Leïla Slimani: “To be a woman is to be afraid”
The French-Moroccan author of groundbreaking novels Adéle and Lullaby is back with the first instalment of a trilogy based on her family history. Here she discusses colonialism, women’s rights and the importance of looking back to look forward.
Leïla Slimani is no stranger to taboo. The 39-year-old grew up in Rabat, Morocco, before moving to Paris aged 17 to study at university. Her first novel, Lullaby (published in 2018), tackled the topic of infanticide and her second, Adéle (2019), focused on the story of a nymphomaniac mother in her thirties. Both novels earned the author a plethora of literary awards, including France’s most prestigious, the Prix Goncourt, with the latter title sparking a huge conversation in France about female sexuality.
In 2020, her first non-fiction book, Sex and Lies, featured intimate testimonies from Moroccan women about their secret lives. Now comes her new book, The Country of Others, the first in a planned trilogy based on her family’s history. Set in 1940s Alsace, the novel traces the fortunes of Mathilde. She’s a passionate French woman — based on Slimani’s maternal grandmother — railing against the patriarchal oppression inflicted on her Moroccan husband’s country during his homeland’s turbulent struggle to free itself from France’s colonial yoke.
Congratulations on the publication of The Country of Others. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling very happy and excited. It’s interesting because in the Anglophone world, they have a very different way of reading this book. In the UK and US, and with all the questions surrounding race, it’s easier to speak of that there than in France, so it’s a relief to speak about this in Anglophone countries.
The Country of Others is based on your maternal grandparents’ lives. Why was it important for you to write about your family history?
It began after I won the Prix Goncourt award in 2016. During interviews, people kept asking me about my identity: who are you, where do you come from, what is your religion? When you are a woman, a Muslim woman, and you come from a place like Morocco, people always feel free to ask you about your identity. They expect you to answer questions about your heritage. When you say you are French, they tell you that you’re an Arab and not French. When you say you’re Moroccan, they tell you that you’re not a real Moroccan because you’re a bourgeois and you speak French. I realised that, to explain to people what my identity was, I needed to write a book.
Why is colonialism a recurring theme throughout the book?
In today’s society we are so obsessed by the present and by the future. We have a tendency to forget the past and forget that we are related to the people before us. But colonisation has its consequences. So when people tell me to stop talking about the past, I have to respond with: it’s not the past, it’s the childhood of my mother and it has a lot of consequences on me and who I am today. So I needed to go back to my grandparents’ story to understand the way that I am. I wanted to show that Muslim and Moroccan people are universal. We have passion, we make love, we have desire, we are adventurers and we have ambition. It was a political statement to write a trilogy on this.
Did you see many changes in the way that you grew up compared to your grandmother’s experience?
Yes, it’s very different. My mother was the first woman in her family who went to university and became a doctor. I think my grandmother at the time was very proud of her daughter, but she was also jealous because she never had those opportunities herself. My grandmother had to ask her husband for money, had to ask permission to buy things and had to ask permission to travel. I think she resented the fact that her daughter didn’t have to ask permission.
Growing up, what was the relationship between you and your mother like?
Between my mother and I, it’s still different. My mother was born at the end of the 1940s. She grew up with the hippie movement and she was a feminist. But at the same time, she still can’t understand that I want my husband very involved in the education of my children. She still makes me feel guilty if I leave my children or if I travel a lot. There are so many differences between the generations.
In the past, you’ve been criticised for being bourgeois and leaving Morocco to study in Paris. Is this trilogy your way of showing people where you come from, and also your journey to becoming a liberated woman taking back power?
Absolutely. I have this philosophy of justifying myself with these things. I am a free woman and I am an individual. I don’t think anyone would criticise a man for leaving his family and going to study in a big city. He can do whatever he wants. Everyone will say: “Wow, he’s so brave, he’s ambitious.” But I am brave and ambitious, too. I want to invent myself to do whatever I want with my life. I think no one has the right to judge or tell me what to do.
What was it like growing up in Morocco then moving to Paris? Did you notice the difference in treatment as a woman?
Yes, freedom. As a young woman, I was very lucky to arrive in a city like Paris. When I was living in Rabat, it was impossible for me to go out and sit on a terrace and enjoy a glass of wine with a cigarette. It was impossible for me to have a relationship with a boy because I was afraid of being arrested or judged by people. When I arrived in Paris, I didn’t sleep for the first three days because I was so excited. When Simone de Beauvoir was 15, she told her mother that she would become a famous writer and I thought: “Wow, who can say something like that?” So I went to Café de Fleur, sat on the terrace and told myself: “If you can stay here for the whole afternoon and drink a glass of wine with a cigarette, you will succeed in life. You will make something of your life.” I was so sure of it.
When you give freedom to someone, it becomes powerful. I felt so alienated when I lived in Morocco. I wanted to do so many things but they tell you that you can’t because you’re a girl. It’s a shame, it’s a scandal. But when you’re free, you can do so many things. It was wonderful to have that feeling.
The Country of Others was published in France last year (as Le Pays des Autres). What has been the response of Moroccan women?
It was very moving because a lot of women told me that they could recognise their own mother and grandmother, but they were frustrated because their grandparents didn’t tell them a lot of stories. I think the majority of that generation were silent about their experiences of colonisation and war because it’s humiliating. It’s never easy to speak to your children about how that really feels. But I’m very happy that it’s giving families the opportunity to have these conversations because in Morocco, colonisation is still a taboo.
In light of the way women are still treated today — from the gender pay gap to the increasing rates of sexual violence against women — will we ever truly be free?
No, of course not, because the structure of our society is very patriarchal. In relation to sexual assault and violence, we belong to the gender of fear. To be a woman is to be afraid. Men can’t understand that at the beginning of your sexuality, everyone is going to warn you not to get raped, not to get pregnant, not to go out in the street at night, and that’s crazy. Why don’t we have the opportunity to be fearless?
We always want to be perfect, or to be the “Angel of the House”, as Virginia Woolf said. I think we should learn to be unpleasant and selfish. We should learn to have our own ambition and accept the fact that we won’t be perfect mothers, daughters or sisters. Everyone will benefit from feminism. No one benefits from patriarchy – even men don’t. It’s a society of domination, violence and inequality. But in a world of feminism, there is none of that.
You mentioned in a recent New York Times interview that your editor says you use the word “shame” a lot in your writing. What does shame mean to you?
I think it’s something important and central in modern society that is patriarchal. We have this word in Morocco, “Hshuma”, which means to feel ashamed. It’s something that is both negative and positive. To feel ashamed is to be polite, to go to someone’s house for the first time. You are supposed to act ashamed out of respect in a foreign house. But of course, for men and women, it’s very different. As long as you are a girl, you should feel ashamed. You should be careful with your body. Men feel proud, women feel ashamed. Both are very irrational. When I discovered sexuality, I realised it was two naked bodies making noise and I felt very ashamed. It felt animalistic and I didn’t like that. I think shame is a very powerful and intense feeling for me.
You mentioned Virginia Woolf earlier. Is she your favourite feminist?
She is at the top, yes. I read her diary all the time and she’s very funny. She has a beautiful sense of humour. I also love the late Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, and I also love Svetlana Alexievich — she inspires me a lot. She wrote a book called The Unwomanly Face of War and it’s a book about the relationship between women and war.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished a book I didn’t really like [laughs] but I’m [now] reading a book by Aimé Césaire. I’m reading all of his books. I’ve had them for over 10 years and it’s been a long time since I’ve read them, so I’m reading them all this summer.
You’ve just completed the second part in the trilogy. What has it been like writing in the pandemic?
It hasn’t really changed my life and maybe for other writers it has been the same. We’re so used to loneliness and being locked up writing away. I was anxious during the pandemic because I’ve been so worried about my mother falling sick. But as a Moroccan, as an immigrant, as a woman who loves to travel, what makes me anxious is that we can no longer move freely. For people living in Africa and Asia, it’s now impossible to move to Europe. It’s impossible to get a visa, and for people who want to travel to discover different cultures, it’s impossible. I hate this idea that this world that was xenophobic and closed is even more xenophobic and closed now.
What’s your routine like when you sit down to write?
It depends. If it’s a good day, I have ideas and inspiration. I begin with my coffee and cigarettes and I write, write, write. I don’t use the internet and I turn off my phone so I am totally alone. If it’s a bad day and I have no inspiration, I can’t write. I smoke a lot, I start drinking at noon and then I watch TV and pretend I’m writing. But the truth is: I’m watching Netflix, I have a nap, I drink wine, I smoke and at the end of the day, I pick my children up from school and I am drunk! I smoke more cigarettes and I smell like a hobo.
The Country of Others (translated by Sam Taylor) is published by Faber and is available to buy now (£14.99)