Reading a Leïla Slimani novel requires a degree of bravery. Not because her prose mines the worst of humanity – think infanticide – but because her razor-sharp observations are very likely to lay bare the worst in you. The middle-class city-dwelling professionals, the media, progressives, parents, women who want it all: they are all put under the 37-year-old Franco-Moroccan writer’s microscope.
A former journalist, Slimani first garnered international acclaim when the English translation of her novel Chanson Douce (published as Lullaby in the UK and The Perfect Nanny in North America) hit shelves. The ripped-from-the-headlines story of a Parisian couple whose young children are murdered by their nanny won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, in 2016; in 2018 it became a bestseller around the world. Adèle, the English translation of her first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre, released early this year, recounts the story of a Parisian woman whose marriage, family, career and life are being destroyed by her sex addiction. (The idea for the story was sparked by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal.)
The Paris-based author has gained president Emmanuel Macron’s ear and become a public commentator on issues ranging from Islam to feminism. She sat down with Monocle to discuss her work, the French language and why she prefers being a writer to a politician.
Monocle: How would you characterise France’s relationship with literature today?
Leïla Slimani: It’s quite extraordinary. Writers are very important in France: journalists call you and ask what you think about the world; politicians call you; and people in the street recognise you and tell you about your books. When you go to a festival, some readings are in front of 1,000 people – who are all really passionate. They are well educated and don’t read books with a moral point of view.
M: Your novels are inspired by real-life news stories but your work gives those characters much more depth and nuance than the figures in the headlines. As a former journalist, is your work now perhaps a comment on the state of the media?
LS: I loved being a journalist. Every morning I spend one hour, an hour and a half, reading everything [in the newspaper] – and I love the crime. I read those articles and I want to know more. I want to know why, how, what he thought when he did that, what he thought after he was on trial – so it’s maybe a way for me to answer questions. Very often journalists will speak about the “monster” using animal words: he’s a pig, he’s a dog. What I’m trying to do in my books is to show that monsters are human and there is a monster inside each of us. Maybe it’s just a little one, a tiny one, and maybe we can domesticate this monster. It’s too easy to say that these people are animals.
M: In ‘Chanson Douce’ your protagonist is from North Africa but that’s incidental to the plot – and the nanny is a French white woman. Were you trying to expand the way that people perceive the so-called immigrant story?
LS: I wanted to say: you know, not all immigrants are victims, poor or fighting. I think it’s important even for us immigrants to stop always depicting ourselves as victims. We can also tell the story of our heroes, maybe where we are dominant and maybe where we are bad people dominating other people. We have so much more to say about ourselves than always the same story. I don’t really say where she comes from because I also wanted to tell the reader, maybe, that identity is not that important to understand this character. Maybe nationality and the colour of skin are not that important.
M: You’ve said in the past that you do not like writing about identity. Is that because you’re concerned about being pigeonholed?
LS: When you are Russian, American or French and you write a book about the psychology of love, a couple or a family, everyone thinks it’s normal. When you are from Afghanistan, from Morocco, from Nigeria, you are supposed to write about identity, politics, religion; about the situation of your country. You are not supposed to write about a couple. The previous generation – Naipaul, Rushdie – they had to fight just to exist as writers. But now, for us, it’s very different because we travel. We have the possibility to go wherever we want to go. So we fight for this right to universality.
M: Critics have noted that you’re merciless on the characters who, broadly speaking, have a lot in common with you: Paris’s ‘bobos’ [bourgeois bohemians]. Do you think it’s easier to pillorise a character that you identify with?
ls: Yes, of course. It’s easier to be fair when you know what you are talking about. I know this world very well. It’s very interesting to explore the bourgeois. There is a lot of violence in what they say. I went to a dinner [where the gilet jaunes were discussed] – what you hear is terrible. The violence and also the blindness. The fact that they don’t want to see, and they don’t want to understand. Some people act as if they are feeling empathy; they say, “Oh my God,” and you know it’s not sincere, you know that it’s too much. So it’s a very interesting time because a lot of people are very ridiculous.
M: Macron asked you to be his culture minister and you turned him down because you ‘value your freedom too much’. What freedoms do politicians lack?
LS: Freedom to be lazy. For me that’s the real freedom: sleeping late, going to the cinema, doing nothing, having a walk, being known by no one, going to have a drink at five o’clock in the afternoon and speaking with someone you don’t know, having secrets, doing bad things, smoking weed, all this. People think it’s completely normal for a writer to be drunk in the afternoon, to smoke weed and get up late. But for a minister, I think that people would judge this kind of behaviour.
M: You did however accept his offer to be ambassador of Francophone affairs. What does that involve?
LS: When I travel I spend some time going to schools and universities and meeting people who are learning French. I’ll try to promote the French language and convince other students to go to French classes. It also means that I meet three times a year with other ambassadors from the Francophone world and we decide on educational and cultural programmes [in different countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia].
M: Is there anything about this moment that justifies France’s need for such an ambassador?
LS: What is important today is to be conscious of the fact that France doesn’t own the French language anymore: it is now a multicultural language. I was born in Morocco and grew up speaking five languages. That offers a chance, especially for younger people, to find work, to be more open-minded and to travel. It’s very important to fight for that because a lot of conservatives, and especially Islamists, don’t want young people to speak other languages. They want them just to speak Arabic because we have to be pure. I hate this idea, this ideology in languages. That’s the same in Morocco when they say, “Oh you speak French, so you are for colonisation.” It’s too simplistic. I value freedom so much. And I think that language is about freedom.
1981 Born in Rabat
2008 Begins working as a journalist for Jeune Afrique in Paris
2014 Publishes her first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre
2016 Wins the Prix Goncourt for Chanson Douce
2017 Publishes her first non-fiction book, Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc
2017 Emmanuel Macron names her a representative for Francophonie