Héloïse Letissier is Christine and the Queens — she loves Jean Genet’s ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’

Queer Icons

Queer Icons is BBC Radio 4’s celebration of LGBTQ culture. Guests on the station’s daily arts and culture programme Front Row choose queer artworks which are special to them.

Christine and the Queens’ album Chaleur Humaine reached number two in the UK charts in 2016. Héloïse identifies as pansexual.

My choice is actually a book written by Jean Genet and the title is Our Lady of the Flowers. In French it’s Notre Dame des Fleurs. I think it’s my favourite book ever, because I kind of remember the first time I read it, I had kind of an epiphany. Every character in the novel in a way defies the norm. There are thieves, prostitutes, transvestites, gay sailors, but it’s mainly articulated around a central character, Divine, and she’s a transvestite and it’s a novel about outsiders.

“Her perfume is violent and vulgar. From it we can already tell that she is fond of vulgarity. Divine has sure taste, good taste, and it is most upsetting that life always puts someone so delicate into vulgar positions, into contact with all kinds of filth. She cherishes vulgarity because her greatest love was for a dark skinned gypsy. On him, under him, when with his mouth pressed to hers he sang to her gypsy songs that pierced her body, she learned to submit to the charm of such vulgar cloths as silk and gold braid which are becoming to immodest persons.”

Jean Genet was himself quite a character and he was an outcast. He used to be a thief, he was imprisoned several times and he actually wrote the book in 1943 when he was in prison himself. The whole book is him reminiscing in prison about Divine’s story and the main heartbreaking and beautiful thing about the novel is that it talks about outsiders in a way that makes them heroes and almost like Gods.

And Divine is actually portrayed in the novel as this goddess. She has… She has false teeth and at some point she actually removes the teeth she has and puts the dental/denture on his head or her head and it becomes a crown. And to me that is really queer. Like every wound, every scar, every shame, and you make it a strength and you actually defy what is the norm that you know.

And I think for me, it helps me. I’m interested in freaks and characters that just defy the norm because in a way I didn’t really think I could fit myself. And I think if you feel like you don’t belong or you don’t fit anywhere, if you read Jean Genet you kind of have a family.

“Until then Divine had loved only men who were stronger and just a little, a tiny bit older and more muscular than herself. But then came Our Lady of the Flowers who had the moral and physical character of a flower. She was smitten with him. Something different, a kind of feeling of power sprang up in the vegetal, germinative sense in Divine. She thought she had been virilified. A wild hope made her strong and husky and vigorous. She felt muscles growing and felt herself emerging from a rock carved by Michelangelo in the form of a slave.”

The bodies are free from any gender and they exist all their carnal, oozing desire. And I think Jean Genet talks about desire really well because it’s actually a force that transcends gender and what is proper or improper. This doesn’t count any more and what matters is desire in every form.

When you read Jean Genet, you have everything — you have the fluids, the sweat, the muscles, the tears, saliva. You have everything and it’s actually wonderful to have everything. So he’s one of the few writers that made me want to write. So in that regard, even when I’m writing a song, I remember the emotions I had reading Jean Genet and I’m hoping, crossing my fingers that I might approach that kind of emotion.

I think the very idea of refusing shame is the main force of my stage character. When I created Christine, I thought, okay I’m going to stop being ashamed because I’ve been ashamed too much and for too long and for reasons I don’t even know why.

And to me, this refusal of shame and this defiance, this way of saying… You know, Jean Genet sometimes says I’m an outcast, I’m outside of the norm, but that makes me actually who I am deeply and truly and if it’s not fine with you then I’ll continue being even more of that wild character and you won’t be able to frame me in any way. And that is very much a force I have and I want to have with my character and I think that book kind of gives you the power to do it and I often come back to it. When I want to have extra strength, extra wit, extra anger, I open the book, yeah.

— Héloïse Letissier

Listen to all of Front Row’s Queer Icons on the BBC Radio 4 web site. Sign up for Front Row’s daily podcast to get arts and culture delivered to your mobile. Watch the amazing video for Christine and the Queens’ ‘Tilted’ and swoon.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.