one and the same pathology: an intolerance to everything. God knows she doesn’t get that from her mother, the unsinkable Kirsten, who freely admits that she has never known a minute of low spirits in her seventy-two years of existence and has absolutely no understanding of what is happening toher Birdie. And you might as well get used to nicknames too, because on entering Liberty House, everyone is expected to abandon their birth names.
“That’s right,” Arcady bellows, “it’s like the Foreign Legion here: no one cares who you were before. What matters is what Liberty House will make of you!”
Arcady has therefore de-baptized just about everybody, inventing more and more monikers and diminutives. My father became Marqui, which he persists in writing without the s because of his severe dysorthographia, my mother is Birdie, Fiorentina is Mrs. Danvers, Dolores and Teresa are Dos and Tres, Daniel is Nello, Victor is either Mr. Bitch or Mr. Mirror, Jewell is Lazuli, and so on. I was not entitled to this initiation ritual, no doubt because my very young age made this symbolic rebirth superfluous. However, honesty compels me to mention that Arcady generally tags on incomprehensible words to my name: Farah Faucet, Farah Diba, Princess Farah, Empress Farah, et cetera. And, of course, all these titles are flattering, but I can’t quite figure out what it is about me that suggests even the slightest notion of nobility or supremacy.
In any case, we were happy at Liberty House. We led precisely the pastoral existence that Arcady promised, with Arcady himself in the role of his life, the good shepherd leading his innocent flock. I say this with all the more conviction now that our happiness is under threat, if not irremediably compromised. But fifteen years ago, when we were setting that absurd headstone under the blue June sky, we felt light, delivered from our anxieties, confident in the future for the first time in a long while—and in my case, for the first time ever, since I had always seen my parents timorously withdrawn into their preoccupations and incapable of dealing with the outside world. Atthe age of six, I was already the pillar of my little nuclear family, the one who was sent out to slalom between real and imaginary dangers: collect the mail, take out the trash, buy bread or the newspaper. Kirsten was in charge of the weekly shopping as well as administrative tasks, and it was pretty clear that she greeted our decision to move to Liberty House with some circumspection:
“Quiet zones are all very well, but sooner or later they’ll build cell-phone towers in the area. And who knows, there are probably high-voltage lines there already, or a nuclear-power plant nearby, and you don’t even realize it! And that house must be at least a hundred fifty years old: it’ll be full of lead, asbestos, and mold — I say you won’t last more than three years there, tops.”
Three years, in my grandmother’s mind, was about the life expectancy those volatile organic compounds would give us. For although she didn’t completely share all her daughter and son-in-law’s phobias, she still agreed that, as a species, we were facing extinction. We were afraid, and our fears were as varied and insidious as the threats themselves. We were afraid of new technologies, global warming, electro-smog, parabens, sulfates, digital surveillance, prepackaged salad leaves, mercury levels in the oceans, gluten, aluminum salts, polluted aquifers, glyphosate, deforestation, milk products, bird flu, diesel fuel, pesticides, refined sugar, endocrine disruptors, arboviruses, smart electricity meters, and the rest. As for me, while I didn’t quite understand who was out to get us, I knew that their name was Legion and that we were contaminated. I took on a sense of dread that was not mine but which readily played into my own childhood terrors. Without Arcady we would all be dead sooner rather than later, because our anxiety was stronger than our capacity to handle it. He offered us a miraculous alternative to illness, madness, and suicide. He gave us shelter. He said: “Be not afraid.”
Winner, Prix du Livre Inter, 2019
Shortlisted for the Prix Femina, Prix Medicis, Prix de Flore
Longlisted for the Prix France-Culture, Prix Wepler
Farah moves into Liberty House—an arcadia, a community in harmony with nature—at the tender age of six, with her family. The commune’s spiritual leader, Arcady, preaches equality, non-violence, anti-speciesism, free love, and uninhibited desire for all, regardless of gender, age, looks, or ability. At fifteen, Farah learns she is intersex, and begins to go beyond the confines of gender, as she explores the arc of her own desires. What, Farah asks, is a man or a woman? What does it mean to be part of a community? What is utopia when there are refugees nearby seeking shelter who cannot enter?
Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam delivers a magisterial novel, both a celebration and a critique of innocence in the contemporary world.