‘It was her story’: Riad Sattouf on the real girl behind his Esther comics
| Comics and graphic novels
When the graphic author met a strangely chatty nine-year-old, he was therefore smitten by her speak that he began swing it into cartoons, that are successful in France
“My name is Esther and I am nine years old. I live in Paris in the 17th arrondissement.” So starts the story of Esther, a girl growing up in the French capital, whose slice-of-life tales have been a huge hit across the Channel. These vignettes of a city childhood are based on conversations between a real, unnamed girl and the prize-winning graphic novelist Riad Sattouf. The Esther comic strips are featured in national news magazines, and have been collected into five bestselling books.
Now UK readers are to be introduced to Esther for the first time, with Esther’s Notebooks, a collection of the series translated to English, coming out this week.
Sattouf, whose autobiographical graphic novel The Arab of the Future was a Guardian book of the year, met the real Esther – whose identity is disguised to protect her anonymity – when his friends, her parents, brought her to dinner.
“She chattered the whole time telling stories about her school and friends and things that were happening to her. She was like a radio, talking away. It was enormously interesting to hear her talking about her life and I thought it would be amusing to do a book about her world,” Sattouf says.
“I’ve not met many children who speak that much to others. They talk to their parents, but there she was talking away, describing her world with a large vocabulary. The first thing that struck me was the relationship between the boys and girls at that age. She started recounting all these stories about how boys behaved, boys who were considered handsome, those that should be kept away from … I thought, this is actually very funny.
“I decided I would do a book every year until she was 18, and it would be interesting to see someone grow up. At the time, I was writing the second volume of Arab of the Future and recounting my life as a child growing up in Syria in the 1980s – I wanted to do a parallel project showing a girl of today and what there might be in common.”
Most parents will admit, if pressed, that they have no idea what goes on in their children’s minds or their lives outside the home. From speaking to the real Esther, Sattouf offers some hints: she thinks that her friends who own iPhones are “rich”; that Beyoncé is “blonde and bendy” (and therefore her hero); she loves her dad, but thinks her 14-year-old brother Antoine, with whom she shares a room, is “a bit stupid … but that’s normal for a boy”.
Boys are a recurring theme: “I don’t know what to say about boys except that we don’t talk about them because they’re, you know, boys,” says Esther in one story, which finishes with the caption: “In the end, everybody cried. So that’s what boys are like. Bad.” And some quite hardcore swearing: “At school we can talk to each other how we want. It’s not like being at home, where you’re not allowed to swear,” she says on the very first page, followed by a stream of expletives.
Sattouf, who is also a film-maker – his movie Les Beaux Gosses (The French Kissers) won a César – was born in France, to a Syrian father and French mother. As a child, he lived first in Libya, then in his father’s birthplace, Ter Maaleh, a town of 7,700 in central Syria. His parents divorced when he was 11, and his mother moved back to France with Sattouf and his brother.
Sattouf is in contact with the real Esther every week and conveys her view of the world. Her particular charm, he says, is that she is so ordinary.
“The real Esther interested me because she is a girl without a particular background,” he says. “She has no family problems, her parents are together, she is not poor or rich, not stunningly beautiful nor plain, not super-intelligent but good at school. She is your average young girl without any particular backstory. I wanted to know what was in her head. Listening to her stories, I realised that they were hard, amusing and sometimes cruel, but they transmitted the reality of childhood.”
Although there are very specific French references – including the rapper Black M, and singers Maître Gims and TAL – Daniel Seton, the book’s UK publisher at Pushkin Press, says the stories are universal.
“It’s an unfiltered look into modern childhood and not exclusively French. The way Esther grows up, interacts with social media, worries about terrorism, sexism, racism and questions of having or not having money, speaks to an universal audience. It’s rare children have a chance to speak in such an unfiltered way,” Seton said.
In France the next Esther book, covering her 15th year, will be published in June. Her stories have already been translated into Italian, German, Spanish, Serbian and Greek. Seton plans to publish two more Esther collections this year, while Sattouf’s next and final volume of Arab of the Future comes out in French in June next year.
Meanwhile, the real Esther remains anonymous. “I told her it was her story and she could tell who she wanted, but that it might be better to keep it a secret,” Sattouf says. “It was funny because sometimes at her birthday parties friends would offer her the books as a present, without knowing she was the real Esther. Reality caught up with her, but she couldn’t tell them.”