French colonization and Morocco’s struggle for independence, which came in 1956, form the background of the novel, and Slimani dives into the complex identities that emerged from that era. Aïcha, Mathilde’s biracial daughter and an outcast at her Catholic, majority-French school, is based on Slimani’s mother.
For inspiration, Slimani turned to American western movies and the novels of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. “There is a lot Moroccans can identify with in Southern literature, from the relationship to nature — at once hostile and sensual — to racial tensions, even if they’re not the same as in the United States,” she said. “I wanted to build my own Alabama.”
Mathilde and Aïcha will be back: “In the Country of Others” is the first installment in a trilogy. The second, which Slimani said last month she was “one scene away” from completing, will focus on her parents’ generation. Her mother was among the first women to practice as a doctor in Morocco, while her father, a former minister of economics, was implicated in an embezzlement scandal and left jobless and in disgrace in the 1990s. (He was jailed briefly in 2002, but posthumously exonerated in 2010.)
His plight deeply wounded the family, and added to Slimani’s teenage detachment from her country. At home, her relatives spoke French and valued women’s financial and intellectual independence, even as Moroccan society at large didn’t: “Everything that happened on the outside went against what I was being taught,” she recalled. Like her parents and many upper-class children from the Maghreb region of northwest Africa, Slimani was then sent to Paris to study. The third book in her planned trilogy will pick up around the time she moved there, in 1999.
She only got to know Morocco better, she said, between 2008 and 2012, when she worked as a journalist for the magazine Jeune Afrique (“Young Africa”), covering the Maghreb and, later, the Arab Spring. “It was wonderful, but I also realized how indifferent the Moroccan bourgeoisie is to the country,” Slimani said. “People know all about France and the United States, but they don’t care what happens two streets away.”
Her reporting on youth and sexuality at the time was a steppingstone to “Sex and Lies,” a nonfiction book she wrote in 2017 about women’s sex lives in the Arab world.
Slimani has made a point of defending women’s rights in Morocco and elsewhere over the years — especially their right to sexual freedom, and to wear what they please. She acknowledges a difficult relationship with her own body. “My editor told me that the word I use most often in my books is ‘shame,’” she said. “In Arabic, we say that someone who is well educated is someone who feels shame.”