Literary Zone

French writer Maryse Condé

5 April 2024 at 21:15 | 1841 views

Maryse Condé (née Marise Liliane Appoline Boucolon) 11 February 1934 – 2 April 2024) was a French novelist, critic, and playwright from the French Overseas department and region of Guadeloupe. Condé is best known for her novel Ségou (1984–1985).

Condé’s novels explore the African diaspora that resulted from slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. Her novels, written in French, have been translated into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. She won various awards, such as the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme (1986), Prix de l’Académie française (1988), Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe (1997) and the New Academy Prize in Literature (2018) for her works. She was considered a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early life
Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, she was the youngest of eight children. Her parents were among the first black instructors in Guadeloupe. Her mother, Jeanne Quidal, directed her own school for girls. Her father, Auguste Boucolon — previously an educator - founded the small bank "La Caisse Coopérative des prêts", which was later renamed "La Banque Antillaise."

Condé’s father, Auguste Boucolon, had two sons from his first marriage: Serge and Albert. Condé’s three sisters were Ena, Jeanne, and Gillette, and her brothers were Auguste, Jean, René, and Guy. Condé was born 11 years after Guy, when her mother was 43, and her father 63. Condé described herself as "the spoiled child", which she attributed to her parents’ older age, as well as the age-gap between her and her siblings.

Condé began writing at an early age. Before she was 12 years old, she had written a one-act, one-person play. The play was written as a gift for her mother’s birthday.

After having graduated from high school, she attended Lycée Fénelon from 1953 to 1955. Condé was expelled after two years of attendance. Condé furthered her studies at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle) in Paris. During her attendance, she, along with other West Indians, established the Luis-Carlos Prestes club.

In 1958, Condé attended a rehearsal of Les Nègres/The Blacks by Jean Genet, where she would meet the Guinean actor Mamadou Condé. In August 1958, she married Mamadou Condé. They eventually had four children together (before separating in 1969). By November 1959, the couple’s relationship had already become strained, and Condé moved to the Ivory Coast, where she would teach for a year.

During Condé’s returns for the holidays, she became politically conscious through a group of Marxist friends. Condé’s Marxist friends would influence her to move to Ghana.

Between the years 1960 and 1972, she taught in Guinea, Ghana (from where she was deported in the 1960s because of politics), and Senegal. While in Ghana, she edited a collection of francophone African literature, Anthologie de la literature africaine d’expression française (Ghana Institute of Languages, 1966).

After leaving Ghana, she worked in London as a BBC producer for two years. Then in 1973, she returned to Paris and taught Francophone literature at Paris VII (Jussieu), X (Nanterre), and Ill (Sorbonne Nouvelle). In 1975, she completed her M.A. and Ph.D. at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris in comparative literature, examining black stereotypes in Caribbean literature. She was the author of works of criticism that included Le profil d’une oeuvre (Hatier, 1978), La Civilisation du Bossale (L’Harmattan, 1978), and La Parole des femmes (L’Harmattan, 1979).

In 1981, she and Condé divorced, having long been separated. The following year, she married Richard Philcox, an Englishman and the English-language translator of most of her novels.

She did not publish her first novel, Hérémakhonon, until she was nearly 40, as "[she] didn’t have confidence in [herself] and did not dare present [her] writing to the outside world." Her second novel, Une saison à Rihata, was published in 1981; however, Condé would not reach prominence as a contemporary Caribbean writer until the publication of her third novel, Ségou (1984).

Following the success of Ségou, in 1985, Condé was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in the United States. She was included in the 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby. In 1995, she became a professor of French and Francophone literature at Columbia University in New York City, where she was subsequently professor emerita.

Condé taught at various universities, including the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA, the Sorbonne, the University of Virginia, and the University of Nanterre. She retired from teaching in 2005.

Condé died in Apt, Vaucluse, on 2 April 2024, at the age of 90.

Literary significance
Condé’s novels explore racial, gender, and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales, including the Salem witch trials in I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1986); the 19th-century Bambara Empire of Mali in Ségou (1984–1985); and the 20th-century building of the Panama Canal and its influence on increasing the West Indian middle class in Tree of Life (1987). Her novels trace the relationships between African peoples and the diaspora, especially the Caribbean.

Her first novel, Hérémakhonon, was published in 1976. It was so controversial that it was pulled from the shelves after six months because of its criticism over the success of African socialism. While the story closely parallels Condé’s own life during her first stay in Guinea, and is written as a first-person narrative, she stressed that it is not an autobiography. The book is the story, as she described it, of an "’anti-moi’, an ambiguous persona whose search for identity and origins is characterized by a rebellious form of sexual libertinage".

Condé kept considerable distance from most Caribbean literary movements, such as Négritude and Creolité, and often focused on topics with strong feminist and political concerns. A radical activist in her work as well as in her personal life, Condé admitted: "I could not write anything... unless it has a certain political significance. I have nothing else to offer that remains important."

Condé’s later writings became increasingly autobiographical, such as Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood (1999) and Victoire (2006), a fictional biography of her maternal grandmother in which she explores themes of motherhood, femininity, race relations, and the family dynamic in the postcolonial Caribbean. Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat (2000) shows traces of Condé’s paternal great-grandmother.

However, her 1995 novel Windward Heights is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which she had first read at the age of 14. Condé had long wanted to create a work around it, as an act of "homage." Her novel is set in Guadeloupe, and race and culture are featured as issues that divide people. Reflecting on how she drew from her Caribbean background in writing this book, she said:

"To be part of so many worlds—part of the African world because of the African slaves, part of the European world because of the European education—is a kind of double entendre. You can use that in your own way and give sentences another meaning. I was so pleased when I was doing that work, because it was a game, a kind of perverse but joyful game."

In 2018, she was awarded the New Academy Prize in Literature, established in 2018 as an alternative to the Nobel Prize in Literature (for which she was often considered a favourite but which was not awarded that year, as a consequence of a sexual abuse scandal among the award committee), with the jury praising Condé as a "grand storyteller whose authorship belongs to world literature, describing the ravages of colonialism and the postcolonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming."

In 2022, she was honoured as one of 12 Royal Society of Literature International Writers, alongside Anne Carson, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Cornelia Funke, Mary Gaitskill, Faïza Guène, Saidiya Hartman, Kim Hyesoon, Yōko Ogawa, Raja Shehadeh, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Samar Yazbek.

Condé’s 2023 novel The Gospel According to the New World was longlisted for the International Booker Prize and, at the age of 86, she was the oldest writer ever to be longlisted for the prize.The creation of the novel was by means of dictation to her husband and translator Richard Philcox, as she had a degenerative neurological disorder that made it difficult to speak and see. Together, they were the first wife-and-husband author-translator team to be longlisted, and subsequently shortlisted, for the award.