The French writer Marie NDiaye likes a mystery. An admirer of detective novels, she has often felt “a pang of disappointment at the resolution, no matter how brilliant,” she said recently at her home in Paris. “I hate to be taken by the hand.”
In her own novels, NDiaye can’t be accused of spoon-feeding readers. Her latest book, “Vengeance Is Mine,” centers on a lawyer grappling with her own, unreliable memory: A new client brings to mind a young boy she met three decades prior, when she was still a child. But is it really him? And was the afternoon they spent together a magical turning point in her life, or something more disturbing?
“Vengeance Is Mine,” released this week in an English translation by Jordan Stump, provides no neat answer — and neither does NDiaye.
“She doesn’t want it to be a traumatic event,” she said gently of Maître Susane, the lawyer (“Maître” is a French honorific for the profession). “But perhaps she is wrong. I myself don’t know.”
She added, “You have to allow people the freedom to be whoever they like, and not necessarily a victim if that’s stifling for them.”
NDiaye, 56, has long claimed a similar freedom for herself. One of France’s best-known novelists, she has produced a steady stream of unsettling characters and formally inventive stories since her debut, “Quant au Riche Avenir” (“As to the Rich Future,” not available in English), published when she was 17. The stylistic maturity of this short novel so impressed Jérôme Lindon, the acclaimed French publisher of Samuel Beckett, that when he was asked to meet NDiaye by her high school’s front gate, he thought that she had to be a teacher there.
From the 1990s onward, bolstered by early critical acclaim, she became the most prominent Black woman in French literature, a world long dominated by white men. Yet NDiaye, who was born in France to a French mother and a Senegalese father and was raised on the country’s universalist values, has never had much interest in speaking for a specific identity. In fact, she shied away from including characters from the African continent in her works until 2009’s “Three Strong Women,” which won France’s biggest literary prize, the Goncourt.
“When she started, some thought of her as a Senegalese author, and she was adamant in cautioning that she didn’t consider herself that way,” said Claire Ducournau, a professor of cultural sociology at the University Paul-Valéry in Montpellier, France.
NDiaye’s father left the family when she was a toddler and her brother Pap not much older. He was rarely mentioned after that. “We all knew that he had abandoned us, but it wasn’t something we could talk about,” NDiaye said. “It was a different time. More things were implicit.”
A lot goes unsaid, too, in NDiaye’s novels. “Vengeance Is Mine” is populated with characters whose motives are difficult to decipher — a style of writing “that puts the reader to work,” Ducournau said. Maître Susane’s housekeeper, an undocumented immigrant from Mauritius, is a steely, mysterious presence throughout. Her client, Gilles Principaux, brings Maître Susane the horrific case of his wife, Marlyne, who has murdered their three children — yet insists on his love for her.
Marlyne was inspired by NDiaye’s work on “Saint Omer,” a French legal drama directed by Alice Diop, which won the Silver Lion at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. NDiaye had already co-written a screenplay with Claire Denis for the 2009 film “White Material,” in addition to writing regularly for the stage. In the case of “Saint Omer,” Diop asked for her input on the narrative, derived from the real-life story of a Senegal-born mother who drowned her child on a French beach. “We had very long conversations about this woman, about the idea we had of her,” NDiaye said.
NDiaye herself was raised by her white mother, a science teacher. At school in Bourg-la-Reine, a well-to-do suburb of Paris, she and her brother “were the only nonwhite children,” NDiaye said. That didn’t bother them: “It was never brought up.”
In a phone interview, her brother Pap Ndiaye (he styles his surname differently), a renowned historian who was France’s education minister from 2022 until the summer, said that their mother taught them to do whatever they wanted. “There was just one condition,” he said. “That we do it as well as possible.”
Yet as race became a part of public discourse in France after in the past two decades, challenging the country’s colorblind ideals, the siblings’ thinking evolved, albeit with subtle differences. In 2008, Pap Ndiaye published “La Condition Noire” (“The Black Condition”), an essay on Black history and discrimination in France. NDiaye wrote a foreword for the book in the form of a short story about two sisters of different races.
Of the two sisters, the Black character, Victoire, is a successful woman who moves “among white faces” and “sees herself like them,” NDiaye wrote, while her white sibling Paula comes to believe she is Black. It’s a wistful, allusive piece of fiction, which appears to mirror NDiaye’s complex feelings about racial dynamics. “I liked the idea that at school people didn’t ask you to define yourself by this,” she said of her youth.
Until a work trip last year, NDiaye had been to Senegal, her father’s home country, only once, when she was 19. “I didn’t want to go without a reason. To do what? Be a tourist?” she said. “And it made no sense to me to meet half-siblings who would be strangers anyway. I can’t really feel more from Senegal than from Burkina Faso or the Ivory Coast.”
Even as a child, NDiaye knew she wanted to be a writer. Joyce Carol Oates was an early inspiration; as a teenager, she wrote novels in secret on a heavy typewriter that had once been the property of a bank, and was a gift from her aunt. When her first book was released by Lindon’s prestigious publishing house, Les Éditions de Minuit, in 1985, she hadn’t even graduated high school. (The same year, NDiaye, who found academic analyses of writing “boring,” got the equivalent of a C- on her final French literature exam.)
NDiaye remembers no fuss over her age when her first novel was published. “There were reviews, but nowadays it would be a different sort of event, I think,” she said. She didn’t worry about how well the book would do. “I knew absolutely nothing about publishing,” she said. “I was doing what I thought I was made for, what I loved, but I didn’t really consider the future.”
What came next was an apparently seamless career — a new novel every two or three years, her profile rising steadily. From 1989 to 1991, NDiaye was one of the youngest-ever residents of the Villa Medici in Rome, a highly prestigious artist residency program run by the French state. As a young woman of color, she was often “perceived as this cute, charming thing at gatherings,” she said. “But at the time it was my world, so I didn’t question it.”
In her early 20s, NDiaye married another French writer, Jean-Yves Cendrey, who had sent her a fan letter after reading her first novel. The pair raised their three children in the French countryside, in Normandy and near Bordeaux, and in Berlin. They lived there between 2007 and 2016 out of a desire, NDiaye said, to live in a major city that was more affordable than Paris. “I liked that there was nothing snobbish about Berlin, even in the art world,” NDiaye said.
Not long after their move, NDiaye was excoriated in the French media for calling the right-wing government of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy “monstrous” in an interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles. It was a rare political statement for the naturally cautious NDiaye, who isn’t on social media and said she prefers “to live peacefully.”
Her brother, who himself became a target for the far right as France’s education minister, said that she “could have been a public figure, but she had absolutely no interest in being in the limelight.”
Instead, NDiaye’s professional focus is on bringing complex, ambiguous stories to the page. Newly installed in Paris after her recent divorce from Cendrey, she writes for around two hours a day when she is actively working on a book — currently, a volume of short stories. She then stops writing for a year or so, while her next characters slowly take shape in her mind.
And whether they’re lawyers or murderers, in NDiaye’s world, they will be on an equal footing: “I like the idea that in novels, all the characters we decide to bring to life have the same opportunities.”