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Leila Slimani: French Literature’s Disruptive New Voice

Morocco- Leila Slimani
Leila Slimani. Photo AFP

The 2017 book Sexe et mensonges (‘Sex and lies’) tells the story of Moroccan women caught between submission and transgression; women who have to be either virgins or wives in order to escape the law that punishes sex outside marriage as well as homosexuality and prostitution. In doing so, it confronts Morocco’s very personal demons and unleashes the voice of a youth trapped in a deeply conservative society that nevertheless consumes sex as a commodity. Continuing the narrative started by filmmakers such as Nabil Ayouch in Much Loved, the book calls for more sexual freedom and less hypocrisy in the North African country. But who is its author, Leila Slimani?

Slimani was born in 1981 in Morocco to a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother. Her father is a banker and high-ranking official and her mother is a medical doctor. Slimani has two sisters. She is married and has two sons, born in 2011 and 2017.

She studied in Paris, France and graduated from the Institute of Political Studies there. After trying unsuccessfully to become an actress, she went back to school and trained as a journalist. She worked for Jeune Afrique magazine from 2008 to 2012, then went freelance while she focused on her first novel.

Dans le jardin de l’ogre (‘In the ogre’s garden’) was published in 2014. The novel deals with female sexual addiction and immediately received critical acclaim. The book was selected as one of the five finalists for the 2014 Prix de Flore and won La Mamounia literary prize in 2015. Her second novel, Chanson douce (‘Lullaby’), won the 2016 Prix Goncourt, one of the most prestigious awards in French literature. Described by one critic as ‘brilliantly unsettling’, the book tells the tale of a nanny who murders two children in her care, in a refined style that takes the reader deep into the killer’s mind while using the narrative to reveal the origins of violence. Slimani is only the second Moroccan to win the Goncourt after Tahar Ben Jelloun, who won the prize in 1987.

In addition to her journalistic and literary success, Slimani is making a name for herself on the French political scene. During the second round run-off presidential vote in May 2017, she publicly supported Emmanuel Macron on his promise to stop the discourse of hatred, especially of his main rival, Front National leader Marine Le Pen. In November 2017, after Macron was elected, she was appointed as his personal representative and given a wide remit to promote French language and culture.

A presidential spokesperson said Slimani was chosen because she “represents the open face of Francophonie to a multicultural world”, and because she is “part of a new generation that the president wants to highlight”.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, Slimani has one again shown herself to be a strong voice in often uncomfortable public debates. In a concisely argued and widely praised editorial entitled ‘Are you born a pig?’ – a response to Le Monde’s 9 January 2018 open letter signed by dozens of notable Frenchwomen that denounced the #MeToo movement as a ‘puritanical’ form of feminism – she claimed her right ‘not to be bothered’ and ‘her right not to even think about it’.

She attacked the masculine vision that assumes that men own the public space and are entitled to behave in it the way they want. However, she went on to note that not all men fall into this category. ‘The men around me blush and rebel against those who insult me, against those who ejaculate on my coat at eight o’clock in the morning, against the boss who makes it clear what my promotion necessitates. The men I know are disgusted by this retrograde vision of virility.’ She added that she hopes her son will be ‘free to define himself other than as a predator inhabited by uncontrollable urges’. In sum, she denounced the patriarchal system that oppresses millions of women on the streets of Cairo, New Delhi, Lima, Mosul, Kinshasa, Casablanca, etc.

Slimani’s defence of women’s rights through the written word, in a style that has clearly struck a chord, is a testimony to the power and importance of language in highlighting women’s issues at the highest level.

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