When she was twelve years old, Leila Slimani learned something that crystallized the anger she had begun to feel growing up in Rabat, Morocco. “People would always comment on what I was wearing,” says the 37-old novelist, sitting in the New York Public library, a quarter of a century from these incidents. The memory is as luminescent as yesterday.
“My parents were always afraid when I was going out because it was dangerous, so I understood that being a woman was dangerous.” Then Slimani learned just how treacherous through proximity. “A woman who was working in my neighbor’s house, she was raped by a man and she got pregnant and she said nothing, she kept it secret and she gave birth to the baby and she buried the baby, who was dead. And she got arrested! I remember I said to my mother, ‘But she’s a victim, she was raped and she was pregnant alone!’ And my mother said, ‘Yes, but she lost her virginity. She got a baby without being married so no, she’s not a victim, she’s guilty.’ And this woman went to prison.”
“I never forgot this woman. I always thought that I will avenge her, in a way, and avenge not only her, but all of the women who are facing those kinds of things because what is very cruel, what is very violent in societies, is the inversion of the rules. You should be a victim, but you’re guilty. Each time, you are guilty. And your own family will say, ‘Get out of the house. I don’t want anything to do with you because you are a bad girl and we lost our own honor and dignity because of you, so get out.’ So they are always punished, although they are victims. So that’s why I decided to write this book, because I wanted more people to hear those stories, those stories that are very violent and crude, and sometimes very shocking, but I think it’s very important to be shocked sometimes, because reality is shocking.”
The literary world needs to hear this basic truth from time to time, and right now is Slimani’s time to say it. She has begun to take the vengeance she described above, but with work that, in doctrinaire times, is difficult to label. She has written reportage and essays about and from the front-lines of women’s rights in Morocco and Paris, such as Sex and Lies, the book she was speaking about above, a nonfiction chronicle of the sexual life of women in Morocco. Her star has risen, though, mostly on the basis of her two novels and their thrilling, chilling, and page-turning tales about the fears at the heart of women’s lives. Fears she renders with relentless forward action and brilliantly re-conceived scenarios powered by obsession. Stripped clean of moralizing, acutely unsentimental, the books force a reader’s reaction and create uncomfortable conversations.
Both novels (translated into the English by Sam Taylor) also are acutely realistic when it comes to domestic life. As Adèle details its heroine’s rising compulsion to take more and more lovers, parents must be visited; children held; school visits planned. The Perfect Nanny, Slimani’s novel that won the 2016 Prix Goncourt, was back-boned by a similar fealty to domestic realism. As the drumbeat for murder develops, the children must go to the park, meals prepared. A working woman’s schedule balanced. “With The Perfect Nanny, says Claire Messud, “I was impressed with the Leila Slimani’s capacity to take a sensational event from the headlines and to approach it in a literary and nuanced way. As a working mother, I found the novel unnerving in its human accuracy.”
The Perfect Nanny also had a social and political side to it, Slimani explains.
“I’ve lived all my life in the bourgeoisie, and I saw terrible things in this social class that is supposed to be nice and open-minded and very polite. And everything is smooth and the mask is beautiful. But behind the mask, sometimes what you see is even more terrible than what can happen in other classes I want to show that violence doesn’t belong to one social class. I wanted to show that horror belongs also to the bourgeoisie and behind the mask there is a lot of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy makes you even more violent because you don’t want people to know what is happening in your life.”
That secrecy is part of the fabric of the novel’s investigation of power: “It’s also the fact that in the bourgeoisie you want to preserve the domesticity, you want to preserve your family, your house. You don’t want people to know what’s happening in your house so the domestics, the people who come into your house and work for you, who are dominated by you, at the same time they know everything about you so they have a power over you. And you have a power over them because you are paying them and you are dominating them. So that’s this power game that was very interesting for me in the book.”
Her ability to mix disquiet with domestic reflection has made Slimani a beloved celebrity in France. Last year she was voted by Vanity Fair the second most powerful woman in France. Chanson douce has sold over one million copies, and her other books, which will follow soon in translation, have sold hundreds of thousands more. After winning the Prix Goncourt—making her not just the first Moroccan woman to win it, but the first pregnant woman — Emannuel Macron invited her to be the nation’s minister of culture. She turned him down, but accepted a post as an ambassador for the French language, a position from which she has earned some criticism from North African and Arab writers. To which Slimani replies:
“I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries. I’m always very surprised when people say, ‘I’m proud to be French,’ or ‘I’m proud to be Moroccan.’ No, my country is language. My country is a library. In a library, I feel at home anywhere, it can be New York, Paris, Morocco, anywhere. Yeah, so my hometown, my land, is this world of languages, libraries, books, and that’s what I want to transmit, to convey to people that culture and reading and literature emancipates you. I think I became a free woman thanks to this, to culture.”
For the past two years she has been on an endless global tour of the many places her books have appeared, representing French language with her voice, her books, her face.
Slimani’s so good at playing this role, one can easily overlook how radical it is for a woman of Moroccan descent to hold this position at the heart of French culture. There have been men, such as Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdeltaif Laâbi, but neither achieved this level of sales, and no woman was even close to this level of power. She has not achieved this by hiding her background either.
In addition to Chanson douce, in which the main couple, French-Moroccans, hire a white nanny, she has also written a book of travels in the Magreb, a collection of stories and essays in which she calls to task the perversion of Islam she sees in the recent terrorist attacks. Sex and Lies was recently turned it into a graphic novel so it could reach more readers. And then there’s Adèle, in which a woman of North African descent rages to feel something in her body nothing but profound amounts of debasing sex can make come alive. The only Arabic word appears in the book: it is shame.
Slimani’s presence, battling through this emotion—in all its attendant meanings—has earned her, sniping critics aside, a deep and abiding loyalty from other North Africa’s best writers. “Her visibility entails altogether fear, an injunction for lucidity, the necessary questioning of beliefs,” says her friend, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, who won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel The Meursault Investigation, a retelling of The Stranger. He adds: “And some discomfort. We often talk of this irresistible, closed cycle of speaking up. The risk, followed by doubt, then by an awareness of overrun, dangerous limits. And then the daydream of the possibility of an island. Maybe one day, some interior peacefulness, forgiveness. For a writer to live between the Maghreb, France and the rest of the world is both a wound and a crack through which one can look at this world differently. We write to each other about this. And depending on what wins between fear and excitement, through talks in a festival or a press interview, we alternatively come to the conclusion that we have to go on ; however heavy the personal price to pay. There is no solution. There’s only a huge, beautiful, permanent doubt. Leila is the closest soul for me, she faces this discomfort with the uttermost sincerity and intelligence. It makes her admirable. She is vital to me.”
In person Slimani seems more a firebrand than someone motivated by shame or its avoidance. This is a disguise, she says later. “I was born and raised in Morocco, into a bourgeois family. My parents were not religious at all, but I can remember that my parents used to tell us that you can do certain things, you can have a boyfriend, you can believe in God or not believe in God if you don’t want to, you can be a free woman… but just please don’t say this when you’re outside. Don’t say it to other people, that’s what we are telling you and teaching you because it’s forbidden—it’s not how the majority of the population is thinking. So as a very young child, I was like a schizophrenic, I was having two lives, a double life. And I think that’s probably what influenced me to write about those characters who have two faces that they show to the world and a sort of intimacy that is a secret intimacy.”
Slimani grew up in Rabat in the 1980s, her mother one of the first female physicians in Morocco, her father a powerful banker and financier. She and her sisters attended French schools, lived in a white house, and enjoyed a privileged life. A life full of books. At 13 she found The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, on a high shelf in the family’s beach house. “What was very exciting and fascinating for me was that the book takes place in the Czech Republic during communism time and it looked a lot like my country, because my country with Hassan II, the king, who was, yes, a radical sort of dictator with no sort of freedom of speech. I thought, ‘It’s very weird, this man who lives in the Czech Republic is describing things that I’m living now!’ And of course it was a lot about sex, and I remember when I read the description of the distortion between the body and the soul, the fact that you can desire something that your body doesn’t desire? Oh! Or the fact that your body can desire something and your soul refuses it—it’s extraordinary.”
Around the same year, Slimani’s father was implicated in a scandal at the public bank of Morocco. His passport was withdrawn, he was briefly jailed, and died in 2004 with the cloud of the case still hanging over him. He was ultimately cleared of any wrong-doing. The effect of this case on Slimani is profound. It shattered her sense of the world’s fairness entirely, and made her realize the paralyzing power of shame. In the interim Slimani had left Morocco to pursue a degree in France, first in politics and media studies, and then in acting. In 2005, Slimani met her husband. Her father was never able to visit her once she moved to Paris.
After several small roles in films, Slimani switched careers in 2008 and began to work for the pan-African weekly newspaper, Jeune African. She reported at first in Paris and then throughout North Africa during the build-up to the Arab spring, sometimes spending as much as a week or two weeks a month away from home. And by this point she had two small children. “I enjoyed very much my reportings in Algeria, in Tunisia also,” Slimani recalls now. “I also wrote a paper about the African communities in Morocco and the racism they had to endure. And I remember a reporting with the Emergency service system in the streets of Casablanca during the night, it was terrible.” She began and abandoned a terrible novel of the Arab Spring. In 2011, she was arrested in Tunisia and soon after she decided she had taken enough risks.
That same year the story of Dominique Straus Kahn’s alleged assault of a maid in a New York hotel began roiling the news. Slimani was fascinated with the story and began to imagine a novel. “It’s very important, I think, not to forget that everyone has a right to a certain dignity. And for a writer, you can’t judge your characters and say, ‘Because this person is immoral, because she is a monster, because she did something wrong, I can’t write about him or about her.’ No, that’s even more fascinating. And you want to explore this mystery. And that’s why also I hate, you know, the fact that very often we animalize people like rapists and killers. We say, ‘He’s a beast, a pig.’ And I think that is very wrong because no, they are not animals, they are humans, and we have to accept the fact that there is something monstrous in humanity.”
Her breakthrough was to tilt the story and tell it about a woman. In 2013, Slimani’s family gave her a gift of a creative writing workshop for Christmas. Jean-Marie Laclavantine, the novelist-instructor, remembers clearly the power of her early pages. “I felt a strength, a narrative intelligence, an indisputable presence,” Laclavantine wrote by email. “And gradually we saw the birth of the novel, it was very strong.”
“This woman,” Slimani says, “she wants to experience something, she wants to feel something and she feels nothing except boredom: boredom as a wife, boredom as a journalist, boredom as a mother. So she wants to have a sensation so much that, of course, she will experience violence, humiliation. Of course she will ask men to beat her, to hurt her, and I needed to describe that, even if as a writer, as a woman, as a human being, it was very difficult for me sometimes to see her do these things. And sometimes I wanted to save her and I was like, ‘Adele, please stop! Why are you doing that?’”
As she wrote, a novel took shape, in which a journalist named Adèle, a mother of two, married but intensely restless, pursues an obsession over the course of a novel. One of the biggest problems at first was trying to re-conceive sex. “When you write sex scenes you have two kinds of vocabularies: you have the porn vocabulary, very vulgar, or you have the glamorous, erotic vocabulary, but I just wanted to describe sex as you live it in real life, in day to day life. I wanted to describe the triviality of sex, the fact that sex is not only love and tenderness. It’s the noise that trousers make when you take them off, it’s the smell of socks, it’s things that you don’t want to speak about, that you don’t want to think of, the things that disgust you. But I needed to describe that because I think that this woman, as many women probably, is very disappointed by sex because she thought, maybe when she was a teenager, that it was going to be something phenomenal, something wonderful. That she was going to be loved and she was going to feel so much pleasure from a man who was tender and who would know her body, but she discovered that it’s not that. Actually the first sentence of the book when I wrote the first version was, ‘Men don’t know how to make love,’ and my publisher was like, ‘No, no! You can’t write that!’”
So not the whole truth on sex, but a lot of it wound up in the book. The waiting for a boring encounter to end. The frustration that blooms when what is desired is tenderness, not abasement, or vice-versa. Following Adèle through these encounters that cut across class and the city—at one point she even seduces her husband’s boss, simply to see if she can—is fascinating and more than lurid. She is embodied. “What’s really compelling about the way Slimani writes Adèle is that she doesn’t try to psychologize her or really account for her motivations,” says the critic Lauren Elkin, author of Flaneuse, a book on women walking in Paris, “with the exception of the flashback to childhood; Slimani makes no apologies for her character. But neither are we meant to see her as some kind of unlikable anti-heroine. She’s just a woman with certain desires, full stop, and Slimani is more interested in exploring her reckoning with them than in justifying or explaining them.”
“I think that the body is my obsession,” Slimani says now. “I hate the fact that I have a body and I’ve always hated that. For me, it’s a burden, it’s something I hate because it’s true, my body can harm me, that you can see me, that I’m going to die, that I’m weak. I’ve always wanted to explore that, how the fact that we have a body gives us both the most exquisite emotions in our life and also alienates us, a lot. And I think that probably as women we feel it and experience it even more than men through motherhood, through violence, through rape. I think that being scared of rape is something universal and very common, too. I think every woman once in her life thought, “I am afraid to be raped.” And that’s something that will influence all our life and that’s what I’m trying to explore in my books, what it is to have a body.”
When Adèle was published in France in 2014, it received strong reviews. Women, in particular, noted the key inversion of its structure. “Here there was a young woman daring to approach directly the matter of sexual addiction through a woman’s experience,” writes the literary critic Nelly Kapriliean. “In other words: nymphomania. A subject usually treated and massively fantasized—for better or worse—by men, artists and others. Then we all discover through her interviews a brilliant mind, capable of brightly discussing the hottest subject topic in France in those years—Islam and fundamentalism—being Muslim herself, and a feminist. She became a sensation also for that.”“She wants to experience something, she wants to feel something and she feels nothing except boredom: boredom as a wife, boredom as a journalist, boredom as a mother.”
Like many women of color in prominent literary positions, Slimani’s often called on to explain and in that explanatory role, reveals as much about the anxieties of her time as she does what shouldn’t need to be explained. On the road with Adèle in recent years, taking the book to dozens of countries, Slimani is fascinated by the difference in attitudes toward sex, shame and the body. “I was in Japan with Adèle and they were not shocked at all. For them, it’s like hot water, it’s nothing, not very interesting, not very erotic!”
“It’s probably in America and in the UK, Anglo-Saxon countries, that I felt more people were a little bit prude, a little bit shocked by Adèle. But it also probably has to do with the fact that it’s after the #MeToo movement and that the way we talk about women’s sexuality, inequality between genders, violence—makes the reading of Adèle very different, I think. And in France, they were not shocked at all, no. They were shocked or surprised by the fact that this book was written by a Moroccan woman and a presumably Muslim woman, and so I tried to explain to French journalists that Muslim women have sex. And that was a very big discovery for them!”
The book won the La Moumnia Prize for writing in Morocco and on the back of its success Slimani traveled home to read from and talk about it. All kinds of women wanted to speak to her. She had an event one night and afterwards went to a cafe. “A woman sat next to me and she said, ‘Can I sit with you? Can I speak with you, because I love your book, Adèle.’ And she said, ‘You know, I identify a little bit with her because, as Adèle, I lie all the time.’ And I listened her, you know, I didn’t move, I didn’t speak because I was too afraid that she would stop speaking to me and she told me so many secrets.”
“And so I came back home and I wrote everything in a notebook, and maybe two weeks after I read what I wrote I thought: I need to tell this story. I need to find this woman. And to ask her, would you mind if I publish the story? And then I decided to meet other women when I went to Tangier. The bookshop in Tangier is very well known and it’s just in front of a bar where there are a lot of prostitutes it’s a famous bar and very weird. So I decided to interview prostitutes and they all came to the bookshop. It was fun, and men went with the prostitutes after. And we had readers. It was really crazy. But those women, they were trusting me because they said if you can understand someone like Adèle, maybe you can understand us, or at least maybe you cannot judge us.”
Slimani could not help but be inspired by the risks they were taking, but also, the change in people she spoke to as they talked to her. “The more they spoke the more they stood up and looked you in the eyes. And I think when you say ‘I’, in a certain way you conquer your dignity. You say, ‘I’ so you get conscious that your life counts, that you are someone and you’re not just a piece of shit everyone is treating you like. And I think that’s why our job as writers, as journalists, is so important to help those women speaking out and put words on their history.” Slimani published the book in 2017 and it was immensely well-received, and went on to become a graphic novel, Paroles d’bonneur.
“I wanted people to look at Morocco not like a touristic postcard. I wanted them to understand that Morocco, it’s not an ‘old’ country, it’s a very complex society with a lot of tradition but a lot of modernity, too. It is a country that is moving very fast, and in the book you can see images of Fes and of the old Medina, but also of the street of Casablanca. You can see women in a cab, women living alone, and also women living in rural areas. So I wanted to show to people that Arab societies, Muslim societies, are not only cliches. Because I think that it’s very easy for people to say, ‘Oh yes, we know that Muslim women are victims and suffer so much,’ and that’s it. No, that’s not just that. We have feminists and we fight and it’s very complex. In certain areas of our lives we are free and others we are alienated. So I think it’s a kind of respect to look at a society and accept its complexity, and not only to think with cliches because I hate that. And sometimes? The image helps you look at that and face this complexity.”
If Slimani’s fiction has any kind of artistic credo, this would be it. To try and preserve complexity, but also to say the unsayable. The first two sentences of The Perfect Nanny are “The baby is dead” and “It took only a few seconds.” From these two jarring beats unfolds another tale somewhat ripped from the headlines, somehow even more shocking than Adèle. In the former novel, Slimani’s heroine’s equivocal feelings about motherhood do not lead to harm.
In The Perfect Nanny, it feels possible to trace them to a murder. The book then cycles back to the beginning and winds up a tale of domestic tension and boredom, of dependency and deceit. Paul and Myriam are a professional couple living in a middle class building in Paris. Paul works in music, Myriam is a lawyer who has come to the end of maternity leave. They’re both anxious and a bit bored, and when Myriam decides to go back to work, they do what many couples of means do: they start looking for a nanny.
Here, what the book is begins to deviate from what it appears to be. All of Slimani’s art lies in that gap, in that space where what is socially acceptable is both created then tilted. On the face of it, Paul and Myriam are simply a bourgeois couple doing what so many others like them do. And yet, scene by scene, Slimani puts her finger on all the pressure points that make this outsourcing of intimacy so monstrous, yet so normal. When Myriam goes to an agency to seek candidates for the job, she is mistaken for an applicant, not a possible employer, because Myriam is French-Moroccan. Upon hiring Louise—whom Slimani named after the British au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the late 1990s—Paul begins a slow build-up to resentment, noting the way Myriam’s freedom depends on Louise’s assistance. As if he is not even there, or deeply a part of this process. Later in the book, Myriam becomes the hurt one, as Paul and Louise draw closer over a shared affinity. This cycle of shifting loyalties continues until it reaches a final shape: Louise against the parents.
Although Adèle leaves an almost metaphysical stain on the reader, The Perfect Nanny creates a warmer, fresher wound. As the book moves from the apartment to Myriam’s work to the playground where Louise takes the kids, Slimani deftly inhabits all of the book’s points of view. The situational power struggle comes to life on shards of observation about the fragility of power in the domestic sphere. Thinking back to the birth of their first child, Paul remembers becoming a paler shadow of himself. “He stopped having mad ideas, suggesting weekends in the mountains and trips in the car to eat oysters on the beach.” By the end of the paragraph, Slimani has arrived at a darker place. “All he wanted was not to go home, to be free, to live again.”
Speaking with me at bookstore in New York, a year ago, shortly after The Perfect Nanny’s publication in English, Slimani was darkly comedic about how many conversations this book elicits in public. She’d left her own children with a nanny hired by her hotel, a comment that elicited laughs, then outright cackles when she describes the woman’s reaction to Slimani’s description of what her book is about. Still, the murders feel not unlike sex in Adèle, a kind of activator but not the point. As in Adèle, too, the book doesn’t tell the reader what to feel, which is unusual. “Slimani makes no apologies for her character,” writes Lauren Elkin. “But neither are we meant to see her as some kind of unlikable anti-heroine. She’s just a woman with certain desires, full stop, and Slimani is more interested in exploring her reckoning with them than in justifying or explaining them.”
That night was a rare night for Slimani in that her own husband had taken off time from work in the wake of her Prix Goncourt win, so she could do tour the world with her wildly successful book.
Slimani doesn’t forget it was The Perfect Nanny that made all of this possible. She knows one of her ongoing challenges will be to continue to jostle people from comfort without resorting to pornographies. As we talk, her most recent publication is a short story in The New Yorker from the perspective of a rapist. In front of an audience at the New York Public Library, as our talk winds down, the room ripples with disquiet as Slimani not only defends her right to write from this perspective, but makes a strong case for why we need to hear it, too. “I want the reader very often to be embarrassed and to feel very uncomfortable when reading because I think that’s what you feel when you come to know the intimacy of someone. When you are in front of intimacy, you feel empathy. But at the same time you feel some shame, you feel embarrassed. It’s like when you see someone naked for the first time, we can feel excitement, desire, but you can feel also shame and embarrassment. And that’s exactly the feeling I want to convey.”
This profile originally appeared in Morgenbladet, in Norwegian.