An Interview with Author Leila Slimani

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Sensuality vies with psychological nuance in descriptions of the growing beauty of Amine’s younger sister Selma (a beauty who “made her brothers nervous as animals before an approaching storm” so that “they beat her preemptively”); or of the herbal remedy the Moroccan servant Tamo concocts to spread over Mathilde’s “dazzlingly white body” and “drive away the evil spirits” when her mistress falls desperately ill with malaria (“a greenish paste,” the Western doctor, coming later, notices with distaste, “whose smell reached all the way into the corridor”); or of the “already brutal” early morning heat, so that Corinne, a displaced Frenchwoman, awakens in town the day after Bastille Day celebrations with her nightdress soaked in sweat.

I ask Slimani about her embrace, in this book, of an earthier literary style. “I think style, for a writer, evolves in an almost physical manner, in the same way that our bodies change with time,” she says. “And then Morocco is the country of my childhood, the place where I experienced my first sensations and smells.” She was born in the capital, Rabat, to an otolaryngologist mother and an economist father, but she spent school vacations on her grandparents’ farm outside Meknes, where her Alsatian grandmother (the model for Mathilde) also ran a medical dispensary to treat farmworkers and peasants, who sometimes paid her in rabbits and chickens.

“And it’s impossible to tell the story of Morocco without employing sensuality,” she continues, “because it’s a country of flowers, of luxuriant vegetation, and with a very particular climate. So when I began to write this novel, images immediately came to back me of Meknes, the countryside, the medina, the artisans, the sounds and smells, and they nourished my style and transformed it.”

With this multivolume, multigenerational saga, the scale of Slimani’s ambition also seems to have grown. “I think it’s important, as a writer, to give yourself big challenges,” she says, “because life itself is very big. People use the phrase ‘larger than life,’ but to me there is nothing larger than life. And a writer has to embrace that fact, embrace life’s immense complexity and abundance. So I decided that if I needed three volumes to tell this story, so be it.”

Space was also required to chart the changes in Moroccan culture and society since the mid-20th-century, from underdevelopment to a compromised form of modernity. “Between 1950 and today, Morocco has undergone a transformation that took European societies 200 years to complete,” Slimani explains. “There are places in the mountains, where around 80 years ago, tribes dominated, where shepherds in white djellabas moved through quasi-biblical landscapes. If you go to the same region today, you’ll find a shopping mall, a gas station, a water park.”

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