Leïla Slimani is running late. She texts to say she’s waiting for her children’s nanny to arrive. Can this be true? Does the writer whose bestselling novel Lullaby features a killer childminder and begins: “The baby is dead”, really have a nanny with whom she is perfectly happy to leave her two young children?
Slimani shrugs off the irony when she arrives, a delicate bird-like figure with huge brown eyes and a perfect mop of caramel corkscrew hair. “I can’t honestly say I think about it. Our nanny’s been with us for years and she’s extraordinary. Besides, there are too many other things to worry about,” she says. “Normally they are at school, but now there are the strikes, which means no school. I’m doing my best but it’s only 10am and already I’m exhausted. Je ne peux plus (I can’t carry on).”
Thank goodness for the nanny. We are in a hotel not far from Slimani’s reportedly vast apartment in what is now called SoPi, South Pigalle, once a semi-sleazy district, now a hub for young Parisian ‘BoBos’ – bourgeois bohemians – and hipsters. The French-Moroccan author is promoting her book Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and Lies), published in French in 2017 but only now in English.
It is a curious sequel to her two novels: a slim nonfiction work about women’s sexual rights in Morocco, a country in which abortion and non-marital sex are banned, and even kissing in the street can lead to arrest for being a “danger to social order”. Slimani collected the confidences of dozens of women of all ages in order to write it and presents their stories in their own words.
The subject is timely but geographically narrow, since the book highlights the plight of Moroccan women in particular, not north African women in general. For whom is it written?
“For all Moroccans, not just the women, but the men, and especially young people, and those I detest, like the elected people, the elite, the bourgeoisie who refuse to see things as they are, who see a mirror and don’t look at the reflection but want to smash it. This book is a mirror they cannot break, that makes them look reality in the face,” she says.
“After I started writing novels, I understood the power of words, the power one could have telling the truth, and this gave me the courage to describe how things really are for women in Morocco. I wanted to give these women a voice and show that the situation has terrible and sometimes tragic consequences when you consider the backstreet abortions, the abandoned children, the rapes and the traumas.”
In September, Slimani led a public call for the decriminalisation of abortion and non-conjugal sexual relations in Morocco, following the jailing of a journalist accused of having an illegal abortion. Moroccan campaign groups estimate there are up to 800 illegal abortions every day, a situation Slimani describes as “unbearable and unacceptable”.
Lullaby, published in 2016, and called Chanson Douce in France, turned Slimani into a literary star overnight. It has sold an estimated 1m copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. If abroad it was regarded as just a chilling parental horror story, in France the novel sparked cleverer debates on its themes of motherhood, racism and social inequality. When Slimani won the prestigious Goncourt prize, only the 12th female author to win since the prize started in 1903, French Elle put her on the cover of its January 2017 edition with the headline: “Leïla Slimani Superstar”.
She was hailed as the modern embodiment of Marianne, the iconic female symbol of the French Republic; a young, beautiful, clever multilingual and multicultural poster girl for a new, more youthful France led by President Emmanuel Macron, the youngest French head of state since Napoleon.
Fast forward to the autumn of that year and Slimani was at home breastfeeding her baby daughter when the telephone rang. It was Macron, calling to offer her the job of culture minister. Slimani hung up. “It was so completely out of the blue, I thought my husband had put someone up to it, that it was a joke, so I ended the call,” she says, laughing. The Elysée Palace rang back, but Slimani turned the job down. “I wasn’t tempted; I’m a writer,” she adds.
When Slimani was four, she told her parents: 'It’s my mouth and I’ll say what I want,' earning her the nickname Cémabouche
However, a few weeks later Macron invited Slimani to meet him at the Élysée, where she received a presidential offer she did not refuse: the job of francophone affairs minister. Her remit? To promote the French language and culture around the world. The post has always gone to a career politician in the past, so her appointment was a break with tradition. But Macron said he chose Slimani for the role because she “represents the open face of francophonie to a multicultural world” and belongs to “a new generation” he wants to highlight.
Slimani is ill at ease on the subject of her relationship with Macron. “It’s private,” she says when pressed. But her official role does not make her shy away from writing about certain aspects of government policy. A frequent contributor to the opinion pages of French newspapers – after the November 2015 bombings and shootings across Paris that left 130 dead she wrote a piece headlined “Extremists, I hate you” – she certainly felt able to take Macron to task for not defending migrants with “more vigour” in a 2018 Le Monde article. Today, all she will say is: “As a writer, sometimes I express my anger or indignation when I think it might move things forward. And I’m critical of the immigration policies in Europe in general, not just in France. But my work is writing and I’ve no intention of trying to be a politician or an on-the-ground militant.”
She grew up in Rabat, the middle daughter of Othman Slimani, who was economy minister in the Moroccan government and later a banker, and Béatrice-Najat Dhobb-Slimani, a head and neck surgeon. Life in her liberal French-speaking household was comfortable and privileged. The three girls went to French schools. When Slimani was four, she told her parents: “It’s my mouth and I’ll say what I want,” earning her the family nickname Cémabouche (“C’est ma bouche” – “it’s my mouth”). It was a charmed life, shattered when her father was convicted and jailed over a financial scandal; he was eventually exonerated after his death, which came shortly after his release from prison, when Slimani was 22.
As a child, she liked to be alone. Today, dealing with a family and the demands of presidents, editors, and journalists, she still seeks solitude where she can find it. “I’m very close to my sisters and mother and we call ourselves ‘clan Slimani’. This strong family solidarity makes me happy, but I like solitude. There are moments in my life when I have felt profound physical loneliness, like when I arrived in France and found myself completely alone, but it’s also a question of character.”
Slimani was 17 when she moved to Paris, to study political science at the elite Sciences Po and later media studies. After graduating she did some acting, married Antoine, a Parisian banker in 2008, and took a job as a reporter for the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique. In 2013, after her first novel was rejected by “every editor in Paris”, she took a creative writing course. The result was Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre – Adèle in its English translation – the story of a sex-obsessed and emotionally cold journalist, whose character was inspired by the scandal surrounding the disgraced presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Lullaby was based partly on an early, less happy experience with a childminder than her current one. “The first nanny we took on to look after my son and my niece, who are the same age, came to me one day and said: ‘I have lied to you from the beginning. The name I gave you isn’t my real name, the identity card I showed you isn’t my real identity card.’” My sister and I were both young, not even 30, and we realised we’d taken on this woman to look after our children who we knew absolutely nothing about. Sometimes she would be out with the children and we would call and call and not be able to get hold of her, or she would come back really late and we didn’t know where she was… we didn’t really dare say anything because we felt so naive and stupid.”
Slimani had been struggling to turn this episode into a story for some time when she read about the case of Louise Woodward, a British au-pair convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of a baby in her care in New York in 1997. At last, she saw how to make it work.
Her next book will, she says, be something “very different” but once again rooted in real events. Le Pays des Autres (The Country of Others), to be published in France next month, is the first part of a trilogy drawn from her own personal history. In 1944, her grandmother Anne Ruetsch, a tall, blond, blue-eyed woman from a well-heeled family in Alsace in eastern France, met Lakhdar Dhobb, a small, handsome colonel in the French colonial army. The pair fell in love and Ruetsch moved to Morocco. The first book will be loosely based on her story, the second her mother’s and the third Slimani’s.
“My grandmother, who was from a bourgeois family, moved to Morocco and thought she’d be living like Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, all adventure and cocktails. Instead she found herself on a remote farm in an austere country with a husband who thought women shouldn’t mix with men, and who didn’t have time for parties or anything but work. They were a mixed-race couple who were rejected by both communities. But it was a wonderful love story.
“She partly brought me up and was a great woman; very independent, very authoritarian. She spoke perfect Arabic and Berber, walked barefoot in the countryside and, when she was buried, hundreds of ordinary people turned out to wave goodbye.”
Perched on the edge of a leather chair, Slimani, wearing an elegant rust brown trouser suit and thick-soled brogues, appears fragile and breakable but effortlessly poised. She talks fast and freely and smiles a lot, but there is a glint of steel behind her perfect comportment. She says learning to say “no” to questions and demands on her time is one of the best pieces of advice she was ever given. Slimani comes across as driven, determined, and not easily intimidated.
So it is, as we have already seen, “non” to questions about the state of French politics (“I’m a writer, politics is not my thing”) and “non” to talking about the public unrest in France, including the strikes that made her late for our interview (“I honestly have nothing interesting to say”). Asked about religion – she was brought up Muslim – she says, politely: “It’s a question that shouldn’t be asked because it’s nobody’s business. Religion is a private matter.”
Scratch the polished surface, however, and she insists she is a big scaredy cat. “I really am afraid of everything,” she says. “I was a fearful child. Now when I’m alone in my room writing, I feel safe, but when I’m out I feel there are dangers everywhere. The other day there was a protest near the flat and I had to walk through it with the teargas and everything. Ten years ago I would have completely panicked, but when you become a mother you realise it’s best to sublimate your fears because you are there to show your children you can protect them, not to leave them terrified. That’s one reason I decided to be a writer, to try to control the fears, to transform them into something good, interesting and moving.”
The #MeToo movement has also helped, she says, sparking a new spirit of female solidarity previously absent in France. “It’s happened several times to me in the past few months. You find yourself in the street with a guy who’s a bit heavy, and suddenly there are three or four women around you supporting you and making you feel stronger. Before #MeToo it really wasn’t like that, but now I see women looking out for each other. The other day a guy parked on the pavement and I had the pushchair and couldn’t get past, so I waited and, when he came back and I complained, he began to insult me. Before I would have been afraid, but within a couple of minutes there were two or three women standing by my side and he left. It’s like: ‘I’m watching out for you, you’re watching out for me; I have your back.’”
Her response to the religious extremists, racists and xenophobes who rant about her online is to ignore them, an approach made easier as she is not on social media. “I’ve suffered racism here in France and in the beginning I was completely paralysed. I didn’t know how to shut it down. Nowadays, I know how to put up an instant barrier. I try to ignore it, or sometimes I laugh. I’m very proud of who I am: Moroccan and French. If someone doesn’t like foreigners, that’s their problem. I’m here and I’m staying here; if they’re not happy about that… too bad.
“But in fact, I think it’s more difficult being a woman than an Arab.” Specifically, she says, more difficult being a woman who has children and a job. Her role as Macron’s language tsar involves a lot of travel, leaving the children, aged eight and two, behind. Slimani says she refuses to beat herself up about it because “a man wouldn’t”.
“I am a mother who doesn’t feel guilty to say to my children: ‘I have to work’ or: ‘I want to be alone.’ It’s difficult, because as a mother you think your children will be unhappy without you and that you have to be entirely at their service and sacrifice everything for them,” she says. “I have chosen not to be that kind of mother. I adore my children, I try to be with them as often as I can, but I also give lots of importance to my professional life, my interior life. But then, I don’t have the most complicated life in the world. It’s much more difficult for single mothers who have three jobs and have to look after their children to have access to solitude. I think I’m very privileged, very lucky, and I’m very happy. I have the life I dreamed of having.”
Slimani has to get back to her children, who are “sick with the gastro”, but before she leaves we chat about the recent film adaptation of Lullaby, directed by Lucie Borleteau, which she loved.
Writing the story was a way of distancing herself from her worst fears about parenthood, she says. “When you have children you’re always afraid something will happen to them, that they’ll fall ill, that they’ll have an accident or be taken. Parents have lots of nightmares, so I said to myself: ‘Don’t spend life worrying – better to put those nightmares in a book.’”