I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.
Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?
I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.
Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head.
I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer.
When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature.
When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.
Then I lost that sense of destiny.
Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.
I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.
She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.
I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.
Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.
But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer.
Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.
Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.
Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.
Lots of love on a revelatory day,