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Maryse Condé (b. 1937) - original name Maryse Boucolon


Guadeloupean author of epic fiction, best-known for her historical novel Ségou (1984-85, Segu; The Children of Segu). Condé's multifaceted novels question stereotypical images of literary characters, colonialism, sex and gender. She has also published children's books, a booklet about Guadeloupe, book-length essays about francophone women writers and oral literatures in Martinique and Guadeloupe, critical booklets about Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, Antillean fiction, and numerous articles mainly about Caribbean literature and cultural studies.

"She was a young woman who was pretty in an odd way. Her lovely blond hair hidden under a sombre hood fuzzed up and formed a luminous halo around her head. She was wrapped in shawls and blankets as though she were shivering despite the warm, stuffy air in the cabin. She smiled at me and in a voice as pleasant as the waters of the River Ormond she said: so you're Tituba? How cruel it must be to be separated from your own family. From your father, your mother, and your people.'" (from I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, 1986)

Maryse Condé was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, a small French/Creole-speaking Caribbean island. She was the youngest of eight children. Condé's mother was a schoolteacher, and her father ran a small savings and loan company, called Caisse Coopérative des Prêts, which he had founded with his friends. When Condé was eight, she wrote a one-act play dedicated to her mother. However, both of her parents died before she became known as a writer. Condé never knew her maternal grandmother, an illiterate mulatto born on the island of Marie-Galante, but reconstructed her life in Victoire, les saveurs et les mots (2006, Victoire: My Mother's Mother), a family story about mothers and daughters.

Condé left Guadeloupe at the age of sixteen, when she was sent by her parents to Paris. She was educated at Lycée Fénéleon and Sorbonne, majoring in English. "Being so far from my parents had a very sad side to it", she later recalled, "but I think that's when I discovered loths of things like the cinema, art, museums, and exhibitions." (Conversations with Maryse Condé, by Maryse Condé and Françoise Pfaff, 1996) During her time as a student, she joined the Communist Youth. In 1958 she married Mamadou Condé, a Guinean actor; officially they divorced in 1981. Before following her husband to Guinea, where he was appointed director of the National Ballet, Condé had a teaching appointment in the Ivory Coast at the junior high school in Bingerville. She continued as an instructor Conakry, Guinea, but upon the breakup of her marriage – she was not granted a divorce – she went with her children to Ghana, where she taught French at the Institute of Language in Accra (1966-68). Condé also published an anthology of French-language African literature. With the fall of Kwame Nkrumah, he was expelled from the country. For a period she lived in Senegal, where she was first employed as a translator for IDEP (Institute for Development and Promotion).

Condé's African years were restless. "I know now just how badly prepared I was to encounter Africa", Condé acknowledged later, "I had a very romantic vision, and I just wasn't prepared, either politically or socially." (World Authors 1980-1985, ed. Vineta Colby, 1991) Condé lived in Ghana and Senegal during the turbulent moments of history of these countries. She met such political figures as Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana, António Agostinho Neto, a famous Angolan nationalist leader, Amilcar Cabral, a Guinea-Bissaunian guerrilla and politician, and attended gatherings that included Malcolm X and Ernesto "Che" Guevara as speakers. This wandering period also was fruitful for her creative development. She has argued that too much familiarity with a place does not allow an author to write about it more truthfully but only to 'mythify' it. While in Senegal, she also met Richard Philcox, and Englishman who taught at the high school where she worked and who later became her husband.

Settling eventually with her family in London, she worked for the BBC as a program producer for two years (1968-70), and then taught at Jussieau (1970-72) and Nanterre (1972-80). In 1975 Condé recived her Ph.D. Her dissertation in comparative literature dealt with black stereotypes in Caribbean literature. Between the years 1980 and 1985, Condé was a course director at Sorbonne. Scholarly fellowships and invitations to teach brought her then to the United States.

In the 1970s she wrote several plays, which were performed in Paris and in the West Indies. Her first novel, Hérémakhonon (1976), went practically unnoticed in France, but interested French teachers in the United States, who invited her to lecture on Francophone literature. "I spoke very poor English at the time, which turned out to be not very important because the students were mainly concerned with suntans and surfing." (Conversations with Maryse Condé, by Maryse Condé and Françoise Pfaff, 1996) The story told of a young black West Indian woman, Veronica, who is educated in Paris and searches her roots in Africa. In Paris she had a white lover, and in Africa she becomes the mistress of the Minister of Defence, who turns out to be thoroughly corrupt. The theme continued in the novel Une saison à Rihata (1981, A Season in Rihata), where Condé's African and Caribbean characters are lost in a corrupt country. Also in this work the protagonist is a Guadeloupian woman. However, Condé had denied that Veronica was an autobiographical character.

Condé's novels are set at cultural intersection, exploring the intrusion of European imperialism into Africa and the resulting diaspora cultures, particularly that of the West Indies. In her early works the author explored the myth that the rediscovery of African ancestry can solve the Caribbean question. Later Condé has focused on West Indian net of past myths, contemporary corruption, and disillusionment about the possibility to erase a colonial past of dispossession.

Condé's two-part historical novel Ségou, became a best-seller and made him a major contemporary Caribbean writer. Set in the African kingdom of Ségou (now part of Mali), it traces the history of the royal Traore family in its encounter with slave trade, Islam, Christianity, and French colonialism from between 1797 and 1860. The work follows the fates of four royal sons to Brazil and the Caribbean using unknown historical documents - ethnographical notes, genealogies, maps - and personal narratives.

In Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem (1986 I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), written as an autobiographical transcription of a forgotten witch of Salem, and La Migration des cœurs (1995, Winward Heights) Condé has reinterpreted stories and historical events that have became a part of Western cultural heritage. Tituba, the daughter of a Barbadian slave woman, was arrested in Massachusetts in the village of Salem along with the white girls in the witch trials of 1692, which also inspired Arthur Miller's famous play The Crucible (1953). She was released from jail, but there is not much records of what happened to her afterwards. Condé adds to what little is known about her life, creating her a fictional childhood as an orphan in Barbados. There she is initiated into another, benign, kind of witchcraft, brought from Africa by an old woman, Mama Yaya, before being sold to the family who bring her to Salem. In Puritan New England her talent is considered a threat to society.

Winward Heights transposed Emily Brontë's wild love affair from Wuthering Heights to a Caribbean context and set the story against reincarnation cult. This experiment in intertextuality has been considered Condé's finest achievement to date. Heathcliff appears as Razye and Cathy's daughter suffers the consequences of her mother's choices. Noteworthy, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre inspired Jean Rhys's best known novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which gave voice to Edward Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason.

La Colonie du nouveau monde (1993) ends with disillusionment. It presented a mock version of the colonial enterprise. Trying to overcome their alienation, a couple from Guadeloupe - who met in psychiatric institution in France - stage a return to the place 'before things went wrong,' i.e. Egypt. Finally their sad journey ends in Columbia. Desirada (1997, Desirada) dealt again seach of the past, truth and lies, and spans three generations and three countries - Guadeloupe, France and America.

After a 30-year absence, Condé returned in 1986 to Guadeloupe. La vie scélérate (1987, The Tree of Life), about wandering and homecoming, was her first novel set in her native country. From the 1990s, she has divided her time between Guadeloupe and the US. She has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, Harvard, and the University of Columbia. After retiring from teaching in 2004, she continued to lecture and write. Her home she maintained on her native island. Condé's husband, Richard Philcox, has translated many of her works into English. Condé has received several awards, including the Prix Liberatur (Germany) for Segu, the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme for I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, the Prix Carbet de la Caraïbe for Desirada, the Prix Marguerite Yourcenar for Le Cœur à rire et à pleurer (1999, Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood), and Le Grand Prix du roman métis for En attendant la montée des eaux (2010). In 2001 she was ordained Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la France and 2004 she was made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

For further reading: Autobiographical Tightropes by Leah Dianne Hewitt (1990); Out of the Kumbla, ed. C.B. Davies and E.S. Fido (1990); Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Entretiens avec Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff (1993); L'oeuvre de Maryse Condé, ed. by N. Araujo (1996); Conversations with Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff (1996); Encyclopedia of The Novel, ed. Paul Schellinger (1998); Signs of Dissent: Maryse Condé and Postcolonial Criticism by Dawn Fulton (2008). Note: Condé's birth date in some sources Nov. 2, 1937, in this calendar Feb. 11, 1937. Roots theme: see also Édouard Glissant, Alex Haley

Selected works:

  • Anthologie de la littérature africaine d'expression française, 1966 (ed.)
  • Dieu nous l'a donné, 1972 (play)
  • Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako, 1973 (play, prod. 1975)
  • Le Morne de Massabielle, 1971 (play)
    - The Morne of Massabielle / The Hills of Massabielle (translated by Richard Philcox, 1991)
  • De Christophe Colomb à Fidel Castro: l'histoire des Caraïbes / Eric Eustace Williams, 1975 (translator)
  • Hérémakhonon, 1976
    - Heremakhonon (translated by Richard Philcox, 1982)
  • Le Roman antillais, 1977 (ed.)
  • La Poésie antillaise, 1977 (ed.)
  • La civilisation du bossale :réflexions sur la littérature orale de la Guadeloupe et de la Martinique, 1978
  • Profil d'une œuvre : Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, 1978
  • Cahier d'un retour au pays natal de Césaire, analyse critique, 1978
  • La parole des femmes: essai sur des romancières des Antilles de langue française, 1979
  • Une saison à Rihata, 1981
    - A Season in Rihata (translated by Richard Philcox, 1988)
  • Ségou: Les Murailles de terre, 1984
    - Segu (translated by  Barbara Bray, 1987)
  • Ségou II: La Terre en miettes, 1985
    - The Children of Segu (translated by Linda Coverdale, 1989)
  • Pays mêlé; suivi de, Nanna-ya, 1985
    - Land of Many Colors & Nanny-ya (tr. 1999)
  • Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, 1986
    - I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem I (translated by Richard Philcox, foreword by Angela Y. Davis, 1992)
  • La vie scélérate, 1987
    - The Tree of Life (translated by Victoria Reiter, 1992)
  • Haïti chérie, 1987
  • Pension Les alizés, 1988 (play, prod. 1989)
    - The Tropical Breeze Hotel (translated by Barbara Brewster Lewis and Catherine Temerson, in Plays by Women, 1994)
  • En attendant le bonheur, 1988
  • Guadeloupe, 1988 (photographs by Jean Du Boisberranger)
  • Traversée de la mangrove, 1989
    - Crossing the Mangrove (translated by Richard Philcox, 1995)
  • An tan revolisyon elle court, elle court la liberté, 1989 (play, prod. 1989)
  • Victor et les barricades, 1989
  • Hugo le terrible, 1990
  • Bouquet de voix pour Guy Tirolien, 1990 (ed., with Alain Rutil)
  • L'Héritage de Caliban, 1992 (ed.)
  • Les Derniers rois mages, 1992
    - The Last of the African Kings (translated by Richard Philcox, 1997)
  • La Colonie du nouveau monde, 1993
  • Comédie d'amour, 1993 (play)
  • La Migration des cœurs, 1995
    - Winward Heights (translated by Richard Philcox, 1998)
  • Penser la créolité, 1995 (with Françoise Pfaff)
  • Desirada, 1997
    - Desirada (translated by Richard Philcox, 2000)
  • Nouvelles d'Amérique: nouvelles, 1998 (ed., with Lise Gauvin)
  • Le Cœur à rire et à pleurer, 1999
    - Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood (translated by Richard Philcox, 2001)
  • Célanire cou-coupé: roman fantastique, 2000
    - Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat? (translated by Richard Philcox, 2005)
  • La Belle Créole, 2001
  • La Planète Orbis, 2002
  • Histoire de la femme cannibale, 2003
    - The Story of the Cannibal Woman: A Novel (translated by Richard Philcox, 2007)
  • Uliss et les Chiens. 2006
  • Victoire, les saveurs et les mots: récit, 2006
    - Victoire: My Mother's Mother (translated by Richard Philcox, 2010)
  • Comme deux frères, 2007 (play)
  • Les Belles Ténébreuses, 2008
  • En attendant la montée des eaux, 2010

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