French novelist, screenwriter, and playwright Marie NDiaye had already published eight works and won the Prix Femina, a prestigious literary award chosen by an exclusively female jury, when she penned her novella Self-Portrait in Green, or Autoportrait en vert, in 2005. Four years and only two books later, NDiaye became the first Black woman to win France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt. As the attention to her work spread, so, too, did the translations. In 2013, she was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In 2015, she won the Nelly Sachs Prize for promoting understanding between peoples, as well as the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ Firecracker Award for Creative Nonfiction. Now, on the 10th anniversary of Jordan Stump’s English translation of Self-Portrait in Green, she is considered a world literary figure.
A 100-page series of fragmented diary entries and black-and-white photographs, NDiaye’s memoir refracts the narrator’s consciousness through three central characters: the women in green. The women in green are a teacher, a mother-in-law, a ghost—perhaps even the narrator herself. Fittingly, NDiaye’s writing carries a spectral quality, an opaqueness that both reveals and obscures, in turns pulling away from and staring at the women in green. A starred review from Kirkus Reviews described Self-Portrait in Green as a “mercurial chronicle” that “is too big for one genre box.” Stump, NDiaye’s primary English-language translator, characterized the book’s haunting mutability as “a convolution of order and chaos, direction and wandering, an unknowable writhing inside a recurring known… The shape of the book is in other words as elusive as its subject.”
Authors Amina Cain and Giada Scodellaro would agree. In a recent conversation conducted over email, Cain and Scodellaro discussed the masterful duality in Self-Portrait in Green. The result is essential reading for NDiaye fans and newcomers alike, a primer to her body of work and an opportunity to cast our gaze upon these women in green—upon all they show us, all they repress, and all they obsess over.
— Elizabeth McNeill, Chicago Review of Books Daily Editor
Amina, in her contribution to the book Visible, Marie NDiaye’s “Step of a Feral Cat” includes the line: “She was tenacious, stoic, and the hours belonged to her, she was bare and impenetrable, strange and tranquil, we could not upset her so easily, in her serene zealotry.” In this same story a woman, Marie, wears green, a dark, murky green. This line seems to render or set forth all the green figures that are held within NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, these feminine figures, and it seems also to confirm their very existence, or even their slow persistence, their flooding. What is all this green? Is it absolute?
Giada, thank you for pointing the way to “Step of a Feral Cat.” Somehow I’d not heard of it yet, so it was a nice and welcome surprise, and the green within it, saturating the skirt of Marie Sachs, does conjure all of the green women in Self-Portrait. The first time I read the book, I allowed the green to remain a mystery, to haunt the book as it haunts the narrator, but this second time through I’ve been thinking more about what it might mean. Green so often represents life and abundance and health; it is the color of most plants. These women in green are almost too alive, they want for so much, even as they sometimes seem a bit dead inside. Maybe green, and the sheer saturation of it in Self-Portrait, is a color—a place—where the living meet the dead.
The narrator herself may be a woman in green, which brings me to another detail that connects “Step of a Feral Cat” and Self-Portrait in Green: not only do these women multiply, or echo each other, there are echoes or variations of the name “Marie” as well. There is Marie NDiaye, the author, and Marie Sachs in “Step of a Feral Cat,” as well as Maria Martinez. So, there is the question: what is the green? But also: who are these women, and who are they to each other, as well as to NDiaye?
The green is a color and a place, they meet, yes. Your wonderful book, A Horse at Night, is how I first discovered NDiaye and this Self-Portrait, and in it you discuss these green spaces, and how the place and color must coexist, how the banana tree and the green woman cannot be separated; and then you propose the question: “What does a reader do with these literary landscapes? Is it enough just to see them?” And I think, yes, it is enough. So much of this strange and superb book by NDiaye is about seeing, unearthing, or otherwise veiling. The narrator asks of their childhood self, “Was I ever seen again?” These questions move the reader to consider: what is visible and to whom? Do the male figures understand anything of this world, do they carry anything at all without being prompted, or just pocket change, unburdened? Do they see what’s happened?
To think about the green women is to consider them as social structures. They are tied to the homes, to the drab kitchens, to these domestic and public spaces—the town hall, the schoolyard—and then also to the rural landscape. Tied then to the lilac leaves, the honeysuckle, the water willow fields, the banana tree, the Garonne. The green women grant this place its function. They exist in it, they drive back and forth, they survey, they have a sense of duty and loyalty to place, and sometimes, to motherhood. Every year when the waters rise, do they not carry the heavy furniture to the second floor? Don’t they drive the cars to higher ground? To each other, are these women not counterparts, custodians, companions, but also infrastructure?
“What is visible and to whom?” is such a good question. It may be one of the central questions of the book. Certain things are meant to remain veiled. What the narrator sees is not seen by her children, and she cannot fully see what is visible to them. She doesn’t always know what, and even if, she is seeing. For instance, can she trust that her friend Cristina, who is standing before her, actually is Cristina?
I’m considering your question on the male figures, too. They don’t seem to move through the same world as the female figures. I’m not sure they do see what’s happened. Their vision appears differently attuned, perhaps to the pocket change they are carrying, as you put it so well. I like thinking of the green women as social structures and infrastructures. They are the ones who form this world. They are the stakes, even when what they are holding down is diaphanous or rising, even if they themselves are rising.
Still, I can’t help but think about how much the narrator often wants to escape the other female figures, the fact that sometimes they give her trouble. What is it she wants to escape, and where does she want to escape to? Sometimes it seems it is only the children who are good. When she looks at them, she feels relieved, “swollen with kindly thoughts.” Yet, the river is swelling too…
I must offer this again: “They are the stakes, even when what they are holding down is diaphanous or rising, even if they themselves are rising.” What a wonderful way to imagine them. And there is something interesting about how goodness is examined, or how it is fleeting, or even how NDiaye considers behavior or what it means to behave. The children are good, they listen, or maybe they have not yet learned to defy. And is the narrator any good? Is her own green mother, or her stepmother, who is also her childhood best friend? The narrator wants to escape the disappointment of these green figures, to be completely rid of their moral uncertainty. But later, while imagining their potential disappearance, she begins to question her own sense of originality. This duality is masterful: the narrator’s experience of all the green is filled with repulsion, but also with desperate longing.
This simultaneous desire for space and proximity is also reflected in the hybridity of Self-Portrait in Green. The striking black and white photographs (with the exception of the opening image, Décrire, offered in color)—those by Julie Ganzin, and those left uncredited—shift the social atmosphere, the constructed environment, and they offer a horizontal knowledge. I’m curious about your experience of these images, of seeing them for the first time set against the text. How did they affect you? How do their patterns, omissions, and obstructions unearth or amplify the green?
It is a masterful duality, I agree, and this passage from the book comes to me when I think of it, of the repulsion and the longing: “Because four times a day my heart was gripped by something unnamable, though not absolutely malign, the moment I passed by the farm with the lone banana tree in its fenced yard…”
I love what you say about the way the photographs shift the social atmosphere and offer a horizontal knowledge. For me, seeing them in this edition of the book deepens the book’s mystery, which I didn’t think was possible, because it already goes so far in that regard. I know not to read the images literally, but taken together with the text, they make me consider what you don’t see in a photograph. You see a woman and a child, for example, but you don’t see what they will grow into, what they will be to each other through time. In a photograph, you may not be able to discern uncertainty, alienation, rejection. You cannot see a person’s death.
Like the women in green, the photographs multiply, repeat, and sometimes seem to be in the process of dissipation. In some of the photographs, the female figure appears as a blur, like mist or fog. Here, too, the figures are merging with the landscape, merging with the green of it. There are the two young women who look like twins. It’s hard for me not to associate them with horror, and all of a sudden, I’m asking myself, why does doubling sometimes scare me? After all, there must be a kind of strength in it, and closeness, to be able to double, to want to.
There is horror in this visual doubling, in all that cannot grow or evolve, or in the perpetual existence of the woman and the child. I agree, we do not have access to their futures. But these figures are not entirely stagnant either, and the horror exists/persists for me in the dissipation you so aptly mention, and in how the images carry a subtle measure of movement, mutation, and expansion.
In the parallel photographs by Ganzin, Tirrena/Tirrena, there is a startling shift as we arrive at them, twelve pages apart; first: the body of water, the bank, a tree, a fallen branch, the mountain range in the distance. Later, in the second image, we recognize the replicated landscape, still sharp, the same sky, the branch, and then: a woman, soft in the foreground, blurry, she has stumbled upon the bank, we think, with arms swinging, captured from behind. These photographic figures appear to the reader then, disappear and reappear, sometimes breaking the fourth wall, confronting us directly, perhaps so we might know something of the narrator’s anguish.
In front of me, laid out on the wooden desk are two images of my own mother, green, she’s sitting in a boat, oar in hand, or otherwise with the oar abandoned, hands free and with arms reaching up. I read NDiaye’s line again: “My mother is a woman in green, untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.” The photographs included in Self-Portrait, when set against the text, seem to also emphasize the complexity of the familial relationship, of the woman and the child, or of the abandoned figure—cold, mutable, disappointing. I return to A Horse at Night. In your exploration of solitude and community, you ask: “Who are you when you are not a friend, a partner, a lover, a sibling, a parent, a child? When no one is with you, what do you do?” I love this question, and I sit with it as I consider our narrator. I ask myself, what obligation does she have to family, to her own children, to her disappearing parents? What is passed down, relinquished, inherited here? The green figures come into view; they return. Must she save them?
Giada, you are looking at the photographs so closely. It is quite stunning, and I feel lucky to be talking about them with you. If I’m honest, the shift between those two photographs slipped right past me—the woman, out of focus, stumbling onto the bank—but now I see it. I’d already found that second photo startling, and now it is even more so. It does seem a way to know some of the narrator’s anguish. To look at the photographs, to be alarmed by what happens between them, by the green woman who appears suddenly in that green landscape, who was always walking toward it, even if she wasn’t visible to us yet. I like that the reader must perceive all on their own the green that is behind the black and white of the photographs, except for the first, Décrire, which, as you mention, is a muted kind of technicolor, the green spread out across the mountainside, and across the female figure’s dress.
I’m thinking now of the way that colors permeate your own book, Some of Them Will Carry Me—hues of silver, blue, purple, black, brown, peach, pink, white, gold—and of how good they are to read, to enter when they appear. I’m thinking about what it means to read, or read within, a color…
Today, I went online to read about NDiaye’s life. I’d done it before, but I found myself curious about her all over again. When she’s asked about Self-Portrait in Green and its “autobiographical impulse” in an interview that appeared in The White Review with Aurélie Maurin (translated by Samuel Rutter), she says something interesting: “Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by women, as if I weren’t a woman myself, but a man intrigued and subjugated by the opposite sex. This book is a self-portrait of how I was bewitched by ‘the feminine.’” When I read the book, I am able to step into this sense of fascination and, of course, subjugation. Here, NDiaye expresses feelings of distance and of separation. The green women elude her, they slip out of her grasp. If they are infinitely mutable—even her own mother, even her childhood best friend—nothing in them is in any way fixed or ever will be. Perhaps that is part of what brings them their solitude. Is one alone in one’s changes and transformations? Even in inheritance, in obligation, mystery is retained. I see that mutability very strongly in my own mother, in my memories of her. And I think that the narrator must be every bit as mutable as the women she is intrigued by, that to them she too cannot be pinned down, that that is part of what makes her a figure in green.
To read within a color, or even to write within a color, I think, is to sit within the work’s entirety. The closing image of the book, like the opening image, is also entitled Décrire, though it differs from the opening image in every way. Or is it not the same image, unsaturated, skewed with the movement of time? The woman has changed her dress to meet the season, long-sleeved, and she’s tied her hair up, the back of her neck is exposed, that’s all, and the landscape is there, diminished, and the colors still exist, or we perceive them there, just as you mention that we must—the green, green, green. And you’re right, too, that nothing is ever fixed, and so even the children, the good children, the small, docile, obedient children must grow, infinitely mutable, they must separate themselves from the green narrator, and they do, by the end “[they] eye each other gravely. Their lips are very red. Then they look away, and fall silent.”
Self-Portrait in Green: 10th-Anniversary Edition
By Marie NDiaye
Translated by Jordan Stump
Two Lines Press
Published September 12, 2023