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‘The role of the writer is to break the silence’

The Bay Area Book Festival takes place in Berkeley on April 28-29. Photo: Michael Hitchner

This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

Women spent 18 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List in 2017. The remaining 34 weeks were dominated by men.

This disparity, paired with sexual misconduct accusations against renowned male novelists, sends a clear message: the literary world is not insulated from the gender bias and harassment that has rocked Hollywood, government, and service work.

In response to this #MeToo moment, the Bay Area Book Festival has created Women Lit, a collective of women helping to bring female writers to the festival this April 28-29, and year-round through a public event series. Women Lit will present a special event at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on April 8: Leila Slimani, internationally best-selling author of The Perfect Nanny, will discuss her subversive novel and the urgency of female writers and woman-centered narratives.

The Perfect Nanny (translated from French by Sam Taylor) has sold more than one million copies worldwide. The psychological story of a killer nanny transforms parents’ worst fears into an artful dissection of the female experience, motherhood, love and mistrust. NPR has called it “one of the most important books of the year.”


Slimani grew up in Morocco reading Dickens, Balzac and Dostoyevsky, dreaming of a day when she could be like those men — when she could “be paid for thinking, for dreaming, for imagining another world,” she said in a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India.

Her novel has garnered some controversy for its bold treatment of the dark potential in the female psyche and its unflinching portrayal of tedium in motherhood alongside fierce love. It also explores the agonizing decisions that professional women must make about child care. The New Yorker magazine did a long profile on Slimani that explored how she achieved such an artful balance between the macabre and the sentimental.

Slimani dives directly into fears and taboos. Similarly, her nonfiction work, Sex and Lies, not yet translated into English, has not shied from difficult conversation, shining a spotlight on the sexual lives of women in Morocco, where premarital sex is a criminal offense. She notes that female writers “should not be imprisoned by this idea of being a woman voice but at the same time you have to think that for centuries women couldn’t write. Women couldn’t publish. A woman who wanted to publish needed to take a man’s name.”

“The role of the writer is to say to people that you have to break the silence,” Slimani said. “And I think that today that’s one of the most important things for women: to break the silence. To say that we don’t have to be ashamed, that this shame is coming from outside. When we get rid of this burden we are free—we can emancipate ourselves.”

Although Slimani centers the female experience in her writing, she believes women who want to be writers should not feel trapped by the obligation to write solely about womanhood.

“Sometimes when you’re a Muslim woman from Morocco you want to write about love, about sex, about China,” Slimani said. “We can be universal too. We have the world inside us like everyone.”

Slimani notes that for centuries, work like hers wasn’t just controversial — it was impossible.


“I can tell the story of what it is to be a woman today, what it is to have the body of a woman, what it is to be a mother, what it is to feel as a woman in our world,” Slimani said. “We don’t have the testimony of the women of all those centuries. It’s very important for us now to testify.”

Tickets for the event are available now. You can find out about Women Lit (and join) at www.womenlit.org.

At the Bay Area Book Festival on April 28-29, you can find an abundance of programming featuring prominent women writers on women’s issues. Visit the schedule page and sort by “women/gender” to see a full list. Here’s a sample of what to expect:

  • Geneen Roth’s Messy Magnificent Life: Geneen Roth (author of the massively popular memoir Women Food and God) has a new book that aims to help readers see the beauty of the path they are on. (Saturday, April 28, 11 a.m.)
  • Joyce Maynard: The Power of Heartfelt Story: Maynard will discuss her newest memoir, The Best of Us, which Booklist says is a “haunting story, penned by a master wordsmith…a reminder to savor every loved one and every day.” (Saturday, April 28, 5 p.m.)
  • Women Write the World: On Equality, Justice, and Freedom: Contributors to All the Women in My Family Sing, a collection of prose and poetry by 69 women of color, explore the realities, joys, and challenges of being a woman of color in the 21st century. (Sunday, April 29, 10 a.m.)
  • Women & Speculative Fiction: Following the Footsteps of Atwood, Butler, and
    Le Guin:
    Panelists Åsa Avdic, Maggie Shen King, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Meg Elison make up a new generation of women who hold in their hands the future of the genre. (Sunday, April 29, 12:15 p.m.)
  • #MeToo & Beyond: Continuing to Tell the Truth: Together Winnie Li, T. Christian Miller, and Bernice Yeung, who have plumbed the topic of sexual assault deeply, will deconstruct the movement and explore its future. (Sunday, April 29, 1:30 p.m.)
  • We Can Do It: Opinionated Women: Michelle Dean’s new book, Sharp: the Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, follows the lives of ten women who positioned themselves as powerful voices in a male-dominated world. (Sunday, April 29, 1:30 p.m.)
  • Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy: Magdalena Yesil’s Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy, weaves her own story with trenchant advice on persisting amidst setbacks, combatting gender discrimination, and generally being fearless in approaching challenges. (Sunday, April 29, 4:15 p.m.)

This story was brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival which takes place April 28-19 in Berkeley. Visit the BABF website for full details.