Leïla Slimani can be said to embody certain contradictions. At once inhabiting the role of a francophone intellectual, while expressly refusing the ‘francophone’ label, Slimani constantly slips between competing images of what a contemporary world writer should be. A laureate of the 2016 Goncourt Prize, Slimani’s novel, Chanson douce (2016) provides an exemplary site for investigating the tensions and contradictions at heart of the contemporary littérature-monde debate.1 Appointed in May 2017 by the newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron as the official representative of francophonie, Slimani has ceaselessly articulated a claim for intellectual autonomy over autobiographical identity and ethnic or national ties: ‘When I write I’m not a woman, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Moroccan. I can reinvent myself and I can reinvent the world’, she has argued.2 By virtue of her resistance to cultural and ethnic categorizations, Slimani’s case closely resembles that of the contemporary French-speaking writers that Thérèse Migraine-George has gathered together in her work From Francophonie to World Literature in French (2013).3 Just like Marie Ndiaye, Maryse Condé, and Lyonel Trouillot, to name some of the writers examined by Migraine-George, Leïla Slimani’s work appear to ‘elude dogmatic categories, be they ethnic, sexual, or stylistic’.4
In this article, I will show how Slimani’s fraught self-definition as a writer who challenges questions of identity, nationality, and aesthetic universalism permeates and informs many of the literary and narrative strategies employed in Chanson douce, her second novel and her first international success. These strategies implicitly encourage readers and writers alike to reflect on the often paradoxical role that authors coming from postcolonial countries must play in the contemporary literary field: either accused of cultural imperialism by their ‘communities of origin’5 or relegated to the marginality of ‘francophone literature’ by the French literary milieu, the reception of (im)migrant authors is fraught with paradoxes and contradictions. The critical discussions triggered by the publication of the manifesto ‘Pour une “littérature-monde” en français’ frame my close readings of Slimani’s novel.6 I will thus provide a new vantage point to debates around the idea of littérature-monde en français in the twenty-first century. Works like those of Migraine-George and Subha Xavier, as well as the contributions to Transnational French Studies (2012) and French Global (2010), have shed light on the difficulties inherent to the transnational and post-postcolonial shift embodied by the littérature-monde paradigm.7 This article will acknowledge the usefulness of such critical insights, while also attempting to embrace the ‘unresolved tension […] between the national and global, between cultural introversion and extroversion’ in which both Chanson douce and the critical debate preceding the novel’s publication are caught.8 In my reading, I will attempt to uncover this tension, highlighting the concrete struggle faced by authors coming from postcolonial nations in navigating the global literary marketplace. As Xavier has shown in her work on migrant texts, (im)migrant authors are always forced to walk ‘the fine line between exploitation and resistance’ as they face ‘the expectations and hopes of their communities of origin as well as those of their new countries’.9 The case of Leïla Slimani hovers precisely in this twofold struggle for literary recognition.
The reception of Chanson douce provides a perfect case in point. Jennifer Howell has praised the novel because ‘while Slimani is of Moroccan origin, neither she nor her publishers have capitalized on her ethnicity’.10 Meanwhile, Khalid Lyamlahy has argued that ‘while trying to evade political issues’, Slimani ‘ends up grappling with politics in an ambiguous if not biased way’ and ‘inexplicably reproduces a series of cheap clichés and narrow representations of strangers’.11 Contrary to these critical stances, I will demonstrate that it is precisely Slimani’s tenuous connection to both the Hexagone and the francophone periphery that makes her novel such an important site for critical investigation. Rather than choosing one side or the other, Slimani’s reluctance to endorse either a naïve universalism or a situated postcolonial epistemology makes her novel a valuable resource for investigating the tensions of the world literature in French debate today. More specifically, the tension between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’ will provide the site of my investigation. For instance, by reversing the ethnicity of its characters in their fictional counterparts (based on ‘real’ people and events, as discussed below), Chanson douce functions as a fictional work that does not meet, but is rather impervious to, readers’ and critics’ categorical expectations.
One of the most virulent critiques of Chanson douce arises precisely within a critical tendency to anticipate certain literary stances on the basis of a writer’s sociopolitical provenance. Lyamlahy offers a number of close readings that, in his view, demonstrate Slimani’s disinterest in representing immigrant figures in her novel, other than through ‘scattered and prejudiced statements’ that depict ‘otherness’ in a ‘reductive, poorly creative, and sometimes unnecessarily violent or ambiguous way’.12 My reading of Chanson douce intersects with Lyamlahy’s at multiple points. For intance, we both identify the figure of ‘Wafa’, the foreign nanny whom Louise will befriend during her visits to the park, and the Rudyard Kipling epigraph as two key elements in Slimani’s treatment of ‘race’ and étrangeté throughout the novel. Yet, while Lyamlahy interprets these as ‘tendentious’, I see them as fruitfully ambivalent. Further, I believe that in reproaching the novel for its ambiguous treatment of immigration and altérité, Lyamlahy involuntarily underscores the fault that Slimani assigns to the French literary milieu of expecting non-hexagonal writers to speak out in the name of their specific identities. Lyamlahy insists that Slimani’s representation of the immigrant is ‘consistently hazy and double-edged’, that her judgement of Morocco’s political situation is ‘as much unjustified as unfair’ and eventually advises Slimani to ‘turn to Abdelkebir Khatibi, probably one of the most productive Moroccan intellectuals, far less celebrated in France’.13 Although I recognize the ambiguity surrounding Slimani’s depiction of the ‘stranger’, I do not wish to judge Slimani’s lack of an unequivocal stance on the subject in moral terms. Nor do I wish to follow Lyamlahy in blithely recommending that Slimani turn to more the ‘august’ works of a male writer for guidance. In this article, I hope to show how it is precisely the unresolved tension between Slimani’s attempt to shift the attention away from the ‘immigrant’ figure and the ways in which immigrant figures nonetheless re-enter the novel’s narrative fabric that make Chanson douce a valuable case study to test the limits of the controversial and yet promising framework of littérature-monde as well as the positions of French-speaking intellectuals within it.
In order to bring this productive tension into focus, I will turn to both the text itself and Slimani’s own words as recorded in press and broadcast interviews. I will begin by examining those passages in the text where the novel’s narrative choices are dramatized through a series of authorial mises-en-abyme. This will lead me to investigate Slimani’s own statements about her creative role as a writer as well as her official role as Emmanuel Macron’s representative of the francophone world. Finally, in treating Slimani’s answers to journalistic interviews and radio broadcasts as valuable critical tools, I do not wish in the least to reduce Chanson douce to the fictional mirror of its author’s conscious positions. On the contrary, I take Slimani’s public discourse to be a key hermeneutical resource for unpacking the ‘worldly’ forces that operate on the text from without. By turning to extra-aesthetic materials (such as journalistic articles and radio and television interviews), I wish indeed to emphasize, following Edward Said, how texts are always ‘enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society’.14 It is precisely in the interplay between the aesthetic form of the novel and the analysis of non-literary materials that the tensions embodied by Chanson douce can be explored in all their complexities. This article therefore looks at Chanson douce not as a novel extrapolated from its context of production but rather as a novel at the crossroads where the fictional universe meets the global marketplace.
More specifically, I argue that Chanson douce eloquently embodies the ‘unresolved tension […] between the national and global, between cultural introversion and extroversion’ in which both the manifesto ‘Pour une “littérature-monde” en français’ and, in a similar way, the critical debate arising from it, were and are still caught.15 Just as the issues raised by the manifesto were not devoid of contradictions and ambiguities, mostly due to the undertheorization of the term ‘world’ itself, as Emily Apter has observed,16 Chanson douce constantly strives to define itself against opposite fields of political and literary expectations. Yet, while it is true that the littérature-monde debate risks being a ‘mental ping-pong of “pro” versus “con” on the question of whether there should be a “World Literature in French”’, literature easily eludes the kind of binarism that characterizes much critical debate.17 Where a critical stance must avoid contradictions in order to remain consistent and theoretically strong, a novel can afford to display uncertainties and even paradoxes, for the fictional world it creates cannot be reduced to a single critical viewpoint.18
The fictionalization of a fait divers in the time of littérature-monde
At the beginning of Chanson douce, Myriam, a stay-at-home mother of two who has decided to go back to work, starts her search for a nanny. Paul, her husband, a pragmatic man ‘qui place sa famille et sa carrière avant tout’ is helping her.19 Paul initially has reservations: Why would they pay a nanny the same salary Myriam will receive?, he wonders.20 Seemingly unaware of the patriarchal connotations of his statement, he nevertheless agrees and tells Myriam that they must do things properly: no sans papiers, no black market, no veils, no smoking. The nanny’s role is to solve problems, not to pose new ones: ‘Qu’elle bosse, pour qu’on puisse bosser’, affirms Paul revealing his businesslike attitude to the subject.21
Myriam therefore plans to rely on a recruitment agency located not far from her Parisian apartment. The agency has just opened, and its pastel-coloured walls look sufficiently reassuring. Yet the moment Myriam enters the place, a misunderstanding occurs: the manager, noticing her tired appearence and her foreign origins – simply evoked by the woman’s ‘cheveux drus et frisés’ – mistakes her for a nanny applicant.22 The racist blunder prompts Myriam’s disdain and her desire to leave the agency: ‘la gérante la dégoûtait. Son hypocrisie, son visage rond et rougeaud, son écharpe élimée autour du cou. Son racisme, évident tout à l’heure. Tout lui donnait envie de fuir’.23 It is a malentendu fraught with both fictional and metanarrative implications. It will lead Myriam to leave the agency and write her own advertisement, to which Louise will reply – with all the tragic consequences this epistolary call and response ultimately entails. Furthermore, the scene can be read as a sharp mise-en-abyme of Leïla Slimani’s critically noted authorial role as a writer of Moroccan origins who resists being labelled according to dogmatic categories related to her roots and ethnicity.
In many interviews, Slimani has emphasized the extent to which her ethnic and national origins are – and, she avows, must remain – extraneous to her conception of the literary work, showing a clear irritation at the idea that, as a writer of North African origins, she can be accused of ‘neocolonialism’ solely on the basis of her francophilia.24 On a similar note, Slimani has also expressed a strong reticence towards the tacit assumption that ‘the Moroccan or the Afghani writer must grapple with political issues while the American or the French one is left to explore the questions of an individual life’.25 Just as Myriam in Chanson douce walks away from the agency having been mistaken for a nanny on the basis of implicit racist bias and classist associations, Slimani refuses to construct a text that explicitly deals with the experience of (im)migration.
Although Chanson douce is based on a fait divers that has been read in connection to immigrants’ working conditions and New York City’s widening class divide, Slimani chose to complicate and reverse elements such as national origins, race, and class differences.26 In the real-life case, it was a nanny of Dominican origin, Yoselyn Ortega, who killed the two children in her care. However, Slimani chooses to depict the nanny as Louise, a white French woman of working-class background, and to assign to Myriam, the mother, foreign origins, possibly Moroccan or Tunisian.27 In reality, Ortega’s employer was a wealthy, white American woman called Marina Krim. Yoselyn and her fictional counterpart Louise share severe financial difficulties, just as the real mother and Myriam are united by the privileged protection granted by their economic status. By reversing the ethnicity of its characters and assigning the foreign status to the economically privileged character and not to the marginal one, Chanson douce performs a double function: it reclaims creative autonomy by distancing itself from a transparent mimicry of reality, while complicating the representation of the (im)migrant by emphasizing the interplay between class and race in the production of marginality. In fictionalizing a fait divers, Chanson douce functions as a fictional work that does not meet, but is rather impervious to, readers’ and critics’ categorizing expectations.
As Linda Hutcheon has carefully shown, as a formal object, an adaptation might identify ‘a shift in ontology from the real to the fictional, from a historical account or biography to a fictionalized narrative or drama’, whereas ‘as a process of creation, the act of adaptation always involves both (re-)interpretation and then (re-)creation’.28 Adaptation can then be seen not only as an object whose ontology has been altered from the real to the fictional, but also as a process which, precisely by virtue of this ontological shift, necessarily enacts an original interpretation and a re-creation moving away from the original source. Such a caveat might seem obvious, yet journalists, and at times also critics, sometimes forget this, particularly in the case of postcolonial writers, whose works are too often treated as disguised autobiographical material or as guiltily lacking a testimonial dimension. Hutcheon’s remarks on adaptation as a twofold concept allow us to better understand Slimani’s two major narrative shifts from the real events.
Along with the choice to assign French origins to Louise and foreign ones to Myriam, the setting constitutes one of the major fictionalization practices operating in the novel: if the Dominican origins of Ortega are effaced in her fictional counterpart and attributed to Myriam, the location of the Krims’ apartment switches from the luxury flat of elite Manhattan to the middle-class flat of the gentrifying, bourgeois-bohémien milieu of Paris’s tenth arrondissement. Although close to the long-standing French tradition of fiction arising from a fait divers (a tradition that dates back to Stendhal, Zola, and French naturalism), the novel’s specific modalities of adaptation are not so much conscious homages to tradition as they are symptomatic of our globalized mediascape.29 Arising precisely from the (translated) coverage of the crime, Slimani’s choice to fictionalize a news story about an Upper West Side nanny who killed the two children in her care also testifies to the increased accessibility and translatability of concepts, news, and imagery in the circulation of contemporary globalized literary production. In particular, given both the stereotypical form of crime stories (and crime fiction) and the transnational nature of class relationships, the situation Slimani chooses to represent is not bound up in untranslatable local and national specificities.30 On the contrary, to echo Rebecca Walkowitz’s reflections on ‘born-translated’ literary texts, translation is neither secondary nor incidental to the writing of Chanson douce: it is the very condition of its production. It is worth noting that, although ‘translation’ is not an issue I am explicitly concerned with in this article, the case of Chanson douce aptly illustrates the translatability of literary genres in traversing from one linguocultural context to another, a feature that further underscores the worldly character of the novel.
Indeed, as Slimani herself has affirmed, what triggered her creativity was not so much the event itself as the way the crime was treated by the media, including French media, which put the mother of the two victims under scrutiny.31 As Emma Brockes has rightly pointed out, there is an analogy between the real event’s media coverage and its literary mise en scène: more than an unbearable tragedy of a single family, what emerges is a story ‘of the assumed relationship between two women, a dynamic in which many other women are implicated’.32 In their usual search for a guilty party, the media in fact focused on digging into the relationship between the nanny and her employers, especially the mother. To be sure, the trial only exacerbated this tendency: prosecutors and defence lawyers have in turn opposed a story of an oppressed employee and an over-demanding boss to one about a resentful and miserable nanny and an exceptionally lucky mother.33 Thus, both the trial and its news coverage implicitly outlined the figures of the nanny and the mother as the two main protagonists of the events, a twofold perspective Slimani recaptures in her literary choice to leave aside the perspective of Paul, the husband, and focus on Louise and Myriam.34 Besides the very beginning of the novel, where the extradiegetic narrator impersonally recounts the essential narrative premises of the general plot, the only points of view the novel accounts for are the nanny’s and the mother’s, rendered through multiple instances of free indirect speech.35
In an interview with Lauren Collins, Slimani claimed to have read about the New York murder in Paris Match as she was looking for a nanny to take care of her six-month-old son: the story struck her precisely because of the complex relationship established between Marina Krim, a wealthy, stay-at-home mother, and Yoselyn Ortega, a nanny of Dominican origins. At the time, Slimani had already written a hundred pages of a novel about a nanny coming into a family; yet both the author and her publisher agreed that the book was lacking tension and appeared to be stuck in the redundancy of the nanny’s daily routine.36 Although Slimani has explicitly admitted that finding out about the Krims’ tragedy made her writing thrive, when accused by an American journalist of having ‘capitalized on a real life New York family’s actual horror’, Slimani answered that the point of her book was not to inquire into what happened to the Krim family: she was inventing, not investigating.37 Furthermore, every time a journalist has asked her why that specific murder sparked her interest, rather than insisting on the specificity of the Krim-Ortega case, Slimani has evoked the inherently ‘romanesque’ relationship that exists between a nanny and the parents of the children, a ‘relation employé-employeur extrêmement étrange et ambiguë […] qui ne ressemble à aucune d’autre’.38 Slimani’s comment further evokes the malleability of national and cultural specificities when transfigured through fictional archetypes: just as Slimani reclaims the aesthetic autonomy of her authorial persona from biographical and ethnic ties, here the generic character of the ‘romanesque’ redeems her from the accusation of having profited from a personal tragedy.
Slimani did not do any real fieldwork in order to start writing; she did not go to any of the hearings, nor did she try to contact the Krim family or Ortega.39 By virtue of its unadorned style, ceaselessly fragmented through paratactic prose, the atmosphere of Chanson douce is closer to the French existentialist novel than to a creative non-fiction inquiry à la Capote. Indeed, with the exception of the opening pages, where the reader’s emotions are evoked through the gruesome details of the murder scene, Chanson douce is a book devoid of sensationalism, while more subtle elements, such as literary style and the characterization of setting and of characters’ personalities, transform the potentially sensational content into a ‘refined’ literary artefact. Slimani’s prose constantly counterbalances the sensationalist nature of the event that makes up the plot: even the profusion of gory details through which the crime scene is portrayed is compensated by Slimani’s plain style. The incipit of the novel evokes the sparse, economical incipit of another French novel inspired by a fait divers, L’Étranger by Albert Camus. Indeed, Chanson douce’s opening lines read as follows:
Le bébé est mort. Il a suffi de quelques secondes. Le médecin a assuré qu’il n’avait pas souffert. On l’a couché dans une housse grise et on a fait glisser la fermeture éclair sur le corps désarticulé qui flottait au milieu des jouets.40
This macabre scene is recounted in a flat and detached style which does not grant anything to the voyeurism of the reader. As in Camus’s incipit, where the impersonality of the narrative voice merges with the bureaucratic tone of the telegram,41 here the death of the child is stylistically indistinguishable from the description of the paramedics putting (and zipping) the body in a grey bag. Although Chanson douce ends, elliptically, where it had begun – with the deaths of the two children, letting details about the trial only emerge through a brief prolepsis interspersed throughout the narration – the novel shares more with L’Étranger than an essentially concise style. The story about Louise’s alienation echoes Camus’s account of Meursault’s isolated personality. And just as Camus does not really account for Meursault’s rational reasons for committing the murder, Slimani avoids deterministically associating Louise’s actions with her lonely and precarious social condition. The killing cannot be written off as the mechanical consequence of her social conditions (not that those conditions do not have something to do with it). Indeed, although Slimani devotes several pages to the description of Louise’s precarious financial situation, Chanson douce seeks to convey the complex play of different kind of factors involved in the production of personal identities.42 Louise’s past is presented in intricate and nuanced detail, with her working-class background only one among many elements (including mental illness) accounting for her misery.
How, then, to accurately characterize Louise? What makes her seem to be such a ‘perfect nanny’ (as the title was astutely translated in the American edition),43 despite the fact that she ends up murdering the two children she seemed to love? It is easier to distinguish what Louise is not, for we know that Myriam does not want to hire a nanny of North African origins:
Elle ne veut pas engager une Maghrébine pour garder les petits. « Ce serait bien », essaie de la convaincre Paul. « Elle leur parlerait en arabe puisque toi tu ne veux pas le faire ». Mais Myriam s’y refuse absolument. Elle craint que ne s’installe une complicité tacite, une familiarité entre elles deux. Que l’autre se mette à lui faire des remarques en arabe. À lui raconter sa vie et, bientôt, à lui demander mille choses au nom de leur langue et de leur religion communes. Elle s’est toujours méfiée de ce qu’elle appelle la solidarité d’immigrés.44
The mise-en-abyme set in the recruitment agency returns here in a more explicit and elaborated manner, thus reinforcing the embedding of the authorial figure in the fictional character of Myriam. Myriam, who shares North African origins with the author Slimani, decidedly rejects her husband’s proposal to hire an Arabic-speaking nanny, thus epitomizing Slimani’s implicit narrative choice: not to make a character of foreign origins the protagonist of her novel. When confronting her husband’s naïvely benevolent remarks – ‘Elle leur parlerait en arabe puisque toi tu ne veux pas le faire’ – Myriam indeed dreads the linguistic and cultural complicity that could be established between herself and the foreign nanny.45
This scene is a pivotal one: if we have already been offered a glimpse of Myriam’s physical appearance in the scene where she was mistaken for a nanny by the agency’s manager, these few lines constitute the only passage in the novel where Myriam explicitly refers to herself as an ‘immigré’ (‘Elle s’est toujours méfiée de ce qu’elle appelle la solidarité d’immigrés’), clearly alluding to the fact that she is an Arabic speaker and a Muslim (‘au nom de leur langue et de leur religion communes’). The reasons for Myriam’s reluctance to embrace a ‘complicité tacite’ and a ‘solidarité d’immigrés’ are not entirely intelligible to the reader, as the novel never returns to this, nor does it offer any detailed information about Myriam’s background and upbringing. Is it a form of internalized xenophobia? Does it stem from her discomfort about social class? Is it a sign of Myriam’s defensive relationship with her origins?
Many of Slimani’s comments echo this scene and the broader narrative choice entailed by it, that is, not making a character of foreign origins the protagonist of her novel. In an interview she gave to France Culture, Slimani declared that she finds ‘incroyable et absurde qu’en 2018 on doit encore justifier qu’on fait une choix de langue alors qu’on vit dans un monde globalisé, ouvert où on parle plusieurs langues’.46 She is particularly irritated by a question journalists tend to ask her – why she chose not to write in Arabic. If posed by a French journalist, Slimani observed, this question assumes that in the Maghreb there is no francophone culture; if asked by a Moroccan one, the question explicitly turns into the accusation of being a ‘colonisée, une traître, une occidentalisée’.47 Against this sort of statement, Slimani proposes to counterpoise a conception of language as ‘dé-ideologisée’,48 highlighting the freedom to speak any language in a plurilinguistic world. Similar remarks can be observed in many of Slimani’s other interviews, suggesting an uneasy and defensive relationship with a literary field that wants to relegate her to the exotic margins of francophonie.
Yet Slimani is not alone in her aversion to the exclusionary ghetto of francophonie. Tahar Ben Jelloun, who was among the signatories of the littérature-monde manifesto and was elected as a member of the Goncourt Academy in 2006, has commented on Slimani’s Chanson douce, congratulating the novelist for her ability to avoid falling into the trap of the easily marketable and exoticized label of ‘Maghrebi writer’: ‘Elle n’a pas fait le roman maghrébin que l’on attend sur la situation de la femme, le couscous et tout le folklore’.49
By virtue of his status as a member of one of the most prestigious literary prizes’ juries of the francophone literary market, Ben Jelloun, who had already endorsed another writer’s claim against cultural and ethnographic-like interpretations of their work (see NDiaye’s case), indicates the key role of cultural mediators in cementing young writers in the literary market-place.50 Even more interestingly, Ben Jelloun’s statement indicates the extent to which, in global cultures, the process of recognition for non-hexagonal writers has ‘transformed marginality into an asset’.51 Migraine-George and Xavier have both highlighted how French-speaking writers always have to strive in order to find a creative balance between an alleged universality of literature (usually implicitly established by European models) and the opacity of a particular cultural identity (often simply equated with minoritarian cultures).52
Slimani’s effort to distance Chanson douce from a constrictive francophone frame in which it could be too easily labelled thus becomes visible not only in her remarks – as with her claim for a non-ideological view of language and culture – but also in the fictional adaptation of the original fait divers inspiring her work. By reclaiming a ‘narrative of both universalism and opacity’, as Lydie Moudileno has observed to describe NDiaye’s attempt to obfuscate her singularity in favour of a universalism devoid of racial identification, Chanson douce explicitly attempts to elude an identitarian dimension centred on race and political concerns. In particular, the conditions of production and circulation of Chanson douce would seem to fit with ease within the framework of a world literature in French. From the cover’s paratextual elements, where neither the blurb nor the author’s bio mention any elements that could give away Slimani’s nationality or hint at ‘race’ as a possible fictional topic,53 to the cultural system of prestige underpinning it – published by Gallimard in its ‘Collection blanche’, the novel was awarded the Goncourt Prize shortly after – Chanson douce seems less interested in exploring issues of (im)migration than in presenting itself as a post-identitarian and post-postcolonial reflection on power relations within the domestic sphere.54
However, just as in the aforementioned scene Myriam’s firm refusal to hire an Arabic-speaking nanny nevertheless coincides with Myriam’s disclosure and acknowledgement of her own Maghrebi identity, we shall see that Slimani’s refusal to make Louise an immigrant character does not foreclose all horizon of étrangeté from the novel. Indeed, if, as Sara Kippur has noted, the ‘inversion’, which sees ‘the Dominican New York nanny becoming a white Parisian, while the white employer turns Maghrebi’, which may have gone unnoticed to a largely white, ‘post-racial’ readership, for ‘it is signaled very subtly’, there are two other elements in Chanson douce that evoke and dramatize the ethnic dimension only seemingly obliterated from the fabric of the novel: the Rudyard Kipling epigraph and the character of Wafa.55
Kipling, Wafa, and the return of the other
In interviews, journalists regularly ask Slimani about the choice to flip the dynamics of ethnicity from the fait divers.56 To these questions – which implicitly prove how difficult it is for Slimani not to account for her Maghbrebi origins in the critical and journalistic coverage of Chanson douce57 – Slimani answers that she wanted to complexify the cliché that ‘the rich person is white and the poor person is black or Arab or an immigrant’.58 Similarly, she claims that she did not want to draw the reader’s attention only to immigration: ‘Dire que oui, elle s’appelle Myriam, elle est maghrébine, mais ça ne change rien à l’histoire. Au fond, on s’en fiche’.59
The inversion operated in the novel, revealed not only through Slimani’s open comments but also by the two mises-en-abyme embedded in the text, suggests a deliberate attempt not to make (im)migration the core of the narrative. Yet, removed from centre stage, the étrangeté dimension, while no longer the focal point, still casts a shadow over the novel, suggesting that Slimani did engage with it, albeit obliquely. Consider the epigraph: Slimani chooses to place a brief excerpt taken from one of Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, the short story ‘His Chance in Life’:
Miss Vezzis came from across the Borderline to look after some children who belonged to a lady until a regularly ordained nurse could come out. The lady said Miss Vezzis was a bad, dirty nurse, and inattentive. It never struck her that Miss Vezzis had her own life to lead and her own affairs to worry over, and that these affairs were the most important things in the world to Miss Vezzis.60
The epigraph evokes the relationship between Louise and Myriam by means of Miss Vezzis, who has come ‘to look after some children’, and ‘the lady’, presumably the mother of the children in question. Louise is not negatively visible as a racialized other, but nor is she positively visible as an equal member of the household. Myriam simply regards her as empty, abstract labor power – to all intents and purposes, invisible.61 Not by chance, the first time Myriam sees Louise outside of her apartment, as the nanny is walking on a commercial shopping street and looks somehow out of place,62 coincides with the first time Myriam wonders who Louise is, what kind of life she leads when she is not with them, which is to say, when she is not a nanny: ‘Pour la première fois, elle tente d’imaginer, charnellement, tout ce qu’est Louise quand elle n’est pas avec eux’.63 As Myriam watches Louise from her car, the nanny is described in surreal terms – ‘lunaire, presque floue’64 – expressing Myriam’s inability to visualize and grasp Louise’s identity. Myriam might know what Louise looks like as a nanny, but as a passer-by Louise is a fleeting, ungraspable figure. Outside of Myriam and Paul’s apartment, Louise’s silhouette is blurred, and she seems to be ‘au bord d’une frontière qu’elle s’apprête à traverser et derrière laquelle elle va disparaître’.65
The frontier Louise is about to cross before vanishing is the same frontier, the ‘Borderline’, across which Miss Vezzis came to become a nanny. Yet Kipling’s epigraph is not only important for what it describes but also for what it leaves out: in ‘His Chance in Life’, the sentences preceding and following the excerpt introduce an element that in the brief fragment is only implied by the word ‘Borderline’. Kipling’s tale is in fact one about race: if in the sentence immediately preceding Slimani’s epigraph ‘the Blacks’ are described as ‘these people’ who perhaps one day ‘will turn out a writer or a poet; and then we shall know how they live and what they feel’, in the lines following the epigraph, Miss Vezzis is identified as one of ‘them’, her skin is ‘as black as a boot’, she is ‘to our standard of taste, hideously ugly’, and she would talk to the children ‘in the language of the Borderline – which is part English, part Portuguese, and part Native’.66
The choice to cite Kipling, whose controversial role within the colonial canon of English literature is well known, but to avoid inserting the more explicit lines of a short story in which the power relation between two women is precisely inflected in terms of race (and its colonial understanding) speaks to Slimani’s choice to avoid – but only obliquely avoid – a straightforward discussion of (im)migrant issues in contemporary France. We confront once again a deliberate attempt to cut out – in this case literally – narrative elements that might evoke in a plain manner Slimani’s foreign origins which, nonetheless, permeate the text underneath a seemingly depoliticized and post-identitarian narrative layer.
A similar narrative operation is underway when Slimani introduces a new space in the literary texture of the novel, namely the park and its regular visitors: ‘Les squares, les après-midi d’hiver, sont hantés par les vagabonds, les clochards, les chimers et les vieux, les malades, les errants, les précaires. Ceux qui ne travaillent pas, qui ne produisent rien. Ceux qui ne font pas d’argent’.67 Caroline Ibos, in her ethnographic inquiry into the relationship between mothers and nannies in contemporary society, has singled out ‘le square’ (the public park) as the privileged place to investigate these ‘nounous’ defined as ‘figures paradigmatiques de la globalisation dans ses dimensions les plus spoliatrices’.68 It is indeed in this heavily charged symbolic space that the character of Wafa appears for the first time. Here, the novel carves out some room for a more explicitly politically engaged representation.
Wafa, a young woman of 25, befriends Louise and will be the only one to show pain and dismay upon learning of Louise’s dreadful action. She has arrived in France ‘grâce à un vieil homme à qui elle prodiguait des massages, dans un hôtel louche de Casablanca’.69 She shares with Myriam what Louise does not: North African origins. Just like Louise, however, Wafa is a nanny tied to her employers by a master-slave dialectic that recalls Louise and Myriam’s interdependency, only in a more direct way: while Louise becomes essential to the stability of the house by virtue of her relentless labour (the nanny autonomously decides to start taking care of the household and not only of the children, yet Paul and Myriam do not tell her to stop, satisfied with the affordability of her service),70 Wafa’s employers pay for her studio’s rent, with the proviso that she never refuse to work whenever they ask her to.71 Wafa’s story epitomizes the broader pattern of immigrant domestic labor:
[Wafa] a été recueillie par une fille qui l’a inscrite sur des sites de rencontres pour jeunes femmes musulmanes et sans papiers. Un soir, un homme lui a donné rendez-vous dans un McDo de banlieue. Le type l’a trouvée belle. Il lui a fait des avances. Il a même essayé de la violer. Elle a réussi à le calmer. Ils se sont mis à parler d’argent. Youssef a accepté de l’épouser pour vingt mille euros. « C’est pas cher payer pour des papiers français » a-t-il expliqué.72
The figure of Wafa allows the theme of immigration to emerge in a way that the two mises-en-abyme and the epigraph only obliquely illustrate, further proving that in Slimani’s novel, issues of ethnicity and migration are very present, albeit displaced from the narrative core. Louise herself is well aware that, although Wafa has foreign origins, she is the only one who can understand her French working-class counterpart’s condition. Wafa genuinely seeks Louise’s company, showing an affection Louise suspects she does not deserve:
Wafa l’appelle plusieurs fois par jour, « juste comme ça, pour discuter ». Un soir, elle propose de passer chez Louise […] Louise se demande ce que Wafa lui trouve. Elle a du mal à croire qu’on puisse chercher sa compagnie avec tant d’ardeur.73
Following this scene, Wafa invites Louise for dinner. It is the most intimate moment the two friends will ever share. As Louise is telling Wafa stories about her vacation in Greece, where Paul and Myriam brought her to take care of the children, Louise indulges in a reverie. Next time they go, Louise says, she will announce to her employers that she will not come back to Paris with them. They will insist, try to persuade her, but Louise will be unwavering. She will stay on the Greek island. When Wafa suggests that perhaps she will meet a handsome man, Louise says: ‘Si je vais là-bas, c’est pour ne plus m’occuper de personne. Dormir quand je veux, manger ce dont j’ai envie’.74 It is to Wafa alone that Louise seems to confess that she knows that, as a nanny, she will never be completely free.
The essential role played by Wafa is also highlighted when, towards the end of the novel, she is questioned by the police. After the murder that, as in a Greek tragedy, is only represented offstage, Nina Dorval, the police officer charged with the investigation, decides to interrogate Wafa:
Elle a fait venir Wafa au 36 et elle l’a interrogée. La jeune femme n’arrêtait pas de pleurer, elle ne parvenait pas à articuler un mot et la policière a fini par perdre patience. Elle lui a dit qu’elle se fichait bien de sa situation, de ses papiers, de son contrat de travail, des promesses de Louise et de sa naïveté à elle. Ce qu’elle voulait savoir, c’est si elle avait vu Louise, ce jour-là.75
Dorval is not only uninterested in Wafa’s story, she is also irritated by Wafa’s sentimentalism to the degree that she tells her not to say anything that is not useful for the investigation’s purposes.76 With her lack of empathy and her stubborn demand to find out the truth, the scene seems to denounce the bureaucratic indifference of the police towards immigration issues. Dorval is not concerned with Wafa’s papers and working contracts. Nor does she want to know what kind of promises Louise made to Wafa, the only person who is grieving over what Louise has done: Dorval only yearns for the crime’s resolution and punishment.
At the very end of the novel, Dorval ceaselessly sets up the same scene, over and over again, desperately trying to put herself in Louise’s shoes:
Demain, Nina Dorval devra répéter les mêmes gestes: ouvrir le robinet, laisser sa main sous le filet d’eau pour évaluer la température comme elle le faisait pour ses propres fils, quand ils étaient encore petits. Et elle dira: « Les enfants, venez. Vous allez prendre un bain ».77
The most common trope of a crime story is doomed to fail: the quest for clues does not lead the Dorval closer to Louise, who remains speechless even as the coma lifts. Slimani’s refusal to add any holistic explanations for Louise’s behaviour – her mental illness being only a feeble aggravating factor – seems to further corroborate her wish to avoid a linear narrative made up of logical and predetermined outcomes, be it related to Slimani’s origins or to her character’s personality.
A conclusion: The paradox of creative autonomy in the era of world literature
When in March 2007 the literary manifesto ‘Pour une “littérature-monde” en français’ appeared in Le Monde claiming the beginning of a new literary era for world literature in French, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then a presidential candidate for the upcoming elections, decided to join the debate. Sarkozy’s intervention embodied many of the ideological threats intrinsic to the manifesto’s proposal. In particular, Sarkozy’s attempt to exploit the rising debate on francophonie showed the double-edged aspect of a manifesto that, despite claiming the end of a dychotomic and neocolonial structure (a central, French literature versus a peripheral, francophone literature), involuntarily re-enacted precisely the binarism it sought to overcome.78
Indeed, despite endorsing the call for a reconceptualization of francophonie, the politician’s celebration of a ‘Francophonie vivante et populaire’ functioned as a ‘Trojan horse for French hegemony’ for it was ‘couched in a nationalist rhetoric that stresses the intact prestige of France’.79 By understanding francophonie only as a ‘moyen pour la langue française de tenir tête à l’anglais sans complexe’,80 as has been noted,81 Sarkozy’s article epitomizes the extent to which postcolonial literature is increasingly instrumentalized in political debates.
Macron’s choice to nominate Slimani as the official representative of francophonie, assigning her the task of spreading French language and culture outside the boundaries of the French nation state, seems to imply precisely the same logic underlying Sarkozy’s intervention. Although Slimani’s role is not that of a cabinet minister, since the ministère pour la francophonie has been abolished by Macron’s government,82 her voluntary work as representative of ‘the open face of Francophonie’83 unavoidably places the writer at the core of a new discourse on French culture and its colonial past.
The news of Slimani’s appointment triggered Alain Mabanckou’s discontent. As one of the most prominent signatories of the manifesto ‘Pour une “littérature-monde” en français’, Mabanckou – to whom Macron seems to have also offered an appointment – was deeply upset by what he saw as a neocolonial project: ‘La Francophonie est malheureusement encore perçue comme la continuation de la politique étrangère de la France dans ses anciennes colonies’.84 Moreover, in an article written with Achille Mbembe, Mabanckou provided an historical overview of francophonie, insisting on the inherently ideological origins of the term, whose fundamental aim historically was nothing but ‘l’utilisation de la langue coloniale dans le but d’imposer la loi d’un pouvoir sans autorité à des peuples vaincus militairement’.85
Explicitly confronted by Mabanckou on the question, in a radio interview on France Culture,86 Slimani resolutely agreed with the Congolese writer, insisting on the obsolescence of a centre-periphery model which sees the Hexagone at its core and the empire of la francophonie at its edges. She nonetheless insisted on the need to keep the word and reinvent it, rather than utterly dismiss it. Slimani emphasizes how often people learning French are not attracted to Paris but rather to francophone countries within the African continent. Macron’s speech for the Journée internationale de la francophonie on 20 March 2018 adeptly managed to combine terms and images issued from an anti-colonialist literary context with a more explicitly, yet subtle, hegemonic discourse. Refusing the idea that francophonie might be ‘le faux nez d’un passé colonial’, Macron proclaimed that the French language would become the third spoken language worldwide and that he intended to increase exponentially the number of foreign students willing to pursue studies in France: ‘Il faut aussi ramener ceux qui parlent anglais à la langue française’, he declared, clearly echoing Sarkozy’s use of francophonie as a means to reaffirm France’s prestige against the United States.87
If Chanson douce seems to imply an author who refuses to be a spokesperson for non-hexagonal writers while still accepting the presence of otherness, thus rejecting any (narrative) form of exoticism and ethnicity, the public persona of Leïla Slimani is, on the contrary, willing to embrace Macron’s rhetoric, albeit with an awareness of its nationalist and hegemonic underpinnings. Xavier, in her work on migrant texts, has declared the need to defend texts written by (im)migrant writers, acknowledging that these are often texts which ‘f[a]ll prey to the fear of the market’ and thus must ‘walk the fine line between exploitation and resistence’.88 A similar attitude should be addressed not only to literary works that deal with migrancy but to the public and political positions adopted by their authors as well. Navigating the autonomy of the literary space is particularly difficult for writers who can be more easily relegated to the margins of a literary system, such as non-hexagonal writers in France.
More than ten years after the littérature-monde manifesto was published in Le Monde, the conditions for the ‘end’ of francophonie and the coterminous birth of a world literature in French are still to be established and probably in need of re-examination. Slimani, both as an authorial figure and Macron’s representative, will play an essential role in the future of the debate.