Leila Slimani: 'I am a writer because I am tired of lying'
The author of hit novel 'Lullaby' talks to James Kidd about how all people want to do these days is judge
Leila Slimani is arguably the literary world’s hottest property right now.
The Moroccan writer owes most of this reputation to her second novel, Lullaby. Its English translation was released early last year. Now in the running for Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, the novel’s unflinching and addictive but ultimately humane tragedy begins with a young nanny, Louise, murdering the two children in her care.
Slimani prises open the chic surfaces of a seemingly perfect Parisian family to expose the disquieting truths beneath. Love, gender, work, family, money, race, class – Lullaby confronts it all, and made its author a superstar.
It doesn’t hurt that in conversation Slimani is articulate, intelligent and provocative, often at the same time. As she candidly tells me when we meet to talk about her new book, Adele, “We lie all the time. In real life we lie. We wear a mask. We smile as if everything was OK, but we lie. I am a writer because I am tired of lying. I want a place where I cannot lie.”
When I interviewed Slimani about Lullaby back in January 2018, she was teetering on the brink of world domination. Chanson Douce (as the novel is titled in French) was a sensation in her adopted homeland, France. When it won Le Prix Goncourt, Slimani, 37, became the first Moroccan woman to carry off France’s premier literary prize. Sales of more than 600,000 ensured its success, quickly reinforced by a film adaptation. When we meet for a second time, again at her publishers in London, she seems unchanged by her whirlwind year.
Slimani chats with some intensity about fighting a bug and enduring a sleepless night. The first unmistakably “Slimani moment” arrives when I ask what she does when unable to drop off. Instead of offering the expected insomnia advice, Slimani describes her real-life nightmares. “I am getting anxious,” she says in her smooth French drawl before laughing. “I think about all the things that make me worried, so I worry even more and don’t sleep.” What makes her anxious, I ask? “The tons of things I have to organise with my kids, my husband, mother, my nanny.” Which worries her the most? “Children, children, children,” she answers, a little wearily.
The new novel, Adele, is being marketed as the follow-up to Lullaby, but it was actually Slimani’s debut novel in France: its gothic French title was Dans Le Jardin de L’Ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden). And while we talk at length about its disquieting subject matter – unconventional love, unquenchable desire – Lullaby’s long shadow is hard to escape. She promoted it around the world, after all, visiting 15 countries in a tour she describes as exhausting but fascinating. “I went to China, Japan, Korea. Eastern Europe. The United States. Brazil twice. Each country read the book in different ways, even if it is very universal,” she says, offering some examples: “In China, and Asia in general, they were very interested by feminism – by the place of women in the house. In Japan, which is very patriarchal, a lot of women were telling me how hard it was to be a woman and a mother and trying to work.
“In a country such as Brazil, it was more about social class. This is a very unequal society, with a lot of very rich people and very poor people. They were focused on the violence that can come from differences of class.”
I am curious how this experience of becoming globally renowned has affected Slimani herself. The main lesson, she tells me, is she now watches her words as closely in interviews as she does on the page. “Yeah, I am very secretive. I know what I can say. I know what I want to say. And what I have to hide, and what I will never say.” One sign of this guardedness is Slimani’s disdain for social media. “I hate that. I would never post a photograph of me or my family and, of course, of my children. There is a part of this society and this way of life that I completely don’t understand,” she adds.
It’s an intriguing admission. Here is a novelist whose self-proclaimed mission is the excavation of hidden truths, no matter how uncomfortable. I also wonder how it tallies with Slimani’s outspoken political stances on everything from fundamentalism to women’s rights in Morocco. For Slimani, these tensions and contradictions are an unavoidable component of being alive. “I think being a free human being is being free to lie. If you can’t lie you live in a fascist world. Lie about where you are, what you are doing, with who. I hate the idea that people know what I do, what I drink, in which cafe. It makes me very scared.”
Viewed from one angle, this almost describes Adele, the titular protagonist of Slimani’s “new” novel.
She is an inveterate liar, so in thrall to anyone finding her attractive that she cheats repeatedly on her doting, oblivious husband Richard. When I say I frequently found her infuriating and unsympathetic, Slimani says I am not alone. “Every human being is contradictory. We want something and we want the opposite. We are all very ambiguous. Today we would like to define people in a very precise and simple way, but it’s just not the truth. Readers say, ‘We don’t understand Adele’. But we don’t understand ourselves!”
Part of the novel’s fascination derives from comparing Adele with Slimani. Both are journalists, mothers, wives and daughters whose family is from outside France – Algeria in the case of Adele’s father. But unlike her creator, Adele is almost entirely passive. Whereas Slimani worked for years as a journalist, covering movements from the front lines, Adele never leaves her desk in Paris, even fabricating quotes to get her work finished early. “Today, women are supposed to be empowered and strong. Adele just wants to be an object. She wants to be married to a rich man. It is not politically correct for a woman to say: ‘I am lazy, I don’t want to work, and I don’t want to have power.’ Adele’s only ambition is to be wanted.”
Adele may flout feminist ideals that her creator holds dear, but Slimani argues this should be her prerogative. “We should be aware that feminism doesn’t deny the choice of women. Some women don’t want to work, and they have the choice not to. As do men, who sometimes stay home and take care of their children. I think we should be very aware of not judging people’s choices.
“Novels are places where you can stop judging. That’s why I like characters like Adele Louise [in Lullaby]. As a writer I see myself as trying to save people like them. In real life I know someone like Adele would be completely misunderstood.”
Slimani uses Liam Neeson’s recent controversial remarks as a real-life example of what she’s trying to put across: “It’s not uninteresting what he is saying. ‘We are all racist.’ It is probably true. As a writer it would be a very interesting topic for me. But you can’t just say it out loud on TV or social media. Those spaces don’t allow for complexity. People don’t want to think or take the time. They want to judge.”
She adds: “Literature is maybe one of the last places where you can try to be complex.”
It is Slimani’s last day promoting Adele in England, but the novel will take her around the world once again. This is ideal, she says, as the world has never needed novels more than it does today.
Updated: April 13, 2019 02:16 PM