August 10, 2021 9:15:46 am
Written by Laura Cappelle
In the Country of Others,” French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s latest book, is an unorthodox immigration story. The central character, Mathilde, is a blond Frenchwoman — modelled after Slimani’s grandmother — who meets a Moroccan soldier during World War II. She follows him back to his country, then a French colony, where she finds herself the unwanted outsider.
“I made the reverse journey, from Morocco to France, which is much more banal,” Slimani, one of France’s highest-profile novelists, said in an interview at a private members’ club in Paris last month.
“But I wanted to remind people that the bonanza used to be on the other side,” she continued, referring to colonial-era immigration. “How many poor Spanish, Italian, French citizens left for Algeria or Morocco in the hope of becoming rich and having domestic servants?”
Slimani, 39, has made a career out of catching readers on the wrong foot with unsparing prose. Her first novel, “Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre” (2014), followed a woman in the throes of sex addiction and was released in English as “Adèle” five years later. She followed it up with “Chanson Douce,” published in the United States as “The Perfect Nanny,” about a murderous caretaker. That book won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, in 2016, and has sold more than 1 million copies in the country since.
John Siciliano, her editor at Penguin Books in the United States, said in a phone interview that “The Perfect Nanny” was his introduction to Slimani. “From the first page, it was just electrifying,” he said. “There’s an urgent quality to her writing. Everything is fully inhabited.”
“In the Country of Others,” which was translated by Sam Taylor and will be released in the United States by Penguin Books on Tuesday, is Slimani’s most personal book yet and earned mostly warm reviews when it came out in France last year. It is full of details lifted straight from her family history, although she shies away from calling it autofiction. “It really is a novel. That’s what I love,” she said. “I just wanted to re-create the effect my grandmother’s and my mother’s stories had on me as a child.”
The two women “always knew” she would write about them, Slimani said. “I had such extraordinary material on my hands.”
Her maternal grandmother, Anne Dhobb, not only made a life on a Moroccan farm; she also started a health clinic there, spoke multiple languages and published a memoir in 2004. She died in 2016.
French colonisation and Morocco’s struggle for independence, which came in 1956, form the background of the novel, and Slimani dives into the complex identities that emerged from that era. Aïcha, Mathilde’s biracial daughter and an outcast at her Catholic, majority-French school, is based on Slimani’s mother.
For inspiration, Slimani turned to American western movies and the novels of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. “There is a lot Moroccans can identify with in Southern literature, from the relationship to nature — at once hostile and sensual — to racial tensions, even if they’re not the same as in the United States,” she said. “I wanted to build my own Alabama.”
Mathilde and Aïcha will be back: “In the Country of Others” is the first installment in a trilogy. The second, which Slimani said last month she was “one scene away” from completing, will focus on her parents’ generation. Her mother was among the first women to practice as a doctor in Morocco, while her father, a former minister of economics, was implicated in an embezzlement scandal and left jobless and in disgrace in the 1990s. (He was jailed briefly in 2002 but posthumously exonerated in 2010.)
His plight deeply wounded the family and added to Slimani’s teenage detachment from her country. At home, her relatives spoke French and valued women’s financial and intellectual independence, even as Moroccan society at large didn’t. “Everything that happened on the outside went against what I was being taught,” she recalled. Like her parents and many upper-class children from the Maghreb region of northwest Africa, Slimani was then sent to Paris to study. The third book in her planned trilogy will pick up around the time she moved there, in 1999.
She only got to know Morocco better, she said, between 2008-12, when she worked as a journalist for the magazine Jeune Afrique (“Young Africa”), covering the Maghreb and, later, the Arab Spring. “It was wonderful, but I also realised how indifferent the Moroccan bourgeoisie is to the country,” Slimani said. “People know all about France and the United States, but they don’t care what happens two streets away.”
Her reporting on youth and sexuality at the time was a steppingstone to “Sex and Lies,” a nonfiction book she wrote in 2017 about women’s sex lives in the Arab world.
Slimani has made a point of defending women’s rights in Morocco and elsewhere over the years — especially their right to sexual freedom and to wear what they please. She acknowledges a difficult relationship with her own body. “My editor told me that the word I use most often in my books is ‘shame,’” she said. “In Arabic, we say that someone who is well educated is someone who feels shame.”
After her Goncourt win in 2016, she made a concerted effort to live in the moment. She embraced the opportunities that came with fame — from being on the jury of the Deauville Film Festival to posing for magazine spreads — and has received some pointed comments, she said, as French intellectuals are generally expected to maintain an aura of highbrow seriousness.
“She is always looking for some experience that is going to make her come alive, and you see that in her writing,” Siciliano, her editor, said. “She seeks out challenges. There is nothing complacent about her.”
Slimani also ventured into the realm of cultural diplomacy. In 2017, the newly elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, offered her a job as culture minister. She turned it down and was instead appointed Macron’s personal representative for the Francophonie, the countries and regions where French is commonly spoken.
The position is unpaid and “doesn’t even come with an office,” Slimani stressed. She doesn’t consider it to be political and has publicly opposed Macron on several occasions. Within the Francophonie, she has promoted an inclusive vision of French “in which there are Arabic or Creole words, and which allows for mistakes.”
“In some African countries, young people are being told they shouldn’t speak a foreign language, that it’s the language of white Westerners, and I find that disgusting,” she said. “A language belongs to no one.”
Yet at a time of heightened racial tensions and concerns about the French government’s repressive policies, Mariem Guellouz, a Tunisian-born professor of sociolinguistics at Paris Descartes University, noted in a phone interview that the role places Slimani “very close to power — problematically so.” And for all of Slimani’s activism, headlines still zeroed in on her comfortable lifestyle in the early days of the COVID pandemic. In March last year, she was commissioned by the newspaper Le Monde to write a lockdown diary from her second home in Normandy, where she was sheltering with her family. As part of the first installment, she described the peaceful view from her house and recounted telling her two children that lockdown was “a little like ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”
Scathing tweets and columns ensued; one article, in the online magazine Diacritik, called Slimani’s piece an expression of “class privilege.” Slimani said she received racist and sexist threats, including some calling for her children to die from the coronavirus.
The diary was discontinued after two weeks, and Slimani has since left social media entirely. “Maybe I wrote uninteresting pieces, but did it deserve so much hate? I’m privileged — breaking news,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Still, after witnessing her father’s fall from grace as a teenager, Slimani called the criticism “freeing.” “I rose so high that I expected it. Let people come after me; I feel very strong now,” she said. “I only have one goal, to write, and it makes me happy.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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