Marie NDiaye: Daring Story-Telling On Screen, Stage and Page

Marie NDiaye: Life & Career

Marie NDiaye was born on 4th June 1967 in Pithiviers, France, to a French mother and Senegalese father, who left his family to return to Senegal when NDiaye was a toddler. She began writing at a young age and published her first novel, Quant au riche avenir, before she had left school. The story goes that Jérôme Lindon, director of the renowned French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit, was asked to meet NDiaye at the gates of her lycee, and assumed from her maturity and literary prowess that she must be a teacher there. In fact, she was just seventeen. Just two years after her debut in the literary scene, NDiaye married fellow writer Jean-Yves Cendrey, and the couple went on to have three children together.

NDiaye is determinedly private, stating that she has no wish to be a public figure–in contrast to her elder brother, Pap Ndiaye (he writes his surname differently), a well-respected historian who was appointed French Minister of Education in 2022. In a rare political statement, however, she attributed her family’s relocation to Berlin in 2007 to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, and called his government “monstrous”. NDiaye continues to be based in Berlin when she is not travelling for work. In March 2024, she came to Oxford to appear in conversation with Professor Jennifer Yee.

Quant au riche avenir (1985)

As mentioned above, Quant au riche avenir was NDiaye’s debut novel. It follows a young man, called ‘Z’, as he reflects on three relationships in his life: with his ‘girlfriend’, his aunt, and his school education. These subjects form the titles of the novel’s three sections. It is interesting, given the reflective nature of the account, that the novel is written in the third person; this creates a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. Unfortunately, there is no English translation available.

Rosie Carpe (2001)

In this novel, protagonist Rosie Carpe, who is pregnant with her second child, travels to Guadeloupe in an attempt to make contact with her estranged brother. It is a story of family, belonging, and the search for answers. Rosie Carpe won the Prix Femina prize and an English translation by Tasmin Black was published in 2003.

Papa doit manger (2003)

Papa doit manger describes how a father who abandoned his family ten years ago returns to his old family to convince them to let him resume his role as “Papa”. He does not find things as he left them, however, and is not accepted back into their home as he expected. At times absurd and uncanny, this story unfolds as a tale of family, forgiveness, race, and othering. 

The same year it was published, Papa doit manger became the only play by a living female playwright to enter into the repertoire of the eminent Comédie Française, the oldest theatre company active to this day. This high-profile staging was directed by André Engel and “Papa” was brought to life by Bakary Sangaré. There is not currently an English translation of NDiaye’s play available.

Trois femmes puissantes (2009)

Trois femmes puissantes, available in English as Three powerful women (2013, translated by John Fletcher), is a story told in three parts, each focussing on a different woman. In the first part, we meet Norah, who was abandoned by her Senegalese father when she was very young. She is working as a lawyer when her father gets in contact and asks her to return to Senegal, where the truth behind his summons turns out to be more complex and gritty than her father described. 

The second part of the novel follows a woman called Fanta, whose husband hurls a racist remark at her during a dispute, triggering a flood of memories from her past in Senegal. The third and final part, focussing on Khady Demba, reveals the connections between these three women, who each display enormous strength, puissance, when mistreated by the men in their lives.

Saint omer (2022)

Marie NDiaye co-wrote the screenplay for this dark French legal drama with director Amrita David and editor Alice Diop. Diop is known for her documentary films, and this is her first feature. In the film, Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a professor and novelist who travels to Saint-Omer to watch the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda). Malanda’s character is based on a real woman, Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant who was accused of abandoning her 15-month-old daughter on a beach at rising tide. 

Saint-Omer is a slow-paced, intricate and empathic tale of motherhood, immigration, isolation, and justice. NDiaye’s influence on the screenplay can be seen in its non-judgmental and nuanced representation of Coly’s experience in France and in the French legal system. The film does not seek to condemn, justify or sensationalise Kabou’s story, but rather to raise essential questions and encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions. Saint-Omer won the Silver Lion at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, and constituted France’s official selection for Best International Film at the 95th Academy Awards.

Kayije Kagame as Rama
Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly

Further reading on Marie NDiaye's works

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