Her literary whydunnit has won France’s highest award for fiction and international acclaim. Leila Slimani, the author of Lullaby (The Perfect Nanny in the US), discusses her art and ideas with Tishani Doshi
LEILA SLIMANI’S LULLABY (Faber; 240 pages; Rs 850) is not a novel that lulls. From the very first sentence, ‘The baby is dead,’ she has the reader by the neck. Originally published in France as Chansons Douce, the book won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, sold over 600,000 copies in its first year, and has been translated into over 35 languages. Lullaby is the story of a nanny who kills the two children in her charge. Inspired by real life events in New York, Slimani tells me she didn’t follow the original story too closely as she wanted to create her own fictional narrative. In her story, the location is transposed to the Tenth Arrondissement in Paris. The couple are Paul Massé, a music producer, and his wife Myriam Charfa, a criminal defence lawyer. Their two children are Mila and Adam. Like Slimani, Myriam, the mother in the novel, is an immigrant from North Africa. Slimani grew up in Morocco, but Myriam’s geographical roots remain vague.
At 36, Slimani is France’s most widely-read author, and was recently appointed Minister of Francophone affairs in President Macron’s government. In person, she is petite and chic with a mass of curly hair. She speaks candidly but keeps her answers short. She tells me she thinks of herself as an existentialist—someone who is more interested in depicting her characters through their actions, rather than walking you through the corridors of their brains. Nevertheless, the book, with its changing perspectives, has been described as a psychological thriller, and makes you want to turn the pages fast. Slimani, who is in India for the first time for the Jaipur Literature Festival, tells me she’s not on social media because she doesn’t want people to know about her life. “I want to know about other people’s lives,” she chuckles, “but I don’t want them to know about me.” In typical Parisienne fashion, our interview involves black coffee and cigarettes.
‘The baby is dead.’ Why did you begin your book Lullaby with this sentence?
I knew that I had to begin with something strong to hook the attention of the reader. The story is simple. It’s about a couple, a nanny and two children. I was afraid it was going to be boring, so I had to start with something very harsh, very cruel. It was difficult for me, because I had the feeling that as the writer, I was the one killing the children. I thought, ‘You have to write this and get rid of this’ (smacks her hands). So it’s just the first sentence that came to me. ‘The baby is dead’ is the beginning of the story. Now I have to describe why he’s dead.
One of the themes of your novel is Paris as a city of loneliness. Can you speak about this?
You know, when I first came to Paris, I was 17. I was raised in Morocco and I went to Paris to study, and I was alone. It was very weird for me because I came to this big, beautiful town and I was coming from a little town, a boring town with no culture, nothing. I was at the same time fascinated by the beauty, the culture of Paris, and by the loneliness. I couldn’t imagine that in such a beautiful city people could be so lonely. People are anonymous. You walk and nobody knows you. It’s something sad and something I like, so I wanted to explore how living can be in cities like Paris, where everything is beautiful but where there’s a lot of misery, inequality, craziness.
When you wrote the book, you had a six-month-old, your first child. What was the experience of being a new mother and writing about the greatest fear that parents have—that they will lose their child in a horrible way?
It was a sort of catharsis, a way to put away this fear, to try and confront it and say, ‘I want to know you and now I’m not going to be afraid of you.’ I wanted to know my fear and share it with other women because I had the feeling we all have this fear but we don’t speak about it. You know, my mother was a very anxious mother. She was working a lot, she was very independent, but she was also very anxious. I’m 36 and she’s still telling me, ‘Be careful when you cross the road. Be careful of what you eat.’ I wanted to explore this anxiety, the fact that when you become a mother there is something in you that is always worried. In a certain way, I feel like I took all my anxiety and gave it to the reader.
It felt almost like blasphemy.
I like this word ‘blasphemy’. Yeah. Because there is something sacred about motherhood, and I think maybe it’s too much. It should not be so holy, because it’s also a way to imprison women into motherhood. The patriarchal system is telling us, you know, ‘That’s your job, that’s why you were born—to become a mother, and you are a goddess as mother.’ But I don’t want to be a goddess. I just want to be an individual, and I want to be a mother as my husband is a father.
‘We need literature to forget the walls everyone is building between cultures’
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It’s very pertinent, this idea of motherhood as holy in the Indian context. Were you consciously taking on certain taboo subjects in this book—the idea of motherhood as an Olympic sport?
There are two things. First: I was happy being a mother and happy with my son, but I was also disappointed in discovering what it really meant to be a mother. I was someone who moved everywhere, who was very spontaneous, but when you become a mother, you don’t move, you stay in a place, you take care of your child, and in a way it’s very difficult to accept these sacrifices that come with motherhood. I wanted to express it. I didn’t want to just feel it. I didn’t want to be ashamed to say, ‘Yes, it’s difficult for me to be a mother.’ Everyone was telling me, ‘You belong to a new generation, you can have it all, you can work, you can be a mother, you can marry a man who will respect you, you can divorce if you want,’ and I was like, ‘Wow! That’s extraordinary.’ But then I discovered that this is bullshit. Of course, we can have it all, but we don’t have the instructions. And I discovered how much stress comes with having it all, that there are women I admired—mothers who sometimes go into toilets and cry for an hour, or who want to have a drink alone. It’s not easy. I wanted to tell women, ‘I know it’s not easy, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of the fact that we’re not perfect, and we can’t be perfect, and it’s not a problem.’
One of the other taboo subjects you take on is the subject of female desire. Why do you think there’s been such a silencing?
Because for centuries it was our only choice—to be mothers and wives. The idea of our desire, of our saying, ‘No I don’t want to marry him, no I don’t want to have children, no I don’t want to have this life’, was not a choice. Of course, I want to explore women’s desires. The fact that we can build our life through our own desire, and maybe there’s a sort of vertigo because it’s so new, we don’t exactly know how to do it. So yes, that’s why I think there was silence because we didn’t have a choice. We were prisoners. Now we have to invent. We have to face that motherhood is not our only destiny. Sometimes I have the feeling that women are afraid by the fact that maybe motherhood is not as extraordinary as everyone told them it would be, because it was something that belonged to women, was the privilege of women, so it’s very difficult to say that this privilege is not so extraordinary.
I was interested to read that initially the nanny, Louise, was going to be a Black immigrant woman, but then you decided to make her a White French woman. Why did you change your mind?
First: because I hate the fact that we always speak of identity in the occidental society in a way that is caricatural with a lot of cliché. When you watch TV, when you read newspapers, it’s always the immigrant that’s poor or a victim. When you see someone who’s the boss or successful, most of the time he’s White. I wanted to say to my readers, ‘Reality is much more complex.’ Some immigrants are successful, they have money, they can hire a nanny, and some White women are poor, living in the suburbs, and you don’t look at them.
“The patriarchal system is telling us ‘that’s your job, that’s why you were born — to become a mother, and you are a goddess as mother.’ But I don’t want to be a goddess. I just want to be an individual”
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Also: I had the idea that the inversion of roles was very violent. For a lot of people, it’s violent that the immigrant is a boss and the White person has to do what the immigrant is telling her to do. I liked this idea. It was a sort of revenge. It was also a way to emphasise the loneliness and humiliation of Louise, because she’s a White nanny and can’t belong to the [typical] groups of nannies—the African group, the Arab group, the Filipina group. She’s always lonely. I like the idea that when she goes to the playground, she’s the White nanny, everyone is looking at her, and she doesn’t belong.
Coming back to the idea of imprisonment and identity, has it been difficult being classified (a) as a woman writer (b) as a person from a country that’s not in the West?
We writers from the other world, we must fight for our right to write whatever we want. Because when you’re a French author or an American writer and you write a 500-page love story, it’s okay, but when you’re from India or Syria or Morocco or Mexico, you’re supposed to write about war, politics, identity, your country, your background. Why? As writers we don’t have boundaries, there are no frontiers, no visas. As a Moroccan I can write about a Chinese girl, I can write about Peru, because when I was a little girl living in Rabat, and I was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I was Anna Karenina, even if I was Moroccan, even if I was Muslim in a very boring town. I’ve never been to Russia, but I was Anna Karenina. When I read Charles Dickens, I was Oliver Twist. With true literature you can be whoever you want. You can invent yourself. You can forget your religion, your background, your social class. We should fight for this, because this is why we need literature now—to forget the walls that everyone is building between cultures.
I wanted to ask about the perspectives in the book. You are always moving between the characters, so we never really know the full story.
I think we never really know the full story and we never really know anyone. That’s why I always change the point of view in my novels. I believe we can’t fully understand someone. We can have some pieces of the puzzle, but we actually never understand it all. I’m a sort of existentialist. I think the only way to know someone is through his actions, so I just try to say what my characters are doing and I trust the reader to know through the actions who my characters are.
Can you say something about #BalanceTonPorc, France’s #MeToo movement and your response to Catherine Deneuve’s controversial open letter?
I wrote an answer to Catherine Deneuve two days after that came out. I think we shouldn’t just look at our situation as Parisians. Now we are fighting for the rights of all women and we must look at the bigger picture. Of course, maybe in Paris we want to fight for seduction and gallantry a la Francaise, but that’s not the point. Today we’re fighting for the rights of women not to be bothered. We’re fighting for the rights of women to inhabit public spaces—in Cairo, Delhi, Kinshasa, because men are harassing them. This is a collective fight. We have to look at all women who are victims today, who can’t have the body of a woman in a public space, so that’s why I was a bit angry because I think it’s selfish… You know, not all our relationships with men are sexual. We are workers, we are friends. I’m speaking about equality. I just want the same salary, the same respect and consideration. Sometimes I’m not interested in seduction. I just want my respect and my money, thank you very much.