Leïla Slimani is an international literary star, a poster-woman of French multiculturalism and a leading voice on human rights. Born in 1981 to a surgeon mother and economist father in Rabat, she moved to Paris aged seventeen to study political science at the prestigious Sciences Po and in 2008 began reporting for the magazine Jeune Afrique.
After her first novel went unpublished, she completed a creative writing course and produced her debut, Adèle (Dans le jardin de l'ogre, 2014), about the double life of a female sex addict, a character inspired by the disgraced government minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Its memorable antiheroine and stark portrait of addiction made an instant impact, earning Adèle the La Mamounia literary award in Morocco.
Her second novel, The Perfect Nanny (Lullaby in Britain, Chanson Douce in France, 2016), traced a nanny’s descent into madness. Like its predecessor, it possessed the compulsive intensity of a thriller while raising profound social questions. It won the Prix Goncourt for Literature, making Slimani one of only twelve women winners.
Slimani conducted dozens of confidential interviews for her most recent book, Sex and Lies (Sexe et Mensonges, 2017), an investigation into the sex lives of Moroccan women. A critic of the burqa, she has campaigned for the decriminalization of abortion and nonconjugal sex in Morocco, winning the 2020 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom along with the film director Sonia Terrab and the human rights activist Karima Nadir. Her political activism isn’t confined to women’s rights, either: in 2017, she rejected the new French president Emmanuel Macron’s offer of the role of culture minister, accepting that of Francophone affairs minister instead. To Macron, she “represents the open face of francophonie to a multicultural world.”
Her latest project—a trilogy unfolding across three generations of women, inspired by her own family history—marks both a departure from her previous novels and a return to her roots. The first book in the trilogy, In the Country of Others (forthcoming next month), is based on the story of Slimani’s grandmother, a woman from Alsace who fell in love with a Moroccan soldier in the French colonial army and moved with him to Morocco. Set between 1944 and 1955, when tensions between French colonists and the Moroccan independence movement reached their height, the novel chronicles the struggles of the protagonist, Mathilde, to adjust to her adopted country’s culture and a husband who behaves very differently on his home turf. The second book in the trilogy, inspired by her mother’s experiences, will be published in January 2022.
I recently spoke with Leïla Slimani over Zoom. With her signature curls tied back in a bun and a dazzling smile, Slimani was warm, eloquent, and decisive.
Madeleine Feeny (MF): In the Country of Others could be described as your most personal work yet. What was your intention in writing it?
Leïla Slimani (LS): When you’re an artist, it’s very important to try to produce things that seem impossible at the beginning. In childhood I would read very long Russian and French family sagas and ask myself if I would be able to write such a book one day. So after Lullaby, after the Prix Goncourt, I wanted a really challenging project. It’s also about my own identity. I’m a mixed-race person: I’m both French and Moroccan, I speak Arabic and French, and I’m part Muslim, part Christian. I don’t really know who I am or where I belong. And I thought if I really wanted to understand and share with the public what it is to be the kind of person I am, I needed to go into the past to try and understand my grandparents and what it was to live in a colonial country. For years I was reluctant to look backward, but our society is obsessed with the present and the future, and we need to try to acknowledge our history and explore the very dark, complex time that is colonialism. And lastly, I am frustrated by how people in the West are not very interested in countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. By contrast, I’ve read many books from France, England, the US, and Russia. I wanted to provoke interest in my country because I used to think, “I’m a young girl, an Arab from a small country, how can I be a writer?” Well, today I want to say, “Yes, you can be a writer, even if you are from my country and you have my kind of identity.”
“I don’t believe in groups, in tribes. I really believe in one thing: the individual.”
MF: The novel subverts the traditional immigrant narrative, so we experience Moroccan culture primarily through the eyes of an outsider. We see Mathilde’s disillusionment, her loss of status and identity as she realizes she’ll never be accepted by either the French or the Moroccan community. How did you approach writing about Mathilde’s assimilation? Did you draw on your own experience of moving to Paris?
LS: All my books are about disillusionment. My first book, Adèle, was about the disillusionment of sex. My second, Lullaby, was about the disillusionment of maternity. This one is about the disillusionment of immigration—when you go to a country thinking it will be El Dorado. In every exile, there is disillusionment. It’s also about the disillusionment of marriage, because when Mathilde goes to Morocco, she learns her husband is not the same man as he was in France; in Morocco he is a Moroccan man and a colonized man who is humiliated, so he is violent and needs to show her that traditions are very different there and it’s not going to be the same as it was in Alsace. Of course, I used my own experience, but I also used what my grandmother told me about the life she had when she arrived in Morocco. I am very lucky because my grandmother, my aunt, and my mother were great storytellers. My grandmother loved Morocco, and by the end of her life she had become a Moroccan woman, but she was also very critical of the country for its treatment of women, its poverty, and its social classes. She was very critical of colonialism as well. She was a white Frenchwoman, but French people hated her because she betrayed them by doing something that was considered very scandalous: having sex with an Arab. It was accepted when it was a Frenchman having sex with an Arab woman (Frenchmen conquered the country, so they could conquer the women, too) but it was different when it was a white woman having sex with my grandfather, who was dark-skinned and very manly.
MF: How do you think a modern-day Mathilde would fare?
LS: Maybe it’s a paradox, but I think she would have more prejudice today, because now, with social media, we know more about other countries. A modern woman would probably say, “I don’t want to go to a Muslim country, I don’t like the way they treat women.” My grandmother knew very little about Morocco. For her it was a sort of myth—she had a naive vision of it drawn from novels. She thought she would have a big farm and be very rich.
MF: The book explores discrimination between different groups: the “impassable borders —between men and women; between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.” How have you witnessed discrimination? Do you consciously seek to address it through your writing?
LS: For my grandparents’ generation the world was very different because people thought we should live together but separately. Muslims, Christians, and Jews could meet but shouldn’t marry and have children, and this was the solution for peace. And now we live in very different societies where we mix, which is beautiful and which I hope will become more and more widespread. However, many people think that you can’t be two things at the same time. I’m French and Moroccan, and sometimes I see people wondering: in case of a conflict, where is her loyalty? And it’s difficult to explain to people that you can sing the Marseillaise and speak Arabic; that you can be a Muslim and respect the freedom to criticize religion. And that’s the way I want to address this question of discrimination, not as a victim but, on the contrary, as someone who really embodies the fact that you can be many things at the same time. It’s not that I think it’s not important to testify as a victim, but that’s not my point of view as a writer. As a writer, I want to show something else: that you have good people on every side. I don’t believe in groups, in tribes. I really believe in one thing: the individual.
“The trauma of colonialism is that you don’t belong to the West or your own country; you belong to nothing.”
MF: Mathilde tries to protect her children from political reality as the struggle for independence intensifies. Can you remember when you first understood Morocco’s French colonial past and how it was presented to you?
LS: I was very young, seven or eight, and I was asking my parents why we spoke French. I said I wanted to be a real Moroccan and asked why we didn’t speak Arabic or live in a traditional way. They told me they had been to colonial school and had grown up in a country that was very different, strongly influenced by French culture. Then I was very angry because I felt colonialism had taken something from me, that I’d lost my roots, that my parents didn’t have a real identity. I think people in the West should understand that the trauma of colonialism is that you don’t belong to the West or your own country; you belong to nothing; you are nothing, and you have to invent your own identity.
MF: Amine is a man caught between modernity and tradition, instinct and reason. How did you approach writing a male character who is capable of violent oppression yet nonetheless often a sympathetic figure?
LS: I love all my characters. I never judge them—I just try to have empathy so the reader can like and understand them too. We all have many contradictions, and sometimes we do things we regret. Amine is just like that, he’s a human being. I wanted to show that his dignity is often hurt. Someone who experiences violence will be violent himself. It’s something particular to men; when a man is humiliated in a public space, he goes home and the only people he can dominate are his wife and children. What I like about literature is it’s a place where you stop judging, you stop putting people in boxes and saying they are good or bad. You understand that life is very complex and we are all torn apart by the same feelings, and sometimes our behavior is wrong.
MF: All your protagonists, including Mathilde, are loving mothers who sometimes feel trapped and long for independence. As a working mother, how do you navigate this tension? Do you think there are still taboos around motherhood and its cultural representation?
LS: Of course, there are still taboos, even if it’s changing now, especially in the West. Through literature and cinema, more and more women are sharing these feelings that are very difficult to share. You feel hurt when you look at your children and want to abandon them, or be alone, or return to the time before motherhood, when you weren’t thinking about them all the time. For me the question is not really whether it’s taboo; it’s how do you live with this metaphysical, very universal, very complex feeling that is simultaneously love and entrapment? You can also feel it in marriage, in work; sometimes the thing you love the most is also the thing that makes you feel most alienated. As a human being, you are always seeking freedom, and the more you grow up, the more you understand that freedom is very complicated. To be truly free, you would need to have no attachments. So, it’s not always about sociological taboos—it’s a philosophical question, and it’s something that women have endured and will continue to endure for many centuries.
MF: In the novel, we see how living in a patriarchy pits women against one another. How far do you think we’ve come from this today, and how can we progress?
LS: That’s an important theme in the book. My mother told me that in her time, there was no sorority between women. A mother would say to her daughter: don’t get pregnant, don’t go out. The relationships between women were very violent and competitive. My mother said, “You are lucky, I feel it changing. There is more female solidarity.” And you can see it, even in the street. The other day a man blocked the pavement with his car and was very aggressive when a woman with a baby in a stroller asked him to move it. I think a few years earlier she would have backed down, but then three, four, five women gathered and asked him to take his car away, and it felt very strong because we were united. It’s something new we are discovering right now, even in the way we educate our daughters. We don’t say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, and your brother can.” We say, “You want to play soccer? Play soccer, you don’t have to justify yourself.” It’s something beautiful that’s changing right now.
“I’ve never thought of French as a political language.”
MF: Mathilde reflects on language: “She would have needed new words, a whole vocabulary freed of the past, to express her feelings [about Morocco].” Why did you choose French as your literary language? Do you ever feel it’s weighed down by history?
LS: I’ve never thought of French as a political language because I’m primarily a reader and have read in French all my life. I’ve read many novels in French, and I love the language for its poetry, precision, and beauty. I dream in French. For me it was absolutely clear that I was going to write in French because it’s like my blood, it’s like the air that I breathe.
MF: Your books have been translated into over forty languages, and Sam Taylor translated your three novels into English. How does it feel to be translated?
LS: I’m very honored and pleased that Sam Taylor is my translator; he is a great translator. And I’m very happy that you asked me this question because we don’t speak enough about translation. It’s thanks to translators that our books can travel and have another life. They are not very well paid and don’t get the recognition that they deserve, so I have to thank all my translators for giving me the chance to meet people all over the world.
MF: In your role as Francophone affairs minister, how do you go about promoting the diversity of the French language throughout the world?
LS: I’m currently organizing a big congress of Francophone writers taking place in Tunisia in September, called Le Congrès des écrivains de langue française. I’m inviting thirty or forty well-known writers from very different countries—Senegal, Morocco, China, South America—to reflect sincerely on what it is to use the French language today. I want them to think about the trauma of colonialism and whether it’s possible that French, as a language spoken throughout the world, can become a tool for promoting diversity, more mixing between races, and more exchange between countries. Really, we are trying to change the way we look at francophonie, moving away from the colonial legacy to something more modern and more diverse.
MF: Cancel culture has been criticized in France, including by Elizabeth Moreno, minister for gender equality and diversity. Do you believe France is in denial about its colonial past?
LS: There’s a kind of denial: a lot of people don’t want to talk about colonialism, they say it was a long time ago and we have to move on. But it’s not really in the past. It was in my mother’s childhood, so it’s very close, and its consequences are still alive today. I think it’s very important for French people to try to understand colonialism because otherwise you can’t understand immigration, the controversy around Islam, and all the conflict. When it comes to cancel culture it’s different, I think. It’s stupid to erase something from the past because you think it’s sexist or racist, because you can’t judge it with today’s eyes. Of course Molière and La Fontaine were probably sexist, but that doesn’t mean that what they write isn’t interesting. What I hate is that we treat people as if they were stupid. When I write, I never think I have to be very explicit about everything because my reader may not understand. In my books, some characters are very racist, and I don’t need to explain to my reader that I’m not racist. We have to put more intelligence and complexity into the world and not more stupidity.
Leïla Slimani is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby (also known as The Perfect Nanny). A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1981, she lives in Paris with her French husband and their two young children.
Published Jul 29, 2021 Copyright 2021 Madeleine Feeny