LEILA SLIMANI at Border Kitchen in The Hague

Leila Slimani Photo © Catherine Hélie, Editions-Gallimard

Leila Slimani, a petit French Moroccan writer, dressed in something that looks suspiciously like Coco Chanel, has won numerous French literary awards and accepted President Macron’s  invitation to become Francophone affairs minister in 2017. Her second novel, ‘Lullaby’(2016), was a bestseller in France and has been translated into more than 40 languages. When she won the prestigious Goncourt prize for literature she was hailed by French Elle as a ‘superstar’.

Slimani grew up in Rabat, her father was Minister of Economics in the Moroccan government and later a banker, her mother was a surgeon. She grew up in a liberal French-speaking family and moved to Paris when she was 17 to study Political Science and later Media. Slimani admits that her own upbringing was highly privileged, but this has not deterred her from taking up the cause of women in general and Moroccan women in particular. A recent non-fiction work,  Sex and Lies, documents the sex lives of a range of Moroccan women in order to highlight various taboo subjects including non-marital sex, illegal abortion and the ‘obsession’ with virginity in Morocco. Slimani has recently created a graphic version of the book, to reach a wider audience.

In her online discussion last night, Slimani agrees that the issue of power, sits at the core of much of her work. She is interested in how her characters are both dominant and dominated. In The Country of Others, the writer takes the story of her own family  and explores their French Moroccan origins in what she admits is her first foray into the family saga. The story begins with her French grandmother, a tall, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman from a middle class family in Strasbourg who fell in love with a Moroccan solider, Amin, during the Second World War. When the war ended, they married and moved to a small, remote farm in Morocco.  

Leila admits that her own life-long love of the family saga, a desire to ‘write the book, I wanted to read’ was part of her inspiration for this project. But it was also about understanding her own roots and the tensions inherent in difficult colonial histories and pasts. Slimani explains that she didn’t want to give History, with a capital ‘H’ too much power in the novel. But rather wanted its presence to be revealed via the revelations of her characters. As a young couple, trying to make a life for themselves in 1950s Morocco, Amin and Matilde do not spent too much time thinking about the political situation in the country.

As a mixed race couple, her grandparents were viewed with general suspicion at this time. Matilde was rejected by the colonial French society in Morocco because of her marriage to a local man and Amin was seen by some, including his younger brother, Omar, as a traitor. Omar is an extremist, the writer admits, ‘someone without limits’ but what lies at the bottom of it all, is his hatred of older brother, Amin. ‘As a writer, I try to shine a light on the mystery, I don’t try to solve it’, Slimani explains. The job of a writer is never to forget that even apparently boring people have secrets and mysteries, she smiles.

But it is also the writer’s job to use imagination in order to fill the gaps in the past. ‘Most of the book is based on the imagination’ Slimani explains, because ‘my grandmother was a big liar’ she states matter-of-factly. ‘I never knew when she was telling lies or the truth.’ Her grandfather was the same, he told he was attacked by a tiger in Germany during the war, hence the scars on his stomach, a tale she believed until she was 16 or 17. As an adult, Slimani sees no boundary between truth and fiction, the one bleeds seamlessly into the other most of the time and she likes it this way.

But more important to this French Moroccan writer, is the idea that ‘every character in the book, lives in the land of others’ – it is a feeling which she has had all her life and with which she strongly identifies in her most recent work, a script for a TV show on migrants. For Leila it is one of the most important issues of our time. When asked to comment on the current Black Lives Matter protests, she says simply that she does not believe in erasing the past. Rather, ‘I believe in the power of stories’. Stories, films and books are what will save us, she affirms, ‘Listen to lots of different stories and points of view from all around the world.’        Souwie Buis    16th June 2020