What does a happy family look like? A father, a mother and two lovely children; an apartment on a genteel boulevard; a career on an upswing for the man, the mother cast in the time-honoured role of the nurturer. Or, wait, could happiness encompass two flourishing careers — for both the man and the woman? Who keeps the family whole then? What could pull them apart?
Reading Leïla Slimani’s slim Lullaby (Faber and Faber), the just-published English translation of her original work in French, Chanson Douce (2016), is akin to being sucked underwater. You want to break to the surface for a lungful of air, but you know, with the prescience of a deep-sea diver that you are out of your league; that, in these pages of her second novel, that has sold a million copies and catapulted the French-Moroccan writer to literary celebrityhood, are your deepest nightmares. Slimani outs the anxieties of modern-day parenting mercilessly and the scars run deep.
When Myriam Charfa wants to resume her promising career in law after the birth of her second child, she and her husband Paul Massé realise that the only way they could accommodate that would be by getting a nanny for the children. Enter Louise, the perfect nanny, almost Mary Poppins, most certainly a “miracle worker”. She cooks wholesome meals, organises delightful birthday parties for the children and runs the house like clockwork. She embeds herself into the lives of the Massés, like an answer to their prayers, like a spur to deeper self-absorption. It will need a tragedy to break the spell — the death of the children at the hands of Louise. In what has been one of the most-anticipated releases this year, Slimani doesn’t so much offer a psychological thriller as explore the schisms of gender and class with an unrelenting focus.
The idea of a nanny, Slimani tells me, when we meet at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival last month, has always unsettled and intrigued her in equal measure. She has just been talking about her children — her son is six-and-half and full of questions, her daughter, nine months old — and how life and writing are often at odds with each other. “You have to fight against all the things that will keep you out of writing because life doesn’t go with writing. You will always have something more important to do, you will have to take your children to school, you will have to cook something, you have to meet friends. But you have to fight if you want to write,” she says.
Growing up in Rabat, Morocco, Slimani and her two sisters had had a nanny to look after them, while her mother worked. She enlisted the services of one for her children, too. “A nanny has a very particular place in the house. She’s not really a member of the family, but she knows everything about the family. She lives with them every day, she raises the children, but they are not her children. She loves them, they love her, but, at the same time, there’s a difference in social class that inhibits the relationship. A nanny offered a way for me to explore what it is to be a working mom today in society, to explore questions of gender, social class, jealousy,” she says.
She had read about the 2012 murders of the Krim siblings in New York by their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, but it was the Louise Woodward case that not only made her name her killer nanny after the British au pair, who had been convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of her young ward in 1997, but also train her lens on motherhood. Woodward’s defence had suggested that had the mother been so concerned about her child, she would not have entrusted him in the care of another. “You see how problematic the idea is? When you are a young girl, everyone is telling you that being a mother is so wonderful, that, as a woman, that’s what you can achieve and that you will never feel lonely again. But that’s not true and it’s only when you become a mother that you discover a lot of things, a lot of anxieties, a lot of fears. You can have moments when you feel very lonely, moments when you want to be the woman you were before and forget that you are a mother for a little while. But it’s very difficult to express this anxiety because we have been taught to feel guilty even to think of such a thing. I wanted to explore all the ambiguities that are complicit in the act of being a mother and tell other women that maybe I feel like you, maybe you feel like me and, maybe, we should not be ashamed or guilty about this,” says Slimani, 36.
The book won Slimani France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt Prize, in 2016 and has put her firmly in the spotlight. She has been featured on the cover of the French Elle magazine and been written about in The New Yorker. Her name crops up in most critic recommendations and there are rumours that the French President Emmanuel Macron had invited Slimani to be the culture minister when he took office. Slimani takes a sip of her coffee and laughs, “You know, I never comment on this.” She is an ambassador for the French language and culture, though, “an unpaid representative job”. Macron’s election, she says, has given the French people more confidence in the future. “We have 45 per cent women and a lot of immigrants in the Parliament. We were at a point where we could have chosen just two things — living together and trying to look at the future together or choosing the extreme right and destroying all we had. So, I am very happy with where we are,” she says.
In her novel, Slimani steers clear of any overt political references, even though its impact is not lost on her. Louise is a white woman, while Myriam is French-Moroccan. “It’s not politically correct to say this, but when it is the job of immigrants, it’s considered a bad one. So, in a certain way, it emphasises Louise’s humiliation. I thought it would also be interesting to say that immigrants are not always poor. People will, in a certain way, be disturbed by the fact that the boss is an immigrant, but they have to face up to the fact that Occidental societies now have immigrants who are the boss,” she says.
Slimani’s upbringing in Morocco has a lot to do with her unorthodox views. Her father, Othman, had been a banker and her half-French mother Béatrice-Najat a doctor. “At home, we were always debating, discussing and sharing things. In Morocco, there is an insistence on authority. Children are not encouraged to speak up in front of their parents. My parents were not like this. I was the kind of girl who could tell her father, ‘No, what you are saying is totally untrue and I don’t agree with you’,” she says.
She moved to Paris at 17 for higher studies, a city that fascinated and bewildered her. “In the beginning, I was afraid of the city because it was so big and so different from Rabat, where nothing really happens. In Paris, every day, there was something new. I felt lucky to be part of it, though I couldn’t understand many things,” she says.
In Rabat, Slimani and her sister went to French schools and the family spoke French among themselves. There was a great fascination with writers and literature at home. Her father was an insomniac and read a book a day, her mother was obsessed with the idea that Slimani would grow up to be a writer. “When I was a little girl, my first link to the world was as a reader. Sometimes, I feel a nostalgia for those times, for all the emotions I felt as a child — discovering novels, discovering Dickens, Balzac or Dostoevsky. I wanted to be like those men. I wanted to be paid for thinking, for dreaming, for imagining another world because I had the feeling that no life could be more valuable than that,” she says.
This life of privilege is also the reason she distances herself from the immigrant experience at the heart of many of France’s recent political crises. “I don’t really consider myself an immigrant because I was born French, I have always spoken the language. I never had the feeling of being a foreigner. I was very lucky, I came to France and I had enough money to study and to rent a studio. So, for me, it was not difficult. That’s why I don’t want to compare myself to people who have such difficulties,” she says.
For a while, she worked as a journalist with the Jeune Afrique, covering “Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and mostly, society topics, like abused women,” she says. The stint allowed her a chance to observe people and “to listen to them very carefully,” she says. It also helped her choose her own politics. Slimani’s first book, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (2014, In the Ogre’s Garden), loosely inspired by the Dominic Strauss-Kahn affair, spoke of overwhelming female desire. Her second book, Sexe et Mensonges, (2017, Sex and Lies), a non-fiction work, is an examination of the sex lives of Moroccan women. “In Morocco, women don’t have the right to a sexual life when they are not married; homosexuality is forbidden, adultery is forbidden. But now, a lot more women are working, getting married at 28 or 30. Of course, they have a sex life before marriage, but there is a lot of hypocrisy, lies, and problems, too — abortions, abandonments and an emphasis on virginity. I wanted women to give their testimony on this — how do you deal with the fact that you are a woman, an adult, but you don’t have the same rights and dignity as a citizen. Today, I think the role of the writer is to break the silence, in particular, for women,” she says.
It’s a role that Slimani takes seriously. “You have to think that for centuries women couldn’t write, couldn’t publish. A woman who wanted to publish needed a man’s name. As a woman writer, I feel the duty to repair this in a certain way, to record what it is to be a woman in today’s world. One of the worst and most effective weapons of the patriarchal system is to isolate women, to prevent them from speaking up and from acting collectively. So, I think the first thing that women should do is to break the silence and reach out to each other. The burden of shame is not ours to bear,” she says.
With the success of Lullaby behind her, she’s on to her next novel, something “very different” from all her previous work. Does she ever see herself as the poster girl of France’s Muslim immigrant success story? Slimani starts speaking even before I am done with the question. “But I am not sure I am a Muslim. We should stop considering religion as an identity. I think I can’t define myself as a Muslim. Religion is an intimate choice. Nobody knows which god I love and which god I pray to, and I think it should be a secret. It’s something my parents always told me: It’s not because you were born in Morocco that you have to be a Moroccan Muslim girl who is going to write about identity and the veil. No, define yourself. Write about love, sex or China. Be whoever you want to be. That’s exactly what I want to teach my children. Maybe some people are looking at me as a Muslim immigrant. But I will never be what people want me to be,” she says.