Tale of African migration scoops top French book prize

3rd November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Marie NDiaye won France's top literary prize on Monday for a haunting novel about three women caught between France and Senegal and the hellish ordeal of illegal migration from Africa.

PARIS - While she does not define herself as an African writer, NDiaye, whose mother is French and father Senegalese, became the first black woman to win the Goncourt prize, with "Trois Femmes Puissantes" (Three Strong Women).

Like much of her work, the 42-year-old writer's tale touches on the troubled ties between Africa and its former colonial rulers.

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, humiliation and betrayal.

"It is the story of three women who are each powerful in a different way," the elegant young woman, hair pulled back in a chignon, told reporters as she received the 106-year-old prize at an award ceremony in a Paris restaurant.

"What links them is a deep strength, a belief in who they are, as a way of never doubting their own humanity. They have a quiet strength."

NDiaye published her first novel 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.

"I am very happy to be a woman receiving the Goncourt," she said as she received the Goncourt, which is endowed with a symbolic 10-euro (15-dollar) prize but carries tremendous prestige.

"The book's success was already a miracle of sorts," she said. "This prize is an unexpected reward for 25 years of persistence."

Ndiaye is the first woman laureate of the Goncourt in a decade, but the soft-spoken writer denies she is 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 recently.

Raised by her teacher mother in the provincial town of Pithiviers south of Paris, after her father returned to Senegal, NDiaye did not travel to Africa until she was in her twenties.

She has an ambivalent relationship with her African origins.

"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 explained in a recent interview.

"But it does not bother me that people in Senegal say I am African."

She recently co-wrote the film "White Material" starring Isabelle Huppert, with French director Claire Denis, set in west Africa and about whites terrorised by roving child soldiers.

But she insists she has "met many French people raised in Africa who are more African than I am."

Part one of "Trois Femmes Puissantes" follows a young woman lawyer 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".

"The story of these migrants has been told many times before, but if this can help people understand their fate a bit better, I will be happy," she said.

NDiaye moved to Berlin with her writer husband and three children just after the 2007 presidential election, and says she finds victor President Nicolas Sarkozy's France "monstrous" and "vulgar".

She also wrote the preface to a recent book by her brother Pap NDiaye, a prominent historian and campaigner for minority rights.

Yet NDiaye 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 said.

Dominique Chabrol/AFP/Expatica

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