Slimani’s complicated female heroines feel on trend, and very different from the idea of womanhood offered when she was younger. “I remember in the Nineties, when Madonna, Beyoncé and Sharon Stone were famous, the trend was empowerment. But I hated that. I was very afraid of this kind of woman. It didn’t excite me. I wanted to describe someone else. A woman who hates power. Who wants to be dominated,” says Slimani.
She’s not saying that women shouldn’t be empowered exactly, but she does believe that there are advantages to letting men at least feel they are dominant. “Despite women being in a position of inequality, it also gave women a lot of tools to manipulate them. We know men very well, we know what they want, and we know what we can do to defend ourselves. Many women don’t say it but we know. Men are very naive in a way when you think about it.”
When we meet, a few metro stops from her home in Pigalle (Paris’s red-light district), Slimani is dressed in a long, black fur coat and bright gold gloves. As we walk on the banks of the Seine, she pauses to observe a severed tree trunk, inexplicably covered in chains and floating, macabrely, in the water. “It looks like a corpse,” she says, as if storing the image in her mind for later. She resumes: “Today, not being a feminist is a taboo. But I think if women want to be passive, then let them.”
Emile Zola has been a great influence on Slimani’s work (she has named her young son Emile), chiefly in his unflinchingly realistic depictions of poverty, sex and death. You can see it in Adèle, where Slimani’s style is similarly cold and detached. The graphic sexual imagery is precise and clinical. “When it comes to sex, our vocabulary is very poor,” says Slimani. “It is either overly glamorous or pornographic. It is very difficult to find something neutral.” At one point, Slimani describes the sounds of lovemaking as “like a toilet plunger: torsos sticking…”
Like Zola, Slimani is also interested in pricking the Parisian bourgeois bubble, which she acknowledges she is part of. When we met, the gilets jaunes were still rioting. “I would love to describe the way the bourgeoisie react to this crisis. We live only for ourselves. We want to go and eat quinoa, for our children to speak English and play the violin,” she says, rolling her eyes. “And sometimes, when they talk about the gilets jaunes, you can hear the violence in their words. It’s shocking, these nice and polite people, saying such terrible things.”
Politics is at the heart of Slimani’s next novel, which she has decided to sit on for another year. “Because it would have complicated consequences on my personal life, politically,” she says, refusing to elaborate. Possibly, it is linked to her experience as a “bad immigrant”. “I’m supposed to say the French are racist and that, as an Arab woman, I am a victim. The effects of my writing make me feel unsafe. Both in France and in Morocco,” she told me earlier. In France, she is made to feel “other”: “With insults saying I should go back to my country; that my Muslim brothers came here to kill.”