In a journalist and award-winning novelist who follows stories across the continents, THEO PANAYIDES finds a vivacious woman in love with Cyprus

Anais Llobet is moving on. This is not a knock on Cyprus – which she’s preparing to depart, after five years at Agence France Presse (AFP) – it’s just what she does. She’s never spent more than five years in any one place – ‘never’ meaning not just now, in her adult life, but throughout her (almost) 35 years. She was born in Portugal, “then we moved to the Netherlands, then we moved to Italy, then we moved to France, Argentina, a bit of Brazil, Netherlands, France, England.” That takes us to her late teens, after which she studied journalism at Sciences Po – a top university for politics and humanities, despite the name – then worked in the Philippines as a freelancer, then five years in Moscow with AFP, then Cyprus. And now something else.

That said, this particular move is different – because it’s the first time she’s changing countries as a mum, accompanied by her partner and two kids (both born here), a three-year-old and a one-year-old. She hasn’t told the kids they’re leaving Cyprus, following the example of her own parents who didn’t discuss the family’s peregrinations with Anais and her two siblings till they’d reached “an age of understanding”. Her dad – who’d grown up in Chad, so he was used to the expat life – was an executive at Renault, her mother was (and is) a painter. Does she not lose something with this nomadic life, though? Some rootedness, a sense of attachment? “I’m really attached to the place where I live,” she replies. “I really get invested… When I’m here I’m really here, this is really my home”. And of course Cyprus is a special case, given all that’s happened in her life since 2018: “You know when people separate and they say ‘You’ll always be the father of my children’? Well, I’m separating from Cyprus, but it’ll always be the country of my children!”

profile2 her second novel men who are the colour of the sky

Her second novel men who are the colour of the sky

The advent of motherhood isn’t her only big news of the past few years. We meet at To Erma, a quiet and charming bookshop-café in old Nicosia that was also the model for her third novel Au café de la ville perdue (she also wrote much of the book here), recently garlanded with the Prix Mare Nostrum for Mediterranean literature. Anais is a busy and experienced journalist – she’s covered everything from typhoons (more on this later) to tourist attacks and plane crashes – but she only got into journalism as “the only way to earn money while you write”, to avoid having to work as a waitress basically; “I wanted to be a writer from the beginning”. She and the family are heading to Uluwatu in Bali for four months (then it’s back to France for a few more years with AFP, actually Rennes in Brittany) – and the plan is to find a space like To Erma, having parked the kids at an international kindergarten, and hopefully spend these next months writing the new novel which has been buzzing around her head for over a year now.

What’s her process, as a writer?

Anais laughs; she laughs often, not uproariously but lightly, as a kind of punctuation. She’s vivacious, and tells a good story. “It’s a very annoying process!” she replies in fluent if slightly accented English. “I do not recommend it to anyone, because I’m in pain in it. My process is I spend two years thinking ‘And this, and that…’” – she mimes a look of dreamy contemplation – “and I look at the ceiling and I’m like” – she does a thinking face – “then I’m driving and I almost have an accident because I get an idea, I take notes, I take notes, then I start writing – and it’s BAD!!! And so I delete everything, and I’m depressed for a week. Then I start writing again” – her voice rises briefly in hopeful confidence – “and it’s BAD!!! And I delete everything and I’m complaining to my partner, saying ‘Oh, I’m not a writer, I will never write a book again…’

“I call it ‘fake departures’,” she explains. “I have the feeling that I’m sitting in a chair, and there is a big wall with a little entrance. And suddenly I stand, and I run – and I hit the wall. And I’m like ‘Oh, I didn’t manage to enter the door’. Then I sit back, then I’m standing again and thinking ‘OK, this time I’ve found the door’, and boom! – against the wall again. And at some point, I don’t know what happens but I manage to get inside this door, and then suddenly for three or four months I’m writing really extensively, y’know 8am to 3pm with a 30-minute break to eat”. This, incidentally, is almost where we are now: the past year has been full of fake departures (“So many! It’s hell, I hate it!”), thinking she’s found a way in then re-reading what she wrote and realising, to her chagrin, that “it goes nowhere”, it might be a clever idea or a pretty bit of prose but it’s not the door she was looking for. Now, finally, she feels ready to write – motivated by a deadline from the publisher as much as anything – and hopefully Bali will be it. “Hopefully. Maybe it’s not going to work this time.”

Do all writers have such an annoying process?

No, she replies with a touch of cartoonish pique. Most writers have “an amazing process!… I think also because they don’t have a job and two kids.”

profile3 silent voice

Silent voice

It’s not just the time-drain, though of course it’s that too. She barely slept at all last night, because both kids were sick, and the job takes a good eight hours of her day, usually more; Moscow in particular was “non-stop news”. But there’s also a subtler distinction, one that’s an asset as much as an obstacle: “I’m not in those bubbles that all writers are”. Anais talks to people – real people – all day, follows wars and disasters; one reason why she always has such trouble finding ‘her’ door is surely that she feels a responsibility to align it with reality. Writing about Famagusta (Varosha) – the titular ‘lost city’ in Au café de la ville perdue – she interviewed dozens of former and current inhabitants, she became “addicted to Varosha”. Her work reflects her unusual circumstances: a lifetime of wandering, the freedom and homelessness of being a permanent migrant, then the journalist’s life with its chance meetings, vivid experiences – and yes, even traumas.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘trauma’,” says Anais, “because it really makes me feel like ‘Oh, poor little girl, you got a trauma while people were dying’. People who lost their family are entitled to have trauma, you were just doing your work. But still, I had – uh, when I was back in France, if I saw a plastic bag – like a plastic garbage bag – I was really shaking, and I was having kind of a panic attack.”

That was in November 2013, the story that made her name (her articles appeared in over 30 media outlets): Typhoon Yolanda, a terrible disaster that killed over 6,000 people in the Philippines. Anais had been there for a year or so, and much had happened already. She’d had a holiday fling with an Italian tourist who was very special, and eventually became the man of her life. She’d covered an earthquake the month before, and felt like she needed a break; “A friend came from Paris because she was heartbroken,” and the two young women made their way to a remote island for some R&R. The next day, however, the sky was really dark and “very strange”, and a local fisherman brought them back to the slightly bigger island of Maripipi.

They lodged in one of the few “solid” houses (which of course saved their lives). The cyclone struck, the water started surging; they had to move to the first floor. “We heard the pigs drowning – and pigs, when they drown, they talk like humans, they really yell like humans.” The water eventually receded; Anais and her friend made their way to the next island, and “we saw more or less 100 people dead on the road… Just to tell it again, I have…” she rubs her arms to indicate goosebumps. And of course there were also the garbage bags – because “people didn’t have things to put the kids in, and they were putting them in plastic bags… And we would find plastic bags, y’know, and inside there was dead kids. I’m sorry, it’s still not really…”

All this rattles around in her psyche, sipping coffee at To Erma a decade later. The horrors were real – but of course a writer (or journalist) also knows that life is complicated. The heartbroken friend, for instance, had a kind of epiphany; her mindset changed, then the man who broke her heart called up in a panic to find out if she was all right, “and they are together and they have a kid now”. Anais’ own articles didn’t just wallow in tragedy; they also skewered the incompetence of local authorities. (Many lives might’ve been saved if people had just been instructed to head for the hills, for instance.) Did she make enemies? “I guess I wouldn’t be so welcome there anymore,” she replies mildly.

That’s another little piece in the jigsaw – and in fact an important piece. Anais comes off as entirely charming (this is partly a result of being a permanent nomad: you learn to make friends easily), and insists she’s not confrontational: “This is my problem. I don’t do conflict”. She’s not fearless, nor an adrenaline junkie; “I’m scared easily. I wouldn’t jump from a plane, no no no!”. Her risks are always calculated risks. Yet she also doesn’t shirk from reporting on what she perceives to be injustice, even when it’s likely to get her in trouble. Her partner always says that “I don’t realise what is a risk,” she observes, and chuckles. “He would say that I don’t really have a strong survival instinct.”

Maybe so; but it’s not just the local Filipino authorities who are mad at her. Her recent creative output also includes Silent Voice, an award-winning documentary (it won Hot Docs, one of the top non-fiction festivals in the world) which Anais co-wrote with its director, an old friend called Reka Valerik. ‘Reka Valerik’, however, is a pseudonym; the director is Chechen, and feared for his life if he used his real name. The subject of the film – an MMA fighter who fled Chechnya when his family discovered he was homosexual, and literally lost his voice from fear and shock – also goes by a pseudonym, and his face is never shown. Making the film was a notable act of courage, though Anais, being a foreigner (her second novel also had a Chechen connection, Des hommes couleur de ciel or ‘Men Who Are the Colour of the Sky’, which is how gays are obliquely referred to in Chechnya), hasn’t received as many death threats as her collaborator.

Would she call herself an activist? “I think I’m a creative person,” she replies frankly. “I really don’t think I do activism.” She’s not even especially political: “I mostly vote Left, because I don’t understand how we’re so harsh on migrants… Because I’m a migrant myself, even though I’m considered an expat”. The best way to think of Anais Llobet is perhaps as a woman drawn by stories, who’ll follow stories like a trail of breadcrumbs – not even stopping to think that they might be dangerous – and the stories she finds most enticing are stories of home, and the need for home. The Chechen fighter struck dumb by exile. The Famagusta refugees in her latest book, hanging out at a café (equally inspired by To Erma and Haratsi, beside the Green Line) haunted by memories of their lost city. One of her earliest pieces, in Le Monde in 2011, was about an Uzbek migrant who’d become stateless: ‘How to live when you don’t exist?’ wondered the headline.

Anais herself has never really ‘existed’, in that rooted way. The world is her home, and indeed her only home. “I don’t feel so French,” she admits (she refers to her family as “fake French”). ‘I would say my country is French literature… But when Notre Dame burned I felt only ‘a church burned’.”

That, above all, is why Cyprus was “a very big surprise – almost a miracle”. She expected nothing (she’d only applied for a change of pace after Moscow; she couldn’t even find it on the map, she’d confused it with Crete), and has spent the past five years being entirely fascinated by our obsession with home. “You have this grief, that’s shared from both sides of the Green Line, about the lost homes.” It’s inspired her book, and will also inspire an exhibition next year (submissions welcome!) on the subject of home, organised by a small group to which she belongs called Collectif Habitante. She plans to return for the opening, and indeed hopes to return every year: “I’m sorry, I’m in love with Cyprus!”. Meanwhile she’ll move on, and travel, and experience, and raise her children, and write – as she puts it – “in the interstices between work life, social life and family life”; in the end, she’ll follow her heart. Home, after all, is where the heart is.