Culture

Olivia Ruiz: "I have a duty to remember"

Article published on Jan. 16, 2017
Article published on Jan. 16, 2017

From La femme chocolat to her latest album, À nos Corps-Aimants, Olivia Ruiz has designed her own multifaceted silhoutte, capable of picking up and then discarding styles and entire genres at will. But there is one influence which does seem to stick around: her Spanish origins, and the story of her immigrant family.

cafébabel: Throughout your artistic career, you've often referenced your childhood as a Spanish immigrant. How much does it define you as an individual?

Olivia Ruiz: When you grow up surrounded by people who are constantly uprooting, you feel something quite unexplainable. I often assosciate this sensation with a quest for legitimacy that may not be my own. I get the impression that when you come from a line of migrants, you feel you are illegitimate everywhere and have more to prove than anyone else. It's surely that which gave me this more combative and hard-working side than others.

cafébabel: Did you feel difference to people your age?

Olivia Ruiz: I was more aware of the need to work a lot. But that was a personal step. I have never felt like I'm fighting a battle against society. When you are white and you have a French name (her real name is Olivia Blanc), you know no form of rejection. 

cafébabel: Your grandparents were exiled from Spain under Franco, and you've said that you "carry the weight of family exile on your shoulders..."

Olivia Ruiz: Yes, but I do it in relation to people that I love and not in relation to what it brings to my own life. My grandparents helped raised me and I realise that their life would have been totally different if they had been welcomed when they arrived in France. I have a duty to remember that.

cafébabel: How did they tell you their story?

Olivia Ruiz: In bits and pieces. One of my cousins dove deep into the family history and later told us what really happened. But even today, when I speak to my 87 year-old grandmother of her childhood and of leaving Spain, she bursts into tears.  It's a raw wound for her, like it happened yesterday. Her departure from the country, her arrival in France to join her sick sister... What stays with me is the heartbreak. In general, they didn't leave as a family unit; the children left one by one, tearing themselves from the family cocoon.

Olivia Ruiz - À nos corps aimants

cafébabel: All this has insprired your stage play - Volver - which tells the story of a young exiled woman. How did the writing of the show come together?

Oliva Ruiz : We weaved together stories from songs from my first four albums that Jean-Claud Galotta (the show's choreographer) had chosen. For example, he selected "Les vieux amoureux", which tells the story of an old couple so terrefied of dying seperately that they decicde to commit suicide together. I had to find a transition to make it work. So I wrote that Franco had put a price on their heads; rather than risk capture and dying alone they decided to commit suicide together. I was inspired by the story of one of my great aunts, who really did have a price put on her head by the regime because she was director of the republican youth bureau. Then, in the show, the exiled girl gets pregnant. I think if I had not been expecting a child at the moment of writing, I would never have put that. But Volver is inspired by the story of grandparents in so far as the character stands in total denial of his roots. One of my grandfathers always told me: "I'm not Spanish." He was so mortified when he arrived, and he spent his whole life denying his origins.  He took refuge in the idea of being a true Frenchman. Even though she had two Spanish parents, my mother doesn't speak Spanish because her father made a total break with the culture. It's very inspiring.

cafébabel: It must have been hard, too. Did it hurt to write the show ?

Olivia Ruiz: No, on the contrary - I felt I had to write it. 

cafébabel: Today, what view do you hold on the migration crisis in Europe ?

Olivia Ruiz: I'm very proud at times. My brother is a psychologist who works with young isolated migrants, and when I see him working I say to myself: "She is beautiful, my France." He gets lots of funding to house these people so that they can finish their studies. We don't leave minors in a situation of precarity, no matter their origin. On the other hand, the lack of welcome makes me super pessimistic. We are made to believe that we are country in crisis, but that will never justify not welcoming 50,000 people. We've been pelted with the rhetoric of "hordes of migrants at the gates." First it's false, and secondly the wellbeing of France doesn't rest on the reception (or lack thereof) of a few tens of thousands of people.

cafébabel: Are you conscious of a civic or political initiative which could serve as an answer to the problem?

Olivia Ruiz: It might seem strange to steal an idea from the old dictatorships, but we could always open up empty buildings. Paris, for example, is full of them. I live in a beautiful part of the 18th arrondissement, and on my street there are entire buildings which are only lived in for one week of the year.

cafébabel: What's your first reaction in face of that?

Olivia Ruiz: The sadness and guilt of facing my powerlessness. 

cafébabel: An artist, how do you translate this feeling ?

Olivia Ruiz: By writing Volver. The play ends with an text which reads: "500,000 were dead after the Spanish Civil War. History repeats itself and makes the same mistakes..." Perhaps people leave the room thinking more of this little sentence than of the performance. It was instinctive, I didn't think. It had to be there and it is.

--- 

"À nos corps aimants" is available now.