As she releases the second part of her generation-spanning trilogy, Prix Goncourt winner Leïla Slimani reflects of feminine strength and responsibility.
In her fourth and latest novel, Regardez-nouz danser, Moroccan-French author Leïla Slimani references an old Arab proverb: If God wanted to punish an ant, he would give it wings. “I love this expression,” Slimani reflects. “If you are an ant, you’re not supposed to fly. And it will probably be very difficult once you’re in the air because you’re not a bird; you’re not supposed to be there,” she explains of this cautionary message for anyone who aspires for too much greatness, too quickly. The proverb is as sad as it is wise, which is why it appeals to someone like Slimani – a writer with a globally renowned penchant for nefariousness, melancholy, and truth. So, is Slimani the ant or the bird in this scenario? “I think I will know at the end, before I die,” she says, with a smile.
The author sits flanked by towers of books in a borrowed office in Paris. Though her unfussy black polo neck and insouciant brown curls are evidence of a woman who’s spent years in this city, Slimani is now in town only temporarily after recently relocating to Lisbon with her husband and two children. Portugal’s capital is perfectly situated between Morocco and France, she points out; the metaphoric middle at the seam of her two identities. Slimani has been oscillating back and forth since leaving Morocco in 1999, at 17, to study at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and then at ESCP Business School. She and her two sisters were born and raised in Rabat by their mother, a doctor of Alsatian heritage, and her father, a French-educated economist. It’s these bicultural facets of herself that Slimani aims to unweave in Le pays des autres (The Country of Others), the first in a planned trilogy of historical fiction that borrows from her personal collection of family stories spanning three generations. Regardez-nous danser is the second volume in the set, taking place in the late 60s and early 70s. Centered largely around characters inspired by her mother and her grandmother, the plot traverses a turbulent period in Morocco after its liberation from France and the regime of King Hassan II that followed. There are long-haired hippies and a historic moon landing, extreme poverty and extravagant pool parties, romance and two failed coups d’état – all of which unfold during the golden age of television. Slimani’s inclusion of the winged ant axiom captures the blinding spirit of hopeful naivety to which several of her characters fall victim.
Slimani was 35 (and four months pregnant) when she became the second Moroccan and the 12th woman to receive the Prix Goncourt – France’s most prestigious literary prize – in 2016, for her novel Chanson douce (Lullaby). She joined the esteemed ranks of former laureates Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marguerite Duras, and was the most read author in France that year. “Many will recognize themselves in this book,” the Goncourt’s jury president said in a rather remarkable statement, considering the story begins with the murder of two young children at the hands of their caretaker (the book was inspired by real events that took place in New York in 2012). But that’s exactly what Slimani does so well: she taps into a collective darkness that’s inherently human, but that most choose to ignore. The verb “to watch” is in the title of Regardez-nous danser, which means “Watch us dance,” because the novel harnesses the power of words to give shape to the invisible. Everything Slimani publishes – some true, some fiction, some a blend of both – holds up a mirror to inner demons, which lurk in the biting details of mothers who resent their children and of European hairstylists who are befuddled by the frizzy locks of their Arab clientele.
While Slimani has become a face of French literature, her complex and honest characters have instilled in many Moroccans a sense of pride. “We have always thought that European or American novels are the only ones that can be universal, and we are used to identifying ourselves with a Mary, a John, an Alexandra, or whoever. But it’s quite unusual to think that maybe a Marie will identify with a Mohamed or an Aïcha,” Slimani says.
While she might reject the notion of L’Homme providentiel – the idea that one person can be a savior of the masses – the impact her work has had on diversifying the realm of literature has been transformative. So much so that she was approached by French President Emmanuel Macron with a job offer, shortly after his inauguration in 2017. Slimani turned down his initial proposal of a larger position of culture minister, opting instead to serve as emissary with a more pointed focus on Francophone affairs. This entails promoting the nation’s language and
culture in other French-speaking countries. “I try to change the daily life of people: access to education, access to books, equality between men and women in some African countries. For me, it’s not interesting to have the biggest role. I only accept a mission if I think that I can do it, and that I have the competence and the ability to do it,” Slimani asserts. She’s also engaged in the fight for sexual freedom in Morocco as a representative of Outlaws Collective 490, a movement that seeks to abolish the penal code that criminalizes extramarital intercourse.
The role of storyteller was something modeled for Slimani by her grandmother, who captivated listeners with her sinister tales of war and death. The vocation was also preordained by her mother, who declared over dinner one evening that a seven-year-old Slimani would become a writer; and she was determined to not disappoint. Slimani may not believe in one single hero because in her family, she sees many. It’s this lineage of tenacious women who propel the narrative forward in Le pays des autres.
“I got conscious of the fact that the real heroes in my family were all women,” she says, sharing the myriad of losses suffered by the men in her family, such as her grandfather’s sanity, her great-uncle’s eyesight, and her father’s job (he was convicted and imprisoned due to a financial scandal, for which he was exonerated after his death). It was their female counterparts who kept the clan afloat whenever disaster struck, and as Slimani embarks on the third installment of Le pays des autres, she considers the trilogy as a tribute to these women; to the birds who managed to fly in a sea of ants. “They worked and they took care of the education of the children. They laughed, and they continued to organize parties and to live. So I think that it’s a real homage to the fact that even in a very patriarchal society, even in a society where it’s so difficult to be free, maybe – and it’s a paradox – women were freer than men in my family.
Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia