Packaging Leila Slimani’s ‘The Perfect Nanny’

My first encounter with Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny (Chanson douce) was last May in Lyon, France. Freshly decorated with its 2016 Prix Goncourt quarter-jacket, the novel stood out to me for two reasons. First, the book was sitting in a cardboard display in two neat columns four books deep, surrounded by bubbly editorial comments about its stunning quality. Second, I was drawn to the author’s name, intrigued that the French literary establishment had recognized a writer of Moroccan descent with its top prize, which has only happened twice in since the prize was created in 1903. That day, I read the first four pages and put the book back in the display.

My second encounter with Slimani was in January, when I read Lauren Collins’ long-form article in the New Yorker announcing Sam Taylor’s translation of Chanson douce as The Perfect Nanny in the US––the UK edition is entitled Lullaby. Presented as the Anglophone introduction to Slimani, Collins’ delves into every aspect of the writer’s career, family history, and her (critical) reception in France. Released in 2017 in the UK, Collins reveals that Penguin chose to shift the name from Lullaby to The Perfect Nanny as a marketing strategy. The editor at Penguin John Siciliano, Slimani’s editor at Penguin, told me, “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby,’ because that sounds sleepily forgettable, and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership […] We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”

While it’s true that Chanson douce is readily available for purchase in large-format French supermarkets like Super U and Carrefour, selling The Perfect Nanny in Walmart and Target involves an entirely different “packaging” of translated literature. As Richard Watts explains in his 2004 study Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World, the paratextual material­––cover images, endorsements, color schemes, back “blurbs,” and titles––that “the packaging of translations […] contributes to the vagueness surrounding the cultural field under consideration […] the paratext to translated works of francophone literature tends to reduce the text to an easily assimilable form of otherness” (Watts 161). So when Siciliano argues that The Perfect Nanny belongs in the same category as Gone Girl and The Girl in the Red Coat we see both of these titles mentioned on the front and back covers of the Penguin edition as selling points. Penguin has already decided which readers will buy The Perfect Nanny, it will show up on Amazon suggested lists just as it will appear in bookstores next to its Anglophone thriller counterparts.

The Penguin US edition of Leila Slimani’s Chanson douce

When I went to buy The Perfect Nanny at my local bookstore I couldn’t find it, but it wasn’t because the store had sold all of their copies, I was simply looking in the wrong section. Slimani’s novel belonged, at least in the US, in the mystery section of the bookstore. In France the novel is considered a thriller, however, since the literary establishment claimed it for its own, it is sold in most stores in the literary fiction section. For Moroccan writers in France, this is also a relatively new phenomenon because writers from the former French colonies and the overseas departments are still considered “Francophone writers,” separate from the likes of Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Duras and the like. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Lauren Collins chose to call her article “The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France,” because its author unwound the post/colonial framing of French bookstores. With this feat, Slimani joins the ranks of writers like Marie NDiaye and Faïza Guène as writers born to immigrant parents to be considered “French” within the realm of the bookstore.

Another aspect of “packaging” that Anglophone publishers have to navigate is how to present an author to a new audience in an enticing manner. Essentially, they decide how to transform a writer from a Francophone writer into a member of the nebulous realm of World Literature. Watts shows how Patrick Chamoiseau is marketed as “the Garcia Márquez of the Antilles” or a writer of worldly repute like François Rabelais or Salman Rushdie (Watts 166-168). Never mind that Máquez actually imagined himself a Caribbean writer, the Francophone writer is subject to new framings and contexts in translation. While Slimani is marketed as the French Gillian Flynn or Kate Hamer, the paratext in the US edition casts Slimani as a Moroccan writer, rather than a French writer.

The back cover to the Gallimard large-format edition of Chanson douce

For Francophone writers of Maghrebi origins, identity politics nearly always bears itself out in the publishing process or in the literary marketplace in France. Katheryn Kleppinger refers to this process in her book-length study, Branding the Beur Author: Minority Writing and Media in France, 1983-2013, where writers of Maghrebi origins seek to exist in and outside of the parameters of national identity. Slimani escapes identity “branding” by virtue of the timeless presentation of Gallimard’s “collection blanche,” which is the epitome of denuded, demure French printing aesthetics and only includes Slimani’s birth year. However, in the US edition, Slimani is “packaged” as Moroccan and the short biography identifies her husband as French. That the Penguin edition mentions Slimani’s husband’s nationality at the very least presents the writer as an immigrant writer, and potentially as a woman who attained citizenship by way of marriage. Although she was born in Morocco, Slimani has always had French citizenship through her maternal grandmother, Anne, who was from Alsace.

The biography that precedes the translated front-matter from the Gallimard edition of Chanson douce

Slimani’s packaging in the US is glossy, bold, and definitive. It seeks to present Slimani as a Francophone Moroccan mystery writer, effectively reconfiguring the way she is marketed to a French audience. While Slimani may have conquered France, her post/colonial packaging in the US translates the writer based on the market rather than on her own terms. When asked by a French interviewer why Slimani didn’t write an autobiographical first novel, she responded “Because I’m North African, and I didn’t want to identify myself uniquely with that. I told myself: You’re going to weave a web in which you’re going to imprison yourself, when you have in front of you a much larger horizon.” By embracing Slimani’s North Africanness, Penguin has imbued their French Gone Girl with a decontextualized iteration of French imperial history that will, as Watts explains, force teachers of the translation to situate the works in question in relation to new and old systems of cultural, political, and linguistic meanings. One can only hope that for readers Leila Slimani is not lost in the act of translation.

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