Photo: barnesandnoble.com

Photo: barnesandnoble.com

The French Ministry of Immigration in 2009 opened a national discussion on what it meant to be French. The previous year, an estimated 11.8 million immigrants lived within the country’s borders, the bulk of them (around 40 percent) settling in or around Paris. In 2005, two immigrant boys were electrocuted while they hid from police in a power substation. Paris rioted, both about the deaths and the larger issue of how immigrants don’t experience liberte, egalite or fraternite once they arrive in France.

In a country with tough anti-immigration laws, critics believed the 2009 identity debates were more about exclusion than integration. After all, anti-Muslim tirades spilled onto the immigration ministry’s web site as soon as it was opened up to commenters.

Oddly enough, in that same year Marie Ndiaye won the Prix Goncourt for her novel Three Strong Women. Ndiaye, whose mother is French and father is Senegalese, became both the most widely-read author in the country and the most controversial, largely because she called¬†President Nicolas Sarkozy’s anti-immigration policies “monstrous.” In response, a member of the French parliament wrote an open letter that said Goncourt winners should respect national cohesion or remain silent. Fortunately for readers trying to understand the realities of multiracial France, her book has been translated into English, making that silence impossible.

Three Strong Women involves three interconnected — but uneven — tales about women straddling the divide between Africa and Europe. The first is about Norah, an attorney who goes to Senegal to visit her estranged father, only to find herself dragged into a dark family drama that forces her to examine her loyalty. The seemingly interminable second is about Fanta, a Senegalese teacher who follows her depressed white boyfriend, the hot mess of all hot messes, back to France. The third is a heartrending tale about Fanta’s distant cousin Khady, a penniless widow put out by her family, her only hope being to start a new life at Fanta’s side.

Khady’s tale, just like the riots of 2005, adds a much-needed voice to the French immigration and identity discussion, a debate that raged in its presidential elections earlier this year. For all the immigration quotas, headscarf crackdowns and limits on the types of jobs immigrants can get, there are Africans like the fictional Khady who will suffer any indignity just to get to France and be knitted into the country’s fabric. Who better to express this than Ndiaye? Educated at the Sorbonne, her luminous prose is celebrated by France’s literary greats. At the same time, she is a woman of color, mindful of the opportunities and hope — as well as discrimination — that exist for immigrants outside and within France. Ndiaye’s expression of this reality is required reading for Francophiles and refines the discussion about what being French means now and should mean in the future.