It is amazing sometimes the way we talk about the immigrant. What do they want? Why are they here? Are they ever going to leave again? Why do they do that thing in that way?
The titular Senegalese characters of Marie NDiaye’s Kirkus-starred Three Strong Women are in various versions of transit. Norah, born of a Senegalese father but raised in France, returns to Senegal for the first time in a very long time when her brother is arrested for murder. Fanta has recently left Senegal for France to follow her French husband, only to find herself unable to work and without much of a support system as her husband’s work takes a dive. And then there is Khady, who is trying to get herself to France but finds herself somewhere in the middle when the men in charge of sneaking her and the others across the border decide they want more money for the job.
It is perhaps Fanta’s story that haunts the longest. Told exclusively from the perspective of her husband, we are left to wonder what their situation must be like for her: to leave her home, her family, her job and follow a man, only to discover he’s hiding a dark secret; to be completely dependent on someone untrustworthy in a place where she has no ties; to be raising a child with such a man. Fanta herself remains silent, but her side of the story screams at readers from the margins.
This is NDiaye’s first major debut in the States, despite a powerful career in France, and it’s about time. NDiaye agreed to answer a few questions about her affecting new novel.
In the States, we have this silly archetype called the “Strong Female Character.” Basically, she is very pretty and wears revealing outfits and her hair in a ponytail, but she also kills vampires or zombies or whatever in a very masculine fashion. The title of your book kept making me think of this, even though your “strong women” are quite different in nature. Strength is so often a masculine term, so I am wondering, what in your book constitutes feminine strength?
Actually, the three women in my book are not socially powerful, they neither dominate anyone nor dream about doing so; they are physically ordinary and wear clothes that are beyond any idea of fashion. Their power is spiritual: They never doubt their deep humanity, in the original sense of the term, and know that every human being is unique, irreplaceable and precious. They feel and know this with the deepest conviction. No humiliation, no suffering can destroy their awareness of the merits of their presence on Earth. However, this is not about religion.
One of the women, Fanta, we only really see through the eyes of her flailing husband, Rudy. We're made to guess what she thinks of his dragging her to France and the downward spiral he finds himself in. Why did you restrict her from our view?
It seemed important to have a male point of view in the book, that the men are not described only from the mind of a female character. It was almost a matter of aesthetics. I would have otherwise felt like writing a militant novel, which I did not want.
There is so much brutality on the male side of things. There’s a murderer, a kidnapper, a thief, an attacker. Not that the women are all good and pure. But it seemed like the male strength got a little warped in this book, when circumstances turned sour, whereas so many of the women allowed abuse to be heaped upon them. Is that fair to say?
I made the character of Rudy Descas, in the second part, hold the point of view, because I wanted, specifically, to have a sensitive, hesitant, complicated male character.
Strangely, I found that most readers remember more the character of the father, in the first part, who is a kind of an ogre, almost a “villain” in a fairy tale, or the character Lamine, in the third part, who is a good guy but steals from Khady Demba. But how can we morally judge someone who steals to save his life? Under such conditions, couldn’t each of us also become a thief? I feel that when a woman writer portrays male characters, they are too quick to retain only the most “negative.” For me, Rudy Descas is a complex human being before being a man.
There was so much greed in this book: Rudy and Norah’s father for money, Khady for a baby... And the way we talk about immigrants always hinges on this idea of their insatiable want. They want our jobs, they want our social programs, they want to steal what is rightfully ours. And yet it seems that it is the West’s greed that dropped the world into this precarious situation we are in now. In the book, which character’s greed do you think is the most destructive?
It seems to me that Norah’s father’s greed for absolute power over all those around him is what is most destructive to others. Khady’s obsessive desire to have a baby is destructive to herself.
As for the desire of immigrants to have a better life, it destroys everything before them, especially, of course, for those who fail. In France, it seems to me, we still retain the knowledge that somehow, it is normal that Senegalese and Moroccans want to come try their luck with us, since we, the French, have occupied their country for so long. It is a kind of exchange, after all.
Jessa Crispin in the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.
Note: Juhea Kim translated this interview from the original French