Maryse CondT, the winner of the Literary Grand Prix awarded at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, was born on the French/Creole-speaking Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. She was the last of eight children, and the mythical stories of her birth induced a strong sense that she "had not been desired." She grew up proud of being black, and especially of being French, but aloof from Creole culture. It was a shock, therefore, when she went to school in France in 1953, to discover that her colour created an immense gulf between herself and the French. This move from one country to another, accompanied by a profound sense of alienation, became a recurring pattern throughout her life. Yet these migrations, painful as they were, provided the powerful impetus for her writing.
In the 1960s she moved to Africa, where she remained for twelve years. She married the Guinean actor, Mamadou CondT, had four children, and taught in Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. She has described this period, during which she moved restlessly from one country to another "to avoid the arrest of dissidents," as the most difficult of her life. She had gone to Africa believing that a common origin and history ensured solidarity between people. Instead, she learned that neither colour nor race constituted a common bond. She could not even communicate with her Guinean husband. She concluded that the important factor was culture, and that the culture of the mother continent was totally different from that of the black diaspora.
She returned to Europe in the 1970s, working first as a program producer for the BBC in London, and then teaching in various colleges in France, and eventually taking the position of course director at the Sorbonne where she had earned a doctorate. Although she had uprooted herself physically from Africa, in a sense she never left, for it remained her important literary territory. The plays, critical essays, and novels she wrote during these years are characterized by the struggle to understand her African experience and heritage.
Her first novels, Heremakhonon and a Season in Rihata reflect her journeys from Guadeloupe to France, to Africa. Veronica, the protagonist of Heremakhonon, like CondT herself, comes from a middle-class family in Guadeloupe, is educated in France, and moves to a newly liberated West African country. To the question, "Why are you here?" which she is constantly asked, she replies that she is a new breed of tourist "searching out herself, not landscapes." Veronica's disaffected memories of her Guadeloupean family weave back and forth throughout her observations of her present surroundings. She mocks the black bourgeoisie's emulation of white society, and particularly her father's illusions of freedom.
HE, of course was free. Free no longer to walk on the bare soles of his feet. Free to stick his neck in a white bow tie. Free to welcome his Sunday guests with a pompous "Eloise, you're DIVINE!" Divine niggers! Can you dig it! His freedom was an iron weight encircling his feet and ours.
Naturally, this harsh portrayal angered the Guadeloupeans, and Conde was hurt by their reaction. The Guadeloupeans were not her only hostile critics. Africans objected to her picture of political corruption in Africa; Marxists resented her denunciation of African socialism; feminist critics objected to Veronica's seeking liberation through men. (Actually Veronica's lovers, like Morag Gunn's British, Scots, and aboriginal lovers in The Diviners, function as metaphors in her search for her identity). Around this time, CondT's own criticisms of African writers, such as Grace Ogot, whom she found insufficiently emancipated, brought angry responses. She was accused of being "blinded by European codes of behaviour," and of overlooking the specificity of Western feminism.
The fact is that CondT's stubborn independence of mind makes her impervious to current pieties on language, feminism, negritude, and identity politics. Like Philip Roth, whom she cites as an influence, her satire angers a wide variety of constituents. She is often put on the defensive, even about her personal life, as in this 2000 interview on the subject of her marriage to Richard Philcox, a professional translator, who expertly translates much of her work:
When I met Richard twenty years ago I was in my period of political activism and I could not see myself with a white man. My children, also, were very nationalistic and so they were shocked and disturbedāBut eventually I came to understand that the colour of one's skin does not matterāMarriage should not be viewed as part of a political agenda.
She continued to draw fire when she turned from writing about present-day Africa to its past. Her ambitious historical novels, Segu and The Children of Segu, are set in the West African kingdom of Segou (now Mali) between 1791 and 1860, and focus on a royal family destroyed by European colonization, the slave trade, Islam, and Christianity. The novels established her position among notable contemporary writers, but angered Africans and Africanists so that she resolved at the time never to write about Africa again. In tracing the legacy of slavery as it played out over subsequent generations she discovered the strong appeal of the multigenerational chronicle and used the form of the family saga (The Fosyte Saga was an early influence) in several later novels.
In 1986 she migrated once again, leaving Europe for the United States to teach at a series of American universities. As before, this leap provided a powerful creative impetus, pushing her in a new literary direction. She began to use more complex narrative strategies, criss-crossing literary boundaries in a movement that paralleled her crossing of continental and geographical borders. These standard postmodern techniques served her well, allowing her naturally subversive and exuberant wit to come fully into play.
The immediate result was the novel I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, written during her year as a Fulbright lecturer at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In France, it was awarded the Le Grand Prix Literaire de la Femme, the first of her prestigious awards. Using an extended monologue, she gave voice to Tituba, a victim of the Salem witch trials, cursorily referred to in the records as "a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing 'hoodoo'." Conde's intertextual practice, far more complex than Jean Rhys's in Wide Sargasso Sea, takes the form of a vigorous parodic engagement with certain key American texts.
CondT spoke disparagingly of Arthur Miller's treatment of the same subject matter in The Crucible, saying that Miller, as a white male, would not pay attention to a black woman. But, like Miller, she intended her work as a commentary on contemporary America. "I wanted to imply," she said, "that in terms of narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy and racism, little has changed since the days of the Puritans." Also, learning that Jews were not allowed to settle in the colony of Massachusetts, she links discrimination against Jews and blacks, by giving Tituba a Jewish lover.
From one of her favourite novels, The Scarlet Letter, she imports the character of Hester Prynne, making her a jail-mate of Tituba and a modern feminist. Perhaps remembering the criticisms of Heremakhonon, she has Hester telling Tituba she likes men too well to be a feminist, and adding "life is too kind to men, whatever their colour."
The vagueness of the historical record (which she attributes to "the intentional or unintentional racism of the historians") allows CondT to construct her own ending to Tituba's story. She dies in a slave uprising in Barbados, her last words invoking the 1930s song about lynching, immortalized by Billie Holiday: "All around me strange trees were bristling with strange fruit."
CondT performed a similar tour de force in Windward Heights (originally titled La Migration des Coeurs), her rewriting of Wuthering Heights. She has described her purpose as the wish to show, not the differences between Caribbean women and English women, but what they have in common because they share the same desires. That comment simplifies her project, for she clearly found in Bronte's novel the ideal vehicle for a recasting of all her thematic preoccupations. The result is a multi-vocal, multigenerational saga, set in a colonial society where race replaces the function of class. It also becomes a powerful allegory of black and white, male and female, good and evil. RazyT, her Heathcliff character, is black; Aymeric de Linsseuil, her Edgar Linton, is white; Cathy a mulatto, is torn between the ferocious RazyT and the effete Aymeric. As in the original novel, the daughter's story reprises the mother's, with CondT's version, complicated by incest, providing an astute reading of Bronte's text.
By 1997 CondT had lived in the United States just over a decade; she had taught in many universities, and finally settled at Columbia as tenured professor of French Caribbean literature and Chair of the Center for French and Francophone Studies. From the beginning, she had maintained a home in Guadaloupe, dividing her time between the two places. The accumulated experiences of these years were once again woven together, this time to produce Desirada, her twelfth and arguably her strongest novel to date.
At its core is an event recalling Jamaica Kincaid's remark that the abandonment of children is one of the legacies of colonialism and conquest. The circumstances of Marie-Noelle's birth and abandonment (her mother has been impregnated by a white rapist) propel her on a search that spans three countries. She leaves Guadeloupe to join her mother in France, and eventually settles in the United States, which she describes as a place where "the defeated, the dispossessed, without country or religion [can] slip anonymously into its vast shadowy corners." From there, she returns to Desirada (the title, besides suggesting desirability, is an actual Caribbean island) to solve the riddle of her paternity and the reason behind her maternal rejection.
In the United States, Marie-Noelle flourishes as the protTgT of a flamboyant black academic. CondT's portrait of the mentor is sharply satirical, but also sympathetic. Anthea is an Ivy League graduate, who wrote her dissertation on Jane Austen, a mistake she corrects, in a later stage of enlightenment, by specializing in nineteenth century female slave narratives.
Anthea's appearance was extraordinary. She wore her hair in a crewcut like a man. She wore necklaces as wide as pectorals, pendants so heavy that they stretched her earlobes, and under her coat clothes of unusual design cut from her own patterns in African fabrics. It was said that she terrified her students, and throughout her classes not one of them dared contradict herā
Her two objectives are to raise her adopted African daughter to be a model of black perfection and, through her work, to rehabilitate her race. She is a formidable character, but Marie-Noelle detects a fragile vulnerability under the aggressive exterior, and she is reminded by this blend of strength and weakness of her own rejecting mother. With Andrea's help, Marie-Noelle earns a Ph.D, becomes a writer, and teacher of French literature. She teaches Guadeloupean authors, and renames her classes 'Francophone', a gesture that allows her students to construct a mythology that suits everyone.
The book jacket describes Desiderata as CondT's "most autobiographical novel." CondT herself often acknowledges the autobiographical element in her works. She describes the multi-generational A Tree of Life, as the story of her own family "with the distortion of fiction." She claims Segu as her own history by dedicating it to "my Bambara ancestress." Her recent Tales of From the Heart: True Stories of my Childhood, dedicated to her mother, is her first unmediated autobiography.
The autobiographical impulse is consistent with the highly personal, subjective nature of her work. When questioned about making a political choice between writing in French and writing in Creole, she responds, "I don't know if I write in French, I don't know if I write in Creole [but] I know I write in Maryse Conde." "Identity is subjective and no one has the right to challenge you on that." "I myself decide who I am." In interview after interview she asserts that her purpose in writing is entirely personal: "I write about slavery, Africa, the condition of black people throughout the world," she has said, "because I want to order my thoughts, understand the world, be at peace with myself." Although she is a strong advocate for Caribbean literature, she denies any didactic purpose in her own writing, noting that it would be too facile to say she writes to educate her people. She concedes only that if she makes the world understandable to herself, then perhaps she will help others to understand it better.
Joan Givner's last book was a novel Half Known Lives. Her next novel Ellen Fremedon is forthcoming from Groundwood Press.