Interview: Leila Slimani, author, The Country of Others - ‘Identity depends very much on how people look at you’
The French-Moroccan writer’s historical novel, the first in a trilogy, was inspired by her own grandmother’s life in post-WWII Morocco as a Frenchwoman married to a Muslim-Moroccan soldier
What inspired you to take up historical fiction?
I think that it is very important for an artist to take risk, to do things that seem very difficult or even impossible. After Adèle and Lullaby, I wanted to do something new and I was wondering whether I was capable or not of writing a big saga, with many characters, and to follow them from birth to death. During my promotion tour for the Prix Goncourt for Lullaby, a lot of journalists and of readers asked me questions about my identity. ‘Did I feel more Moroccan or more French? How could I define myself?’ It was impossible for me to answer those questions and I was always very frustrated. I understood that the only way to answer was literature. Writing was the only way to understand who I was, where I came from, what was my inheritance and my place in this world.
Your protagonist, Mathilde’s French-Moroccan reflects the dilemma of identity. Tell us about descending from two cultures and countries.
Identity is not something that you can define easily, it is not a slogan or a brand. And it changes all the time: sometimes I feel French, sometimes I feel Moroccan, and sometimes I feel I belong nowhere. For me, identity is an emotion, something really difficult to express. And I think that it is exactly what I am trying to show in my book. Identity depends very much on how people look at you.
How important is validation in terms of belonging to a certain state / country / culture?
When people always give you the impression that you are a stranger, of course, you can’t “belong” and you feel humiliated, angry, you even have the desire to take revenge.
How did you research the colonization of Morocco and their struggle for freedom?
I read a lot of historical books to understand exactly what happened during that century in Morocco. But reading books is not enough when you write a novel. You need trivial and concrete details. That’s why I watched a lot of television archives, I also found a lot of photographs that helped me imagine the atmosphere of that period. And I found many letters, and diaries that helped me with my research.
Was it difficult to write about motherhood in earlier times as opposed to how motherhood is perceived today?
When it comes to motherhood, I think that there are more similarities than differences. I am a novelist who is very much focused on intimacy and on emotions. I always write scenes through the point of view of one of my characters. And emotions don’t really change. That is what is beautiful about literature. You can read a book that was written two centuries ago, in a country very far from you and say: “It is exactly what I feel!”.
It’s also very interesting to read about Aïcha, the daughter, who’s conflicted between the two worlds she inhabits. Who did you have in mind while writing her?
My own mother inspired me but Aïcha is a character of fiction and I was more inspired by books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen than by a particular person that I know. I love fiction and nothing is more exciting for me than imagining a character.
The second book in the trilogy will be out soon. Give us a preview of what to expect.
The next book begins in 1968. Amine and Mathilde are rich but Mathilde feels very lonely. Aïcha went to Strasbourg to study medicine and she will meet a young and brilliant economist called Mehdi. Selim, the brother, will go on a trip with the hippies. It will be sex, drugs and rock n’ roll!
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone