In her novel “Daughters beyond Command”, successful French author Véronique Olmi addresses the beginning of the women’s movement. An interview about friendship, mothers and the challenges of a self-determined life.
Your novel “Daughters beyond Command” traces the life of a mother and her three daughters in Aix-en-Provence during the 1968 movement. Why did you choose this era?
I was interested in how the events of that time in Paris, in the centre of France, had gradually affected the more rural areas. What influence they had on people’s lives and how political and social upheavals also penetrated the private sphere. It was also an important time for women’s self-determination.
And where does impatience come in?
In the case of the Malivieri family in my book, what happened in Paris only hits home after a delay, but when it does it feels like a true shock. Especially for the daughters. It’s like a sudden crack in the wall. They discover that the world is much bigger and more diverse than they had previously been told. That there is not “one world” but many different worlds and countless opportunities. They are impatient to discover these worlds and find out which one suits them best.
Is impatience a driver of self-determination?
I think so. You need this impatience in order to discover yourself and free yourself from the life and morals of your parents and the environment in which you have grown up. And also a certain disobedience. You need to be curious and want to escape. Only that will give you the strength to put everything you know behind you. After all, the step to a self-determined life is not easy and can often also be scary.
You don’t give up the ideas and values you have grown up with overnight. This is something that develops in a person and changes them. While this step is tempting and liberating, it is often also associated with fear and the feeling of guilt at betraying and leaving one’s family.
You grew up in Aix-en-Provence in a very Catholic family. Did you also experience these doubts and fears personally?
Absolutely! And I was completely overwhelmed by them. Everything that happened at that time – for example, the sexual liberation and the legalisation of abortion in 1974 – was in total contradiction with the values I was taught at home. My parents were very devout people and didn’t understand all this, although they did try. That’s why it all came as a shock to me at first, triggering great internal conflicts.
So you experienced it in a similar way to the three young women you describe?
In exactly the same way. Moments like these, when all certainties start to falter, are often very painful, but of course also very important. They enable you to question fixed ways of life and set out in search of your own truth. This is fuelled in my book by a social upheaval, but it also happens in calmer times. Especially when you’re a teenager.
In what sense?
Teenagers question a lot of what they have hitherto believed in. They want to try everything because they discover how limitless the possibilities are. That’s great, but it also puts them in a dilemma: between loyalty to their parents and the desire to lead a self-determined life.
You have two daughters yourself. How have you raised them?
Alas, I fear I’ve done a lot wrong in this regard. I wanted to be very different from my parents and raise my daughters more liberally. I’ve probably overshot the mark sometimes and would do many things differently today. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to see that my daughters are very free of fear and don’t create obstacles for themselves. Overall, I have the feeling that young people today take a much more self-determined approach to life. They seem less afraid of making mistakes. This is something I find very good.
Your book is also about friendship. What role does this play in the pursuit of self-determination?
Friendship is the most beautiful and important thing in life. I believe we discover ourselves through others, especially as women. We find in other women images and ways of being a woman that we admire and that encourage us to be the way we want to be.
Two of your protagonists go to Paris and seek their luck there. Is Paris for you the city of freedom and self-determination?
Paris is a difficult city. Today I love it and would never want to leave it, but I still remember how lost I felt when I arrived here as a young woman. And also how disappointed I was. You arrive with your impatience and your hopes and everything fizzles out immediately because the city doesn’t accept you. This is one of the big differences between the city and the country: you’re not given a place but have to create one for yourself. This is very unsettling at first, until you finally understand that it’s also an opportunity: you can experiment with yourself and decide for yourself who and how you want to be.
More than fifty years have passed since the beginning of the women’s movement. Have the goals concerning women’s self-determination been achieved?
I think this is a long struggle that will take a lot more time. Women have by no means achieved everything. And by no means has everything been said.
Véronique Olmi was born in Nice in 1962 and now lives in Paris. She is one of the best-known playwrights in France and has won numerous awards for her work. Her plays have been translated into many languages and are performed in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Her book Daughters beyond Command was published in 2022 by Europa Editions.