Maryse Condé: “America Taught Me Fraternity”

Guadeloupe-born writer and professor Maryse Condé, who taught at Berkeley, Harvard and Columbia, where she founded the Center for French and Francophone Studies in 1997, looks back over her years in America as her novel Waiting for the Waters to Rise is being released in the U.S.
© Leif R. Jansson

Writer, professor, and critic Maryse Condé was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1937. As the eighth child in a family of the emerging Black bourgeoisie and the daughter of a teacher, she discovered the works of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon before leaving to study in Paris at the age of sixteen. She has written numerous novels (Segu; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem; The Story of the Cannibal Woman), essays, and autobiographical accounts (Tales from the Heart; What Is Africa to Me?), and taught in the United States from 1985 to 2005. After working at Berkeley, Harvard, and the universities of Maryland and Virginia, she joined the faculty at Columbia where she founded the Center for French and Francophone Studies. Having since retired from teaching, she is now looking back over her years in America and has just published two books: the English translation of En attendant la montée des eaux and L’évangile du nouveau monde, her final novel.

When she received a letter inviting her to teach at Berkeley for a year, Maryse Condé couldn’t believe her eyes. She was living in Guadeloupe, having moved back to the island after the success of Segu (1984-1985), her two-volume historical saga about the fall of the Bambara Kingdom. “I had returned to Guadeloupe to give something back to my people, but I spent three years out of work,” she says. “No university or radio station wanted me. When I received the letter from Berkeley in 1985, I was stunned. I was unemployed and I was being invited to the United States! I didn’t think twice; I left, and my academic and literary career began in America.”

Maryse Condé in 1986 with a copy of Segu, the two-volume historical saga that saw her invited to America. © Philippe Giraud/ Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Like other Francophone writers, Condé found greater fame earlier in the United States than in France, both as a professor and a critic. “As a student at the Sorbonne and then as a young graduate, France did nothing for me. It is an old, traditional country, set in its intellectual ways, and lacks curiosity. The Americans didn’t care what I had done before; they loved Segu, and simply thought that I would be a useful addition to a French faculty.”

The Voices of the Black Diasporas

We met up with her in Paris, where she was promoting her latest and final novel. Since leaving the French capital in 2013, she has lived in Gordes in the Luberon region, where she retired with her husband of forty years, Richard Philcox, who translates her books into English. Tired yet still very much in touch with the times, Condé has a resilient faith in the world she has spent her life exploring, from the French Caribbean to Africa, where she lived and raised her four children for ten years, and from Paris to the United States and London, where she worked for the BBC. Her fable-esque novel, L’évangile du nouveau monde, is a testament to her life and set to be published in France in September. It humorously revisits the structure of canonical texts while questioning the nature of humanity and faith in love. “I knew it would be my last novel,” she says. “I wanted to summarize my research, my experience, and my efforts, to show that I would have not understood the world so well if I had never known the profound love that binds my husband and I.”

The English translation of En attendant la montée des eaux will be published in August in the United States under the title Waiting for the Waters to Rise. This 2010 novel echoes the current climate crisis and pushes the reader to reflect on how colonies and post-colonies have been exposed to environmental dangers. As a prolific writer whose books are strewn with questions about origins, exile, rebellion, societal fringes, and the links between Africa and the New World, Condé found a new lease on life and another worldview in the United States. “America taught me a sort of fraternity. It was where I learned to write about everything that interested me, not just about France and the French Caribbean. I stopped seeing the world with barriers.”

Maryse Condé and her husband, English translator Richard Philcox, in Seattle, 1979. © Maryse Condé Archives

In 1986, she published I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (whose American edition is prefaced by Angela Davis). It tells the story of a slave’s daughter accused of witchcraft in the village of Salem, near Boston, and became one of her most read and taught books in the United States. Condé seizes upon a figure forgotten by history to give her a voice, rehabilitating her by imagining her returning to her native island of Barbados during the first slave rebellion. “This work showed us what literature could do to make up for the shortcomings of history,” says Kaiama Glover, a professor at Barnard College who wrote her PhD under Condé’s mentorship. “Tituba creates a dialogue between the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean and the United States to portray how the Americas were founded on slavery and the slave trade.”

The Creation of a Center for Francophone Studies

Published in 2005, The Story of the Cannibal Woman was influenced by Condé’s time in the United States. “This is a work about globality set in post-apartheid South Africa, depicting a Black Francophone woman married to a white man. She would never have written it if she hadn’t spent so much time teaching in the United States and thinking about the diaspora, cosmopolitanism, and Black Studies,” says Madeleine Dobie, director of the French department at Columbia. Her faculty oversees the Center for French and Francophone Studies founded by Condé in 1997, at a time when the American university was beginning to welcome new Francophone voices. “I got the green light from the faculty head because I taught Mongo Beti, Sony Labou Tansi, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane,” says the writer. “I saw that they were creating a new French, one made with voices other than Gide, Proust, and Aragon. I tried to understand the divide between them. They were using the same words and sounds, but they were doing something different. The Center for Francophone Studies worked well, and fast; I never had trouble introducing my ideas.”

Condé was harshly criticized when her first books were published because she was a woman daring to highlight an uncomfortable truth about Africa while questioning the stance on Négritude. But in America she found a stability that enabled her to affirm her critical, iconoclastic viewpoints. It was during this time that she published Order, Disorder, Freedom, and the West Indian Writer (1993), an essay in English questioning the freedom of writers in Caribbean literature. “The publication of her critical work influenced how she was read in the United States,” says Madeleine Dobie. “It was a reciprocal phenomenon. Her position allowed her to refuse the norms and conformism imposed on Francophone and Caribbean writers with regard to male desire, reproduction, and heteronormativity.” According to Kaiama Glover, “her first books still resonate in the U.S. and can be part of an American context discussing race, while France is still struggling to recognize its persistently racist history.”

Maryse Condé with Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun and the director of the Maison Française at Columbia University, Jacqueline Desrez, 1995. © Maryse Condé Archives

A Militant Spirit

As her books are filled with women bravely taking on the world – Tituba, Célanire, or her maternal grandmother, to whom she pays tribute in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother (2006) – Condé is seen as a feminist writer in the United States. A title she believes is a misunderstanding. “I’m always surprised when I hear that I’m a feminist,” she says, laughing. “I think a woman is complete when she has found a man with whom she can face life. I have three daughters and I have seen exactly how hard it is for them to find their place. That must be why I appear to be a feminist, but deep down, I’m not!”

Condé signed the 2007 manifesto “Toward a ‘World Literature’ in French,” calling for a liberation of the French language and its “exclusive pact with the nation.” Like other writers in the Francophone sphere, she was rejected by the leading French literary awards. Having won the 2018 Alternative Nobel Literature Prize and the prestigious Cino Del Duca World Prize last May, she is pleased to be read by young people across the world, but takes a cautious view of these belated honors. “I have no hubris,” she says. “I am happy for my husband, my daughters and my granddaughters, and for Guadeloupe, my country, which has been too scorned, too reduced to silence. We can dream that one day it will finally be independent. And after all, why not?” Condé may have decided to stop writing, but her voice continues to resonate, brave and unrelentingly free.

Article published in the August 2021 issue of
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