When Maryse Condé was ten, she stood up in front of the guests at her mother’s birthday party to recite a poem she had written. It was late April in Guadeloupe and the ice-cream maker had been churning for hours in preparation. There were bunches of roses everywhere. For weeks, Maryse had woken up early to work on her descriptions of her mother’s quick temper and changing moods. ‘My mother is said to have listened to me without saying a word while I paraded in front of her dressed in a blue frock,’ Condé wrote years later. ‘Then she looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears, to my amazement … “So that’s how you see me?” At that very moment I felt a surge of power that I have attempted to relive, book after book.’ Condé was 42 when her first book was published. She is now 85 and has published dozens more: novels, memoirs, children’s books, plays, criticism, journalism. She is the great storyteller of francophone Antillean literature, and a professor emerita of French at Columbia. When she won the New Academy Prize in 2018 – given when the Nobel was suspended for a year – she said that ‘for the first time, I was at peace with myself.’
Maryse Boucolon, born in 1937, was the youngest of eight children. She claims that her childhood was ‘not at all interesting … I was rather spoiled. Nothing unusual happened.’ Her parents were the first Black couple in Pointe-à-Pitre to own a car, a Citroën C4. Her mother, the illegitimate child of an illiterate woman, was one of the first Black women to become a teacher. Her father founded a local bank. ‘No, not all of us belong to the wretched of the earth,’ she has said, ‘working ourselves to death amid the sting of the sugar cane.’ She left Guadeloupe for Paris in 1953, aged sixteen, and enrolled at the prestigious Lycée Fénelon. It was there that she came across Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Reading it was, she said, ‘a genuine mystic revelation’. The next day, she bought everything Césaire had written. The encounter with Négritude turned her from ‘an ordinary French girl’ to ‘a colonised subject determined to decolonise myself’. She also became a Marxist. Although her work moves between genres, Condé is best understood as a writer shaped by the period of decolonisation, when the connections between writing and society were being reimagined. She says that she still writes under Césaire’s influence, even though his politics were sometimes ‘misguided’ (he backed Martinique becoming a French département rather than an independent country). Even more important is Frantz Fanon, ‘my master in every respect. Without him I wouldn’t know how to think. I need him to understand the world.’
The pampered girl grew up. Her lover, the Haitian journalist Jean Dominique, abandoned her when he found out she was pregnant. Her mother died; then Condé developed tuberculosis and was sent to convalesce for a year in a sanatorium in the South of France. She ran out of money (her father, ‘who had never shown me much affection anyway, completely lost interest’ in her after her mother’s death) and had to entrust her baby to social services for a short time. When she arrived in Conakry in 1960 to join her new husband, the Guinean actor Mamadou Condé, she was ‘determined to be born again’. Guinea was experiencing a period of great political optimism. Two years earlier, under Sékou Touré, it had become the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from France. Writers, artists, musicians and activists from around the world converged on Conakry and Condé spent her first year there ‘in a kind of euphoria’. Amílcar Cabral, the independence leader of what was then Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), would send cars to pick her up. ‘We were engaged in a friendship that could easily have turned into something else,’ she said of Cabral. Her husband was not happy about the official Mercedes showing up: ‘“My wife is not a call girl,” he would shout at the miserable driver.’ Condé couldn’t reconcile herself to the discrepancy between Touré’s revolutionary rhetoric and the reality. The regime was putting down strikes, kidnapping and executing suspected critics. She left Guinea in 1964. ‘On leaving … I buried my last hopes in Négritude … I was now convinced that race was a signifier that signified nothing.’
She moved to Ghana to teach at Kwame Nkrumah’s Institute of Modern Languages, and then to London, where she made radio programmes for the BBC (her subjects included ‘the meaning of revolution in Africa’ and ‘the truth about British food’). In 1970 she returned to Paris, where she completed her PhD at the Sorbonne and started writing her first novel, Heremakhonon, a Malinké word meaning ‘waiting for happiness’. The book fictionalises her experience in Guinea, dealing in particular with the diminishing space for opposition and debate under Touré (recast as the dictator Mwalimwana). ‘There was an oversimplified militancy in the air, which I wanted to challenge,’ Condé said. The protagonist, Veronica, a Guadeloupean, arrives in the fictional city of La Pointe to join the revolution. She is, according to Condé, an ‘anti-hero’, who fails to appreciate the gravity of the situation. She has an affair with a government official, not realising that he is responsible for the death of her friend Birame III. She ignores a male friend who suggests she find another lover. ‘He wants to recruit me, to enrol me,’ she thinks. ‘Right up to only sleeping with people he OKs.’ Veronica is self-centred and sometimes foolish, but Condé shows her navigating machismo on all sides: there’s something more going on here than just wilfulness or naivety.
Published in 1976, Heremakhonon wasn’t a success. The left attacked it for betraying African socialism and it was pulped after six months. But in its nonconformism and disregard for political pieties Heremakhonon set the tone for Condé’s future work. Her breakthrough came with her third novel, Segu, published in 1984. Where Heremakhonon is a study of a single character, Segu moves between dozens of characters to tell the story of the descendants of Dousika and Diemogo, aristocratic brothers in Ségou (in modern-day Mali), the capital of the Bambara empire, in the late 18th century. The characters move about, losing their families and friends, acquiring new ones, their affiliations constantly shifting. The epigraph – ‘do not speak of Segu in Segu’ – indicates that this is a story that can only be told through dislocation. In its representation of the grandeur of the Bambara empire, the novel disputes the racist notion that Africa had no history to speak of. But Condé’s subjects’ lives aren’t simple or harmonious. She was criticised for making some of her African characters complicit with the slave trade. Her response was uncompromising: ‘We are always strict with those we love.’
In 1986, Condé found the name ‘Tituba’ in a history book about the Salem witch trials. I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem draws on the slender archive to tell the story of an enslaved woman accused of witchcraft. It’s a mock epic, with visions from dead ancestors, burlesque (‘as I neared my pudenda, it seemed that it was no longer me but John Indian who was caressing me … a pungent tidal wave flooded my thighs’) and an imagined meeting between Tituba and Hester Prynne. Condé describes the book as ‘the opposite of a historical novel. I was not interested at all in what her real life could have been … I am just a dreamer – my dreams rest on a historical basis.’
Condé’s fiction is interested in the ways people find themselves entrapped by social structures. In Crossing the Mangrove (1989), set in Guadeloupe, a foreign writer called Sancher has been found dead. The local community had been sceptical of this outsider who sat in the shade with his typewriter while everyone else sweated in the sun. At the wake, they take it in turns to speak: each testimony provokes a change of consciousness in the person speaking, and so a novel about a death becomes a novel about new ways of living. The testimony is a collective project; the speeches only make sense together. Crossing the mangrove seems impossible for some of the characters – ‘You’d be sucked down and suffocated by the brackish mud’ – but Sancher’s death enables Mira, for example, to cross to a life of greater agency and self-determination. The book offers plenty of character types: Mira, the abandoned woman; Lucien, the writer who hasn’t written anything; Emile, the historian overly proud of his pamphlet. But the wake, and its effect on the speakers, suggests these characters are less fixed than they seem.
Her rejection of simple notions of authenticity and origin has sometimes put Condé at odds with others on the anti-colonial left. In the 1990s, she came under fire from the Creolité movement for not writing in Creole. But she didn’t see what was wrong with writing in French – or what she has called ‘Maryse Condé’. (Her proprietary relationship to the language might explain her lack of interest in translations of her work. These have mostly been undertaken by her husband, Richard Philcox, with a sometimes heavy hand; she doesn’t read them.) Her novels of that decade – Tree of Life and The Last of the African Kings, for instance – range around the African diaspora. Her restlessness is a rejoinder to the idea that everyone should stay in their proper place.
In The Belle Créole (2001), being stuck – in the past or in a place – is the problem. Like Crossing the Mangrove, it begins shortly after a death. A young Black man, Dieudonné, has just been acquitted of murdering a white Creole, Lorraine. He owes the victory to his lawyer’s speechifying: ‘The cruel békée mistress. The defenceless slave. The mistress humiliates and wields the whip. One day, the slave frees himself. By killing. A baptism in blood.’ The story of what really happened, which slowly emerges, is rather different. Dieudonné did kill Lorraine, but accidentally, after she shot at him in a jealous rage. It’s not guilt that prevents him from admitting this, but horror that the woman he loved would have ‘shot him down like a dog’.
This is a novel wary of what Condé calls the ‘stock roles’ and ‘costumes that tradition had worn thin’. Dieudonné himself prefers silence to talking, while his friend Boris talks a lot but says nothing. Once ‘a crazy poet, an incorrigible dreamer, a marginalised figure’, he is now ‘the spitting image of a civil servant, sententious, convinced he was working on a crucial mission’. He aspires to profundity: ‘Our country is like a bird without wings. Incapable of taking off, and still less of soaring’ – but his lines come up short. Even the clichéd title, redolent of an exotic romance, is out of kilter with the story Condé tells. The Belle Créole turns out to be the name of an abandoned, dilapidated boat in which the now homeless Dieudonné sometimes seeks refuge.
Condé has some fun with these old beliefs: referring to Boris’s revolutionary slogans, she writes that ‘Fidel, with his white goatee, was now nothing but a Santa Claus without a sack of gifts.’ But she never quite renounces them. ‘This Négritude that I so contested in the past now seems to me to be the last magnificent dream for our humanity,’ she said in 2009, ‘a political dream where the barriers between our countries would fall and migration would be nothing more than a visit.’ Condé has for decades supported the Union populaire de la libération de Guadeloupe, a Marxist party that advocates independence. Although she isn’t now ‘a card-carrying member’, she ran (unsuccessfully) as a candidate in the 1992 regional elections and remains committed to the cause: ‘The independence of my country,’ she says, ‘is a dream I will not renounce.’ In the expansive spirit of mid-century anti-colonialism, Condé sees no contradiction between the nation and the world.
Waiting for the Waters to Rise (2010) shares this view, even if its title marks a shift from political optimism to a sense of impending apocalypse. Babakar Traoré, a Malian doctor in modern-day Guadeloupe, keeps to himself. He pushes his friend Hugo along the cliffs in his wheelchair and sleeps with his housekeeper, Carmen. But when he meets Anaïs, a Haitian child whose mother has died (Haitian migration in the Caribbean, and the prejudice experienced by migrants, are themes that recur in Condé’s work), ‘his soul thundered out a Magnificat worthy of Johann Sebastian Bach.’ He adopts her and goes to Haiti to find her family, but they aren’t interested in her. At the end of the book an earthquake destroys the airport. Babakar decides that, as a doctor, he has to remain in Haiti; his friend Fouad, a Palestinian writer, stays with him. Family ties cede to the ties of affiliation, solidarity and affection. Babakar is from Segu, yet remains a man of ‘no faith or fixed abode, a nomad belonging to no mother country’. (At times this preference for mutability goes too far, such as when Anaïs’s eyes turn blue.)
Condé’s books don’t try to reconcile the antagonism between commitment and irony. ‘Never solidarity before criticism,’ Edward Said wrote, but what function does this puckishness serve today? Non-conformism and dissent have a particular valency under authoritarianism; they mean something else in the context of neoliberal individualism. Condé’s more recent work feels a bit like encountering first Fanon, then a close friend a couple of glasses of wine down, and finally the elderly relative you have to brace yourself for at Christmas. She admires V.S. Naipaul. She finds Toni Morrison ‘politically correct’. She believes the French language ‘was forged for me alone’. She has, she admits, ‘a provocative side I can’t get rid of, unlike the right-minded people who see the world as a reality they can codify’.
This is particularly pronounced in The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, published in 2017. Ivan and Ivana, twins born in Guadeloupe, take different paths. Ivan, desperately in love with Ivana, escapes a job at a chocolate factory in France and ends up in Mali. He becomes an Islamist, but runs away to establish a ménage à trois with two former circus performers in a house called the Last Resort. Ivana remains in France, where she becomes a police officer. At the end of the novel she is gunned down by her brother, not entirely against her wishes. It’s a tragedy, though at times a fatuous one.
Condé was prompted to write the novel after reading about Clarissa Jean-Philippe, a Martinican policewoman killed by Amedy Coulibaly, a Malian man associated with the Charlie Hebdo attackers. With this act, Condé said, Coulibaly ‘put an end to the myth of Négritude based on an intra-racial solidarity’. The narrative voice intervenes more forcefully here than in her earlier work, sometimes commenting on events, sometimes fact-checking the story or anticipating the reader’s response: ‘We know what you are thinking. Once again you’re going to blame us for not paying enough attention to Ivana, for not describing her moods in as much detail as for Ivan. Forgive us, dear reader. We shall attempt to make amends.’ The novel’s absurdist turns don’t allow for a coherent explanation of Ivan’s decision; instead, Condé offers one stereotype after another until they are all rendered meaningless.
I spoke to Condé on the phone once, several years ago. I was researching Condetto Nénékhaly-Camara, a poet arrested by Sekou Touré (Condé mentions him in one of her memoirs). I had sent a speculative email and she replied asking me to phone at a particular time some weeks later. She was professorial and gave me better answers than my questions merited, speaking in detail about a writer who had died long ago.
Now, late in a career so often concerned with questions about the past and the demands of the present, Condé has written an explicitly utopian novel. L’Évangile du nouveau monde is the third book to be announced as her last. She can no longer type, so she dictated the novel to a friend over the phone. This time the Condéan anti-hero is a mixed-race messiah, Pascal, born on a fictional West Indian island to a Muslim convert and a guru at a Brazilian ashram. The baby is left outside the house of a devout Christian couple, who assume the boy has been sent from heaven. It’s not long before the miracles begin. At a wedding, Pascal makes plaited loaves of bread appear. He brings his lover’s brother, Lazarus, back from the edge of death. Maria, Judas, Joseph and other familiar characters appear. Pascal wants to believe his mission is to make the world more harmonious, but he’s not sure how best to go about it. He wanders from place to place in search of answers, having a lot of sex along the way (‘the flesh, contrary to what the Gospel says, is not despicable’). The novel drifts, like its protagonist – as in so much of Condé’s work, digression is the point. Meanwhile, his reputation grows; a church is founded in his honour.
He dies in a plane crash, aged 33. He hadn’t managed to make the world a better place. But the novel has a coda: the story of two new characters, the Gribaldis, who fall in love. ‘They have understood it is thanks to the love that two human beings feel for one another, thanks to this love that makes their hearts beat, that an individual can bear suffering, disillusion, snubs of all kinds, and only this love can transform the world.’ It’s a new articulation of Condé’s view that ‘it’s good to be unrealistic. To be utopian.’