''In the Country of Others,'' the French-Moroccan author Leila Slimani's latest book, is an unorthodox immigration story.

The central character, Mathilde, is a blond Frenchwoman - modeled after Silmani's grandmother - who meets a Moroccan soldier during World War II. She follows him back to his country, then a French colony, where she finds herself the unwanted outsider.

''I made the reverse journey, from Morocco to France, which is much more banal,'' Silmani, one of France's highest profile novelists, said in an interview at a private members' club in Paris last month.

''But I wanted to remind people that the bonanza used to be on the other side,'' she continued, referring to colonial-era immigration. '' How many poor Spanish, Italian, French citizens left for Algeria or Morocco in the hope of becoming rich and having domestic servants?''

Slimani, 39, has made a career out of catching readers on the wrong foot with unsparing prose. Her first novel, ''Dans le Jardin I'Ogre [2014], followed a woman in the throes of addiction, and was released in English as ''Adele'' five years later.

She followed it up with ''Chanson Douce,'' published in the United States as ''The Perfect Nanny,'' about a murderous caretaker. That book won France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, in 2016, and has sold over a million copies in the country since.

John Siciliano, her editor at Penguin Books in the United States, said in a phone interview that ''The Perfect Nanny'' was his introduction to Slimani. ''From the first page, it was just electrifying,'' he said. ''There's an urgent quality to her writing. Everything is fully inhabited.''

French colonization and Morocco's struggle for independence, which came in 1956, form the background of the novel, and Silmanui dives into the complex identities that emerged from that era.

Aicha, Mathilde's biracial daughter and an outcast at her Catholic, majority-French school, is based on Slimani's mother.

For inspiration, Silmani turned to American western movies and the novels of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. ''There is a lot Moroccan 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 want to build my own Alabama.''

Mathilde and Aicha will be back : ''In the Country of Others'' is the first installment in a trilogy. The second, which Silmani 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 a embezzlement scandal and left jobless and in disgrace in the 1990s. [ He was jailed briefly in 2002, boy 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.

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.

''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.''

After her Goncourt win in 2016, she made a concerted effort to live in the moment. She embraced the opportunities that came with fame, from being on the jury of Deauville Film Festival to posing for magazine spreads - and has received some pointed comments, she said, as French intellectuals are expected to maintain an aura of highbrow seriousness.

'' She is always looking for some experience that is going to make her come alive, and you see that in her writing,'' Siciliano, her editor, said. ''She seeks out challenges. There is nothing complacent about her.''

Slimani also ventured into the realm of cultural diplomacy. In 2017, the newly elected president of France, Emmanauel Macron, offered her a job as culture minister. She turned it down, and was instead appointed Macron's personal representative for the Francophonie, the countries and regions where French is commonly spoken.

''In some African countries, young people are being told they shouldn't speak a foreign language, that it's the language of white Westerners, and I find that disgusting,'' she said. '' A language belongs to no one.''

Yet a time of heightened racial tensions and concerns about the French government's repressive policies, Mariem Guellouz, a Tunisian- born professor of sociolinguistics at Paris Descartes University, noted in a phone interview that the role places Slimani ''very close to power - and problematically so.''

And for all of Slimani's activism, headlines still zeroed in on her comfortable lifestyle in the early days of the pandemic. In March last year, she was commissioned by the newspaper Le Monde to write a lockdown diary from her second home in Normandy, where she was sheltering with her family.

As part of the first installment, she described the peaceful view from her house and recounted telling her two children that lockdown was ''a little like 'sleeping beauty' ''.

Scathing tweets and columns ensured; one article, in the online magazine Diacritik, called Silmani's piece an expression of ''class privilege'' . Silmani said she received racist and sexist threats, including some calling for her children to die from the coronavirus.

The diary was discontinued after two weeks, and Silmani has since left social media entirely. 

''Maybe I wrote uninteresting pieces, but did it deserve so much hate? I'm privileged - breaking news,'' she said, rolling her eyes.

Still, after witnessing her father's fall from grace as a teenager, Silmani called the criticism ''freeing.'' I rose so high that I expected it. Let people come after me. I feel very strong now.,'' she said. ''I only have one goa, to write, and it makes me happy.''

The World Students Society thanks author Laura Cappelle.


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