February 2010

Megan Doll


An Interview with Maryse Condé

One of the brightest lights in Caribbean literature, Maryse Condé (née Boucolon) is the author of numerous books, fifteen of which have been translated into English. Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Condé left the Antilles at the age of sixteen to study in Paris, first at the Lycée Fénelon and then at the Sorbonne. In Paris, she met her first husband, Guinean actor Mamadou Condé, with whom she lived in Guinea, Ghana and Senegal. After twelve years in Africa, Condé separated from her husband and returned to Paris and academia in 1970, receiving her doctorate in Caribbean literature from the Sorbonne in 1975.

Condé’s distinguished academic career, which has included posts at UCLA, Berkeley, the Sorbonne, and Columbia University, has been paralleled by her prolific literary output.  Her novels -- such as Segu, set during the 19th century Bambara Empire in Mali, and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem -- frequently explore different historical periods of the black experience. In her latest book to be translated into English, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, Condé mines history in her own genealogical backyard, piecing together the lacunary story of her maternal grandmother, a mixed-race orphan who becomes a humble yet virtuosic cook for the white Walberg family. Alongside spirited imaginings and lyrical descriptions -- she describes Marie-Galante, the small, circular island off the mainland of Guadeloupe where Victoire was born, as a “galette of an island that the sun cooked over and over again in its oven" -- Condé  reproduces sumptuous menus of her native islands’ Créole cuisine, showcasing her grandmother’s art within her own fine narrative craft.

Condé recently sat down with me in her New York City apartment to discuss Victoire, the women in her family, and her love of food.

What made you decide to categorize this book -- which mines your family’s history and mythology -- as a novel?

That was not my decision. I wanted to call it a tale, a récit. The publishers are the ones who changed it. Most of the story is based on actual fact, it is not solely the work of imagination. It is not a novel.

What is it about your grandmother’s story that you felt an urgent need to convey? Why this ancestor and not another?

The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young -- fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people -- most people, the majority of people -- disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.

Your grandmother died long before you were born: how did you research her story?

You know, people will tell you that in places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people -- how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe -- and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique -- the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books. So I interviewed people, I asked questions to everybody who knew her or knew my mother or my father. It took me about three years to write Victoire. I wanted to find the history of my immediate family but at the same time the history of Guadeloupe -- a period of time that I didn’t know, which was not too distant, after all, but was distant in terms of the behavior of the people of Guadeloupe.

What were your earliest impressions of your grandmother?

I used to see her photograph on the piano in our sitting room. Her skin was very pale, almost white, and yet my whole family was composed of black people. There was something bizarre about that white grandmother. In the photo she was wearing a mouchoir, meaning that she was of very humble origins because once you get educated you change the mouchoir for a hat. If she was still wearing a mouchoir it was because she was uneducated and I couldn’t understand how my family, who boasted of being one of the most educated families in Guadeloupe at the time, could come from an illiterate person. She was for me so strange, a kind of curiosity in the family that I decided to try to understand.

Your own will -- what you decide to believe, what you reject -- is very present in the text. There are times when the reader is very conscious of your imprint on the story.

Yes, because after all it is a book about myself. It was a way of coming to terms, through my mother and grandmother, with Maryse Condé. How I became a writer, why, what are the causes that I don’t even know myself. Why do I sympathize with some types of people and why do I hate some other types.

You wrote that at the time your mother was born, 95% of all babies born in Guadeloupe were born out of wedlock and that you were not at all shocked “that my parents, like so many others, emerged out of a kind of fog.” And yet, despite the fact that out-of-wedlock births were widespread, your grandmother and mother received special condemnation. Why is that?

It was not simply because they were born out of wedlock. My grandmother was fair, meaning that the white man had been with her mother. That was a big offense: you should not go with a white man. So it was more her color rather than the fact that she was illegitimate that was the crime. As for my mother, it is not that she was born out of wedlock but that she was born from an illiterate mother and was brought up by white people. It was not simply a question of birth.

Does this history of antagonism against the women in your family pain you?

Yes. I was very hurt to see that people disliked my mother. There were a lot of bad, negative stories about her. I was hurt because it seemed to be that she didn’t deserve that reputation, even when I think of the way she treated my grandmother. Yes, it pains me.

You wonder how your writing might be different had you “been cradled in the lap of a buxom, jovial grandmother full of traditional tales.” Do you feel that your writing has been indirectly influenced by your grandmother?

I have a whole theory in Victoire that cooking and writing are exactly the same. [To wit, the title of Conde’s book in French is Victoire: les saveurs et les mots or Victoire: flavors and words.] In my love for cuisine I am a true heir of my grandmother but at the same time because I write novels, I am the heir of my mother -- I’ve made the junction between two different sides of life.

Throughout the book you repeatedly lament Victoire’s illiteracy -- does that create a certain gulf between you two?

No, but I understand how difficult it must have been for her not being able to write, not being able to read, not being able to communicate in French -- always forced, always obliged to speak Créole. That is why, it seems to me, that at the end of her life she was almost mute. She was so ashamed of her illiteracy that she chose to become very silent -- a dumb person. And I sympathize with that. I have the feeling that it was because of her that I myself am so talkative, so animated. It seems to me that I have a duty to be the voice that she did not have.

Was Victoire’s inability to speak French something you thought about when writing this book? How to bring Victoire’s life, experienced entirely in Créole, into French?

Yes, in the book there is a lot of Créole. In my other books Créole isn’t so obvious but here I was talking about a character who could not speak French and so you can see throughout the book that the presence of Créole is overwhelming.

Of all the many people who could have taught Victoire to read and write -- including your own mother -- the only one who offered was Jérémie Cabriou, a future union leader, and he was met with the response that she was too old to learn. What do you think was behind those words?

I suppose she was ashamed. She had lived all her life with a kind of sore, a wound in her soul and she was afraid that someone would come and try to heal this wound. If she had accepted it would have been a way of accusing her own daughter of not taking her into consideration.

Your depiction of your mother, Jeanne, is very frank. Unsentimental, even. At one point, ever the literary critic, you describe two articles she published as “uninteresting.”

If you read Tales from the Heart [a collection of Condé’s childhood memoirs] you will see that from the beginning I tried to tell the truth, which is very difficult, to tell the truth about people, about countries, about yourself. It’s not pleasant but I believe that it is the best way -- the only way -- to write a novel. Don’t shroud reality in imagination and lies, try to go straight to the source. Although I love my mother very much I wanted to talk about her the way she was and not the way I wanted her to be.

How did she shape the way you view your grandmother?

My mother didn’t talk so much about her mother. There was a kind of silence. When something is paining you too much you try not to disclose that to anybody, so she really didn’t talk about her mother. Even when I would ask questions, she was very slow to answer. For example, when I discovered that my grandmother used to be a servant for a white family it was not something that my mother told me: I guessed it.

How did you guess that?

The silence. The fact that there was that deep silence, that wall that I could not remove. I could feel that there was a problem there.

Your husband, Richard Philcox, is your English translator -- is there any discussion between you two when he is translating one of your books?

None. He does his job and he does it well. And myself, I do mine, I do it a few years before and I do it as well as I can. We don’t discuss, at all.

You said once that the Caribbean technique of story-telling is a polyphonous one. Some of your books set in the Caribbean, such as Crossing the Mangrove, certainly use that technique of employing multiple voices and points of view. Is this something you tried to do in this book as well with the occasional voices of eye-witnesses?

A bit less because the voices that mattered were Victoire’s and Jeanne’s. I give my own opinion and I give the opinions of other people, so it is not one strict narrative, it is a bit more complex, but it is less polyphonous certainly than Crossing the Mangrove.

You write, in a painful scene in which Victoire cooks her last feast that “one day, she hoped, color would no longer be an evil spell. One day, Guadeloupe would no longer be tortured by questions of class.” Where do you think Guadeloupe is now in relationship to your grandmother’s vision?

Not very much ahead. Yesterday there was a big referendum in Martinique, whether the people of Martinique wanted remain a part of France or whether they wanted a change. They didn’t want any change. Why? It seems to me that in the French Caribbean we lack self-confidence. We are afraid of the future and we are not proud of our past. And so caught between the past and the future, people tend to remain what they used to be.