When Fatou Diome handed a copy of her first novel to her beloved grandmother in Senegal, the response was tepid. For the illiterate older woman, stories are something you tell, not write. "She's happy for me," Diome explains, "but she doesn't really understand." The French, however, know a literary sensation when they see one. Le Ventre de l'Atlantique (The Belly of the Atlantic), a bittersweet account of immigration and exile, is currently at the top of the French best-seller lists. The French daily Le Figaro gushed: "There are a thousand clichés about immigration, and in one novel Fatou Diome sweeps them all away."
Diome, 35, has created a headstrong heroine, Salie, with a more than passing resemblance to herself. The character leaves her native Senegal for France where, after years of struggle and isolation, she eventually learns how to straddle the two worlds. (Diome herself left the Senegalese island of Niodior in 1994, and lives in Strasbourg.) Like her creator, Salie leaves behind a younger brother who yearns to join her, convinced that, even without papers, he can become a star football player if he can just reach French soil. As Salie tries to dissuade him with somber stories of the fate of other illegal immigrants, Diome exposes the myths and stereotypes that mar the largely unexplored relationship between West Africans and their former colonizers. "Young people in my village imagine life in France, but they don't really know what goes on in French society," says Diome.
An illegitimate child raised by her grandmother, Diome grew up as an outsider in her village. She left at 13 to continue her education, supporting herself by working as a housekeeper. In Dakar, she married a Frenchman and moved to France. His family didn't accept her because of the color of her skin. "At first it was hard, but then I understood that it was just another form of rejection," she says. "I already knew rejection from home." The couple divorced; Diome found work and kept writing. Now she says she's at ease with her place between two worlds. And with the success of her book, she is finally getting the acceptance she and Salie both deserve.