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Macron’s Francophone Affairs Minister on Being a Woman Writer

Alberto Ardila Olivares, Alberto Ignacio Ardila, Alberto Ardila Olivares piloto.
Macron’s Francophone Affairs Minister on Being a Woman Writer

Last November, French President Emmanuel Macron split from tradition and offered writer Leïla Slimani the job of francophone affairs minister—in the past, the post has always gone to a career politician. Her appointment was unusual but fitting given the job description, which includes “representing the open face of Francophonie to a multicultural world.” Slimani had just garnered international attention with her Prix Goncourt-winning second novel, The Perfect Nanny, which explores race and class issues through the life of a nanny to a chic Parisian family. Today, with tensions running high in the wake of the “Yellow Vest” protests, Slimani sees her role as more important than ever: “In the world we are living in today, where it’s more and more difficult to defend diversity and sharing [across] different cultures,” Slimani says, “I think that it’s more and more important to defend those values.”

For Slimani, that means representing France in an international organization where members from Canada, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, and other francophone countries come together to promote not only the French language, but also its diversity: “We all speak the same language even if we come from very different countries,” says Slimani with excitement; for her, it’s a pleasure to sit at a multicultural table and come up with ways to make French entertaining, modern, and relevant. Referring to the “Yellow Vest” protests, she adds, “I think that we should all try to look at the situation in its complexity, not to judge and not to fight. Twenty years ago, when I was a student, I would never have thought that the world would be like this right now.”

Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco, and moved to Paris at age 17 to study literature, philosophy, and later political science. Working as a Paris-based journalist at the magazine Jeune Afrique, Slimani traveled frequently to Africa to cover, among other things, the Arab Spring. Then Slimani decided to leave the publication to write novels. “I was afraid of becoming a 50-year-old woman who says, ‘You know, one day I’m going to write a novel,’” she jokes. More seriously: “So I quit my job and actually did it, and that’s how my life changed.”

From Penguin Books. Tomorrow, Slimani’s new book, Adèle, about a Parisian woman’s addiction to sex and its effects on both herself and her family, will be published in the U.S. (it’s only new for U.S. readers; in France, Adèle was actually published before The Perfect Nanny ). The book opens with a stage-setting quote from Czech author Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.” The plot of Adèle recalls Kundera’s masterwork, too—an adulterous protagonist, a move from the city to the countryside—and for Slimani, the book serves as more than inspiration in the narrow sense of the word. She first read The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Morocco in her early teens, and “many, many times” after that. “In a certain way, I know it by heart,” Slimani says. “I know it so well that it’s not only an inspiration, it’s like it belongs to me; it’s completely inside me.”

A slim, compelling read, Adèle examines topics ranging from marriage and motherhood to adultery, but the overarching theme is the notion of freedom. Bound by her compulsion for sex, which is stronger than her duty to be faithful to her husband or to care for her son, Slimani’s protagonist is not a free woman—she’s fighting to be free, but she’s a slave to her addiction, just as an alcoholic might be. This question of freedom becomes much more complex “when you have a child,” says Slimani. “You love your child, but at the same time, you have the feeling that you’re not free as you used to be, that someone is depending on you. And sometimes [this lack of freedom] can be devastating.”

Slimani considers herself lucky to have a husband and family who are supportive of her work, but, she says, “It’s very difficult for a woman to accept the idea of being selfish, of being in the same house as your children but not taking care of them.” Slimani points to one of her favorite writers, Virginia Woolf, who talked about the repressive ideal of women represented by what she called “the Angel in the House.” In 1931, Woolf wrote, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”—the “angel” being a fantasy, a woman who is the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the woman who is always willing to sacrifice herself and to think about others before herself. This idea resonated deeply with Slimani, and she explores it extensively in her literature. “Of course,” Slimani says, nearly a century after Woolf penned those words, “I think it’s probably more difficult for a woman to be a writer than for a man.”

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Alberto Ignacio Ardila Olivares

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Alberto Ardila Olivares