PARIS, November 2, 2009 – French-Senegalese writer Marie NDiaye on Monday won France’s top literary prize for a haunting novel on family, betrayal and the hellish ordeal of illegal migration from Africa.
NDiaye, 42, becomes the first woman in a decade and the first black woman in history to win the Goncourt prize for “Trois Femmes Puissantes” (Three Powerful Women), 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 in a recent interview.
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, humiliation and betrayal.
French critics hailed the novel when it was released in September and it shot 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”.
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.
Raised by her French mother in a modest home in Pithiviers, a provincial town south of Paris, after her father returned to Senegal, NDiaye 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.”