The women’s rights movement in the 1960s empowered women to work outside the home, but they were facilitated by the employment of women who have gone completely unnoticed and unrecognized in the battle for women’s equality — nannies.
In her newest novel, “The Perfect Nanny,” Leïla Slimani explores this process of unveiling the nannies who made women’s struggle for equality possible. This exploration allowed Slimani to become the first Moroccan woman to win the prestigious French literary prize the Prix Goncourt. In a preview event for the Bay Area Book Festival, the new literary program Women Lit paired with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to host Slimani for a discussion at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Sunday.
“The Perfect Nanny” follows the life of an upper-class French-Moroccan lawyer who decides to return to work after two of her children are born. To do so, she and her husband search for a nanny and find the perfect fit in Louise, a dependable, kind and loving woman.
Yet, as their relationship progresses, the family, Louise included, becomes jealous, resentful and suspicious, culminating in a terrible event that cuts to the core of what it means to be a mother, a wife and a family. Praised for its sensitivity to human experience and criticized for its critique of nanny culture, Slimani is a controversial name in French and Moroccan literary circles — she was once said to have “scandalized an entire country.” To this, Slimani jovially replied, “I’m a nice person!” eliciting a rousing laugh from her audience.
This audience though, was frustratingly homogeneous — unfortunately, it lacked women of color. For a society hinged on women in literature, one hopes that future Women Lit events will be marketed toward a more diverse audience of women.
Still, the event’s discussions remained lively. Interviewer Brooke Warner, a publisher and writing coach, allowed the discussion to hit the ground running — she immediately asked Slimani about her ability to enter characters’ psychologically depraved minds.
“You wondered if I was going crazy?” Slimani asked humorously.
In response, Slimani described her writing as a work of observation — she called herself a constant people-watcher. “I am not trying to write about the psychology of my characters; I am trying to write about what they do,” she said. To her, the reader is smart enough to uncover the logic, or lack thereof, behind her character’s actions. All she had to do was put them on the page and watch them.
Growing up just outside of the capital city of Rabat, Morocco, Slimani experienced a constant process of observation. Raised in an atypical family, Slimani always felt on the outside, disconnected from the Islamic and Moroccan culture just outside her door.
“I told my parents, ‘We are weird — I do not want to be weird.’ And my parents told me, ‘We are not weird; we are free,’ ” Slimani said.
This freedom provided her the experience to invent herself rather than be created by her culture and the influence of societal gender norms. This distance from the patriarchal grasp of Moroccan culture was particularly important in the writing of one of her nonfiction books, “Sex and Lies: Sex Life in Morocco.” Its goal was to expose the norms surrounding sex in Morocco and create a space for the discussion of sexual freedom and a space for women to feel free to speak their minds.
During the Q&A section of the event, a Moroccan student studying at UC Berkeley spoke up. “I am going to go back to my country, and as a female Moroccan I want to make a change for the lives of the women in my country, so my question is how can I do that,” she said to an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience.
Not wanting to act as a “guru,” Slimani did not give any concrete response. Instead, she offered advice for when others inevitably tell her to be calm, to not make a mess.
“I would say, do not listen to them — make a fuss” she said, garnering a round of applause from the audience.
Even if the conversation was a rousing one, it excluded the subject of class. Slimani discussed the silent work of the nanny in women’s empowerment but didn’t address which women are being empowered.
In framing a mother’s love for her children as universal, Slimani argued that nannies are also a universally relevant topic for working women — but this isn’t necessarily true. Not every family can afford nannies, and while their importance in empowering women can’t be understated, it was never addressed that nannies usually only empower upper-class white women. The voices of nannies themselves were sadly silent from this conversation and from the conversation that takes place within the novel.
Despite the exclusion of certain perspectives, Slimani gave the Bay Area Book Festival a new perspective on feminism, motherhood and what it means to be a writer and an activist. The event established the strength and power of women in the literary sphere and foreshadowed their increasing presence in the Bay Area Book Festival and the literary community in general — but it’s a presence that should be wholly inclusive.
The Bay Area Book Festival will take place in downtown Berkeley from April 28 to 29.
Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].