An Interview with Danielle A. Dahl, Author of Sirocco

Danielle A. Dahl

When did you start writing?

When I was twelve, I tried writing a story that would go beyond the essays required by my French class. It was a fairytale that took place in the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

My teacher read it to the class. When, in turn, my father read it, he declared that writing such trash would not, later on in life, put food on my table.

This put an end to my budding writer’s aspirations and I no longer wrote anything more than the essays required at school.

siroccoWhat made you decide to go back to writing?

During a low time in France, feeling hopelessly trapped in a country I disliked, l was tempted to take my own life, but was stopped by curiosity about what my future might have in store for me. What I might, perhaps, miss or accomplish gave me the strength to wait and see. I started a diary into which I poured my feelings of emptiness, my latent anguish, my loneliness and lack of self-worth.

Thank Heaven writing worked its miracle, and little by little, time leached the deadness out of my soul and sent me on my way to the rest of my life.

That was forty-nine years ago … and counting.

The Author at age 16

The Author at age 16

What is your average day like?

I do not have an average day. Each one is different, depending on the urgency I feel to go back to the current story or start a new one. Before picking up the thread of the current story, I reread, proofread and correct the previous day’s work. Only then do I feel grounded enough to continue writing.

Most writers will tell you they write the book’s first draft then go back and revise/proofread/copy edit. I cannot work this way. For me, every word put down on the page must be perfect before continuing to the next one, which often impacts my word count for the day as I may spend hours crafting one paragraph, if not one single line.

How long did it take you to write Sirocco?

It took me five years to complete Sirocco’s manuscript—five years spent doing research to check the accuracy of historical facts as well as learning the craft of writing and doing several rewrites.

The main reason it took so long to write Sirocco was checking the facts. Many times, during my research, I found that facts had been altered by the Metropolitan French and Algerians, to lay full responsibility of the war at the feet of the Pieds-Noirs or French settlers, thus proving Winston Churchill’s quote: “History is written by the victors.”

I studied the pictorial, written, and taped testimonies of fellow Pieds-Noirs. Read the injustice and downright lies of the rewritten history—which, to this day, are still taking place. The old nightmares and daytime anguish followed by sleepless nights stopped me from writing for days at a time while I gave in to anger and grieved anew for the slaughtered and the disappeared.

Are the facts of your story true?

Each one of my stories is true. In a few instances, I bowed to the necessities of storytelling by jiggling the timelines, but never the core facts. As for the dialog, it is impossible to recall every word, but when one knows the characters, it is easy to reconstruct their particular reactions, speech pattern, and words they’d use in given circumstances. I believe my characters remain true to the real-life individuals.

While writing Sirocco, what research did you do? You obviously couldn’t have recalled the radio broadcasts word for word—are they faithful to the source?

My research was done through interviews with family and friends, reading documentation on historical facts, personal testimonies, and pictorial archives made available by le Centre De Documentation Historique Sur l’Algérie, and its magazine, Memoire Vive, and finally, through the internet.

The radio broadcasts are not direct quotes, but recreated using historical facts of the times.

What was the hardest part about writing Sirocco and what did you enjoy most?

The hardest part about writing Sirocco took place during my research of historical facts as I was plumbing the depth of the horrific deeds meted out by the terrorists upon Europeans and Arabs alike. This was made even worse by discovering the abysmal misinformation disseminated by Arab, French, and international pro-independence groups regarding what, why, when, and who was responsible for the political mess Algeria’s quest for independence had become.

The part I enjoyed most was recounting funny childhood episodes I shared with my siblings, rendering in wide strokes the way of life of the Arab community among which we lived, and describing the treasure trove of sights, scents, and sounds of a land that to this day remains a part of my being.

In Sirocco, you express bitterness toward the Metropolitan French. Do you still have the same feeling now?

During the war of independence, and to this day, the Metropolitan French held the French from Algeria, the Pieds-Noirs—black feet, as they called us—responsible for the death of Metropolitan soldiers sent by the French government to deal with the Algerian insurrection, which was, in fact, sparked by the policies of the French Government in Algeria.

On the eve of Algeria’s independence, to save their lives, the Pieds-Noirs fled the land of their ancestors and sought refuge in France. There, they were treated by the Metropolitan French, not as French citizens returning to the mother country, but with aversion and contempt, if not hatred.

So, yes, I was bitter, resentful, and angry toward the Metropolitan French as were a million and a half other Pieds-Noirs. Our grandfathers and fathers had fought for their freedom during two World Wars only to be shunned in return. To this day, over fifty years later, many Metropolitan French still retain their anti-Pieds-Noirs stance. But such bitterness and resentment can only go on so long before it starts rotting one’s life. Perhaps it is the reason why, unconsciously, to let go of both, I wrote Sirocco.

In your memoir, you express warm feelings toward the native Algerians and a deep love of the land. What are your feelings now toward the Algerians and do you miss living there?

I will always miss Algeria but will not return. Doing so would revive the heartache of eight years of violence and loss. A loss that can never be reversed.

I would love to see my house in Sidi Mabrouk again, but I know my grief would be unbearable.

As for the people, the ones I knew “là bas,”—over there—were part of my everyday life. They were the schoolmates and the neighbors my mother, brothers, sisters, and myself grew up with. We shared a history, felt at home with each other. Belonged. The people I would find now would be total strangers with no shared memories and experiences. It would be akin to perusing the faded photos of people who died before you were born.

The part that leaves me with an intense feeling of loss, of longing, is not having a childhood place and its people to return to—“Bonjour Madame Justine. Do you remember me? I used to steal apples from the tree in your front yard.” Or “Oui, Monsieur Jerome, Monsieur Honninger was my grandfather. He used to go fishing with your grandfather.” And so on, down the block, my memories would link me to a community that remembers me and my family. A place where my past would peek through every window, around every doorjamb as I walked by. Instead, it is as if the people, time, and places of my childhood and teen years never existed. That’s why I am thankful for the gift of memories.

Do you expect any criticism from today’s Algerians?

I do expect criticism from some Algerians, more widely, from Muslim Jihadists. The hardcore that continues to think they have a score to settle with the French as well as with the whole European and North American non-Muslim populations. They are the descendants of those who rewrote history in order to rationalize their horrific crimes against humanity in Algeria and, now, threaten the entire Western civilization.

As for the younger generations of Algerians who have not been indoctrinated by the slanted facts they’ve been force-fed in history books, I would imagine that they would be more concerned with playing with their cell phones, falling in love, and building a family, than with events that occurred over half a century before.

What made you leave France and come to the U.S?

Bitterness. Rancor. Rage. A great sense of loss, emotional emptiness. It occurred to me that if I was to be treated like a second-class citizen, worse than an illegal foreigner, in my country of citizenship, I’d rather be a foreigner in a foreign country. So not only did I move to a foreign country that welcomed me, but one that became my country of citizenship.

Why move to the U.S and not another country?

The U.S. was the strongest, most dynamic, most welcoming country on earth, touted as being the New World for two centuries. A world with opportunities for all. It was a vast ocean away from a life I despised. What could be better asylum than that? A better land for a new start in life? A place where I belonged?

Would you like/want to return to Algeria to visit/live there?

A couple of months after Algeria’s independence, my family returned to our home to try to pick up our lives where we had left them. It didn’t work—worry about personal safety being the main reason.

At times, I think I would like to go for a visit, but I know that returning to one’s roots is never wise as it can only generate disappointment and regrets. So, why torture myself?

Would you consider living in France one day?

Every couple of years, I enjoy visiting France to revitalize my ties with my family. But living there is not in my future. Here, I have a husband, friends. I have developed a personal history that spans more years than those I lived in Algeria and France combined. I have grown as a person. I feel secure. This is my home.

If Algeria’s independence hadn’t occurred, would you still be living there, and what kind of life would you have?

I am convinced that had the independence of Algeria not taken place, I would still be living there as a middle-class married woman, mother of five and grandmother to many more.

I would not have visited the many places where I have traveled, come to this country, been the person I’ve become, and answered questions about Sirocco.

What happened to the rest of your family?

My family lives in different parts of France. My mother died eight years ago, my father, three years. My siblings all have children and grandchildren. My two sisters, now retired, were small business owners. Of my two brothers, recently retired, one was a welding professor in a trade school, the other a site foreman for industrial building companies. My uncle and aunt are still living and are happy grandparents.

You had a difficult relationship with your father, did it change in time?

My relationship with my father only changed for the worse.

What advice would you give other people who are interested in writing a memoir or a book?

My advice would be, to not think about writing. Just do it. Sit down at your computer, and if you must, start with, “Once upon a time there was a little girl by the name of…” and jump with both feet into one of the stories in this little girl’s life. Do not be self-conscious in choosing the story. Let it choose you. Once you have your first story down, others will pour out of your mind in quick sequence.

Concern yourself about the timeline later. The essential is to keep writing. Your mind will start working behind the scenes and provide the next story… and the next one.

My other advice is to not write with an eye toward publication, which might or might not happen. Just enjoy the process of writing. In the end, you’ll find it liberating to have poured out the anguish of painful days, for you to analyze and find, if not peace, at least, dispassion….

In what ways do you think your book might help readers gain more understanding of cultures like that of Algeria?

I hope Sirocco will help readers understand that, unlike the hardcore, uncompromising extremists whose weapon of choice is terror, the majority of people indigenous to a culture like that of Algeria are hard-working, peaceful, humble beings who only wish to feed their families and practice their faith without coercion and in harmony with each other and the world at large.

Are you glad you wrote Sirocco? Has it given you any closure in dealing with your past?

Yes. Sirocco allowed me to put events and feelings about people and myself into perspective. As for closure, all wounds leave marks, however faint. I see mine as battle scars that made me mentally and emotionally richer. Or is it that I am simply growing older and therefore, wiser?

Are you planning to write another book? If so, what would be its subject?

Absolutely. Since a memoir, as opposed to a biography, depicts only a slice of someone’s life at a time. I’m planning to write, at least, Sirocco’s sequel, with the working title of Mistral, which will pick up where Sirocco ended.

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