World Literature

Maryse Conde

 

BORN: 1937, Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe

NATIONALITY: West Indian

GENRE: Fiction, drama

MAJOR WORKS:

Heremakhonon (1976)

Segu (1984)

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986)

Crossing the Mangrove (1990)

 

 

Maryse Conde. Conde, Maryse, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

West Indian author Maryse Boucolon, who writes under the name Maryse Conde, is a prolific novelist, playwright, and critic, whose books explore the clash of cultures and races, particularly in Caribbean settings. A French-language author not widely known outside of France and her native Guadeloupe, Conde writes novels that are rich in historical detail and political discussion.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Private Life and Education. Born February 11, 1937, in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Conde is the youngest of eight children born to Auguste and Jeanne (Quidal) Boucolon. Guadeloupe is an archipelago, a group of islands, located in the Caribbean Sea and governed by France. It is part of the European Union. In 1953, Conde’s parents sent her to study abroad for several years, at Lycee Fenelon and Sorbonne in Paris. While abroad Conde focused her studies on English literature. Five years later, in 1958, she married an African actor, Mamadou Conde.

Restless Years and Move to London. The early 1960s were difficult for Conde. To avoid arrest, she was forced to move from country to country, never safe enough to settle in one place. While difficult, Conde saw the advantages of frequently changing perspectives and seized these opportunities to enrich her writing. Professionally, Condee worked as an instructor at Ecole Normale Superieure in Conakry Guinea; at the Ghana Institute of Language in Accra; and the Lyce Charles de Gaulle in Saint Louis, Senegal. Eventually, she fled to London and earned her doctorate degree in comparative literature in 1976 after completing research on black stereotypes in West Indian literature.

First Novel, Divorce, and Remarriage. Conde’s first novel, Heremakhonon (1976), relates the journey of Veronica, an Antillean student searching for her roots in a newly liberated West African country. During her stay Veronica becomes involved with both a powerful government official and a young school director opposed to the new regime. In 1981 Conde divorced Mamadou and shortly after, in 1982, married Richard Philcox, her translator.

Constructing Characters of Resilience. Subsequent Conde novels have varied in scope and setting from more sweeping historicals such as Children of Segu (1984)   and The Last of the African Kings (1997), to character-driven narratives such as Crossing the Mangrove (1990) and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986). In the New York Times Book Review, Howard Frank Mosher observed that one thread uniting all of Conde’s work is the creation of “characters [who] not only survive the worst that life can throw at them but also often prevail, on their own terms, against overwhelming odds.’’ Tituba is one such character. Much information about the historical Tituba—a female slave who was accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts—remains a mystery but Conde weaves a fully fleshed tale about the remarkable woman and her triumph over a wealth of adversity. Between 1692 and 1693 more than 150 people were arrested on suspicion of practicing witchcraft in several counties across Massacusettes. Of those accused, nineteen were hung, at least one man was crushed to death under heavy stones, and others died in prison. Tituba was the only one, of three women initially accused, to confess her alleged guilt, although scholars speculate that she was coerced to confess with physical abuse.

Retelling a Classic. In Windward Heights (1998), Conde retells the classic Wuthering Heights (1847) story by Emily Bronte. Set at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Cuba and Guadeloupe, the novel explores the corrosive, obsessive love between darkskinned Rayze, a foundling, and the mulatto Cathy Gagneur, who shuns Rayze for a lighter-skinned Creole husband. As with the novel upon which it is based, Windward Heights plays itself out over a series of generations, as Rayze’s fury shapes his children and their choices into adulthood.

Desirada. Desirada (1998) looks at the problems facing West Indians but from the perspective of those engaged directly with ideas of European rather than African culture. Marie-Noelle, born on Guadeloupe to a fifteen-year-old mother in mysterious circumstances, begins a voyage of self-discovery that takes her first to France and then to the United States. Yet Marie-Noelle is never able to resolve the central question surrounding her birth. Conde explained in a World Literature Today interview with Robert McCormick, ‘‘Marie-Noelle, who only wants to know the answer to some simple questions— Who is my father? Who am I? What happened?—won’t ever find out. Because everyone lies. Not in a conscious and malicious way. Because, ultimately, to tell a story is to embellish it, to fabricate it according to one’s tastes and desires, to create fiction.’’

The literary culture of the Caribbean from which Conde writes is rooted both in the oral traditions of the West African griot and in the scripted literature of Europe. Critics of Desirada and Conde’s other works have honored the author’s use of French as a medium for relating the West Indian experience.

Although she has retired from her career as professor emeritus at Columbia University, Conde continues to publish her writings, travel, and speak publicly about her work.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Conde's famous contemporaries include:

Warren Beatty (1937—): Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning American actor, screenwriter, producer, and director.

Kamau Brathwaite (1930—): Barbadian poet and a major figure of the Caribbean literary scene.

Derek Wolcott (1930—): West Indian poet responsible for Omeros, a retelling of the Odyssey, set in the Caribbean.

Philip Glass (1937—): Three-time Academy Award-nominated American composer. Glass is widely considered one of the most influential composers of the late twentieth century.

Bob Marley (1945-1981): Revered Jamaican musician whose legacy lives on via his musical children and his famous dreadlocked image.

 

Works in Literary Context

Emphasizing the effects of transition upon ordinary individuals, Conde places her protagonists in situations where they must choose between the existing West African social order and cultural changes prompted by Western influence. The thematic content of her work reflects both her education in the Western world and the diverse cultural experiences of her travels. Conde is praised for her authentic rendering of such diverse locales as the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe as well as for the lyrical qualities of her prose.

Difficult Politics. Conde’s first novel Heremakho- non, like many of her later works, is concerned with people placed in or near the seat of political power and affected by the applications of that power. The narrator, Veronica, is the eyes of the reader, but she turns those eyes inward as well as outward. As a free narrator, she can and does jump from time period to time period, but the drama of the whole book is encompassed in a battle between her lover, Ibrahim Sory, and her institute associate and revolutionary, Saliou—a battle waged in and against the name of the titular ruler, Mwalimwana. Veronica does not recognize the fact of the battle early on and she never fully understands it. For the most part, Saliou and Sory impinge upon her nonpolitically—as do other characters caught in the struggle. The political issues force themselves upon her, and upon us, the readers, and it is for political reasons that her stay in Here-makhonon is terminated. The reader may feel that he knows more than Veronica does about the power struggle, yet he always remains dependent upon her for confirmation or refutation of his judgments.

Obviously, Conde sees politics as very much a part of life. However, she does not confuse drama and fiction with analysis and history. Whatever her literary objective, she strives for integrity, so much so that in anticipation of adverse criticism she has remarked, ‘‘I do not believe writing is meant to please people.’’ In the New York Times Book Review, Anderson Tepper declared that Conde ‘‘has created an impressive body of work... that gives voice to the dispersed and historically silenced peoples of Africa and the Caribbean.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Though she is West Indian, much of Conde's work takes place in Africa, where she has spent a great deal of time. Perhaps she is drawn to the continent for its diverse natural landscape or its complicated political landscape. In either case, she is not alone; here are some other works that are set in Africa:

Out of Africa (1937), a memoir by Isak Dinesen. The Dutch narrator describes her often idyllic—though sometimes heartbreaking—life on a coffee plantation in Kenya.

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a novel by Alan Paton. A preacher searches for his son amid the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, on the eve of apartheid's implementation.

Things Fall Apart (1958), a novel by Chinua Achebe. Set in Nigeria, this work deals with the family of an athlete and leader as they struggle under the yoke of British rule.

The Poisonwood Bible (1999), a novel by Barbara King-solver. Set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, this work tells the story of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary from Bethlehem, Georgia, who takes his family to Africa to spread the Word in a remote jungle village.

 

Works in Critical Context

Segu. Some critics fault Conde for an excess of detail in Segu. Washington Post contributor Harold Courlander, for example, commented that ‘‘the plethora of happenings in the book does not always make for easy reading.’’ The critic explained that ‘‘the reader is sometimes uncertain whether history and culture are being used to illuminate the fiction or the novel exists to tell us about the culture and its history.’’ While Howard Kaplan concurred with this assessment, he added in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Segu ‘‘glitters with nuggets of cultural fascination.... For those willing to make their way through this dense saga, genuine rewards will be reaped.’’ Most agree that Conde expands her scope in Segu. In tracing three generations of a West African family during the early and mid-1800s, notes New York Times Book Review contributor Charles R. Larson, ‘‘Conde has chosen for her subject... [a] chaotic stage, when the animism (which she calls fetishism) native to the region began to yield to Islam ... The result is the most significant historical novel about black Africa published in many a year.’’ Beginning with Dousika, a Bambara nobleman caught up in court intrigue, Segu trails the exploits of his family, from one son’s conversion to Islam to another’s enslavement to a third’s successful career in commerce, connected with stories of their wives and concubines and servants. In addition, Conde’s ‘‘knowledge of African history is prodigious, and she is equally versed in the continent’s folklore,’’ remarks Larson. ‘‘The unseen world haunts her characters and vibrates with the spirits of the dead.’’

Crossing the Mangrove. Conde returns to her native Guadeloupe in Crossing the Mangrove. The title of this novel raises the image of an impossible act, crossing the thick jungle/swamp found along many Caribbean coasts. Behind the image is the story of Francis Sancher, a writer with a mysterious past who comes to live in a small village in Guadeloupe. As a Publishers Weekly reviewer explains, ‘‘Sancher, a handsome mulatto on an island besieged by concerns over skin color, turns everyone’s hatreds and passions inside out.’’ Through Sancher and the characters that he touches, Conde ‘‘vividly evokes the complexities of a color caste system ...in a struggle for power and status,’’ Paul E. Hutchinson remarks in Library Journal. Even after Sancher dies mysteriously, he dominates the lives of the villagers. At his wake, Conde follows the villagers as they discuss the departed. ‘‘Conde ... intends to portray island life through Guadeloupeans talking among themselves,’’ writes J. P. Slavin in the Washington Post Book World. ‘‘She magnificently succeeds in bringing realism to a novel which also portrays the rich spiritualism of the West Indies.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Compare and contrast Windward Heights (1998), Conde’s retelling of Wuthering Heights (1847), with Jean Rhys’s retelling of Jane Eyre (1847), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

2. Conde has said she is not a political writer. Find evidence to the contrary and explain why you think she is.

3. Do you trust Veronica as a narrator in Heremakhonon? Why or why not?

4. Do you think, as some critics have complained, that Segu is too dense? If you were Conde’s editor, what would you suggest she cut out?

5. Compare Conde’s character Tituba with Arthur Miller’s version in his play The Crucible (1953).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Conversations with Maryse Conde. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: 1996.

Periodicals

Mitsch, Ruthmarie H. ‘‘Maryse Conde’s Mangroves,’’ Research in African Literatures (Winter 1997): 54.

Mosher, Howard Frank. ‘‘Staying Alive.’’ New York Times Book Review (May 31, 1987); (October 25, 1992).

Tepper, Anderson. ‘‘Windward Heights.’’ New York Times Book Review (September 5, 1999).