DIGEST June 2024

The magic and realism of Maryse Condé

I recently discovered the novels of Guadeloupean author and storyteller extraordinaire Maryse Condé. How I wish I could have met her, or heard her speak before she passed away earlier this year, at age 90. What a personality! A non-conformist, fiercely independent woman, at once bold and thoughtful, she led an eventful, adventurous and prolific life. And I mean: sweeping saga kind of eventful!

Young Maryse Boucolon left Guadeloupe in 1950, at age 16, destined for brilliant studies at the lycée Fénelon, a prestigious Paris high school. She had been steeped in French culture and literature at home and at school, and her own parents had taught her to see France as the homeland. And Maryse did in fact excel in Paris, despite the shock of everyday French racism. Things went awry when she fell head over heels for charismatic fellow student Jean Dominique, who initiated her to sex and Haitian literature and politics. Dominique went on to become a famed and courageous pro-democracy journalist in Haiti, but Maryse mostly remembered him for the immense betrayal she felt when he left France the day after she told him she was pregnant.

After her son was born, Maryse survived a bout of tuberculosis, and abandoned her hopes of attending a prestigious Grande Ecole in France. Desperately poor, unwilling to return home and seeking respectability, she rushed into marriage to mediocre Guinean drama student Mamadou Condé, only to leave him after three months. Over a period of 12 years beginning in 1960, she lived and taught French literature in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana and Senegal, at a heady and troubled time for young African democracies. She had three children with Mamadou before separating definitively.

A teenage Maryse Condé as she prepared to leave Guadeloupe for high school in Paris

These were formative and often brutally hard years for Maryse Condé, but she was also part of the astonishing circles of thinkers and activists living in or visiting West Africa at that time. She met the likes of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, President Kwame N’krumah of Ghana, guerrillero Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, future Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo, Haitian writer Roger Dorsinville, and Senegalese filmmaker and author Ousmane Sembène, who became a close friend. Along the way she even had a brief, torrid sexual escapade in Paris with an illegitimate son of François Duvalier, the murderous dictator of Haiti. I’m not kidding!

After moving in with Richard Philcox, an Englishman she had met in Senegal who became her translator into English, Condé completed her PhD in literature at the Sorbonne in 1975. She taught French literature at various universities – notably Columbia, La Sorbonne, Berkeley and UCLA until retirement. At Columbia University, where she spent ten years, she transformed “French studies,” once centered exclusively on France’s literature, into “Francophone studies,” a field that embraces French language, literature, and culture from many countries.

Condé’s epic, exuberant and hard-hitting novels are a treat. Each of them is a revelation, crackling with insights. They are breezy and fast-paced, and yet full of evocative descriptions of beautiful and scarred places. Her writing style is direct, with free, strong female characters who love sex with men and sensual pleasure. Condé wrote in French but has since been translated into multiple languages, including Japanese.

She published her first book when she was 42 (a cheer for all later bloomers!). Before that age, she was “too busy living through painful episodes” to “trade real dramas for paper dramas.” She focused much of her writing on the terrible legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean, and the ensuing questions of identity and liberty. Condé was particularly interested in the lives and tribulations of Black women in colonial and post-colonial societies.

She tackles those topics through various genres and across many eras: the epic story of the Traoré family in the Bambara kingdom in 19th century West Africa (Segu, 1984); the detective-like account of the downfall of a young Caribbean gardener after he is acquitted of the murder of his rich white mistress (The Belle Créole, 2001); the memoirs of Tituba, the Barbados-born enslaved woman convicted of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem trials (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, 1986); the autobiographical, “without artifice” account of Condé’s years living and working in West Africa (What Is Africa to Me? Fragments of a True-to-Life Autobiography, 2012), or a re-imagining of Wuthering Heights set in Guadeloupe and Cuba at the turn of the 20th century (Windward Heights, 1995).

Maryse Condé in 2003 credit: Getty Images

Condé had a lot of material to draw upon in her own life. Her second daughter was born in a horrific Guinean maternity ward straight out of Charles Dickens, and she and her growing family lived in Conakry for several years in precarious conditions, with no money and her children becoming increasingly malnourished. While Condé lived in Guinea, the country descended into abject poverty and began food rationing under the government of Sekou Touré, a once-promising socialist leader turned Soviet-aligned despot who lived in splendor and used political repression and violence to maintain control. The Touré regime’s notorious 1961 crackdown on the so-called “teachers’ plot” directly affected her intellectual friends, some of whom were even exiled to Moscow. When she fled Guinea with her four children (and without Mamadou), Condé was wearing literal rags and had only $50 in her pocket. As would only happen in a movie, a bejeweled Guinea woman trader she barely knew walked up to her on the plane and gave her a wad of dollars, wishing her well. In Ghana, she was accused of being a spy at the time of the 1966 coup and thrown in a paddy wagon to spend four days in jail, until her Ghanaian lawyer lover had her freed.

Condé with her children Aïcha, Denis, Leïla and Sylvie-Anne,
in Senegal, around 1969

Condé's many friends and colleagues recount, in various interviews, how she was not easily pigeonholed, and wanted to be free of labels. American author Justin Torres has described her this way: “One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.” Her unwillingness or incapacity to fit into predictable narratives makes for exciting reading.

Condé started on her bold, forthright path with a bang. In her first novel, Heremakhonon (1976) (in the Malinké language, “search for happiness”), a sophisticated Guadaloupean philosophy teacher from Paris, Véronica Mercier, travels to an unnamed post-independence West African country to find her roots, in a classic “return to the homeland” narrative. She takes Ibrahima Sory, the Minister of Defense and of the Interior, as her lover specifically to experience sex with a Black man who hasn’t been subjected to slavery:

“This man who is about to take me does not know that I am a virgin of sorts. Of course the wrapper won’t be stained with blood and the griot won’t hold it up proudly to reassure the tribe. It will be another blood. Heavier and thicker. Before letting it flow black and fast. I now realize why he fascinates me. He hasn’t been branded with the mark of separation, slavery.”

Sory is amused by Véronica’s European-style quest for identity. He tries to warn Véronica that her search for an authentic, individual self will fail in a context where no one can operate outside of community norms: "There's no room here for little personal problems, sentimentality, whims,” he tells her. And when political upheaval and violence erupt, Véronica chooses the safe courses available to the outsider: first to remain uninvolved in order to maintain her affair with Sory, and then, once she realizes he is involved in killing her dissident friends, to pack up and leave it all behind. Back in Paris, Véronica realizes she didn’t find herself, and still doesn’t know what Africa “means” to her.

Heremakhonon became instantly controversial in the French Caribbean and in West Africa, both for its frank depiction of Véronica’s sexual quest for purification (with critics predictably suggesting that Condé was a loose woman—and she was certainly no prude), and for its critique of African socialist governments. But Condé would have none of it. Unlike Véronica, she had found deep connections and inspiration in West Africa. Yet also refused to romanticize it, as she explained in a 1996 interview:

“There was an oversimplified militancy in the air, along with a devout faith in African socialism and the mythification of that ideal. These things exasperated me and seemed quite naïve. I wanted to write a novel that would counter what was said at the time with too much superficiality. Basically, I wanted to express how much I had been wounded by everything I had seen in Africa and to point out how difficult it was to build a nation. Heremakhonon was a novel about disenchantment and pain... It was a novel of protest.”

Like Véronica, Condé was on a quest to figure out where she belonged. She rejected the culture that well-to-do Caribbean families like hers passed on to their children. How could she know all about Rimbaud and Victor Hugo as a child, but nothing about Martinican poet and essayist Aimé Césaire? Her parents had avoided discussions about racism and colonialism, sending her to Paris without much preparation for what she was about to experience there. It was Joseph Zobel’s novel “Black Shack Alley” (1950), about a poor boy who lives near a white-owned sugarcane plantation in Martinique that first opened her eyes, she said in an interview in 1998. She suddenly realized that Black people were not indigenous to the Caribbean, and had been brought over as slaves: “I understood then that the milieu I belonged to had absolutely nothing to offer and I began to loathe it. I had become bleached and whitewashed, and because of it, a poor imitation of the little French children I hung out with.” She had to define her own path.

By the time she lived in West Africa, Condé was deeply familiar with négritude, the literary movement animated by Césaire that emphasized solidarity among Black peoples worldwide despite slavery and colonialism. But Condé also considered herself a Marxist, with its focus on class rather than racial or gender struggle. Her years in Guinea had made clear the cultural and social gap between her and the local peoples. She eventually adopted Frantz Fanon’s point of view that “Black peoples” are a white invention, and distanced herself from the idea of Black essentialism and of Black culture as a monolith. She also didn’t consider herself a feminist writer, despite her own fiercely independent spirit and powerful female protagonists. No pigeonholing!

Throughout her writing, Condé also conveys a deep sense of the complicated and often contradictory effects of migration: the mix of exhilaration, hope and disillusionment that often accompany a move to a new country—something she experienced repeatedly as she moved from place to place. In later years, she became passionate about Guadeloupean independence as the only path of liberation for its people, and moved back to Guadeloupe for a number of years.

Condé sometimes used magical realism to drive her narrative. For example, Tituba learns from a local Barbadian woman, Man Yaya, how to heal people with plants and speak to the dead. If you’ve lost a loved one, it’s impossible not to be moved by Man Yaya’s instruction to the young Tituba on connecting with the departed:

“The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live if we cherish them, if we honor their memory, if we leave on their tombs the foods they preferred during their life, if at regular intervals we stop to reconnect with them. They are there, everywhere around us, hungry for our attention, hungry for our affection. Only a few words suffice to round them up, pressing their invisible bodies against ours, impatiently waiting to be useful to us.”

Tituba is in fact something of a witch, suggested Condé, but one who is incapable of causing harm to anyone. She doesn't feel resentment against her cruel white slave owners, even though her first owner killed Tituba’s mother for fighting off his attempt to rape her. Here is Tituba in Salem, taking care of the sour Puritan girls who eventually denounce her as a witch:

“I had no childhood. The shadow of the gallows where my mother hung has darkened all the years that should have been devoted to carefree games. I guessed that, for reasons no doubt different than mine, Betsey Parris and Abigail Williams had also been deprived of their childhood, dispossessed forever of that capital of lightness and softness. I guessed that no one had ever sung them lullabies, told them fairy tales, filled their imagination with magical and benevolent adventures.”

Tituba is compassionate but not naïve. Even after she is married to John Indian, a slave she loves and enjoys sex with, she fears becoming pregnant: “For a female slave, motherhood is not a joy. It means expelling into a world of servitude and disgrace a little innocent being whose destiny she won’t be able to change. During my entire childhood, I had seen slaves assassinate their newborns by planting a long spine in the still gelatinous yolk of their head, by cutting the umbilical cord with a poisoned blade or yet, by abandoning them at night in a place full of irritable spirits. During my entire childhood, I had heard slaves exchange recipes for potions, enemas, injections that sterilize wombs forever and transform them into tombs lined with scarlet shrouds.” Tituba aborts her fetus.

Convicted of sorcery, Tituba isn’t put to death but forgotten in prison. A wealthy and kind Jewish merchant buys her freedom a year later when the hysteria over witchcraft suddenly ebbs and all who are still incarcerated are pardoned. A free woman, Tituba return to Barbados, seeking peace and repose. But she falls in with maroons, freed slaves plotting a rebellion against the British, and she and her youthful lover and fellow rebel Iphigene are betrayed by those very maroons. This time Tituba hangs, exactly like her mother had.

Her earthly life was bitter, Tituba says, but her true life now begins. Tituba becomes a benevolent spirit, and her freedom song resonates across the island: “I hear it all the time. When I run to the bedside of the man in agony. When I take in my hands the still frightened spirit of the just deceased. When I allow humans to briefly see again those they had thought lost forever. Because, alive or dead, visible or invisible, I continue to bandage, to heal. But most of all, I’ve assigned myself another task, assisted by Iphigene, my lover-son, my companion for eternity. To toughen up the hearts of men. To feed them dreams of freedom. Of victory. There isn’t one revolt I haven’t given birth to. Not one insurrection. Not one act of disobedience.”

There is so much beauty in Condé’s writing. I kept collecting phrases as I read, bending numerous page corners. Many of these images are related to night and darkness, times of danger and agitation. Here is Tituba unable to sleep as she waits for the rebels: “Outside, the night horse galloped. Pla-ca-ta. Pla-ca-ta.” Here is young Dieudonné approaching the sea in The Belle Créole: “Soon, they heard the sea’s deep, throaty laughter, that voice of the female who surrenders too easily to pleasure, and the strikes of the lecherous wind dominating and whipping her.”

Or the handsome stranger’s arrival in Crossing the Mangrove (1989): “People say that on the first night that Francis Sancher spent in Salt River, the wind in its temper screamed down from the mountains, trampling the banana plantations and throwing the young yam poles to the ground. Then it jumped on the back of the sea which was peacefully sleeping and lashed it, scarring it with troughs several feet deep. But people will say anything. Moïse can confirm that nothing of the sort happened. That night there was not even a breeze. It was as bright as day. The moon was admiring her chubby face in the mirror of ponds and rivers. The toads, up to their necks in mud, persistently asked for water, again and again.” Another night in Salt River: “It was past midnight. One or two in the morning. The dogs and the cows had stopped chasing their echoes. Although weary with fatigue, the bats were still dancing and had not yet resigned themselves to go to sleep under the metal roofs.”

I am surprised Condé’s work hasn’t been turned into movies or TV series, so vivid and cinematic is her writing. In 2018, she won the New Academy Prize in Literature, the one-off alternative to the Nobel, which was not awarded that year because of a sexual abuse and corruption scandal on the award committee. (How deeply ironic that the one year a Black Caribbean woman is awarded the prize, it’s not the real Nobel Prize, not because of anything SHE did but because members of the Swedish Academy and their associates are busy committing crimes!)

France made up for some of it. Condé was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2014, and decorated with the prestigious Grand Croix of the National Order of Merit in 2019. She was asked by French President Jacques Chirac to serve as the founding president of the French Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery, now the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery. Upon Condé’s recommendation, May 10 is now the French National Day for the Memory of the Slave Trade and Slavery and their Abolition.

Peacefully retired in Provence with Philcox, watching her grandchildren grow, Condé wrote in 2017: “So what to conclude? But precisely, should we conclude? Let’s not conclude. Let’s dream instead, imagine. The history of the world is not over. Already enlightened minds predict the death of the West. A day will come when the earth will be round and men will remember that they are brothers and will be more tolerant. They will no longer fear each other, one because of his religion or the other because of the color of his skin, another because of his speech. That time will come. We must believe in it.”

Let’s dream in solidarity and peace,