In a historic first, a black woman writer is a hot favourite to scoop France’s top literary prize next week for a haunting novel on family, betrayal and the hellish ordeal of illegal migration from Africa.
French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye, 42, is a frontrunner among the eight authors shortlisted for the Goncourt, the most prestigious of France’s annual crop of literary prizes which is to be announced November 2.
NDiaye published her first novel while still at school, aged 17, and has since carved out a place in the French pantheon as a novelist, screenwriter and the only living playwright in the repertoire of the Comedie Francaise.
“Her voice, perfectly clear and original, rises above the chatter,” wrote Le Monde of her latest work, “Trois Femmes Puissantes” (Three Powerful Women).
Like much of NDiaye’s recent work, the book touches on the troubled ties between Africa and its former colonial rulers, and between blacks and whites.
Set between France and Senegal, the three-part novel weaves together the stories of women whose lives straddle the two continents and who are weighed down by family secrets, humiliations and betrayals.
Hailed as “dizzying” and “masterful”, it took French critics by storm upon its release in September, shooting to the top of the book charts.
Part one follows a schoolteacher from Paris to Dakar on a difficult pilgrimage to the home of her estranged father.
The second story is told through the eyes of an African woman’s French partner, who has dragged her back to a mediocre existence in France and where both their lives are clouded by demons from his past.
The third follows the plight of a destitute young woman who is forced to join the migrant route from Senegal towards the European El Dorado, a brutal illustration of what NDiaye calls “a modern-day tragedy”.
Narrated in exquisite stream of consciousness, the novel is shot through with rich touches of fantasy and symbolism.
“Her language is a gateway to the mysterious world of our most secret thoughts — the dwelling place of magic and the supernatural within each person,” wrote Le Monde.
NDiaye recently co-wrote a film with French director Claire Denis, “White Material” starring Isabelle Huppert, about whites terrorised by roving child soldiers in west Africa.
But she denies she is pushing a political message.
“My books are criss-crossed by various aspects of the contemporary world. But I am not a thinker,” she told AFP.
The writer’s brother Pap NDiaye is a prominent French historian and campaigner for black minority rights.
She wrote the preface to one of his books, and feels France is a step behind Britain or the United States where powerful writers from ethnic minorities have emerged in recent decades, from Zadie Smith to Hari Kunzru or Kiran Desai.
“The huge majority of France’s writers come from educated or bourgeois backgrounds — a fairly small world in other words,” she said recently.
“Writers here tend to be people who have been to university, who can master the complexities of the language, which may not be case for minorities.”
NDiaye would be the first woman laureate of the Goncourt in a decade and the first black woman in its history.
But the soft-spoken writer refuses to be made a “symbol”.
“I have never thought of it in those terms: ‘black woman’ and ‘Goncourt’. I find it impossible to see things that way,” she told AFP.
Raised by her French mother in a modest home in Pithiviers, a sleepy provincial town south of Paris, after her father returned to Senegal, she did not travel to Africa until she was in her twenties.
“I grew up in a world that was 100-percent French. My African roots don’t mean much, except that people know of them because of the colour of my skin and my name,” she said recently.
“I don’t represent anything or anyone,” she told AFP. “I have met many French people raised in Africa who are more African than I am.”
While she rages at the discrimination still faced by French blacks — in looking for jobs or housing, or being stopped by the police — NDiaye says she has been sheltered by her writer career.
“I have always had a quite special, marginal life, the life of a writer lucky enough not to have to ask anyone for anything,” she told AFP.