Leïla Slimani: ‘I think I’m always writing about women, domination, violence’

Show caption ‘My obsession is freedom’: Leïla Slimani at Hotel le Ballu in Paris. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Observer Books interview Leïla Slimani: ‘I think I’m always writing about women, domination, violence’ The French-Moroccan author on why she writes, the complexity of identity, and the first book of a trilogy based on her family history Johanna Thomas-Corr @JohannaTC Sat 24 Jul 2021 18.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Author Leïla Slimani, 39, grew up in Rabat, Morocco, and moved to Paris when she was 17. Her first novel, Adèle, a melancholy story about a nymphomaniac mother in her 30s, was published in France in 2014. In 2016, she was the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for her second novel, Lullaby, about a nanny who kills the baby and toddler in her care. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron appointed her as his personal representative for promoting French language and culture.

Last year, Slimani published a nonfiction book, Sex and Lies, a collection of intimate testimonies from Moroccan women about their secret lives. Her latest book, The Country of Others, is the first novel in a planned trilogy based on her family history. Set in the late 1940s and 50s, it centres on her maternal grandparents during Morocco’s period of decolonisation. Slimani lives with her husband and two children in Paris.

Why did you want to write the history of your family?

After the Goncourt, I wanted to write something that was difficult because as an artist who had some congratulations, it’s important to do something where there is the possibility of failing. I thought this idea of a trilogy would be interesting, because as a young girl, I read sagas. I loved the idea that you could follow a character from birth to death and see the evolution of a society. But this book comes also from a frustration, because growing up in Morocco, I read so many books from Britain, France, Russia and America and I thought, “I know a lot about them, but I feel they don’t know much about my country.” People in the western world see us as only Muslim. It’s very important to say: “We have a complicated history.”

Did you consider writing a saga about a different family?

No. I’ve always known it was going to be about my grandparents because when I was a child, my grandmother told me so many stories about herself and her marriage. I’ve always seen my grandparents as characters in a novel. My grandfather had a scar running down his belly. I asked him one day: “What is this scar?” and he said: “During the war, I had a fight with a tiger… in Germany.” I believed this story until I was 14! I was very lucky to have grandparents who told me lies.

I would love to go everywhere, to have read every book and to have known every passion

Because it liberated you to become a storyteller?

Absolutely. And it made me understand that if I wanted to be free, if I wanted to have the life I’ve always longed for, I needed to tell stories. I’m someone who can get very frustrated because I would love to go everywhere, to have read every book and to have known every passion, but, of course, it’s impossible unless you’re a writer. Then you can live in another period of time, you can fall in love, you can kill someone! You can do whatever you want, it’s extraordinary.

The setting and the structure of The Country of Others is a departure from Lullaby and Adèle but do you think you’re returning to similar themes

I think I’m always writing about women, domination, violence. My obsession is freedom: how can we be free and at the same time linked to one another as a wife, as a mother – and try to stay as an individual? I also write a lot about disillusionment. In my first book, Adèle, it was disillusionment about sex. In Lullaby, it was disillusionment about maternity. In my latest book, it is the disillusionment of exile and immigration.

Your books are very visceral and very unvarnished about sex. Did you find it hard to write in such a raw, immediate way about your family members?

The moment I began to write the book, they were not my grandparents, they were Mathilde and Amine. So I felt completely free to describe sexual feelings and scenes of violence because it’s not reality. You try to find the truth but it’s not the truth you find in the court of a judge. It’s the truth of emotion and credibility.

Is there a thematic arc to the trilogy? Is it about how women’s lives change over three generations?

Yes. The second part is about my mother’s generation [she was a surgeon] at the end the 60s, her brother and my father [a government economist]. This generation wanted to change Morocco, wanted a revolution but they became bourgeois. This book will be about disappointment in yourself. The last book will be about immigration. It’s set in 1999, the year I arrived in France. It will be about the rise of Islamism and terrorism, the fact that I feel that as a French Moroccan, I am betrayed by Islamists who share my background and, at the same time, by the racists in the west who think I’m something I’m not.

You don’t like talking about religion in interviews. Do you feel fiction is giving you the chance to express your feelings on your terms?

Absolutely. When people ask me about my identity, I’m always very frustrated because I can’t answer in one sentence what I am and how complex that is. So I felt that I needed at least three books! You know, when people in Morocco tell me I’m just Francophone bourgeois, I want to tell them: “Read my book and you’ll understand it’s more complicated than that.”

You’ve talked about disappointment. How do you think humans can survive the disappointment of life?

My first disappointment as a child came when I realised life was not how it is in the movies, that it was just… life. It was boring. I would study, probably marry, have children, go to the store and buy things. For me, I had a choice: kill myself or become a writer and have the life I have now. I didn’t want the life of my parents or normal people.

And how would you survive disappointment if you weren’t a writer?

I would become a very mean woman. Probably an alcoholic! I would bitch about everyone. I would be a very bad person!

What are you reading at the moment? What books are on your bedside table?

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss. I’m also reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. She is one of my favourite writers. It’s an inspiration for the third book in the trilogy.

What’s the last great book you read?

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A very troubling book and very clever. It shows the ambiguities of the human soul, the gap that can sometimes exist between our convictions and our emotions.

Which authors writing today do you admire the most?

Ludmila Ulitskaya, Svetlana Alexievich, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. An author l really admire is Michel Houellebecq. I don’t agree with his vision of the world but I think he is a great writer. I love Sandro Veronesi’s book, The Hummingbird. A real masterpiece. A funny, touching, profound book that made me cry like a little girl on the last page.

• The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor) is published by Faber on 5 August (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply