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An Interview with Author Leila Slimani

“The most important thing for me, when I began to write, was to explore my identity as a woman,” says Leila Slimani over coffee in the garden of a hotel in Manhattan’s East Village. The French Moroccan author, who won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 with her second novel, Chanson Douce (published in English as The Perfect Nanny), is in town to take part in The Night of Ideas, a marathon evening of intellectual exchanges sponsored by the Villa Albertine.

The first volume of In The Country of Others, her trilogy loosely based on her family history and that traces the evolution of Moroccan society over the past 70 years, has recently come out in paperback. Its second volume, titled Watch Us Dance and translated (as was the first) by Sam Taylor, will arrive in the U.S. next summer, when Slimani takes up residence in New York courtesy of the Villa Albertine to research the history of the city’s Muslim community.

These days, though, she’s squirreled away in Lisbon with her husband and two young children, escaping the demands of Parisian literary celebrity and at work on the trilogy’s third volume. (A former journalist with Jeune Afrique, she now sets her own deadlines.) Still, her time remains tight: She chairs the jury for the 2023 International Booker Prize (to be awarded next May for a novel translated into English and published in the United Kingdom), and she continues her work as French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative to the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, a global body promoting the French language abroad. Yet on a brief visit to New York, she took the time to speak with me about this surprising return—for a writer of startling modernity—to the history, landscapes, and culture of her North African childhood.

“When I was just starting out, I didn’t want to be labeled as an author from the Maghreb, which in France tends to make people pigeonhole you into a certain type of literary work,” she explains in rapid-fire French. “I wanted to talk about a woman at the beginning of her career who has young children, and the meaning and conflicts of that situation for her.”

Her first book, Adèle, published in 2016, focused on a Parisian journalist—the wife of a surgeon and mother of a young son—who seeks relief from the boredom and carefully measured luxury of her upper-middle-class existence through addictive, adulterous sex. The Perfect Nanny, a thriller inspired by a notorious news item and also set in contemporary Paris, followed Myriam, a lawyer who decides to return to work while her children are still little. To look after them, she and her music producer husband hire Louise, a petite, quietly efficient older woman, who restores order to their chaotic household, leaving their chic apartment spotless and their children content—that is, until the cycles of autonomy and dependence between caregiver and employers are slowly twisted beyond recognition.

In a subtle dig at racist stereotypes, Myriam is the bourgeois descendant of immigrants from North Africa, while Louise, the nanny who works for her, is white and French. “The fact that Louise performs work that is usually done by immigrants only adds to her feeling of being socially downgraded,” Slimani explains. “It was also a bit subversive on my part, a way of showing, with Myriam, that all immigrants from the Maghreb don’t belong to the same social class, that many are successful and well-integrated in society.”

In the Country of Others also upends expectations with its story of “reverse” immigration. Its first volume—titled War, War, War—tells the story of Mathilde, a young French woman who falls in love with Amine, a handsome Moroccan soldier fighting for the French in World War II who is stationed near her village in Alsace. After the war they marry, and she accompanies him back to his family home in Meknes, where she strains to adapt to a conservative culture whose customs with regard to women, shaped by Islam, come as a belated shock to her.

The “wars” of the volume’s title are both literal—the Second World War and the first stirrings of Moroccan independence from France in the early 1950s, accompanied by violent French reprisals—and figurative, as the characters struggle within themselves and with each other, their clashes colored by the pervasive classism, racism, and sexism of colonial society. As Mathilde and Amine labor to turn a hardscrabble patch of land outside Meknes into a working farm, the “original sin” of their miscegenation is reflected in the destinies of their children and among the characters in their milieu who feel themselves divided and dispossessed.

Sensuality vies with psychological nuance in descriptions of the growing beauty of Amine’s younger sister Selma (a beauty who “made her brothers nervous as animals before an approaching storm” so that “they beat her preemptively”); or of the herbal remedy the Moroccan servant Tamo concocts to spread over Mathilde’s “dazzlingly white body” and “drive away the evil spirits” when her mistress falls desperately ill with malaria (“a greenish paste,” the Western doctor, coming later, notices with distaste, “whose smell reached all the way into the corridor”); or of the “already brutal” early morning heat, so that Corinne, a displaced Frenchwoman, awakens in town the day after Bastille Day celebrations with her nightdress soaked in sweat.

I ask Slimani about her embrace, in this book, of an earthier literary style. “I think style, for a writer, evolves in an almost physical manner, in the same way that our bodies change with time,” she says. “And then Morocco is the country of my childhood, the place where I experienced my first sensations and smells.” She was born in the capital, Rabat, to an otolaryngologist mother and an economist father, but she spent school vacations on her grandparents’ farm outside Meknes, where her Alsatian grandmother (the model for Mathilde) also ran a medical dispensary to treat farmworkers and peasants, who sometimes paid her in rabbits and chickens.

“And it’s impossible to tell the story of Morocco without employing sensuality,” she continues, “because it’s a country of flowers, of luxuriant vegetation, and with a very particular climate. So when I began to write this novel, images immediately came to back me of Meknes, the countryside, the medina, the artisans, the sounds and smells, and they nourished my style and transformed it.”

With this multivolume, multigenerational saga, the scale of Slimani’s ambition also seems to have grown. “I think it’s important, as a writer, to give yourself big challenges,” she says, “because life itself is very big. People use the phrase ‘larger than life,’ but to me there is nothing larger than life. And a writer has to embrace that fact, embrace life’s immense complexity and abundance. So I decided that if I needed three volumes to tell this story, so be it.”

Space was also required to chart the changes in Moroccan culture and society since the mid-20th-century, from underdevelopment to a compromised form of modernity. “Between 1950 and today, Morocco has undergone a transformation that took European societies 200 years to complete,” Slimani explains. “There are places in the mountains, where around 80 years ago, tribes dominated, where shepherds in white djellabas moved through quasi-biblical landscapes. If you go to the same region today, you’ll find a shopping mall, a gas station, a water park.”

The changes could be dizzyingly rapid, and even today a profound disconnect remains between the reality Moroccans are confronted with through the internet and social media, and their tradition-bound society. Slimani gave voice to this disconnect five years ago in Sex and Lies (translated by Sophie Lewis), a lacerating collection of oral testimonies from Moroccan women speaking about the compromises, subterfuges, desperation, and disappointments of their sex lives. “For people who feel threatened by modernity, by everything coming from the West,” Slimani observes, “a woman’s body becomes the space where identity and tradition must be preserved.”

In fiction, though, she guards herself against polemic. “It’s as if I were a lawyer making the case for each of my characters,” she explains, “because even if they are not very good people, if I dig deep enough into a character’s private life and psychology, readers will realize that the character is more complex than they might have imagined. And I believe that for many of my characters, you’d find their fears and desires common to many places in the world. Because the more intimate a story is, the more universal it becomes. As a writer, that’s what interests me.”



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