Condé, Maryse 1937–
Maryse Condé 1937-
Guadeloupean novelist, critic, playwright, editor, short story writer, and author of children's books.
For additional information on Condé's career, see Black Literature Criticism Supplement.
Regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary Afro-Caribbean literature, Condé has garnered critical acclaim for articulating a distinctively black female perspective unmarked by the influences of imperialism and colonial oppression in the West Indies. In her fiction and nonfiction she often focuses on the relationship between the individual and society, particularly in the societies of Guadeloupe, other Caribbean locales, and equatorial Africa.
Born in Guadeloupe in 1937 into a well-known family of academics and entrepreneurs, Condé was raised in an atmosphere of strong racial and familial pride. At the age of sixteen she left to study in France, where she was the victim of severe racial prejudice. After being expelled from one school, Condé eventually completed her studies at the Sorbonne, where she was the winner of a short story writing contest among West African students. She traveled briefly in Europe and took a teaching position in the Ivory Coast. Between 1960 and 1968, Condé taught and lived in a number of African nations, including Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. She returned to France in 1970 in order to earn a doctorate from the Sorbonne, which she accomplished in 1976. She remained at the Sorbonne as a lecturer for nearly ten years and during this time published some of her best-known works. In 1986 she returned to Guadeloupe and established a permanent residence there. She has since taught and lectured at a number of American universities, most often at the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses of the University of California. She has won numerous literary awards and fellowships, including the Prix littéraire de la femme in 1986 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1987.
Condé is known for critical works that examine Francophone literature and feminist issues—notably La civilisation du bossale (1978), La parole des femmes (1979), and Tim tim? Bois sec! (1980)—and for her fictional accounts of life in the Third World, primarily in the Antilles and West Africa—as in Hérémakhonon (1976; Heremakhonon), Une saison á Rihata (1981; A Season in Rihata), La vie scélérate (1987; Tree of Life), Traversée de la mangrove (1989; Crossing the Mangrove), and La migration des couers (1995; Windward Heights). Heremakhonon, a semiautobiographical novel, is set in an unidentified West African country and details the adventures of a Paris-educated Guadeloupean woman. The protagonist unwittingly becomes embroiled in the nation's political turmoil through her relationships with a bureaucrat and a radical schoolmaster. Condé's second novel, A Season in Rihata, again focuses on an African national beset by internal problems and relates the story of a prominent family threatened by corruption and antigovernment sentiments. In her next two novels, Ségou: Les murailles de terre (1984; Segu) and Ségou: La terre en miettes (1985; The Children of Segu), she combines historical fact with fiction to recreate events in the West African kingdom of Ségou, which is now Mali, between 1797 and 1860. These works chronicle the experiences of members of a royal family whose lives are destroyed by such developments as European colonization, the slave trade, and the introduction of Islam and Christianity into Ségou's largely animistic culture. Tree of Life, set in Guadeloupe in the 1870s, details the life of a black nationalist patriarch and his scattered family, who, though haunted by loneliness, despair, and suicide, struggle for survival. Windward Heights is a reimagining of Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights, set in Guadeloupe at the turn of the twentieth century.
Other novels by Condé include Moi, Tituba, sorciére noire de Salem (1986; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), the fictionalized biography of a Barbadian slave who was executed for practicing witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, and Les derniers rois mages (1992; The Last Magi), the tale of the ghost of an African king who pays a visit to his kin in contemporary South Carolina. In Desirada (1997; Desirada), a young Guadeloupean girl, Marie-No, feels alienated from her Caribbean roots and her adopted home of Boston. Her search for the identity of her birth father intensifies her own feelings of dislocation and despair. The search for identity is also a central theme of Condé's 2003 novel, Histoire de la femme cannibale (The Story of the Cannibal Woman). Here, a Guadeloupean woman must face the murder of her husband in South Africa and find the courage to put her life together and move forward. Celanire cou-coupe: roman fantastique (2000; Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?: A Fantastical Tale) chronicles the search of Celanire, a Guadeloupean woman, for the person who slit her throat when she was a baby and left her to die. In the process, she learns about her true identity. Condé's childhood memoir, La coeur a Rire et a Pleurer (2001; Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood), recalls her childhood in Guadeloupe and Paris and provides an evocative portrait of her native country. Condé has also published several plays, collections of short stories, and works for children.
A prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, and criticism, Condé is celebrated as a talented and perceptive author. Many critics have lauded her knowledge of African history, while others have focused their praise on her struggle to create an independent identity for the Afro-Caribbean woman. Other reviewers have commended her lyricism, biting wit, and sharp commentary on racial and gender inequality, the tragic legacies of the African diaspora, and the challenges of multicultural relationships. Some reviewers, however, have found Condé's plots convoluted and overburdened by details and characters. Recent critics have discussed her work within the context of the West African griot (or storyteller) tradition as well as within contemporary European literature. They have commended her valuable contribution to the Afro-Caribbean literary tradition and regard Condé as a major author of her time.
Dieu nous l'a donné [God Given] (play) 1972
Mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako [Death of a King] (play) 1973
Hérémakhonon [Heremakhonon] (novel) 1976
La civilisation du bossale: Réflexions sur la literature orale de la Guadeloupe et de la Martinique (essays) 1978
Notas sobre el Enriquillo (criticism) 1978
Le profil d'une oeuvre: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (essays) 1978
La parole des femmes: Essais sur des romanciéres des Antilles de langue français (essays) 1979
Tim tim? Bois sec! Bloemlezling uit de Franstalige Caribsche literatuur (criticism) 1980
Une saison á Rihata [A Season in Rihata] (novel) 1981
Un gout de miel (short stories) 1984
Ségou: Les murailles de terre [Segu] (novel) 1984
Pays mêlé suivi de Nanna-ya [Land of Many Colors, and Nanna-ya] (short stories) 1985
Ségou: La terre en miettes [The Children of Segu] (novel) 1985
Moi, Tituba, sorciére noire de Salem [I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem] (novel) 1986
Haiti Chérie (juvenile) 1987
La vie scélérate [The Tree of Life: Novel of the Caribbean] (novel) 1987
Pension les Alizés [The Tropical Breeze Hotel] (play) 1988
An tan revolisyon (play) 1989
Traversée de la mangrove [Crossing the Mangrove] (novel) 1989
Victor et les barricades (juvenile) 1989
The Hills of Massabielle (play) 1991
Les derniers rois mages [The Last Magi] (novel) 1992
La colonie du nouveau monde (novel) 1993
La migration des couers [Windward Heights] (novel) 1995
Desirada [Desirada] (novel) 1997
Celanire cou-coupe: roman fantastique [Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?: A Fantastical Tale] (novel) 2000
La Belle Creole (novel) 2001
La coeur a Rire et a Pleurer [Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood] (memoir) 2001
Histoire de la femme cannibale [The Story of the Cannibal Woman] (novel) 2003
Victoire, les saveurs et les mots (novel) 2006
Hugh W. Hancock (essay date spring 2001)
SOURCE: Hancock, Hugh W. "Condé's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem." Explicator 59, no. 3 (spring 2001): 165-67.
[In the following essay, Hancock underscores the central role the "shared-story" narrative plays in I, Tituba.]
Maryse Condé's novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem includes both fictional elements (Tituba's incarceration with Hester the Adulteress, reminiscent of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter) and the actual historical persona of Tituba, who lived during the Salem witch trials and had been accused of being a witch. Tituba's strength comes from being able to survive under the worst of conditions. She is passed from master to master, only to be abused repeatedly. Her dead mother Abena and grandmother Mama Yaya revisit Tituba intermittently and give her advice on how to survive the next bout of abuse. Paradoxically, Tituba's slave lover, John Indian, is of no help to Tituba, for his philosophy of life is to survive even at the loss of his integrity.
Near the end of the novel we get a better understanding of the "talk-story" or "shared-story" narrative in feminist writings. Tituba becomes immortalized because of her desire to tell her story of struggle. She offers the reader an important message in the epilogue: "the story of my life" (175). In fact, Tituba begins her story (at the start of the novel) by saying that she shared stories with her mother Abena and Abena's mother Mama Yaya (3). Mama Yaya, likened to a great matriarch, teaches Tituba "about herbs," teaches her to listen to the wind, and teaches her "the sea" (9). It is Mama Yaya who instructs Tituba about animal sacrifice (10). These stories, rituals, and magical ceremonies are important for Tituba, because the stories are historical records of Tituba's mother and grandmother and give Tituba a voice in life.
John Indian's words about "God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth" come from Reverend Samuel Parris and mean "nothing to" Tituba; they even further separate the man and woman, that is, men and women. Even as Tituba's true love, John Indian is unable to provide the shared-story that Tituba desires. Tituba desires someone who will share their world with her, even locked in a perilous situation such as slavery. John Indian is accomplished at satisfying Tituba's sexual passion and unlocking the "locked compartment[s]" of her heart with his laughter (16). But he stops "communicating" when he stops making love to her (27). His "shared stories" are of a different nature and purpose: they are often biblical and therefore patriarchal. He tells the story of how Adam and Eve were turned away from the "earthly paradise through the fault of our mother, Eve" (18). John Indian believes the white man's Puritanical claim that women lead men astray: Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Solomon by many, David and Bathsheba. In her conversations with John Indian, Tituba feels that he is instructing rather than loving her. She suspects that he is a puppet of "religious fanatics like our Samuel Parris" (46). After being confronted by a tall, dark figure of a man, the frightened Tituba runs into the arms of John Indian and says that she has "just seen Satan"; John Indian's few words of "comfort" are that she is now "talking like a Christian" (34).
Tituba, the amiable witch, soon realizes that those she thought she could trust are accusers themselves. Reverend Samuel Parris's daughter Betsey and Abigail, his "poor wife's niece" (36), feign madness and writhe "like worm[s] cut in two" when Tituba enters their presence (81). Samuel Parris strikes Tituba in the face when she chooses not to publicly confess her sins (41). But on whom can she depend? The invisible world of Mama Yaya and Abena becomes a source of comfort for Tituba. Mama Yaya and Abena are beyond reproach in the spirit world; they become a major source of light for Tituba. Judah White (the biblical name Judah means "object of praise"; ironically "white" is a help rather than a hindrance for Tituba) is also a source of inspiration for Tituba and provides her with another "shared story," giving Tituba the names and properties of herbs. She also tells Tituba that "we are the salt of the earth" (52), perhaps suggesting that they are the preservers of what is good.
Tituba continues to battle against patriarchy/Puritanism/status quo to tell her story and to find her voice. Condé's use of the personal pronoun "I" in the title shows Tituba's independence, or at least a proclamation of independence. Near the end of the novel, Tituba points to Samuel Parris (the biblical Samuel was a judge and one of the last prophets in the Bible) while he sings his "stony dirge"—"But mine enemies are lively and they are strong and they that hate me wrongfully are multiplied" (153) (Psalms 38.19)—and says, "John Indian and I were oblivious to everything as we succumbed to love" (153). In other words, during lovemaking John Indian and Tituba "speak" the language of love. It is the only language that patriarchy allows Tituba to possess. But even these moments are stolen: "Since we slept in a cubby hole next to Parris's bedroom we had to be careful not to utter any signs or moans that might reveal the nature of our activities" (50).
Tituba is not allowed to have her own voice in the company of patriarchy, as the patriarchs have theirs, and she must often unite with a male to have her voice. She is slapped, beaten down, told what to think and do. Near the end of her story. Tituba questions Christopher, another of her lovers, about being allowed a voice of her own: "I touched him on the shoulder. ‘And what about me, is there a song for me? A song for Tituba?’ He pretended to listen hard, then said: ‘No, there isn't!’ Thereupon he began to snore and I tried to do the same" (153).
So what is left for Tituba? What is left for women who are accused of leading men astray? They must share their story. Tituba shares her story and the stories of her mother and grandmother: struggles against patriarchy, properties of herbs, recipes, remedies. Tituba muses in the epilogue: "I do not belong to the civilization of the Bible and Bigotry. My people will keep my memory in their hearts and have no need for the written word. It's in their heads. It's in their hearts and in their heads" (176). Tituba must reject patriarchy and continue her story and the stories of her mother and grandmother.
Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. New York: Ballentine, 1994.
Bonnie Thomas (essay date November 2004)
SOURCE: Thomas, Bonnie. "Intercultural Encounters and Personal Identity: Errance in the Life and Work of Maryse Condé." Essays in French Literature, no. 41 (November 2004): 171-84.
[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the manner in which Condé's encounters with diverse cultural experiences inform her personal identity and literary works.]
Contemporary Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé is renowned for her novels exploring the nature of intercultural encounters. Throughout her career, Condé has consistently traversed national, cultural and historical boundaries and her books encompass an impressive variety of themes. This striking characteristic of errance is also mirrored in her own life experience with Condé living and working in countries as diverse as Guadeloupe, France, several African nations and the United States. A West Indian writer who has lived much of her life outside her native Guadeloupe, Condé's multi-faceted literary and personal identity dramatizes some of the complexities that arise in intercultural encounters. As she states in a recent interview:
the specific problem is that one always asks me, a West Indian, the question "where are you from?" as if to say "define yourself!" Since I am black, people want me to emphasize Africa. I was in Africa, though, and I realize that race is less important than culture. I cannot say that I am African. I must say that I am West Indian. Then someone says, "you are West Indian, but you don't live in the West Indies. You don't speak Creole, or very little. By what criteria do you define your West Indian-ness?". Finally, one day, I came to the conclusion that I was going to stop justifying myself. Too bad for everyone else! Perhaps we can say that I chose my identity and I was going to stick by it.1
Condé's defiance in asserting her individuality as a writer and as a person, created out of the mingling of diverse cultural experiences, highlights the way in which encounters with other cultures shape and influence personal identity. Significantly, these meetings are not determinist and can sometimes affect people in totally different ways. In a discussion of the relationship between intercultural encounters and personal identity, then, Condé's own experiences form an essential starting point.
Born in 1937 in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé was the last of nine children born to Auguste Boucolon and Jeanne Quidal. Influenced by the images presented in black American magazines such as Ebony, with its photos of proud black families, Condé's parents were eager to maintain their position as moderately successful members of the black middle-class in Guadeloupe by ensuring they and their children associated only with similarly positioned people. Condé has remarked on the isolation and boredom this upbringing inspired in her, establishing herself instead as a person lusting after diversity. Following travels to France throughout her youth, Condé completed her high school education in Paris at the Lycée Fénelon. Here Condé began to become aware of her Caribbean identity for the first time and she came into contact with West Indian intellectuals concerned with issues of decolonization. It was also the beginning of her passion for other cultures as she embarked upon trips of discovery throughout Europe.
While in Paris, Condé met her first husband, Mamadou Condé, while he was acting in the Jean Genêt play, LesNègres. This love affair led to nearly 10 years residing in Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Ghana where Condé underwent a personal awakening as she became involved in politics, taught French, brought up her children and ultimately ended her marriage to Condé. While in Ghana she met her second husband and translator, Richard Philcox and together they lived in Paris, London and Guadeloupe before finally settling in the United States. These diverse cultural experiences left a deep impression on Condé and have led to her conception of herself as a citizen of the world, rather than as someone tied to one particular place. These varied intercultural encounters have thus had a profound effect on her writing and have allowed her to explore the many variations of the term "culture", with her characters transgressing the limitations of race, class, gender, country and historical context.
A second essential point of departure in a consideration of culture and personal identity in the French Caribbean context is the legacy of slavery founded upon a dramatic intercultural encounter with the clash of radically different peoples under an oppressive social system. Indeed, slavery and the plantation system were the harsh reality for Martinique and Guadeloupe from the time of colonization by the French in 1635 until the abolition of slavery in 1848. Contemporary writer Patrick Chamoiseau remarks on this process of creolization that occurred under slavery as a direct result of "la mise en conjonction accélérée, massive de plusieurs peuples, plusieurs langues".2 Against this backdrop of racial and cultural mixing, French Caribbean writings constitute a particularly appropriate source for a study of intercultural encounters and personal identity.
One of Condé's most resoundingly popular novels, Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem, published in Paris in 1986, draws together a variety of elements to create a melting pot of cultural meetings, including intertextuality, the clash of class and colour in slave society, the contrast between "first" and "third world" feminisms and the collision of different historical epochs. Condé first became aware of the existence of Tituba, a black female slave from Barbados caught up in the Salem witch trials, whilst a Fulbright scholar in residence in Los Angeles.3 From the small amount of information that was actually known about Tituba, including her marriage to John Indien in Barbados and her departure for Salem to take care of her Puritan master, Samuel Parris, and his children, Condé has spun a tale bringing to life many shades of the cultural spectrum.
One of the first things to notice about Tituba is its intertexuality and the way in which Condé has woven the few historical facts she found about this real-life woman with references to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and certain overlaps with an earlier book on the subject by Ann Petry. Indeed, the intersection of these diverse sources, brought together through the pen of a contemporary female writer from Guadeloupe, provides an external "intercultural" framework with which to examine the multi-faceted notions that Condé presents in the book.
The most obvious intercultural encounter to appear in the novel is the clash between black and white racial groups. From the outset, Condé establishes white power over black when a white sailor on the ironically named ship, Christ the King, rapes her mother, Abena, and she conceives Tituba. With the setting of the book in the era of slavery, Condé reminds the readers of the profound effect this period of history had on personal identity. For white men in particular, the plantation system effectively sanctioned great brutality towards the black and coloured slaves, although this behaviour was at least theoretically limited by Le Code noir, and the latter suffered horrific abuses as a result of this dramatic imbalance of power.
In the characters of Tituba and John Indien, Condé demonstrates two ways in which black slaves reacted to their position at the bottom of the social ladder. While Tituba remains steadfastly true to herself and her principles throughout her life, her husband adopts a different stance by choosing to "play the game". For John Indien, this path involves kowtowing to his superiors and behaving in the stereotypical manner expected of him in order to gain favours. This plan of action succeeds in producing the desired result and by the end of the book John Indien has secured himself a position as the live-in partner of a white woman. For Tituba, by contrast, her refusal to passively submit to the injustices that she experiences as a result of her race ultimately lead to her premature death back in Barbados. The concept of marronnage, explored by writers such as Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, sheds further light on these radically opposed approaches adopted by Tituba and John Indien towards the experience of slavery. For Glissant, the marron is the supreme symbol of resistance in his steadfast refusal to participate in the colonial system. Patrick Chamoiseau refines the conception of this celebrated figure of opposition, describing instead the phenomenon of la grande marronne who rejects the colonial system outright and la petite marronne relating to the slave who only partially absents himself from the system.4 The latter, inextricably linked to the ideology of débrouillardise or the ability to survive and exploit the system that oppresses,5 is the strategy John Indien assumes in his ability to exist and flourish within the gaps of slavery. For Tituba, col- laborating with this hostile and unjust social system is unthinkable, even if ultimately it leads to her downfall. The dichotomous pairing of Tituba and John Indien brings to light the way in which the clash of two radically different cultures can stunt personal identity, underlining the non-determinist nature of intercultural encounters and representing two contrasting responses to colonialism.
Condé draws a further contrast between black and white in her examination of black slave culture versus Puritan white culture in relation to sexuality. For Tituba, sex is a deeply pleasurable experience and it is her craving for physical intimacy that drives her relationships with men in the absence of other points of connection. Moreover, as Lillian Manzor-Coats suggests, in her sexual relationships with men "Tituba constitutes herself as a desiring subject, her otherwise despised black body becoming a desirable body, a body she can enjoy and a body that permits her intimacy between two human beings which both the plantation society in Barbados and the Puritan society in Salem prohibit".6 Tituba's easy acceptance and enjoyment of her sexuality emerges in striking contrast to the repressed attitude of the Puritans who manifest their disgust at this activity in a distorted way through aggression against women. It also underlines the old religious prejudice against nature based on the idea that nature reflected the state of fallen humanity—in contrast with lost Paradise. For example, when Samuel Parris' wife falls ill and he calls on Tituba to help, his first thought is for her to dress herself properly when she leaps naked out of bed to come to his aid. Moreover, in one of the most powerful and confrontational episodes in the novel, Parris and three hooded men gang rape Tituba, plunging a stick up her body and beating her in order to gain a confession that she bewitched the children. These vastly opposed attitudes to sexuality underline the complete incompatibility of certain cultures as well as debunking black people's supposed animal sexuality. In this story it is the Puritans who are the savages.
There is also a starkly contrasted cultural dimension in the black slave and Puritan white cultures' approach to the natural and spiritual worlds. Characters such as Tituba, Man Yaya and Judas White experience a respectful communion with nature, drawing on its healing properties to perform acts of good. They also value the contribution of spirituality and they are frequently guided by the wisdom the spirits have to offer them long after they have abandoned their physical bodies. These special healing abilities are linked to a humanitarian wisdom that flows over into these characters' attitude to life. For Samuel Parris and his cohorts, however, the physical environment is pure evil and the hatred they feel towards nature characterizes the way they interact with the world.
Within the black culture featured in the book, Condé engineers another distinction in her nomination of Tituba's loving and gentle step-father, Yao, as an African, rather than as a Caribbean, man. Acting as a kind of surrogate mother for Tituba when Abena is so traumatized by her rape that she is unable to mother properly, Yao offers Tituba a feeling of historical roots in his connection to Africa. He also gives her an African name, permanently fixing an African cultural dimension to Tituba's Caribbean identity. Condé also makes a parallel between the oppression of the blacks and that of the Jews in Tituba's relationship with a Jewish widower, Benjamin Cohen d'Azevedo. After the death of his wife and his youngest children he becomes both mother and father to his nine surviving offspring. Like Yao, Benjamin is depicted as a deeply compassionate man and Tituba finds great solace in the time she spends with him.
One of the most memorable intercultural encounters in the novel is Tituba's introduction to and friendship with Hester, a twentieth-century feminist who is imaginatively transposed from the twentieth-century to the seventeenth by way of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. According to Carolyn Duffey, Condé "is in effect artfully staging the politics of this encounter between first and third world feminisms as the accused witch and the alleged adulterous wife7 meet in seventeenth-century Salem".8 For example, deliberately employing an anachronistic vocabulary, Hester gently chides Tituba for her love of men and her old-fashioned ways. "‘You're too fond of love, Tituba! I'll never make a feminist out of you!’ ‘A feminist? What's that?’"9 Condé has admitted to making fun of feminism in this episode,10 yet the exchange between Tituba and Hester provides an innovative view of intercultural encounters. The meeting between these two women from different centuries and strikingly opposed opinions of woman's place in the world dramatizes some of the complexities of feminist thought for the contemporary scholar.
In contrast to Hester's vision of a world without men, Tituba is concerned to integrate men into a society that is more accepting of both sexes, a conviction that is more in line with the perspectives of some non-"first world" feminists. Indeed, her approach is closer aligned to "womanism", a term coined by African-American writer Alice Walker to describe a "woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers other women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counter-balance of laughter), and women's strength. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist … Traditionally capable".11 Whilst it is impossible to reduce feminism into a simple dichotomy between "first world" feminists who want to reject men and "third world" feminists who want to integrate them, Tituba has nevertheless become something of an icon for many scholars in the fields of francophone literature, feminism and multicultural studies, providing the voice of "a strong Third World woman"12 which can be harnessed to aid in the empowerment of other oppressed women. Furthermore, Tituba's expression of her own point of view as a black, lower class woman encourages Western critics to examine their bias and to reflect on their privileged position compared to women in other cultures.13
Condé thus effectively establishes the many strands to Tituba's identity in her status as a female, a black, a slave, a witch and a Caribbean person, all of which condition her approach to life. The multiplicity of her identity comes into particular focus when considering the variety of intercultural encounters which shape her personality—it is through her contact with Caribbean people, Africans, Jews, whites, Puritans, feminists and others that Tituba becomes the woman she is.
Condé explores further intercultural encounters in her 1992 novel, Les derniers rois mages. The specific focus of this book is the incompatibilities of the Caribbean and African-American cultures. While it is possible to locate certain similarities between the two groups with their shared African heritage and the disadvantaged position they occupy in their societies, Condé is concerned to show that in other ways, these cultures are vastly different. The two main characters, Debbie and Spéro, for example, could not be more different in their experiences and the way they lead their lives. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Debbie is a dynamic, focused woman who works as a college history professor. Spéro, by contrast, is Guadeloupean and a struggling artist trying to sell his paintings to impressionable American tourists eager to buy up their piece of authentic Caribbean culture. Despite his lack of ambition and success, qualities essential to Debbie, Spéro has one glittering asset—he is the descendant of an African king. For Debbie, obsessed with the search for historical roots, this genealogy outweighs everything else.
While Spéro, his father and grandfather, and indeed, Debbie, "pensent que le sang royal affirme leur grandeur et valorise leur existence",14 Condé reveals that this glorious heritage is in fact the product of a leopard's supposedly raping a young woman many years earlier. The creation of a royal family through the marriage of human and animal offers an element of myth to the story as well as suggesting a satire on the search for origins. A further repercussion of this interspecies encounter is the moral confusion that arises from the event and that persists down the male genealogical line. Sam Haigh focuses attention on the distinctly masculine nature of this dynasty which depends for its survival on the "erasure of the maternal-feminine as guarantee of Antillean legitimacy".15 It is significant that this family produces a line of sons that fosters the continuation of their paternal genealogy. However, with Spéro's creation of a daughter which brings this masculine dominance to a halt, Condé questions the legitimacy of the obsessive quest for paternity in a predominantly matrifocal society. By depicting Spéro in a morally ambiguous male line, Condé underlines one response to the Caribbean obsession with origins. In their compulsive battle to fit themselves into legitimate Africa royalty, Spéro and his male ancestors prove unable to live in the present, thereby allowing the scars of the past to become a convenient excuse for the avoidance of all responsibility. This unlikely coupling of a leopard and a young girl has also created an intercultural encounter between past and present in which all those close to the family prove incapable of making the transition from one to the other and therefore affirming the wholeness of their identities.
Against the backdrop of this illusory male dynasty,16 Condé depicts another response to the contrast between past and present in the character of Debbie. Religiously ensuring the commemoration of the royal ancestor's death on the tenth of December every year, she becomes increasingly resentful at what she feels is her short-changing in relation to Spéro's African ancestry. Indeed, it seems that Spéro's failure to provide her with an authentic royal heritage provokes further obsessive campaigning in Debbie as if she is trying to compensate for some genealogical lack of her own. While Debbie worships her prominent black bourgeois family, she discovers that the Middletons conceal some dark secrets when she begins writing her adored father's biography. Despite his illustrious reputation, Debbie learns that George Middleton's passionate fight for the black cause stems from rather questionable origins. Given that "[r]everence [is] her religion",17 Debbie quickly abandons her literary project and throws herself into her quest for racial equality. Condé thus uncovers a certain hypocrisy in Debbie's character which she plays out in relation to Spéro through her humiliating and distant treatment of him. As Mildred Mortimer maintains, "[i]n effect, she parodies the racist tactics she abhors; Debbie becomes responsible for ‘putting a Nigger in his place’ ".18 Debbie's obsession with the past emerges in striking contrast to Spéro's and yet it is equally as potent in its force. Not only does it condition her extremely socially aware attitude to life, but it also influences her relationship with her husband through her overwhelming demands on him. The character of Debbie thus "nous met en garde contre le danger de nous prendre au piège des fictions que nous aurons nous-mêmes créés"19 and illustrates the way in which two supposedly similar black cultures are kept firmly apart.
When they return to the United States after Debbie grows restless with the lack of activism she sees in Guadeloupe, the differences between the couple come into increasingly sharp focus. A passionate campaigner for social justice in the time left over from her demanding job, Debbie quickly becomes resentful of her hapless husband. For his part, Spéro dabbles in a few different occupations, but never succeeds in any of them and he ends up dealing with his feelings of inadequacy in work and love by indulging in adulterous affairs. Highly critical of Spéro's choice of action, Debbie distances herself from her husband to such an extent that she ends up despising him. For Condé, this contrast between Debbie and Spéro ultimately comes down to the dissonance between the Caribbean and the African-American cultures. Indeed, part of the motivation for Condé in writing this book is to:
invite African-American women to undergo a sort of self-criticism. Based only on the ones I know, of course, I wonder if they don't expect too much from a man. Don't they perhaps ask too much from him in wanting him to be a god or a king, for example? Don't they simply end up scaring him? Shouldn't they be more tolerant and humble in their relationships with men? When I talk with women friends and hear their terribly severe judgments about African-American men, I wonder whether a little more love and tenderness is needed in those interactions. Maybe then the couple could reenergize the relationship.20
Condé portrays an additional intercultural layer to Spéro's unfaithful behaviour in that the perception of this moral conduct varies widely according to which society provides the interpretative framework. From an American point of view, Spéro's infidelity is morally reprehensible, representing a cowardly escape from dealing with his feelings of inadequacy and failure. For the Caribbean man, however, an abundant collection of lovers attests to successful sexual prowess, a quality revered by men in Caribbean society. In this scenario, Condé depicts Debbie as the betrayed but accommodating wife who looks past her husband's behaviour despite her feminist principles.
Thanks to women, Spero had made his discovery of America. The good souls of Charleston—and there was a good many of them—informed Debbie of each of his infidelities, and she treated them with the utmost contempt. It's a common fact—isn't it?—that African, American, or Caribbean, the black man is not hewn from the wood of monogamy. In private she likened herself to a bara muso, a first wife sharing her husband with cowives yet managing the household finances. She was caught off her guard only once. And that was because of Tamara.
This passage brings into focus a number of important issues relating to Debbie's acceptance of her husband's infidelity and their intercultural implications. A curious aspect to the situation is that the religious old women of the town inform Debbie of her husband's liaisons, leading to the question of why she tolerates Spéro's adulterous affairs if she is the strong and independent woman described throughout the novel. Condé suggests that Debbie is also profiting from the situation, whether achieving a certain power over her husband in his mistreatment of her and thus a powerful means of justifying her neglect of him or perhaps linking herself more intimately to the African past she craves by identifying herself as the head wife of a polygamous husband.21 The issue of female solidarity is also raised, as Spéro's lovers are on several occasions close friends or relatives of Debbie. In contrast to the positive female communities that support characters such as Télumée and Tituba,22 Condé depicts Debbie as steadfastly solitary in the battles she wages at home and at work. In a merging of the public and private domains, it is significant that Debbie constructs a boundary to her accommodation of Spéro's behaviour, refusing to tolerate his racial betrayal of her by his sleeping with Tamara Barnes, a white woman. As Lydie Moudileno asserts, in Debbie's eyes "[f]aire l'amour avec un Blanc ou une Blanche, revient … à ‘coucher avec l'ennemi’".23 This act of treason committed by Spéro results in his permanent banishment from Debbie's bed, triggering the inner reflections that drive the novel's narrative. While bearing witness to his own moral imperfections, Spéro's unfaithful behaviour also deepens Condé's portrait of Debbie, highlighting the contradictions of a character who places herself in a submissive position despite her fervent independence and also drawing attention to the many incompatible layers that exist between the two characters.
In Les derniers rois mages, Condé paints a portrait of several intercultural encounters which undermine personal identity, with characters so influenced by their culture of origin that they are not able to make the necessary leap of imagination in order to connect with another one. While Condé herself embraces the riches intercultural encounters can offer, she also acknowledges the ways in which they do not always occur in a spirit of understanding and acceptance. This book, then, unravels the pain and disappointment associated with a steadfast refusal to overcome intercultural barriers.
As this survey of two novels in Condé's literary oeuvre illustrates, intercultural encounters have a profound effect on personal identity. Beginning with Condé herself, the diversity of her life experiences appears in her books which are set in a kaleidoscope of countries, cultures and historical periods and feature a wide variety of characters. Perhaps Condé's reflection on her place within her own culture of origin is indicative of the way in which we are all a product of the cultural strands that influence us. "West Indian culture: what is it after all? I learned that culture … is something that you live and not a phenomenon you simply discuss in detail".24
1. Robert H. McCormick Jr., "Desirada—A New Conception of Identity: An Interview with Maryse Condé", World Literature Today, 74(3), 2000, p. 519.
2. Patrick Chamoiseau, Unpublished interview with Bonnie Thomas, Martinique, 26 June 2001.
4. Richard D. E. Burton, "Debrouya pa peche, or il y a toujours moyen de moyenner: Patterns of Opposition in the Fiction of Patrick Chamoiseau", Callaloo, 16(2), 1993, p. 473.
5.Ibid., p. 468.
6. Lillian Manzor-Coats, "Of Witches and Other Things: Maryse Condé's Challenges to Feminist Discourse", World Literature Today, 67(4), 1993, p. 742.
7. The character of Hester in Hawthorne's novel, as in Condé's, is accused of adultery and sent to jail for it.
8. Carolyn Duffey, "Tituba and Hester in the Intertextual Jail Cell: New World Feminisms in Maryse Condé's Moi, Tituba, sorcière … Noire de Salem", Women in French Studies, 4, 1996, p. 101.
9. Maryse Condé, Moi, Tituba, sorcière … Noire de Salem, Mercure de France, Paris, 1986, p. 101.
10. Condé warns about taking the novel too seriously in an interview with Ann Armstrong Scarboro in the "Afterword" to Tituba, p. 212. She also mentions this point in her interview with Françoise Pfaff, adding that the novel has a mocking tone as well as being a pastiche of the "feminine" heroic novel. Françoise Pfaff, Conversations with Maryse Condé, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London Press, 1996, p. 60.
12. Jane Moss, "Postmodernizing the Salem Witchcraze: Maryse Condé's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Colby Quarterly, 85, 1, 1999, p. 5.
13. Manzor-Coats, "Witches and Other Things", p. 739.
14. Suzanne Crosta, "Corps, écriture et idéologie dans Les Derniers Rois mages de Maryse Condé" in Suzanne Rinne & Joëlle Vitiello (eds.), Elles écrivent des Antilles, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1997, p. 198.
15. Sam Haigh, Mapping a Tradition: Francophone Women's Writing from Guadeloupe, Maney Publishing, London, 2000, p. 115.
16. Mireille Rosello, "Les Derniers Rois mages et La Traversée de la mangrove: insularité ou insularisation?" in Rinne & Vitiello (eds.), p. 185.
17. Maryse Condé, The Last of the African Kings (trans. Richard Philcox), University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 1997, p. 64.
18. Mildred Mortimer, "A Sense of Place and Space in Maryse Condé's Les Derniers Rois mages", World Literature Today, 67(4), 1993, p. 760.
19. Elizabeth Wilson, "Sorcières, sorcières: Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem, révision et interrogation" in Nara Araujo (ed.), L'Œuvre de Maryse Condé: Questions et réponses à propos d'une écrivaine politiquement incorrecte, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1996, p. 113.
20. Pfaff, Conversations, p. 93.
21. For further information on Debbie's obsessive quest for attachment to her African past see Ann Smock, "Maryse Condé's Les Derniers Rois mages", Callaloo, 18(3), 1995, pp. 671-3.
22. These protagonists in Simone Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and Condé's Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem are each surrounded by strong and supportive female characters.
23. Lydie Moudileno, "La Qualité de l'amour chez Maryse Condé" in Araujo (ed.), p. 178.
24. VèVè A. Clark, "Je me suis reconciliée avec mon île", Callaloo, 12(1), 1989, p. 113.
Katherine Elkins (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Elkins, Katherine. "History's Theft and Memory's Return in Maryse Condé." In Emerging Perspectives on Maryse Condé: A Writer of Her Own, edited by Sarah Barbour and Gerise Herndon, pp. 241-51. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.
[In the following excerpt, Elkins argues that in her literary works Condé depicts characters who steal from history—take the stories of others—in response to the legacy of colonialism and the alienation of exile.]
Maryse Condé's writing is clearly situated in the Francophone Caribbean tradition that is suspicious of History, for as Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant argue in Eloge de la créolite, any kind of historical methodology in relation to the Caribbean only returns to to "la Chronique coloniale"—as they refer to recorded history of colonialism. One of the tasks of writing, therefore, is "la mise au jour de la mémoire vraie" [updating true memory] (38).1 Our history, they write, is not totally accessible to historians: "Notre Chronique est dessous les dates, dessous les faits répertoriés: nous sommes Paroles sous l'écriture. Seule la connaissance poétique, la connaissance romanesque, la connaissance littéraire, bref, la connaissance artistique, pourra nous déceler, nous percevoir, nous ramener évanescents aux réanimations de la conscience [Our chronicle is behind the dates, behind the known facts: we are the Words behind writing. Only poetic knowledge, fictional knowledge, literary knowledge, in short, artistic knowledge can discover us, understand us, and bring us, evanscent, back to the resuscitation of consciousness] (38, emphasis in the original). True memory, in other words, finds its truth in an artistic realm that bypasses colonial history.
Édouard Glissant goes further: he suggests in Poétique de la relation that an obsession with history is itself informed by western notions of identity and proposes that the intention historique should be replaced by an intention poétique (132). The Caribbean writer, moreover, should embrace wandering and a search for others. For Glissant, uprooting can allow for identity construction to take place, and errancy is beneficial when it is experienced as a search for the Other2; often, he claims, it is even possible to find oneself by taking up the problem of the Other. It is for this reason that, citing Deleuze and Guattari, he posits the "rhizome" as an alternative to the notion of roots (23). The rhizome, in contrast to the root, enters into precisely this relation with the Other.
Condé's writing reflects much of this same skepticism of history, as well as a continued emphasis on exile and errancy as solutions to the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Like Glissant when he writes that the Caribbean writer's experience of time is aggravated by the void, what he calls "the final sentence of a plantation," Condé views Guadeloupe as resonating with this sentence, appearing to her, she says, as a void, "le néant." To be Antillean does not mean filling this void with the facts of one's own lost history—this would be, in the words of Glissant, to indulge in the dangerous "longing for history"3 that he describes in Poétique de la relation. Instead, the only solution is to wander, always in search of others' stories. As Condé writes in her study of Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal: "Être un Antillais finalement, je ne sais toujours pas très bien ce que cela veut dire…. Est-ce qu'un écrivain doit avoir un pays natal? Est-ce qu'un écrivain doit avoir une identité définie? Est-ce qu'un écrivain ne pourrait pas être constamment errant, constamment à la recherche des autres hommes?" (23) [To be an Antillean in the end, I don't really know what that means…. Should a writer have a homeland? Should a writer have a definite identity? Couldn't a writer be constantly wandering, constantly in search of others?]4.
This search for others' stories is the focus of Condé's fictional work Nanna-ya, a story that also addresses quite explicitly the relation between history and memory and takes Glissant's notions of errancy and the rhizome one step further. Instead of evoking a nostalgia for history, she portrays its theft and reworking by what she calls "memory." Where Glissant argues for replacing history with poetry, Condé proposes a poetics that continues to engage with history by stealing from it. Condé, in other words, proposes a subversive approach to the problem of history that stems from her knowledge as a writer: writing always involves "stealing" much of one's material from elsewhere, and history should not be exempt from this activity.
Her story Nanna-ya begins with the character George, who as a young child tries to alleviate a sense of not quite belonging—a rootlessness that Condé embraces. In contrast to Condé's own strategy, however, George searches for his own story by fantasizing a genealogical link to a local mythic figure, a local legend named Tacky, leader of a slave uprising. As a child George dreams about Tacky, and as an adult George takes on the project of documenting and writing l'Histoire de Tacky, or The History of Tacky. No doubt George imagines that this "History" would give him a sense of who he is in the present, but instead, the past takes over, edging out the present entirely as George immerses himself more and more deeply in writing the past, expanding the document to almost 1000 pages. This past binds him all the more tightly by weakening his own connections to the present. Indeed, he says the time he spends on the project seems to hold no importance in comparison with the greatness of the history he is writing. His own self is thus gradually eclipsed by his history of another. While he sees his history as a method of redemption, of proving to those around him that he is not merely a "un égoïste, un homme sans qualitiés" (157) [a self-centered man with no redeeming qualities (90)], it actually draws him further and further away from his present goal and from connecting to those around him. In fact, his Histoire seems to put him into conflict both with the demands of the present and with those closest to him. It becomes representative of his strife with his wife, whom he blames for the fact that he is the man he has become.
George is descended from slaves, but his wife is descended from the Maroons, West Indians who fled to the hills to avoid enslavement. One of George's goals, however, is to show that the Maroons themselves aided the English. He wishes to show that even they do not have a past untainted by oppression and slavery. His history, in other words, focuses increasingly on proving that his wife's ancestors were not champions of freedom. He even speculates that it might have been a Maroon who pulled the trigger on his hero, Tacky. It is not too difficult to see this speculation as indicative of the strife between George and his wife. At the same time, writing the history also leads to a literal betrayal of his wife, as he begins an affair with the local librarian, Joyce, a London-born woman whose father is Jamaican and whose mother is English. Joyce leaves London and returns to Jamaica only when she, perhaps a little like George, senses she does not quite belong.
George responds to this sense of not belonging by trying to make Tacky's story his own. As Condé's story suggests, however, it is highly suspect that the two men are even related, so George, in effect, is stealing Tacky's story. Moreover, George is unable to acknowledge the theft as theft because he is so blinded by his effort to link himself to the past. His own story remains one of alienation: George goes in search of his own history and his own story, but instead loses himself entirely in another's, much like the historians whose "méthodologie ne leur donne accès qu'à la Chronique coloniale" [methodology restricts them to the sole colonial chronicle] (38).
In contrast to George, Joyce does not search out her own roots, nor does she look for a history of her ancestors. Joyce, like Condé's Antillean writer-wanderer, wanders into this story and takes it as her own. George gives Joyce his manuscript to type and she steals it. This theft of a history allows her to edit an unshapely mass of historical facts into a story that is also her story written from a first-person perspective. Her writing puts the self back in the center of the history, turning a third-person, objective history into a first-person, subjective story. Because it is not her own, she has no fear of rewriting it and replacing the third person with the first person, even replacing ‘fact’ with fiction. Joyce, in other words, is able to do what George is not: turn this history into her own personal tale. She rewrites history in the first person as fictionalized memory. While George goes looking for himself and always finds another, Joyce goes looking for another's story—George's—and finds her own.
Obviously, Joyce's character presents moral problems: she takes George's life work and disappears. This theft leaves George devastated at the end of the novel. In her interview with Condé, Françoise Pfaff remarks on just this point: "I find it regrettable that, being the daughter of a Jamaican man and an Englishwoman, she travels from England to search for her ancestors in Jamaica and ends up having to steal them, literally and symbolically, through this manuscript" (57-58; 87). Pfaff objects to the way in which Joyce steals another's story rather than finding her own, and clearly, this element of the narrative is disturbing. But one could also argue that history has always been stolen, albeit usually by the victors. Perhaps, Condé suggests, no other method exists. While one could find this theft troubling, one could also see it as necessarily subversive: instead of a refusal of history, Condé proposes a necessary theft that must always be unsanctioned and irreverent. Within the narrative, moreover, Joyce's theft of history and her rewriting of it in a fictional, first-person narrative has restorative properties. At the end of Nanna-ya George's wife tells him that his story served only to hurt both himself and those around him: "Cette Histoire de Tacky, tu t'en servais pour faire mal. A moi. Aux autres. Et finalement, tu te faisais du mal à toi-même" (123) [That (hi)story5 of Tacky, you were using it to cause pain. To me. To others. And in the end, you were hurting yourself as well (113)]. It is the theft of the history that has restored George to his present, to his family, to his wife, and to himself. George's wife has the last word in Condé's novella, or two words that she repeats for emphasis: "À présent …" she says, "À présent." These last words are a reminder of the need to return to the present, to focus on the "now" rather than stay chained to a past. Ending as it does with these words, the no- vella becomes an invocation to search for one's stories in the present, perhaps even in another's story—the very suggestion that Condé makes in her study of Césaire cited above.
Perhaps we may follow Condé's trajectory even further. What if the theft of history represents Condé's response to the potential dilemma of the alienation that arises from the way the master narrative ‘writes’ individuals. Given that history, the master narrative of a collective past, does not belong to any of us individually, our history must be stolen. George mistakenly tries to turn his own story and his own past into a myth, but by attempting to make his story cohere in this way, he ends up with a history burdened by a stultifying weight of the master narrative. Joyce's theft allows her to cut, embellish and fictionalize the story. It is noteworthy that her theft allows her to reverse the process of alienation begun by George when he attempts to write his story by focusing on the legend of Tacky. When Joyce steals George's story and rewrites it in the first person as though it were her own, she reverses George's earlier gesture of alienation whereby he lost himself in another's story. There's as much of myself in the story, she claims, as there is of Tacky. Perhaps there is even more.
We can explore the possibility that memory returns what history has stolen by examining this notion of alienation as it appears in Condé's autobiographical work, Le coeur à Rire et à Pleurer [Tales from the Heart ]. In analyzing these autobiographical reflections on alienation, a fictional reversal in storytelling clearly emerges as the only solution. If history in the form of slavery and the Middle Passage is, for Condé, at least partially responsible for a sense of not belonging, the theft of history in a fictionalized story allows for a return of stolen property. The return is not to a lost past but to a self situated as an "I" at the center of the imaginative process of storytelling.
Condé's autobiographical work begins with a childhood memory of alienation and expulsion that occurs while the family is vacationing in Paris. Condé tells of the first time—obviously significant given her later wanderings—that she considers not responding to a call to return home. While playing in the street in Paris, she and her brother are called home. Her brother encourages her not to respond to the call. Ignore them, he says, since "Papa et maman sont une paire d'aliénés" (14) [Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals (6)]. "Aliénés?" she asks? What does that mean? She doesn't dare ask him, but instead tries to align this new and strange name with those most familiar to her. The young Condé must try to determine the meaning of this new word "aliéné," and she concludes that it seems to indicate disease, contagion, even possible death. Exposure to alienation is also, one suspects, her first lesson in mortality, the first time she senses that life, like her view of her parents, moves in only one direction, and that no return to an earlier time is possible. Linking the realization that her parents are alienated to the first time that she considers not responding to the call to come home only reinforces the lesson that the circular journey is always a false one: there is no return home.
Condé's confrontation with the word "alienated" also leads to her first attempt to connect words with the people around her—an echo, perhaps, of the act of writing. As she tries to integrate this unknown work into her knowledge of her parents, she concludes, "À minuit, à force de coller tous les indices entre eux, je finis par bâtir un semblant de théorie. Une personne qui cherche à être ce qu'elle ne peut pas être parce qu'elle n'aime pas être ce qu'elle est" (16) [At midnight, after piecing all the clues together, I came up with a vague theory. An alienated person is someone who is trying to be what he can't be because he does not like what he is (7)]. Condé describes Guadeloupe as a void, a nothingness. In both cases—whether writing about the people around her or writing about her homeland—she must construct a theory, an understanding, in place of missing information.
Condé's definition of alienation here would seem to describe George quite well. George attempts to be what he is not (a descendent of Tacky) because he does not want to be what he is (a descendent of slaves). He searches for a new self in myth. The young Condé, by contrast, searches for herself in the space opened up by demystification and disenchantment—from the knowledge of what it might mean to be alienated. An unclear present that comes in the form of a new, strange word, is what allows her to construct her theory, indeed even her own sense of self. She decides not to be alienated, not to try to be what she is not: "À deux heures du matin, au moment de prendre sommeil, je me fis le serment confus de ne jamais devenir une aliénée" (16) [At two in the morning, just as I was dropping off, I swore in a confused sort of way never to become alienated (7)]. Her own conception of self arises precisely in this space of negativity.
Condé thus begins the story of her childhood with an event out of which she willfully constructs her own identity. But her construction of identity depends on more than lived experience and conscious will, for there is also a communal past that haunts her in a much more dangerous fashion, shaping her life in ways she at first does not understand. Her parents, she tells us, praised all things occidental; but one suspects that this praise required burying certain cultural or ethnic memories of a history that continued to weigh on their present.
In a second remembered moment, Maryse's interactions with a playmate are informed by a history of which she had until then remained ignorant; and Condé recounts the incident in a chapter significantly entitled "Leçon d'histoire" or "History Lesson." On the ritual evening walks with her parents as a young girl, Maryse befriends a young white girl with whom she plays every evening. Their play, however, enacts a master-slave dynamic. The white girl rides her like a beast of burden and continually hits her. Eventually Maryse objects, and the white girl responds, "Je dois te donner des coups parce que tu es une négresse" (42) [I have to hit you because you're black (56)]. When Maryse asks her parents about this, her mother's evasion and her father's terse words, "On nous donnait des coups dans le temps" (44) [They used to beat us a long time ago (57)], convince her that there is a lost, silent past—a secret—which, although inaccessible to her in a conscious way, nonetheless somehow shapes her present. She writes that she became aware of a secret hidden in her past, a painful, shameful secret that would be inconvenient, maybe even dangerous, to know. Her parents had buried this secret in the depths of their memory.
After her confrontation with the white girl, Maryse never sees her again at the usual spot. Although the author concludes that what she remembers as a real event may have been a fictionalization of her own mind (44), the act of writing this story reveals a past that had been inaccessible to the conscious mind. Condé's search for other people's stories, and her telling them through writing, is perhaps a solution to the danger of being haunted by this history lesson, a lesson that comes in the form of a deeply buried memory of slavery. The young Maryse does not follow her parents' path of storing this ‘secret’ deep within the self. She will speak, ask questions, and tell stories.
Near the end of Condé's autobiographical narrative, she relates the story of a vacation meant to be a "cure" for her mother. Once again, the experience highlights the difference between her parents' denial of the past through a suppression of memories and her own method of connecting past to present through storytelling. Traveling to a part of Guadeloupe with which they are unfamiliar, the family makes the mistake of renting a house in a mulatto section of town where they are ignored and excluded because of their dark skin. This exclusion upsets her parents, who desire inclusion, so, Condé writes, her mother "enterra ce souvenir au fin fond de sa mémoire et ne s'exprima là-dessus que par soupirs, mimiques et hochements de tête" (110-11) [buried this experience deep in her memory and any reminder came out as a series of sighs, gesticulations and shaking of the head (120)]. Her mother represses the memory; and yet, like Maryse's history lesson, this memory shapes her mother's present in a physical, tangible form. No matter how silent she may remain about her ‘exile,’ the memory will speak itself in bodily gestures. Young Maryse, on the other hand, is thrilled by being exiled in her own land (108). As a child, exile affords her two advantages: she discovers unknown people and places, and she enjoys anonymity as an ignored observer. Her exile is also the source of endless tales that she recounts to her friend, Yvelise (111). The adult author continues to turn her own exile to advantage: it forms the negative experience upon which she will construct her own stories of other people and places, her own storytelling.
In this light, we might reevaluate Condé's stated preference for wandering and the search for others, as she explains in her interview with Pfaff, "Then you realize that you must continue wandering. I believe now that it's this wandering that engenders creativity. In the final analysis, it is very bad to put down roots. You must be errant and multifaceted, inside and out. Nomadic" (28; 46). Condé is fully aware that there is no going back to the past or to oneself. Her response as a writer will be to affirm her memory of exile, perhaps even memory as exile, so that she may tell stories of other people and places. Wandering can only take place in the present, in other places, in other people.
In this same interview with Pfaff, Condé also explains her reasons for not living full time in Guadeloupe, reasons that center on maintaining an ability to create: "When you are outside the country, you mythicize it, which is normal. You imagine things and visualize a sort of paradise with lush nature and friendly people. You invent a lot and create something deep down within yourself. But when you come back home, you are faced with the country's reality. You look for what you thought you left behind and don't find it. You quickly become disappointed and frustrated" (28, my emphasis; 46). Return in any true sense is not possible. And even if you do return, you do not find what you thought you left behind. In Guadeloupe, Condé is simultaneously too suffocatingly close to her physical past, and too imaginatively far away. In contrast, physical distance and imaginative proximity through writing allow for the construction of stories. Exile allows her to recreate in her imagination a story that replaces a past she can never return to. Fabulation, rather than a search for lost time, is the only response to memory as exile. This fabulation, moreover, constructs something in the emptiness of the self.
In this way, it is also understandable why Condé chooses to relinquish Césaire's goals of representing one's own particular Caribbean community. Instead, she often writes of other communities, whether a small New England village in Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, or an African community in Segou. Where is Maryse Condé in these stories? She is present in the same way that Joyce is present in her rewriting of George's story. Writing others' pasts and stories allows her to create a tale of her own, often speaking from the first person.
To the imposing and suffocating distance of a history that, as in the case of George, brings only a stultifying weight, Condé thus proposes what could be termed a ‘disorder of memory’ that allows for the construction of a self in the present at its very center. Using the fragments of a disordered memory, as Condé does in "History Lesson" and Joyce in Nanna-Ya, the writer is able to reconstruct a semi-fictional past in the place of a history that leaves no room for the self precisely because it eclipses the individual who exists in the present. The disorder of memory, moreover, allows the melding of one's personal story with a collective past in a way that is restorative rather than debilitating, as in the case of her parents.
One can be haunted by the presence of one's own unspoken past, or one can search for the stories of others and creatively write the past into existence in the present. The latter is Condé's solution. Her writing allows her to bridge the distance created by a past that is unknown, and her exile allows her to maintain the space of a wandering subject. Returning to Nanna-ya, we can see even more clearly the similarities between the fictional Joyce and the writer Condé. As a bi-racial woman, Joyce is an outsider who cannot truly "return" to her roots in Jamaica, nor can she feel completely at home in England. This position in-between allows her to rewrite history, which alleviates a community—George's entire family—from the weight of the past that George has been bringing to bear on their lives in the present. She rewrites another's story as her own, situating herself, as Condé does, within others' stories. Joyce's imagination constructs something with the past through a process of cutting out whole sections and turning a weighty historical tome into a single, cohesive story with her own "I" situated at its center. If history has stolen one's past, the response is to steal back from history. Moreover, by turning what she has stolen from George's history of Tacky into memory, Joyce undoes the work of alienation. This is not a simple return to the past; it is a wandering, a theft, a reappropriation by which another's story is rewritten as one's own.
Is the task of Condé as a postcolonial francophone writer the theft of the manuscript and even, perhaps, the theft of history? As a Guadeloupean, Condé is also an outsider to this tale about Jamaica. Perhaps literature is always the theft of another's history, both to relieve the other's burden and to return it remembered as a personal tale of memory. Condé cuts and embellishes like her female protagonist, rewriting history in order to simultaneously steal the past and return it, remembered, as truly her own. In this instance, therefore, imagination and memory are more important than a history composed only of "facts." Perhaps this is why a character says in Nanna-ya, "C'est peut-être cela la seule hérédité veritable! L'imagination!" (172) [That may well be the only real heredity! The imagination! (103)]. Heredity's gift does not, as George imagines, lie in the historical details of a mythical past; it lies in the way the past can make itself felt in slightly changed form in the present, in a re-told, re-membered form. History is not absent from Maryse Condé's project; but the only true gift of the past lies in the work of an imagination that steals from history and turns history into memory without losing focus on the present. In this way, Nanna-ya exhibits the interplay between memory and history that Condé herself describes: "The interplay between history and memory … is also in the postmodernist tradition. Historical facts authenticate a purely fictional narrative, which proceeds to subvert them, since what is essential is not history but fiction" (Pfaff 69; 103). What is essential in Nanna-ya is not the History of Tacky but its memorial transformation into personal narrative. Historical facts may authenticate a fictional narrative, but this narrative then subverts history by returning, in the present and as one's own fiction, what history has stolen.
1. Citations from this work are taken from the bilingual edition.
2. See especially Chapter 1, Poétique de la relation. In "Looking for Roots Among the Mangroves" Jarrod Hayes discusses the mangrove as a critique of roots.
3. Michael Dash translates Glissant's phrase "désiré historique" as a "longing for history" or a "longing for the ideal of history" (ctd. in Lionnet 1995, 76, note 19).
4. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
5. The French term histoire has the double connotation of ‘history’ and ‘story,’ which shows precisely the kind of fluidity between the two terms that Maryse Condé manipulates. Whereas the translator of Nanna-ya chooses to call George's work the Story of Tacky, however, I would suggest that "History" is more appropriate: while the French term is undoubtedly ambigous, George's work exhibits all of the negative effects of a colonial ‘history’ as a opposed to the creative, poetic reworking of Joyce's "Story."
Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la créolité / In Praise of Creoleness.Édition bilingue. Paris: Gallimard, 1993 .
Lionnet, François. Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity. Ithaca & London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995.
Condé, Maryse, Richard Philcox, and Barbara Lewis. "Tales from the Heart: A Conversation with Maryse Condé." Black Renaissance 5, no. 2 (summer 2003): 94-104.
Interview in which Condé discusses her place in the griot tradition, the role of American racism in her novel I, Tituba, and her perception of herself as an outsider.
Mardorossian, Carine M. "Cannibalizing the Victorians: Maryse Condé's Narrative Structure." Changing Currents: Transnational Caribbean Literary and Cultural Criticism, edited by Emily Allen Williams and Melvin B. Rahming, pp. 135-49. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.
Argues that Condé's Windward Heights—her rewriting of Wuthering Heights—offers readers valuable insight into both Caribbean and Victorian cultures.
Mazama, Ama. "Creole in Maryse Condé's Work: The Disordering of the Neo-Colonial Order?" Romanic Review 94, nos. 3-4 (May-November 2003): 377-90.
Elucidates Condé's "perception and definition of Guadeloupean identity through an analysis of her linguistic and sociolinguistic treatment of Guadeloupean Creole in three of her novels, La Vie scélérate, Traversée de la mangrove, and Les derniers Rois mages."
Williams, Piper Kendrix. "Journeys of Detour in Maryse Condé's A Season in Rihata." Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme 23, no. 2 (spring/summer 2006): 76-81.
Examines the role that gender plays in Condé's concept of Africa in A Season in Rihata, asserting that for many black women Africa represents a patriarchal and oppressive culture.
Additional coverage of Condé's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 110, 190; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 30, 53, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 52, 92; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; DISCovering Writers Modules: Multicultural Writers; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Major 21st-Century Writers: 2005.