In the most recent edition of the series of lectures and debates Frontiers of Thought, in São Paulo, French-Moroccan novelist and journalist Leïla Slimani presented her understanding on identity, while journalist and critic, Manuel da Costa Pinto mediated the performance.
This year, the events produced by Frontiers of Thought have the underlying theme of "the world in disagreement, democracy and cultural wars". The novelist's speech, entitled "Who am I? Identity and Culture," brought her own life story as a starting point for exploring the limits of what she sees as identity.
Leïla was born in Rabat, capital of Morocco, where she was taught French. When she was 18 she moved to Paris, where she attended college and started her professional career. As a journalist, she covered the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. As a novelist, she published the award-winning book Dans le Jardin de l'Ogre and the successful Lullaby, which sold more than 600,000 copies in 36 countries. Today, she acts as the ambassador of the French language, a position conferred by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron.
Feeling like a foreign in your own land and, at the same time, identified with two distinct cultures, is what has driven Slimani's reflection on identity and belonging. "Am I more French or more Moroccan? Reality is more complex than that. I don’t know who I am, and I don’t care about who people are, but I care about what they do and what they fight for," said the novelist. "There is no single, eternal identity - and such idea is dangerous. We need to accept that identity is permanence," she said.
Life between Morocco and France
Leïla's ancestry is Moroccan. In her speech, she spoke about the journey of her father, a son of merchants who became a prodigy apprentice and studied in French institutes, even in Morocco. His Western education resulted in the recognition and belief of the European and Enlightenment values. "He was educated by the dominant colonial power and endured the feeling of seeing himself as a foreigner, or even a betrayer,” the journalist recalled.
The break with the tradition of identity happened through education, the novelist analyzes. Moreover, this rupture greatly influenced her own educational development. Her parents’ education formed a family, which didn’t absorb any religious indoctrination or patriotic feeling. "At the time, it made me suffer; I wanted to feel like part of that community. When I was a teenager, I also saw myself as a betrayer," she said. "I felt like my parents didn’t bring me roots. In fact, they gave me conditions for freedom."
The results of such education free from religious traditions and dogmas were clearer after moving to France. "I've become more French than I thought. I married a Frenchman, my son has a French name and I didn’t even realize that I have become more and more integrated," she says. The process of integration into the new country was not easy. Slimani recalled offenses she heard - she was called a "herd" and "rabble" on the streets of Paris -, but she believes that speaking French with a Parisian accent and having a high educational standard "has made my skin less dark", that is, it was crucial for her not to suffer so much from racial insults.
"What if I had an accent? Did I betray my fellows? By the way, who are my fellows? Sometimes I felt angry at myself for being like them [Moroccans] and not like the others [French]," Leïla said. When she had the chance to return to her country, working as a journalist, she experienced a new conflict. "I tried to do some reporting in villages because I wanted to meet my past, I wanted to have the chance to be loved by my country mates. I traveled the country and I heard the stories, but the distance between us never disappeared."
“Literature has it all”
"A friend told me 'I'm the Arab they like' because I'm Moroccan, Muslim and have written a book about sex. I am the Arab that does not shock, the one who shows that integration is possible from their perspective," Leïla recalled. "I felt bad, as if I had already chosen one side," she concluded.
For her, literature does not require choosing sides. "Literature is absolute freedom, where we can talk about everything and do everything," she says. Although her work is inspired by the real world - Dans le Jardin de l'Ogre is inspired by a sexual scandal, and Lullaby, by a murder of two children -, she believes we can share our similarities as humans, regardless of race, gender or culture, within the creative freedom of the novelist.
A fan of authors like France's Albert Camus and Brazil's Jorge Amado, Slimani says that in literature "we can undo our identity and prejudices." She rejects the need for taking political positions in her work or presenting messages of what she believes. "I write to create questions, I have no answers. It's just a way to open my eyes. After all, I don’t know anything. I just tell stories," she sums up.
"Considering art, we remember that we belong to the greatest identity we have, which is that of the great human community," the novelist concludes.