The French-Moroccan writer's captivating book 'Lullaby', about the murder of two children, explores the impossible situations many modern parents - of varying classes and cultures - face
'I am not afraid of being a pariah': Leila Slimani explores the darker side of parenting
There is a strange moment towards the end of my conversation with Leila Slimani. Sitting in a small office at her London publishers, we have discussed the moral quandaries raised by her phenomenal second novel Lullaby. We have touched on her upbringing in Morocco (she was born in Rabat in 1981), and her life in Paris, where she works in part for France’s President Emmanuel Macron, promoting the French language in her adopted homeland.
'Not afraid of being a pariah'
We then turn to Slimani’s reputation as a critic of everything from fundamentalist Islam to Sharia law, which has drawn fire from all points of the political spectrum. She has been accused of everything from being an apologist for the French establishment to the incitement of terrorists.
“Oh, I love this critic,” Slimani drawls sarcastically. “A lot of people tell me: ‘The more you speak, the more the beards are growing.’ So, I should shut up?” She shakes her head. “I need to stand up for what I think. One of the big mistakes of the Moroccan elite and the elite in the Muslim world was to be afraid of the conservatives. They are fighting for their ideas. Why shouldn’t we fight for our ideas? They are able to die for their ideas. We should be able to die for our ideas.” Or as she says later: “I am not afraid of being a pariah.”
At this point, I hypothesise a future Slimani novel in which an outspoken writer speaks dangerous truths in public but risks the safety of her own family.
“How do you know about my new novel?” Slimani says suddenly and seriously.
“I don’t,” I reply. “I just imagined it.”
“Actually my next novel is a little bit about this,” Slimani laughs. “Wow.” She claps. “This is very strange that you are telling me this.”
2018's most captivating novel?
The reason for our meeting is Lullaby. The year is hardly out of nappies, but it is hard to imagine that many more hypnotically captivating novels will be released in 2018. The book is already a sensation in France, where it was published in 2016 as Chanson Douce (Gentle Song). The title belies the heart-breaking and humane account of a nanny, Louise, who kills two young children (Mila and Adam) in her charge. The tragedy is revealed at the very start: “The baby is dead.” From this terse beginning, the tension builds to almost unbearable levels as Louise’s melancholy past intersects with the present of the Massé family: both parents, Myriam and Paul, work crazy hours and need Louise to keep the family afloat.
“We have so many wonderful nannies in literature and movies,” Slimani says. “The good nanny that is going to put the family together and solve all the problems. My idea is the anti-Mary Poppins. The stranger can put the family back together or she can break everything.”
Lullaby’s unsettling, ambiguous genius is that Louise does both. In the process, this domestic horror story tilts towards grander cultural narratives: gender, race, work and family.
“We belong to a generation that want to have it all: great jobs, friends, going out at night,” Slimani says. “But we also want to be very good parents. The question I ask in Lullaby is it possible to have it all?”
Lullaby’s afterlife has been extraordinary. The novel sold like a blockbuster, more than 600,000 copies in one year, and was reviewed as if Slimani was a Nobel laureate. In November 2016, she won France’s highest literary prize, the Goncourt, becoming the first Moroccan woman to do so. Slimani, who previously had just one work of fiction to her name (Dans Le Jardin de L’Ogre), became a superstar. Adoring features in Vogue and then The New Yorker were succeeded by recognition at the highest levels – including that job from President Macron.
It isn’t hard, meeting Slimani in person, to understand why she has crossed over from the book pages to magazine front covers. In conversation, she is serious, honest and thoughtful, but capable of humour: she finds the notes scrawled on the back of my hand particularly hilarious.
The book explores her 'nightmares as a mother'
Her English is fluent, broken occasionally when she ponders an accurate translation. “I had the feeling Louise was like a little cup. You put it every day on the table, but you don’t see that something is breaking inside. One day it breaks into many pieces. She is very fragile, but no one sees, how you say, les fêlures. The cracks.”
Lullaby was partly inspired by real-life: in 2012, a nanny in New York murdered two of her charges. But Slimani wrote too from personal experience. After giving birth to her son six years ago (she also has a 6-month-old daughter), she itched to get back to work, and hired someone to look after him. The tensions between Louise and Myriam voice her own conflicted feelings.
“I wanted to explore and face my fears – my nightmares as a mother. That is why there was no point in writing another Mrs Doubtfire. To be with you here in London, my children are in Paris. I need someone to trust. Trust is difficult because in a certain way I am taking a risk.”
Lurking beneath these fears are probing questions about modern parenthood. Does wanting a life and career of one’s own make one a bad parent? “It is very ambiguous. Everyone tells you – especially women – you are going to feel so much love and so fulfilled. You are going to feel complete. You will never be alone or lonely again. That is false. You can feel very lonely with your children, even if it is unconditional love. Sometimes you are bored. Sometimes you want to go out and be a young girl again. Someone who is not needed.”
'It is impossible to have a good relationship with your nanny'
Slimani can be startlingly honest about the conflicts she feels as a mother. “I remember that the first time I looked at my son, of course I felt love. But I think the first feeling was not love, it was fear. Someone is needing me. If something happens to him, what am I going to do? Maybe I won’t survive if something happens to him? The fear was as big as the love.”
The hiring of a nanny both calmed these fears and added fresh problems concerning money, class and power. “I wanted to show how ambiguous this relationship is. Lullaby is about boundaries. Where do we put them? Do we have to be friendly because [the nanny] belongs to the family and she is here every day? Or do we have to act as a boss? Do what I tell you or I fire you? You try to do your best, but you are going to make mistakes. It is impossible to have a good relationship with your nanny.”
What problems has Slimani faced personally? “Sometimes you are a bit patronising, or matronising, like when you give the nanny nice clothes. Or you have some attitudes that you despise without wanting to despise.”
What makes Lullaby such an unsettling tour de force is how it dramatises all sides of the story. Myriam may have economic power, but Louise’s authority is emotional, Slimani says. “I remember my friends telling me I don’t dare to say something to the nanny because I am very afraid she is going to be angry and [take] revenge on the children. The nanny knows everything. This is a power. You feel judged. You feel she can manipulate you.”
The sacrifices caregivers make
In the novel, the Massés assuage their guilt at such suspicions by objectifying the woman who enables them to lead their glamorous lives: their fulfilment comes at the expense of Louise’s. “We do it as if they are invisible,” Slimani says. “We don’t want to look at this. We need people to take care of the very old and the very young. These are the areas of society we do not look at. The core of the society is people working and making money, but I wanted to look at the babies, the children and the nannies.”
The resulting “new system” is, she says, inherently feminised. “We have to face the fact that the more women are working the more we need other women to care of our children,” she explains. “I see it as a Russian doll. Inside of a woman is another woman and another woman. Even the nannies coming from abroad have children in their own countries and another woman is taking care of them.”
Slimani heard these stories first-hand from nannies she met in Paris’s famously plentiful parks. They came to France from the Middle East, Africa, the Philippines. “Very often it is very dramatic, very sad,” Slimani says. “So many women told me: ‘I haven’t seen my child for 10 or 15 years. I am working here to send money and when I call, my kid doesn’t recognise my voice. The children I take care of don’t know my name.’”
It wasn’t hard for Slimani to identify with these women on the margins of French culture. An outsider in France, she came to Paris at the age of 17, aiming to study at a French university, which she did in 2002, when she enrolled at the Sciences Po. But unlike these women who live in poverty when they are not with their wealthy employers, Slimani was raised in a wealthy, privileged environment that gave her the confidence and opportunities to carve out her own place in the world. “When I was a teenager, I thought that belonging was a question of identity, of belonging to a land or a country,” she says. “Then I discovered that you need to invent yourself. You need to know who you are and who you want to be. You need to belong to some ideas and some values. I am not afraid of not belonging to anything, not even my family. I am what I am.”
'You are not your culture. You are the one making your culture'
Such self-sufficiency was instilled during an advantaged childhood. “I was educated by parents who say you always have to challenge what people are telling you, you always have to think. Don’t take things for granted.”
Slimani’s mother was an ear, nose and throat doctor; her father was a politician, who was Morocco’s economics minister in the late 1970s, before becoming a high-ranking financier. His career ended suddenly after accusations of malfeasance, which were later withdrawn. “My parents always teach me one very important idea is universalism.” Slimani explains. “French-Moroccan writer . Everyone in Morocco especially and in the Muslim world are telling you as a Muslim you should do like this, as a Moroccan you should do like this. But why? It is my culture. I can invent my culture, I can transform my culture. I can be marginal if I want.”
It is not hard to hear the roots of the novelist’s imagination and Slimani’s unflinching political philosophy. Both are defined by a desire for freedom from restriction. “My identity as Moroccan or French is believing in universal values,” she says. “I belong to the human family with values such as liberty and equality. I want to fight for this idea.”
On the Arab uprisings
Nowhere is her faith in freedom more evident than when she talks about the Arab uprisings. “For us young Arabs and Moroccans, we were so proud that the world was looking at us like free people, who want to fight for their rights. It was about freedom. It was about dignity. We were so proud. A new era is opening. We were very disappointed by all that happened.”
Slimani covered 2010’s protests as a journalist, and was even arrested while reporting from Kasserine, on the Tunisia-Algeria border. “We were returning to the hotel and were arrested by the Tunisian army,” she recalls. Her computer was taken, as was her photographer’s camera. “They didn’t harm us. They were very polite. But at this point I said: ‘I am tired – I have a 6-month-old child. Maybe I need to try something else.’”
This “something else” included public advocacy of women’s rights in Morocco. “If a woman doesn’t have power over her own body, she can’t be a real citizen,” she reasons. “You can’t be considered as a real human being.”
Slimani’s passionate belief in women’s autonomy explains her decision to endorse controversial France’s stance on the veil. “I am for freedom, so I think a woman should wear whatever she wants,” she says. “But I am against the burqa. I think it is very important that France has forbidden this. I think everyone in a democracy should show their face.” The burqa is, she argues, “a symbol of patriarchy, and a symbol of male domination of women. We have to be conscious that in a lot of countries women don’t have the choice of wearing the veil or not.”
Slimani is conscious, however, that the burqa ban has incited racist incidents that her own appearance spares her from. “I saw many times in Paris people being very rude towards Muslim people, but visible Muslim people – women in the veil. I wasn’t a victim. I am the ‘good’ Arab. I don’t wear a veil. I am wearing occidental clothes. I am in the centre of Paris. So people are open-minded and cool [to me].”
Sarcasm apart, it is little wonder Slimani caught the eye of President Macron in November 2016. He described her as “the open face of Francophonie [French-speaking] to a multicultural world”.
As a Moroccan, did she have any hesitation in accepting a role promoting a language that comes loaded with associations with colonisation? “Why do I speak French? Because of colonisation,” she says. “But after colonisation, a lot of poets and writers decided to write in French. They were not obliged, they decided. Some of the greatest poets of the French language. This language is ours. I am not here because I am colonised. I am here because I have power. I decided to take this language and I love it. I am not subire [suffering].”
Slimani does hardly anything under sufferance, even if she risks violent reprisals. Even her privilege cannot protect her against that. “Terrorism is about making people afraid of speaking, of doing, of fighting,” she says. “If I am afraid, they are winning. And it is not possible for them to win. Too many innocent people died for our ideas in the subways of London and Paris. So many children died. For what? It’s
our dignity and our pride not to be afraid.”
As to the future, Slimani’s looks bright indeed, if complicated. Her nanny will be employed in the coming months as she promotes Lullaby everywhere from China to the United States. Filming is about to begin on a French adaption of the book, and there are whispers of a Hollywood production to follow. But she remains tight-lipped on that third novel. “You know too much already,” she chides.
I end by asking if she is optimistic about the human race, even in its darkest moments? “I always see hope,” she replies. “I think you can’t live if you don’t see it. What is the point of having children if you don’t see hope? The hope I see is the hope in my children when I look at them.”