“A new age wants new imaginations”
When Marie NDiaye won the Prix Goncourt in November 2009, the event incited two discrete histoires scandaleuses in France. The first, decidedly smaller in magnitude, was that NDiaye refused to accept the title of “first black woman to win the prize.” “I don’t represent anything or anyone,” she told Agence France-Presse. “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 color of my skin and my name.” The second, more shocking story was that after NDiaye won the prize, an official in Nicolas Sarkozy’s party sent a letter to the French culture minister, asking him to see that, in light of her newly symbolic role with regard to French literary accomplishment, NDiaye recant her recent criticism of the Sarkozy administration. NDiaye, who moved to Berlin following Sarkozy’s election in 2007, had told the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles that she finds France under Sarkozy “monstrous” and “hateful.” She cited the names of two of his most prized political protégés and decried their anti-intellectualism. “For me,” she said, “these people represent a sort of death.” NDiaye allowed that she does not normally make political statements of such an “excessive” nature, but she graciously declined the request to retract them nevertheless.
Beyond their inherent PR value, these events were notable in that, first, NDiaye’s writing is very much about Africa. That the half-French, half-Senegalese writer outwardly distances herself from discussions of Africa, while being intimately tied to them in her work, is an almost too-tidy summation of the larger contradiction that multiculturalism confronts in France today. Secondly, and ironically, for whatever she may say aloud, NDiaye’s writing is not overtly political, unlike that of many of her contemporaries. Still, she has expressed abhorrence at certain policies, such as the Sarkozy administration’s practice of going into public schools to find students whose families are in the country illegally (the better to deport them), and has noted that her Goncourt-winning novel was conceived in part to bring “humanity” to the stories of the many African migrants who end up in France. The awarding of the Goncourt to this particular work could therefore be viewed as a political act in itself. But more essentially, in a country where the integration of immigrants from the former colonies has become even more of a cardinal issue in the last five years than it was during the last fifty, NDiaye’s rise to prominence can be celebrated as a victory on both sides of the debate: the advancement of a woman of mixed background within the nation’s fossilized cultural institutions, and the promotion of someone who seems more concerned with literature than with outrage at the failures of integration. Perhaps in an ideal world NDiaye’s work would be allowed to stand on its own, but amidst the fever of France’s growing anxiety, she is an ineluctable target for appropriation and debate.