“It is harder to be a young french-arab today, than ever before”

a conversation with Marie NDiaye

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

Ms NDiaye, do the values that the French republic supposedly stands for – freedom, equality and brotherhood – still exist in contemporary France?

I believe that the values of freedom and equality are still guaranteed in France even if - and we must not forget - we are still living in unusual circumstances since the [terrorist] attacks, which could ostensibly encroach upon our basic freedoms.

Thinkers like the Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, have criticised the ideals of the French Revolution and primarily because they were formulated by old, white men…

Even if they were formulated by white men, I still think they are excellent values. I am not an old white man but these values suit me very well. I don’t see why you’d want to change anything about them because, despite everything, they protect the weakest among us. And I believe those Western values that apply to the protection of women are good and proper.

In your books you often explore constellations of characters where those ideals about equality remain unrealised. In your novel, Ladivie, the character of Malinka is ashamed when her mother, who is black, unexpectedly turns up in the bistro where she works. Does that kind of shame still exist today?

That story, in which the daughter is ashamed of her mother, took place in the 1970s. At that time it was still unusual to have a black mother and the woman in the story is a domestic servant to boot. She is at the very bottom of the social ladder. In my opinion, Malinka wouldn’t have any cause to be ashamed of her mother today. There has been great progress in the area that this story addresses.

Still, the protagonist in the book, Die Chefin (in English, The Boss), that was recently translated into German, also focuses on origin. Why is that? 

In that case, it is almost the other way around: The protagonist feels a kind of sense of shame when she thinks about her parents but it is because she has the feeling that, in terms of morals, she is inferior to them. She is ashamed when she compares herself to them. She is embarrassed to have reached a level of prosperity that her family has not and which has helped her overcome social barriers that still stand for her parents. But it is not strange that a chef would come from a modest background. Today it’s different because cooking has become a form of fashion. But until relatively recently all cooks came from the working class or from a rural background.

The main character in The Boss has made it, she’s ascended. That is something that is particularly difficult for the children of migrants. Is anger and frustration about this widespread?

Yes, definitely. There are a certain number of young people with an Arab or African background who study here but who then go to England or other countries to work because they have the impression that nobody looks at what they have achieved but rather who they are, or who they seem to be, and what is seen, above all, is that they are young people with a foreign background. They believe that this isn’t the first thing that is noticed in the Anglo-Saxon realm when they’re looking for a job or an apartment. In France, this instinctive mistrust of people with a Maghreb or African background is still very strong and particularly when it comes to young men. Girls are less distrusted.

Does this have to do with terror attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists?

I believe that it must be harder to be a young man with Arab origins in France today than ever before. Like if you’re a young guy with an Arab-looking face and you’re just sitting on the train with a backpack… that must make a lot of young men very unhappy. After all, they have just as much fear as anyone else that they could become the victim of such an attack.

I believe it is important to take a fair and balanced view of the young, Arabic looking man who might appear threatening on your train or in the airport. But it is also difficult to fight those feelings of mistrust and fear.

Despite all those feelings though, France actually has a long history of migration…

In France we have become accustomed to influences from different cultures in art and literature because as a colonial power, France was present in Africa and Asia and there have been Francophone writers from these countries for some time. The French-speaking Senegalese author, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was elected to the Académie française [the body that concerns itself with the French language] in the 1950s. And then there are also all the French-speaking authors from the Atilles, who are also very important in France.

But this feeling of class is still very pronounced in France, isn’t it?

It is cultural. As it was before, the aristocracy is still very important in France - you can see that in some people’s names, when they have a “de” in their surname. And that cuts both ways. For example, it would be difficult to be the leader of a leftist movement if you had an aristocratic name and there will always be people who are hostile towards you just because of that.

For years there has consistently been a portion of French voters who have chosen the extreme right-wing Front National party, which says it wants to stop migration. Why do you think they do this? 

Something that the left have not considered enough is that there are also many poor white people in France. There is great frustration among the poor, white population in the north and this is leading to the delusion that they are getting fewer entitlements than immigrants. They have the impression that they get less financial support and fewer apartments. So the idea that “native” French people should come first stirs them. The left wing has not embraced these small, white people enough. They now have the impression that the left wing only cares about the fate of immigrants and that nobody cares about them.

A lot of French don’t even bother to vote anymore.

It is strange. When you talk about politics in France, everyone is eager to get involved – but there is suspicion when it comes to elections and politicians.  It’s true that people are kind of disillusioned after the affair with François Fillon, who acted so dishonestly. But I have concluded that despite all this young people really are very interested in politics. And that’s new. It also offers a kind of hope.

You left France when Sarkozy was president. What do you think of the current president, Emmanuel Macron?

At this point in time it is hard to say because we have not seen much of him yet. It always gets on my nerves a little bit when people say, “he will do this, or that”. I would prefer to wait and see what he really does and to have a little faith. In France we are far too quick to say, “it’s going to be terrible”.

Macron is a fairly young leader but he is married to an older woman. As a writer, does that interest you?

Yes, the man has something compelling about him, so does the couple – and even more so because up until now in France, you would present yourself once or twice as a candidate before you were actually made president. You worked for the job and when you finally achieved it, aged 50 or 60, it was almost like a reward. With this man though, it’s all different. And it was very interesting to see the appallingly macho way the people on the street and the newspapers reacted when it was about Macron’s wife, and how extremely meaningful their age difference was seen to be. I actually think it’s great to have a president who has an older woman as his wife because that’s never happened before. I find it very noticeable that he’s so different in this sense too.

You yourself have chosen quite a different path too. Earlier on you were offered a place at an elite school but you turned it down. Would you do that again?

No, I think that today I might make a different decision I was very young, I had very romantic and radical preconceptions about what it meant to be a writer and I thought that a writer didn’t need a university education. Today I no longer see it that way and I don’t think the fact that you never went to university necessarily makes you a good writer.

But it seems to have been the right choice for you. Your first manuscript was accepted when you were just 17…

Yes but that was a coincidence, it was in no way exemplary. If my children tried to do the same, I’d advise them not to. Because I think it would be a pity if you had to make the course of your life dependent only on happy coincidences. 

The interview was conducted by Timo Berger

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