"People don’t want to look at the dark side of women": Leila Slimani talks sex, freedom and the importance of writing flawed characters

She's gone from being arrested as a journalist covering the Arab Spring to being appointed Macron's minister for Francophone affairs. But for Slimani, true freedom comes from writing fiction

February 25, 2019
Slimani photographed in Malmo, Sweden in 2018. Photo: PA
Slimani photographed in Malmo, Sweden in 2018. Photo: PA

Leila Slimani’s novel Lullaby not only won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, making her the first Moroccan-born winner of the prize, but it also was the most read book in France for that year. Emmanuel Macron, who is known to consider himself a man of letters, asked to meet her during his presidential campaign and she publicly supported him as a candidate.

French media subsequently reported that he offered her a job as a culture minister once he was elected but she has since accepted a less demanding role reporting to him on Francophone literature and culture; traditionally, a post for a career politician.

This feels a long way from 2010 when she was arrested by the Tunisian Army whilst working as a journalist during the Arab Spring. When I meet her in a central London hotel, she describes feeling like “it was 20 years ago.” The reason her work as a novelist seems so essential to her is that it affords her a freedom she couldn’t have as a politician, or even as a journalist.

“Literature is a space of total freedom,” she says. “Otherwise Nabokov would never have written Lolita, Francois Mauriac would never have written Therese Desqueyroux, you can’t think of yourself as someone who has moral responsibility to his public. I respect the reader a lot and I think that reader is very clever and is able to figure out what I’m trying to tell him but if he doesn’t, that’s not my fault.”

Slimani has written two novels but her most recent book is a non-fiction work called Sex and Lies—a compilation of interviews she undertook with Moroccan women whilst she was on a book tour in the country. When I ask her about it, she says: “You know in Morocco, abortion, homosexuality and sex before marriage are all forbidden? The women I met all wanted to talk and express themselves.”

“You can’t speak to your mother about it there because you don’t want them to betray you, you can’t talk to men about it because you don’t want them to know you aren’t a virgin.”

Freedom is a central preoccupation of Slimani’s work and she is interested particularly in the freedom to be alone. “I wanted a good excuse to be lonely,” she says of her decision to become a writer. We discuss the fact that Louise, the nanny in Lullaby who kills her charges, is never really alone and in fact has never had a room of her own. Slimani points out that, “In Morocco, only 0.2 per cent of the young people aged between 16 and 25 have a place of their own. They all live with their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters.”

“They all told me how can you dream, how can you have intimacy, how can you write, how can have a sexuality or a fantasy if you are never, never alone? It is very, very important just to have a place of your own where no one is judging you, where you are not under the eyes of society or community.”

Referring to the sex addiction of her protagonist in her latest novel to be published in English, Adèle, she says: “The question is why is it a taboo? I’m not sure it should be.”

Although Adèle has only just been published in English, in a translation by Sam Taylor who also translated Lullaby, it was actually the first novel she wrote. “French people don’t read this book in the same way as people in the UK or in America, so it’s interesting for me to hear what people have to say about a character like Adèle. What’s interesting is that British people think I belong to a kind of French tradition of libertine, or erotic literature.”

“But when the book was out in France nobody really said that because I don’t really think it’s a book about that or that it’s very erotic. It’s very funny because people outside of France consider it to be very French whereas people inside France consider it to be very Moroccan.”

The response of North American readers to this novel about sex addiction has, if anything, been more extreme. Slimani seems slightly bemused by it. “In the US they don’t like the fact that they don’t understand Adèle. They think a book is supposed to explain; I think the opposite. Art is supposed to explore mysteries. When I say I don’t know why she behaves this way, they are furious! They also say she is a bad woman, she is our enemy! ‘You say you are a feminist, but she is not on our side!’”

“It’s completely stupid. Literature has nothing to do with ideology. I am a feminist as a citizen and as a woman but as a writer, I’m just a writer.”

“I’m not racist but I could want to write about a character who is racist because I’m interested in exploring their mind. It’s not because I am Moroccan that I couldn’t write about a racist! But they think I should stick to a feminist point of view.”

“For me, it’s not a mystery why Adèle behaves that way, sometimes you want to destroy what you have. Sometimes you want something dangerous to happen. It’s irrational but you want danger and you don’t know why.”

Slimani has said that the book was inspired in part when she started reading about the allegations of sexual assault against the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. She was fascinated that his defence centred around him being a sex addict.

“I knew I wanted to write a novel about a woman who was an anti-hero, who was a liar and a little bit unlikeable. I didn’t want to write a heroine, lover, a nice woman or her to be very brave—I wanted the opposite. After the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, I read a lot of psychiatric books about sex addiction.”

Adèle’s pathology, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t bring her much pleasure. “She is a slave to her addiction. It’s like an alcoholic with drink, the first sip or the first glass is good but then you feel ashamed of yourself that you didn’t resist the temptation.”

“You don’t enjoy sex very much when you are a sex addict, I don’t think. I wanted to show that what she wants is to conquer and find the man looking at her. She doesn’t like sex very much, she likes the fact that she is desired by someone.”

I ask Slimani to expand on why Adèle is so unable to reconcile herself to reality. “She is disappointed by her life in general,” Slimani explains. “She’s disappointed by her marriage, she’s disappointed by motherhood, she’s disappointed by her job.”

“How can I be free? What should I sacrifice? Is it possible to be free when you’re married, when you’re a mother? Being a free woman is accepting we are going to disappoint people and not to be exactly what they want us to be. Our husband, our mother, they expect so much of us and we are supposed to give.”

“Glenn Close said—when she received the Golden Globe—that we are nurturers and we are not expected to take, only to give. Motherhood is difficult, it’s tedious, it’s exhausting and sometimes you feel lonely and bored but at the same time, you find something that makes you want to live [in] this relationship.”

I am curious as to why she wanted to write about an unlikeable woman in the first place. Slimani smiles, and says “My father always told me we are only going to be equal when people consider that women have as many flaws as men. The fact that we always say that women are soft and nice and sweet is proof that we are unequal because people don’t want to look at the dark side of women. I think that denying this dark side is a way of controlling women.”

I can’t help but ask her, do you think we are there yet? She laughs. “We are getting closer!”