Leila Slimani: Demolishing Barriers with Literature and Francophone Values

Naomi Pham
Leila Slimani, courtesy of Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States.

Beyond her award-winning novels, the public knows Moroccan-French novelist Leila Slimani for her advocacy of francophone values, promoting the French language, a culture of diversity and openness, as well as for her support for women’s rights. During the French presidential elections, Ms. Slimani  accompanied President Emmanuel Macron in his visit to Morocco, encouraging Moroccan-French citizens to vote for him against the right-wing and ethnocentric Marine Le Pen. According to press reports, the French President initially wanted to appoint Slimani as Minister of Culture, but she declined. So he appointed her as his personal representative of francophone affairs.

Since her promotion, Slimani has attended several book exhibitions to speak of francophone values, the most recent being the Frankfurt Book Exhibition and the Francophone Exhibition held in Beirut. Notably, Slimani’s position as a defender of francophone ideals distinguishes her from many North African and francophone writers who subscribe to a postcolonial approach and choose to distance themselves from the former colonizer’s language and culture. As cited by Ms. Sawsan al-Abtah in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Slimani’s position highlights the novelist’s non-nativist views. Slimani explains, “Merely commanding a language opens the doors of its literature, horizons, culture, and films, allowing us, through this common language, to laugh together, and play with the language, enabling us to understand each other. Learning a new language serves as an excellent literary exercise, but it also represents a cultural issue.”

Slimani sees no contradiction between promoting francophone values and advocating women’s rights. In her mission to strengthen the French language, she has also faced criticism in her country of origin, where those advocating traditional viewpoints find it unacceptable for women to speak publicly on behalf of women’s rights, or to level criticisms at their own society. Slimani dismisses this criticism, rationalizing that francophone values and women’s rights share a common denominator, as they both help to destroy the barriers between people and the sexes, as cited by Asharq al-Awsat.

Before her promotion of francophone values, Slimani first established herself through her literary works. Born in Rabat, Morocco to a Moroccan banker, and a French-Algerian mother who worked as a physician, Slimani first came to France as a 17-year-old, completing her studies and graduating from the College of Political Studies. From a young age, she adored literature but dabbled in many fields, moving from acting to journalism, working with the French magazines L’Express and Jeune Afrique. Unsatisfied with her performance as a journalist, she resigned and eventually married a banker whose economic status allowed her to devote herself to writing.

Slimani reached peak recognition with her third novel, “The Perfect Nanny,” which delved into the phenomenon of nannies killing children, an attempt to dig deeper into the motives of domestic workers committing such crimes. She won the 2016 Prix Goncourt for this novel, an achievement which placed her in the company of three Arab literary giants, all recipients of the same prize: Taher Ben Jelloun in 1987, Amin Maalouf in 1993, and Abdellatif Laabi in 2009.

Her first work, “In the Garden of the Ogre,” (translated into English as "Adele") published in 2014, also received two awards, the Prix de Flore and the Prix litteraire de la Mamounia. Along with this title, she has authored “The Devil in the Details,” “The Sleeping Princess,” “My Hero is Simone Fay,” “Sex and Illusions,” and “Sexual Life in Morocco,” with the last becoming the subject of controversy and criticism in Morocco, as have several other of her works.

Slimani charges her novels with women’s rights themes, and features subjects deemed too private for male writers. In the Francophone Exhibition in Beirut, as cited by Asharq al-Awsat, Slimani stated that literature owes a debt to its many talented women authors, as well as to its women readers, who constitute the vast majority of its worldwide readership. When asked about the emphasis on women in her novels and books, she points to the long absence of meaningful female characters in the medium, and states that they will need time and real effort to catch up with their male counterparts.

In an interview conducted by Maya al-Haj for Al Hayat Newspaper, Slimani stated, “Freedom in our Arab world is torture if not a tragedy. While the individual attempts to achieve a part of their freedom, they become subject to isolation and loneliness because of criticism and rejection. The people here [these women] pay high prices for their personal freedoms. Through meetings with the Moroccan women who are heroines and witnesses of my book, I found that many of them started to head toward their freedom and then suddenly decided to retreat from their decisions because of the immense cost which society imposed upon them.”

True to her belief in francophone ideals, Slimani likewise has not rooted her novels in post-colonial studies of identity. Rather, she asserts her support of diversity, having no qualms. Slimani explains that the “crisis” of the “dual identity” does not concern her, and that she finds the issue of identity “old and…[thinks] its time has passed.” She goes on to say, “There are more present-day and contemporary issues which we should pay attention to. Numerous authors wrote about the agonies of the dual identity. As far as I am concerned, I didn’t experience this agony because I treasure my diversity. Why, then, should I portray people who have different nationalities, religions, or languages as being in a crisis, while individuals of [similar identities] are shown happier in life? On a personal level, I find the lack of diversity is something worrisome and not the reverse.”

Slimani has faced an important question which has preoccupied many Arab journalists: how much can any book change the melancholic reality in the Arab world? Maya al-Haj proves no exception when she asks this very question. Slimani offers a daring and unapologetic answer, maintaining that the responsibility for change lies not with the writing, but with the reading: “I always say the importance should not be attributed to the author but rather to the reader.” She adds, “The person who writes ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Crime and Punishment,’ for example, is different than the person who reads them. Thus I consider the real revolution ought to be cultural first. Unfortunately, the percentage of illiteracy in Morocco is one of the highest in the world after Yemen. Thus I see a lot of problems which cannot be resolved without a reduction in illiteracy levels and an increase in readership...I believe that progress takes place always through reading and openness.”

Many have debated for some time whether Mashreqi or Maghrebi authors, including francophone writers and novelists, have proven more daring and unapologetic for Arab and Islamic cultural traditions. While al-Haj does not bring this issue into her interview with Slimani, she does touch upon it indirectly. What al-Haj observes also appears evident to many others who follow the discourse among Arab intellectuals, regardless of geography or the language in which they write. Her question to Slimani focuses on the popular phenomenon of Moroccan francophone literature in France where Slimani and Algerian Kamel Daoud have formed what al-Haj dubs a rising “duo,” writing in major French newspapers and being hosted on many TV cultural programs.

Slimani attributes this popularity to their straightforward approach, “because we say things as we think of them, refusing to arrange our views to please anyone, and adopt the method of expression which we believe in. We try in our works to be more open to the subjects of cultures. Both of us write in different places, but we meet in basic ideas when it comes to our defense of human rights, freedom of the individual and the necessity in attacking and renouncing ignorance and fanaticism. The new generation has become bored with the old discourse and is thirsty to listen to new voices without wasting words or fear. I actually write what I believe in while always maintaining my respect [for] the opposite point of view.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 74, 2018.

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