“…Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” (@realDonaldTrump on Twitter, Jul 14, 2019)
These comments came from “the occupant of the White House’s” Twitter feed. Most unfortunately, these words revive a fear of the Other that has plagued American history. Uttered from the mouth of a white man, this Other has often represented non-white and female identities. This is unmistakably the identitarian tension at stake in the president’s derogatory remarks directed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar. In an effort to erect another boundary between himself and these Congresswomen, the president falsely stated that they were not natural-born American citizens and ordered them to “go back” to the “places from which they came.” As we all well know by this point, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley are natural-born US citizens, and Omar became a citizen in 2000 after immigrating from Somalia as a child. All of the women responded to Trump on Twitter that indeed, the country “we all swear to” is the United States (Ocasio-Cortez) and that “THIS is what racism looks like” (Pressley). While researching this news story, I was immediately taken back to a novel we read in my French Women Writers course this past Spring.
“You can go back where you came from.” (Rudy Descas in Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye)
This all-too-familiar phrase––a paraphrase of the president’s comments––appears midway through prominent French author Marie NDiaye’s three-part novel, Three Strong Women. NDiaye is the first black woman to receive France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she was awarded for Three Strong Women. Published in 2009, the novel touches on several current political concerns in the US: distinction between fact and fiction, trust in authority, systemic racism, sexual equality, and xenophobia. It is unsurprising that this French novel reflects tensions in American political terrain as both countries currently suffer from an uptick in right-wing nationalism.
Tucked neatly within the main character’s stream of conscious, Rudy Descas, a white Frenchman, ruminates on the exclamation––“You can go back where you came from”––as he nervously recalls the climax of a quarrel that he had had earlier that morning with Fanta, his Senegalese wife. After years of subconscious feelings of responsibility for a failing marriage, Rudy cannot believe what he allows himself to utter: “Was it possible?” The searing statement made earlier that day is Rudy’s depressed attempt to cause harm and to superficially dismiss deeper problems. Years earlier, the couple was forced to move from Dakar–where the two met as teachers of French literature–to provincial France after Rudy got into a row with some of his high school students and was asked to leave.
The story, Part II in a text that subtly weaves together the narratives of “three strong women” (or “powerful” women, if reading closely the French title: Trois femmes puissantes), examines Rudy’s psychosis in the third-person limited. NDiaye’s authorial finesse–demonstrated through the distance afforded by the third-person point of view, the neurotic repetition, the constant questioning of reality–forces the reader to swim in the mind of this anti-hero, and thereby bear witness to the inner workings of racist mentality–and the fragility from which it stems. In the context of the Twitter scandal, this fragility has been laid bare by at least two of the Congresswomen: “a WEAK bully like you never wins” (Tlaib); “weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty” (Ocasio-Cortez). Weakness, fragility, and fear are at the roots of all stripes of discrimination, and the current political outrage, alongside NDiaye’s novel, make this clear.
The relationship between fear and slander rings true for the character of Rudy, whose fragile ego leads to lashing out against one of the people he loves most. Rudy attempts to improve his behavior through cutting unhealthy family ties after a mental excavation of his own traumas that led to an “ideology of othering.”
Unsurprisingly, in the novel, Rudy acquires such prejudiced behavior from his father, who committed a crime against his Senegalese business partner while his family was living in Dara Salam during a brief period of Rudy’s youth. The trauma of witnessing his father’s crime in boyhood fragments Rudy’s memory and causes confusion between fact and fiction of his own actions. Rudy is stuck in an endless state of self-loathing and doubt.
“What had he said to her exactly?” “[W]hat were the particular circumstances he’d been incapable of confronting as a fully formed person?” “How could he get people to love him again?”
After nearly one hundred pages of cyclical, depressive thought and reflection on the past, Rudy realizes how he has perpetuated his father’s behavior and begins to answer some of his perpetual questions. NDiaye’s prose exposes racism as systemic and transmitted.
Then, the author concludes the story with a twist (as she does with each section of the novel). After being absorbed in Rudy’s thoughts for nearly 150 pages, the reader is relieved with a “counterpoint.” The final paragraph narrates the point of view of the couple’s neighbor, an elderly white woman named Pulmaire. The neighbor peers out of her living room window to–at her great surprise–see Fanta over the hedges. Fanta is not sporting her normal, expressionless regard. She is smiling. Pulmaire waves, Fanta greets her in return, the novel ends. In this scene, Fanta and Pulmaire build community over the hedges, which represent the property lines that divide the two lots, but also serve as a metaphor for identitarian division. Fanta is Senegalese and black, Pulmaire is French and white, but these superficial differences do not prevent the potential for community. Fanta is setting down her roots and demonstrating the strength to form community across difference. And NDiaye emerges as a powerful author who makes visible the mechanics of systemic racism, the multiple types of trauma that racism causes, and the deep psychological work that must be done in order to heal from it.
Rudy, the novel’s antihero, emerges as a very flawed but introspective character that attempts to learn from his past mistakes. Fanta demonstrates, at least through others’ perceptions, strength and a sense of resolution. The story seems to end on a glimmer of hope, one that deviates from the narrative’s overarching tone. This glimmer can be hard to identify in the American political landscape. But it is more visible if we look to the not three but four strong women who persevere in the demand for a “functioning democratic society.”
In response to the president’s racist comments, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar held a press conference in which they did not mention the president by name and made demands for a focus on policy rather than a perpetuation of distracting, fallacious arguments fueled by an “ideology of othering” (Omar). Pressley then highlighted her own policy, which includes focusing on providing affordable housing and healthcare, as well as attending to the childhood trauma related to the vilification, deportation, and separation of migrant families in need of asylum. And as she shared in the press conference, it is doubtful that the leader of American government will apologize and demonstrate the same extent of reflection and character evolution as our fictional character of focus. Working within the realm of literature, Marie NDiaye’s novel, Three Strong Women, pens immigrant narratives that expose colonial tensions between France and Senegal and the difficulties immigrants face to cross borders as well as the discrimination they experience after crossing them. Read together, NDiaye’s work and the re-actions of these four congresswomen demonstrate an overlap in the potential for politics and literature: the representation of marginalized people and stories––muffled by white nationalism––that need to be heard in order to attempt to establish community across difference, and the amplification of the stories of those who are already working in solidarity to effect positive societal change.
*I would like to thank the students in my “Women Writing Women” course whose discussion and writing motivated this post.