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Interview with Marie NDiaye

Over the course of her career, Marie NDiaye has carved herself a unique position in French literature, situated somewhere between the real and the otherworldly. The force of her writing stems from its apparent softness, with its slow twists and turns that draw the reader into situations that are constantly shifting: we emerge trembling, with a sensation somewhere between pleasure and terror.

 

Born in France in 1967, NDiaye made her literary debut at seventeen when her first novel, Quant au riche avenir [As for the Rich Future], was published by Éditions de Minuit. This was followed, in 1988, by Comédie classique [Classic Comedy], a novel composed of a single sentence about the trials and travails of a very Joycean protagonist. Its success earned her, at twenty-one, an invitation to appear on the preeminent literary TV show of the time, Apostrophes.

 

Before long, the story of this prodigious young woman, raised by a single mother who was a teacher, whose style resisted the constraints of genre or label, became legendary. She achieved mainstream success in 2001 with Rosie Carpe, an uncanny story of displacement, shame and family betrayal which won her the Prix Femina; her 2003 play Papa doit manger [Papa Has to Eat] earned her the distinction of being the first woman since Marguerite Duras to have her work performed by the Comédie-Française during her lifetime. By 2009, when she received the Prix Goncourt for Trois femmes puissantes, translated by John Fletcher as Three Strong Women, she was already the author of a complex body of work notable for its range, introspection and psychological acuity.

 

Marie NDiaye has created a fictional universe filled with unconventional men and women thrown into an abyss of despair. Through them, she interrogates the impossibility of completely belonging to a place, an origin or a family; many of her characters are severe self-critics, isolated from others and driven by an obsession with guilt and responsibility. In Royan, la professeure de français [Royan, the French Teacher], her most recent play, which was due to be performed at the 2020 Avignon Festival, a character wracked by pain over an inexcusable mistake asks: ‘Is there always someone to blame for unhappiness?’ This cry of anguish runs through the whole of NDiaye’s oeuvre, without ever receiving a response. Her female characters in particular – social outcasts who fight to preserve their dignity in the face of deception – are linked by an inner strength and a capacity to resist; NDiaye’s writing celebrates the possibility of infinite reinvention and offers, beneath the surface of clear, powerful prose, the hope of deliverance from the nightmares she conjures.

Q

The White Review

— I’m writing to you from Berlin, a city where you lived for several years. There’s one question people here keep asking each other: Is it true that Marie NDiaye no longer lives in Berlin? Where can she be found today, and why did she leave?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I haven’t left Berlin. It’s true that I no longer spend the majority of the year there, as I did between 2007 and 2017. I still spend a handful of months there every year. I know that I will never leave Berlin, whether I’m actually there in person or not, and that Berlin will always be the only city for me. I live in the French countryside, not far from Bordeaux, and from time to time I head up to Paris. But neither Bordeaux nor Paris are close to my heart. Berlin is the one. Here, in Gironde, I live in a rural setting, in the middle of a village of three hundred people surrounded by agriculture: corn, market gardens, still a little bit of tobacco and lots of kiwi fruit. When I’m not in the village, when I’m in a city, that city is Berlin. You could say I live between Barie and Berlin, between Gironde and Brandenburg.

Q

The White Review

— Your characters are always marked by the places they live in, which you describe in minute detail. In Ladivine (2013), the protagonist is attached to her ‘old Charlottenburg’, which was your old neighbourhood. In your 2019 play Berlin mon garçon (Berlin My Boy), Marina moves straight into the Corbusier house where you used to live – it’s almost as though you handed her the keys. What is it like living alongside your characters? Does your writing always take in places to which you feel attached?

A

Marie NDiaye

— That wasn’t the case when I was younger. I often placed characters in settings that I myself had never visited – but these places were always in France. I think I felt that I could easily invent a childhood spent in Brive-la-Gaillarde because I had such intimate knowledge of provincial France, of what life is like in mid-sized cities and villages in the middle of the country, and that Brive, a place I had never been, could stand in for any place of the same type. Nowadays I prefer to place my characters in settings I can remember specifically, which is to say, places I’ve actually lived. But while I can put a character like Marina in the Corbusierhaus, I would never allow myself to invent a character who was raised in Germany, by German parents – not for a main character, at least. I feel a need to depict my protagonist’s childhood with precision, and the only childhood I know is a French one.

Q

The White Review

— One childhood space is particularly significant in your work: the outer suburbs known in France as la banlieue. Of all your characters, Rosie Carpe is perhaps the one who best represents what it’s like to grow up there. Once she arrives in Paris, she begins to emit a kind of yellow light, a sign of her non-belonging in Paris, and she seems to drift further and further into the periphery of society. You grew up in the outer suburbs of Paris: how has that experience informed your writing? Would you say that the issue at the centre of your writing relates to that gap?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I grew up at first in Fresnes, in a huge housing estate inspired by the designs of Le Corbusier, and I have excellent memories of living there, until we left when I was eleven. As children, we enjoyed a lot of freedom there. All that was asked of us was that we came home for dinner. I never asked myself what it meant to live in the banlieue, I was just happy to live in this world that was both calm and boundless to my eyes, where there were massive sandpits and huge lawns that began at the foot of each building. Then I moved to Bourg-la-Reine, a more bourgeois banlieue, which was closer to Paris than Fresnes was. My neighbourhood wasn’t considered one of the nicer parts of the city. I lived in an apartment block from the 1970s, right next to the Route Nationale 20, so it was very noisy. Back then, I would have loved to live in a pretty little 1930s house, in a calm street lined with flowers, of which there were plenty in Bourg-la-Reine. In terms of the banlieue itself, I liked it – I liked that discreet distance from Paris. What I didn’t like at all, though, was my personal environment. These days I like the countryside the same way I liked the banlieue: it’s not too far from ‘the place where things happen’, but it’s not in the thick of it either. That’s what drew to me to the Corbusierhaus in Berlin, as well as to the little village in France where I live now.

Q

The White Review

— I come from the very banlieue that you’re describing, and your portrayal of life there is razor-sharp. It’s rare to read such incisive writing about the relationship of place and shame, particularly in connection with family origins. Even if we might not place you alongside writers like Annie Ernaux or Marguerite Duras who approach these issues more directly, uprootedness is a constant subject of your work. Do you constantly think about class relations while you are writing?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I never think about class relations, in the sense that I never think about anything in particular while I’m working on a novel. What I mean by that is that I’m thinking of my characters, in what sort of situations I can place them, and, above all, about the moral issues they’ll have to face, as opposed to the meaning these moral issues might have in contemporary society. I don’t want any of my books to be described with words ending in ‘-ist’, whether that be humanist, feminist, socialist… I can be all of those things as a citizen, but not as an artist. By the same token, even if we were talking about Annie Ernaux or Marguerite Duras, their respective bodies of work aren’t classifiable in that way either. They are deep, troubling and original in their own ways.

Q

The White Review

— Your characters tend to lead ‘ordinary’ lives, as teachers, lawyers, cleaners, yet behind the curtains lurk dark pasts, secrets, sometimes murders. In Mon coeur à l’étroit (2007, translated by Jordan Stump as My Heart Hemmed In) a couple of teachers become the victims of a baffling social ostracisation, and their daily routine becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare. Does this notion come from thrillers? The idea that the more we depart from ordinary reality, the greater the effect of fear or mystery that can be created from the tiniest events?

A

Marie NDiaye

— Yes, I think that’s true. I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was a teenager and I still think he’s a great writer.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve previously mentioned your admiration for Joyce Carol Oates and William Faulkner, too. What do you find so seductive about these writers?

A

Marie NDiaye

— In the interest of being perfectly honest, I must say that I read these authors in translation, and so I’d like to thank Claude Seban, who has translated Oates’s work for over twenty years, and also Francis Ledoux and Martine Winitzer, who preceded her. What fascinates me about Oates is her genius for getting right to the heart of such an extreme range of characters: children, teenagers, businessmen, criminals, housewives, students, religious fanatics, etc. She has a diabolically intimate understanding of human beings who bear no resemblance to her at all, except for the fact that they are American.

Q

The White Review

— You and Oates share an attraction for the monstrous, but just like her, we have the impression that you lead a peaceful life. Where does the monstrosity in your books come from?

A

Marie NDiaye

— In the profiles written by journalists who’ve come to see where I live, I’ve often noticed a slight soupçon of surprise when they describe my apparent sweetness, how calm I am, in contrast to the violence of my books. I’ve always found that funny. Who were they afraid they were going to meet? Some kind of brutal, aggressive woman, someone who would bristle at their questions? Or maybe they feared the worst, that at some point in the interview I would give a display of violence, a fist to the face or a barrage of insults that would finally allow them to understand my work? It’s almost like being back in the time when Sainte-Beuve wrote about Baudelaire, the author of the terrifying and perverted Fleurs du mal, who gave such a different impression in person, with his air of being a nice young man… I might seem to lead a peaceful life, but what does that mean, anyway? In the end I show what I want to show. My spirit is probably twisted and manipulative, full of disturbing thoughts. But that doesn’t stop me from seeming like a sweet and controlled person, a ‘nice young woman’, as Sainte-Beuve might say. It’s not hypocrisy, nor is it a lie, it’s in fact two distinct truths. Proust never stopped talking about that: we are several different people inside the one brain.

Q

The White Review

— Is your brain crowded with the authors you love? Are they by your side while you write?

A

Marie NDiaye

— They are always there, yes, whether that’s in a concrete sense (on my work desk) or in my mind. The writers whose books I open almost every day are not necessarily the ones who are closest to my heart, but rather those (like Claude Simon, for example) whose rhythms draw me in, stimulate me and give me courage, like a beloved phrase of music that steadies and speeds up your stride.

Q

The White Review

— Claude Simon liked to mention how he was often surprised by the adventures his own writing led him towards. He used to say: ‘We write to see what will happen.’ Do you experience that same sense of surprise at your own work? Do you also have an intuitive sense of composition?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I understand perfectly what Claude Simon is saying. I’m often surprised by the direction a paragraph or a scene takes after I thought I had planned it out meticulously. For example, a word that might have multiple meanings can cause a character’s thoughts to evolve in a way I hadn’t considered, and which might then seem more interesting.

Q

The White Review

— Certain themes recur across your work: the family consuming itself under the weight of lies and false memories, for example. Are family relations the troubled heart of your books?

A

Marie NDiaye

— Perhaps, yes – that might be the case, even if I didn’t make that choice myself. I write from my own shortcomings, I’m not the kind of novelist who can wrangle with whole centuries and long genealogies.

Q

The White Review

— The novel that won you the Prix Goncourt is called Three Strong Women, even though it concerns three women in positions of weakness, even positions of extreme vulnerability. We meet Norah, whose estranged brother is in prison for murdering his stepmother; Fanta, who has fled Senegal due to racism and is trapped in an unhappy marriage; and Khady, an immigrant worker abandoned by her family and lover. What is the nature of this power that you see in these characters?

A

Marie NDiaye

— They are powerful because even in the midst of their greatest distress they never doubt their own worth and uniqueness as human beings. Even Khady, the most helpless of the three, knows that in this world she is precious, just like any other human ‘more important’ than her.

Q

The White Review

— You co-wrote the script for White Material (2009), a film directed by Claire Denis which starred Isabelle Huppert in the role of Maria, a woman running a coffee plantation in a country wracked by civil war: an Africa as nightmarish as it is abstract. What influenced the decision not to situate the drama more concretely?

A

Marie NDiaye

— It’s not my story but Claire’s, and she had it all sketched out fairly exactly in her head. I didn’t come up with any of the characters, and my participation was more technical than creative. So, I wouldn’t be able to speak to your question about what influenced certain decisions. My role was to slip into Claire Denis’s mindset, to try to understand the story she wanted to tell, to understand what it might mean.

Q

The White Review

— Claire Denis shot the film in Cameroon, the country where she grew up. By working with her, did you also slip into another Africa, different from the one you knew?

A

Marie NDiaye

— Not really, because I never knew a real Africa. The two of us went to do some location scouting in Ghana, in 2003 I think. That trip was only the second time I’d been to Africa, after a brief stay in Dakar in 1986. It was funny to see how everyone just assumed that of the two of us, Claire was the foreigner, when you’d have to say that she was more African than I was.

Q

The White Review

— You were born to a French mother and a Senegalese father. Many readers and critics try to trace the influence Africa might have had on your literary imaginary. Do you yourself lay any claim to African culture?

A

Marie NDiaye

— No, that’s out of the question for me, it would make me feel like a total impostor. (By the way, in French, the word ‘impostor’ has no feminine form, perhaps because to be one, you need to have the power to make decisions about your own life.) My father left my mother when I was about ten or twelve months old, maybe even younger, I’m not sure exactly. In my childhood I only knew my mother’s people, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, her teaching colleagues, and in the 1970s and 1980s all those people were white and French, that’s just how it was. So, I never had any contact with Africa. My father abandoned us: my mother, my brother, and me. He never asked after us, and we had no idea where he was, or if he was even alive. That’s why there was no place for Africa in my life.

 

It’s a pity, because I would have loved to experience life with a double culture, but that’s just how it went. Some people have reproached my poor mother, a woman deeply hurt after her husband left her in the most brutal way possible (he went out to the shops and we never heard from him again) for not putting me and my brother in contact with more Africans… But that’s not even worth responding to. All the same, my mother did her best to pass on her interest and her passion for Senegal. She would read us Tales and Legends from Senegal by Fernand Nathan and the stories of Leuk-le-Lièvre, collected and retold by Léopold Senghor. I loved the world of those stories. They were just as influential to me as the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault.

Q

The White Review

— Your book Autoportrait en vert (2005, translated by Jordan Stump as Self-Portrait in Green) reads more like a fairy tale than autobiographical confession. The story, which ends in the future, plunges us into a dreamlike world populated by green women, where the reader encounters the absent father and the mother devoted to solitude. You distil the venom of this anguish in a place that is very familiar to you: a version of the Garonne, where rising water levels threaten to wash everything away. Is there an autobiographical impulse to this text? Could we say there is an overflow of genres, a self-portrait in dreams? These green women: are they you?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I think I sought to express my gratitude towards the region, this village in Gironde where my family and I came to live in 2001. We left Normandy under trying, even dramatic circumstances, and the good fortune of our arrival in the south-west of France seemed like a miracle. All of a sudden, I discovered this little pocket of France: it was both menacing and protective, there was still a culture of growing tobacco, and I wanted to pay tribute to the welcome offered to us by the region, after we arrived in such terrible shape.

 

Autoportrait en vert is the most autobiographical text I’ve ever written, despite all the inventions: it includes my mother’s past in Marseille, the number of children the narrator has… I’m not entirely sure what those green women represent, but they don’t represent me, I don’t think. They’re more like beguiling women, in my view. The ‘I’ of the story is much closer to me than the green women. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by women, as if I weren’t a woman myself, but a man intrigued and subjugated by the opposite sex. This book is a self-portrait of how I was bewitched by ‘the feminine’.

Q

The White Review

— In the most recent of your books to appear in English, La Cheffe (2016, translated by Jordan Stump as The Cheffe) a male narrator recounts the career of a female chef who enjoys a long period of success. This narrator works as her assistant, and suffers from unrequited love. What does ‘The Cheffe’ have that a simple cook does not?

A

Marie NDiaye

— This might be a very French idea, I’m not sure. The Chef/Cheffe is the artist, the creator, the master of the menus and the recipes. A cook might be very talented but they’re not considered to be creators. Of course, it’s a false distinction: many anonymous cooks have invented dishes that were then modified and modernised until they became classics of haute cuisine. But unlike a cook, La Cheffe is obsessed by her art.

 

I’m very passionate about cooking: the rituals, the history, and I’m always happy when I’m cooking, it’s an essential activity in my life. But I could never be a chef, I don’t have the skills nor the deep drive to acquire those skills. In the kitchen, I’m more of a dilettante with a passion.

Q

The White Review

— The novel captures the birth of a vocation. La Cheffe has an epiphany when, at the age of sixteen, she makes a soup for her bosses and realises that the secret comes from removing ingredients, of opting for moderation. This is the moment where she discovers her talent. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with your own writing: you were only seventeen years old when your first novel, Quant au riche avenir, was published. Do you remember your first urges to write, was there a similar moment of revelation? Have you always wanted to dedicate your life to writing?

A

Marie NDiaye

— There was no moment of revelation, no. My desire to write continued to build and develop over the course of years. When I was about ten years old, my mother gave me a little typewriter that was designed especially for children – I still remember what it was called, the Petite International de Luxe! So, when someone gives you a typewriter, what else is there to do but write? I started by typing out little stories that were inspired by whatever I was reading at the time, and I suppose (I can’t remember exactly) that the pleasure of using the little typewriter combined with the pleasure of inventing little stories gave the whole thing a purpose and put me on the course to becoming a novelist.

Q

The White Review

— The book concludes by revealing La Cheffe’s given name, but for the duration of the novel, she has been known only by her job. Is this because she is defined by her vocation?

A

Marie NDiaye

— It’s true that La Cheffe is defined by her art, but we don’t know how she defines herself, or how she would name herself if she were telling her own story. The person narrating the story and who gives her that name is a former employee, and he’s in love with her. He’s the one who chooses to call her La Cheffe, out of deference of course but also because at work, he would have always addressed her that way, as is the rule in kitchens. So ‘La Cheffe’ has become her given name, for him at least. When you have always addressed someone a certain way, it’s hard to change, because it feels like you’re no longer talking about the same person.

Q

The White Review

— Names cause trouble for your characters. Often one name hides another: in your novel En famille (1991, translated by Heather Doyal as Among Family), we never learn the true name of the protagonist, who is falsely called Fanny. And when your characters haven’t already changed their names, like Ladivine, they seem to want to. In your new novel, La vengeance m’appartient (Vengeance is Mine) (2021), the narrator’s given name is never revealed, and when it’s spoken it literally disappears into the typography: ‘H…’ Should we see this progressive erasure of given names as a curse or a deliverance? Are your books in search of lost names?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I’ve always been bewitched by given names. As a child I made a list of favourite given names for girls, names I would have liked to have. I didn’t like being Marie, which was mostly out of fashion when I was a teenager – it was in fact my maternal grandmother’s given name, so it felt like something for old women. I was jealous of all the Valéries, the Nathalies, the Stéphanies and the Isabelles I went to school with. In my own mind I just changed my name, I was never Marie but a character with another name, a name I considered prettier. To this day I struggle to respond to my given name. I’m always slightly surprised when people call out, Marie! It feels like a mistaken identity. That name and I have no business being together.

Q

The White Review

— In En famille, nobody recognises Fanny. In Autoportrait en vert, it’s the narrator who fails to recognise other people. Where does this desire not to reveal too much come from?

A

Marie NDiaye

— To begin with, I feel that that’s how things are in life, that our memories are uncertain, that the ways we recall faces and things that people have said are unreliable. I exaggerate this feeling in my novels. In En famille, if nobody recognises Fanny it might be because nobody has truly accepted that she is a part of the family. She isn’t recognised in a proper sense or in a figurative sense. These multiple interpretations of the same term form the entire basis of the novel’s sense of mystery. I don’t think I have a reticence to revealing things – I just think and feel this way, and I have a certain taste for the strange that has been with me since childhood.

Q

The White Review

— Alongside these novels, you have also built a body of dramatic works that are just as singular in their strangeness. To date you have written nine plays, of which perhaps the best-known is Papa doit manger, a most intriguing title… Why does this Papa have to eat? Could you tell us a bit more about this play? And where did your appetite for the theatre come from?

A

Marie NDiaye

— The title was inspired by a sentence taken from a letter from Chekhov to one of his brothers, where he wrote about the money he had to send to their father. He wrote something along the lines of: ‘Papa has to eat something.’ In my play it’s just as important that Papa eat, in the literal sense of the term, because he is completely broke.

 

I wouldn’t say that I have an appetite for the theatre, since all the plays I’ve written have been commissioned, whether that be by a director (the most common occurrence) or by an actor, like when Nicole Garcia approached me. I’ve never actually written a play for myself, in contrast to my novels, which no one has ever asked for.

Q

The White Review

— Does the theatre allow you a more direct approach to abstraction, a way of stripping back the relationships between your characters?

A

Marie NDiaye

— I don’t think that theatre allows me to take my characters further than my novels, in fact it might be the opposite. I still believe the novel to be the most liberating form of all: think of the number of characters, the shifts in time, the manipulations of the reader that are possible. But in fact with the theatre, there might actually be a need to make unsayable things understood fairly quickly (in the space of a few dozen pages!) and sometimes I have the feeling that the characters in my plays are more like sketches than beings, that they lack the kind of reality I love discovering in my novels.

Q

The White Review

— What did you hope for in your writing when you started out? And now, after many years of writing, what do you hope for today?
A

Marie NDiaye

— When I was a teenager I hoped that literature, whether that be literature I was reading or writing, would save me from an ordinary life, the humdrum everyday of a salaried job, or a marriage, etc. Real life made me anxious. Literature has allowed me to transform my profound maladjustment to the world into something socially acceptable and even gratifying – because luckily for me, the gamble has paid off, and that could very easily not have been the case.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

was born in Paris in 1975 and has lived in Berlin since 2000. She is a curator, literary translator of writers including Thomas Brasch and Thomas Rosenlöcher and editor of the VERSSchmuggel collection by Wunderhon and the literary magazine La mer gelée. She is currently head of the TOLEDO Programme of the German Translator Fund, and (together with Ulf Stolterfoht) the new artistic director of the poetry festival Lyrikertreffen in Münster. She is also a songwriter.


Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in Harper's, The Paris Review and A Public Space, and he is a regular contributor to T, the New York Times style magazine.

Marie NDiaye was born in Pithiviers, France, in 1967; spent her childhood with her French mother (her father was Senegalese); and studied linguistics at the Sorbonne. She was only eighteen when her first work was published. In 2001 she was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina for her novel Rosie Carpe; in 2009, the Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women; and in 2015, the Gold Medal in the Arts from the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts.

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