What did it take for a book like Sex and Lies to get to me? First, its author had to be born. (That’s obvious, but let’s start there.) Leïla Slimani was born in Morocco. She grew up in Rabat and was raised Muslim. At 17, she moved to Paris to study political science, then worked as a journalist with Jeune Afrique. Sex and Lies is not a memoir, but Slimani’s autobiographical details are noteworthy; who she is, recording this story.
Next, she had to become a writer. This is relevant in terms of craft, but also because it was on a tour for her book, Adèle, that Sex and Lies began to take form. Women came to her. They told her their stories. “Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust,” she notes.
Sex and Lies comprises testimonies from mostly women about their experience of sex in Morocco where extra-marital sex is punishable by law. To write this book, Slimani had to be, by some measures, brave. Not the kind of brave that jumps in front of a bullet, but something more subtle and galvanising. Provocative might be the word. Her Prix Goncourt-winning book, Lullaby, is about a nanny who kills a child. Adèle is a subversive portrait of a female sex addict. Were her work not so transgressive, Slimani’s housekeeper might not have stopped her and said: “I know what your book is about”, then struck up a conversation about prostitution, consent and the things that happen to women in her small neighbourhood in Morocco. There is power in words – especially dirty words – it seems.
The women who share their stories here are the truly brave ones, though, and Slimani reminds us “quite how difficult it is, in a country like Morocco, to step out of line”.
An unhappily married woman who “signs [her] own death warrant” for a moment of forbidden love; a woman who tries to live a sexually free life, yet still allows a man she is seeing to believe she is a virgin; a woman who is forced to leave her children with a violent ex-husband: the stories give a wide-ranging insight into the consequences of oppression. The aim seems to be to bring to European eyes the nuance and subtleties behind a culture that might seem hard to fathom.
Yet Irish eyes will easily recognise sentences like: “Do what you like, but do it in private” or “Everyone knows it – but no one will acknowledge or confront it”, as well as stories of women facing criminal charges for having abortions, stories of babies found abandoned, and even the almost throwaway sentence “not to mention the corpses found in public bins”. I thought of Caelainn Hogan’s recent book, Republic of Shame as I read, and I thought of reports in these pages by Rosita Boland and others. It did not feel far from home. What the book demonstrates so clearly are the ways in which women’s bodies are the battleground for colonial and cultural tensions. If Morocco’s objective is to differentiate itself from the West as Ireland once wished to differentiate itself from Britain, by imposing a brutal sort of morality, it is the women who suffer.
“What I want is to render these women’s words directly, as they were spoken to me,” Slimani professes. Yet these words passed through Arabic, French and now English, as translated by Sophie Lewis, before they reached me. And they passed through Slimani’s lens. The testimonies are interlaced with her own reflections. She recounts losing her virginity as a teenager. “[E]veryone I knew could be split into two groups: those who were doing it and those who weren’t.” It almost sounds like an American high school. However, “[T]he choice, for us, cannot be compared to that made by young women in the West because in Morocco it is tantamount to a political statement […]By losing her virginity, a woman automatically tips over into criminality.”
In many ways Slimani represents both sides: Europe, Morocco. But she also acknowledges her distance: “I left Morocco more than 15 years ago. With the years and the distance, I have surely forgotten quite how difficult it is to live without the freedoms that have become so natural to me.”
It’s risky to jump in and pretend to understand – “both” can easily become “neither” when it comes to identity – but risk is Slimani’s middle name. She is teaching us to be intersectional feminists, which is a fancy way of saying your empathy should reach past your own self-interest to the interest of those who are different to you. And if you’re really free, then exercising that freedom is no risk at all.