chanson douce: the bitter not so sweet novel exploring gender dynamics

Leïla Slimani seeks to reveal the paradoxes and troubles of modern femininity in her latest novel and soon-to-be film, Chanson Douce. Here she talks senses, politics and the importance of not identifying her character’s skin colors.  

You drew your inspiration from real events (a New York-based babysitter who killed the children she had to look after) to build the story for your latest novel, Chanson Douce. How did you feel when you first read that story in the newspaper?

When I read about it in Paris Match – I remember it was spread on a double page, with pictures – I had already had the idea of one day writing about that kind of character. After I read it, it filled me with dread and I felt like a mother would. It’s the incarnation of a nightmare all mothers have once had in their lives. But reading these lines I mostly felt like a writer, and like turning it into a novel.

Your novel is set in the increasingly gentrified neighbourhood of  Strasbourg Saint-Denis. Was that important to you?

The city as a whole, with its transformations and changes, inspire me as a fictional and political object. Choosing the 10th district as a backdrop is obviously a conscious choice. It’s an area that popular classes are running away from, and that the middle-class, the “bobos” who have a little money and great cultural capital, are claiming for themselves by changing it inevitably. Those are people who pride themselves on living in popular neighborhoods, while they have very few interactions with social classes living there. In theory, and when it comes to values, they want to meet these people, they defend social diversity, anti-racism, positive values but they don’t put this into practice in their daily life. Louise’s arrival in that family flat, a nanny from a popular social class, completely turns their way of life upside down. 

In your first novel, you painted a portrait of a woman addicted to sex. In your second novel, the character Myriam is somewhat addicted to work – is there a particular draw between femininity and addiction for you? 

Addiction is neither feminine nor masculine, it stems from personalities, stories, experience. But femininity today can be rebuilt, it evolves at a phenomenal pace. In just a few generations, the ideas surrounding being both a woman and feminine have tremendously changed. Some evolutions spanning two or three generations are swift and therefore violent. This is what I’m trying to analyze: how women like Myriam or Louise redraw and live their femininity from day to day in this new society. I don’t mean to define femininity. I consider gender to be a dynamic issue that’s continuously in motion.

Your main character is a woman who resumes work after devoting herself to educating her young children. Going back to work is difficult. Do you think that being a woman is tough, even in 2017?

Quite simply, it’s tough to be a human being –  to be a good human being. Had I centered my novels on men, I would probably have come to the same conclusion.

Your two novels will be adapted for film. Why does your writing inspire moviemakers?

I write scenes, and in a concrete way. I delve into life’s everyday details. I think that it’s less difficult to stage in terms of pictures and it’s also more visual. I have an image in mind, and I look at it from the outside and start describing what I’m seeing. I work with images, like sequence-shots playing before my eyes. But I don’t see my character’s faces. I can make out their profile, it’s going to be odd seeing them on screen.

You take it upon yourself to translate the smells of everyday life into words: the meals the nurse is cooking, but also that of clean sheets, children, or those inside the apartment. How do you describe smell?

My novel is about early childhood and it’s twin, maternity. Those are periods when senses are maximise – when you’re pregnant, one of the first symptoms is that you feel everything in a disproportionate way, which can result in very nice or very unpleasant feelings. When you become a mother, you spend your time smelling your child. The smell of babies is comforting, universal. This book, Chanson Douce, is inherently tied to smell. I consider that describing a smell is sometimes more direct and evident than lingering over a place, an atmosphere, the colour of walls. All it takes for anyone to remember that very peculiar smell I mention in the novel is to have experienced maternity, paternity, looked after a child for one day. Talc conjures up a very specific period of life. Smells bring us back to our experience, our intimacy, our sensuality.

You skim over social and political issues: the condition of women, social diversity, class struggle, in all but name. You also don’t mention the color of your characters’ skin. Is that a political approach, or a fictional one?

Above all, it’s a well thought out literary and fictional approach. Novels are an area of great freedom where one can be emancipated from the rules of language, from some of the everyday life’s filters. Novels allow a greater freedom of expression, different angles, a way of going around things, a top-down or bottom-up look on things. But they’re also an area of great responsibility. You have to be careful about every single thing, and I’m fascinated with what the writer Toni Morrison managed to translate into her novels, at no point does she identify the color of her character’s skin. It’s a powerful fictional stance, as well as a literary commitment not to racially identify her characters. As a black writer, she refused the idea that she had to identify her characters because white writers didn’t. Novels to me are where incarnation takes place, not militancy. Novels are here to tell a story, breathe life into characters. The latter can - through interactions and their experience - allude to issues that the reader will choose to interpret or not. I don’t hammer ideas home in my novel. I don’t want my characters to be locked up. Novels must remain an area of freedom, of interpretation.

This Week

making codes: behind the scenes

Take another at director Liza Mandelup's Making Codes video, a look behind the scenes at digital artist and creative director Lucy Hardcastle's piece 'Intangible Matter' that features producer Fatima Al Qadiri, artist Chris Lee and a host of more leading digital artists.

Read More

making movement: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in filmmaker Agostina Galvez’s Making Movements: a look at the making of The Pike and the Shield: Five Paradoxes with ballerina Nozomi Iijima and other leading movers and shakers from the world of dance including choreographers and dancers Holly Blakey, Aya Sato and the duo Project O. 

Read More

making films: behind the scenes

Take another look behind the scenes in director Eva Michon's Making Films with Alma Har'el video: a look at the making of JellyWolf and the current state of play within the film industry through the eyes of female filmmakers championing diversity, and Alma Har'els Free The Bid initiative. 

Read More

making images: behind the scenes

Take another look behind the scenes at photographer Harley Weir’s journey in capturing five women from around the world as well at a number of other creators defining the image of today in documentary filmmaker Chelsea McMullan’s Making Images video. 

Read More

making exhibitions: behind the scenes

Take a look behind the scenes in director Christine Yuan’s Making Exhibitions with Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel: a look at the making of Just A Second: A Digital Exhibition Curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, inspired by CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU, and a look at other leading curators and collectives from the art world including BUFU, Rozsa Farkas, Fatos Ustek, Angelina Dreem and Yana Peel.

Read More

seeing sound: in conversation charlotte hatherley & carly paradis

Two of London’s most sought after figures in visually-shaped music meet.

Read More

lizzie borden: feminist trailblazer

As her magnum opus returns to UK shores, Lizzie Borden – the visionary artist behind Born in Flames – talks rebellion, feminist artistry, and her nostalgia for 70s NYC.

Read More

rebecca lamarche-vadel's
just a second

Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel is the Paris based curator for the Palais De Tokyo. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art she puts on large scale exhibitions that span installation, dance, sculpture, photography and spoken word. For The Fifth Sense she created a digital exhibition based on the transformative power of CHANEL’s Nº5 L’EAU.

Read More

reba maybury: she’s got the power

We sat down with the editor, writer and dominatrix Reba Maybury to discuss her taboo-breaking publishing house Wet Satin Press, her latest novel Dining With Humpty Dumpty and what it means to be a woman in control.

Read More