Conde, Maryse (Maryse Boucolon Conde)
Conde, Maryse (Maryse Boucolon Conde) (1937- ) Guadeloupian critic, playwright, and historical novelist
Through feminist, egalitarian fiction, Maryse Conde writes of the evil and sorrow of the black African diaspora. Called the grande dame of French Caribbean literature, she pioneered the self-analysis of French West Indians and explored the connections between the New England colonies and the Caribbean. Born Maryse Boucolon to a teacher and a business executive in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, she and her seven younger siblings were reared like French bourgeois. In her mid-teens, while she earned degrees in English and comparative literature at the Lycee Fenelon and the Sorbonne in Paris, she experienced discrimination because of her race and dialect speech. She befriended fellow expatriates from the French Antilles and fostered a creative outlook based on metissage (hybridization). She married the African actor Mamadou Conde in 1958 (they divorced in 1981) and took up teaching positions in the language arts at schools in Guinea, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal. At age 31, she produced media programming at the BBC office in London before resuming classroom work in Jussieu and Nanterre, France, and at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, the University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University.
Conde began her writing career with stage plays and two anticolonial novels, Heremakhonon (1976) and Une saison h Rihata (A Season in Rihata, 1981), a fictional study of political chaos under an African dictator. To recreate the transatlantic slave trade to Brazil and the Caribbean, she depicted captives from the Bambaran Empire of Segou (present-day Mali) in a two-part African saga, Segou: Les murailles de terre (Segu: The Children of Segu, 1984) and Segou: La terre en miettes (Segu: The Earth in Pieces, 1985), both best sellers. Returning to black beginnings in the style of Alex Haley's Roots saga, Conde's text opens in the kingdom of Segu in the heart of the Bambaran empire, which lies under threat from the Fulani of the Songhay kingdom of Gao. She explores the political dominance of Segu, stretching from Jenne on the Bani River to the desert enclave at Timbuktu.
The novelist makes the most of humankind's age-old foibles. Naive characters marvel at the approach of a Caucasian, a “white man, white, with two red ears like embers,” a source of terror presaging waves of Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese invasions in the time of King Guezo of Dahomey, the heyday of the global slave trade (Conde Segu 1998, 9). The author inserts an ironic song honoring the Islamic concept of jihad (holy war): “War is good because it makes our kings rich. / Wives, slaves, cattle—it brings them all these” (481). In the end, as the new king supports Fulani battalions in a battle against the Muslim El-Hadj Omar, the wisdom of peasants informs a rhetorical question: “Don't kings ever learn?” (483). Anticipating a massacre, Conde compares the fate of Segu to a woman with smallpox—before the pustules appear on her face, “death is at work within her” (484).
Conde and the Black Diaspora
Conde earned the Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme for Moi, Tituba, sorciere noire Salem (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, 1986), which she researched at Occidental College in Los Angeles on a Fulbright scholarship. A dramatization of black runaways, the novel associates the real, historical figure of Tituba with Conde as though they were contemporaries. The fictional biography of the Anglo-Ashanti martyr begins with her conception during the passage from West Africa to North America aboard the slave galley Christ the King, as a result of her mother Abena's rape by an English sailor. Tituba describes herself from a colonial perspective as “born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt” (Conde 1994, 3). After entering domestic bondage in Barbados, Tituba is shuffled north to colonial New England to scrub and clean for Susanna Endicott, a supercilious white in Salem, Massachusetts, who sneers, “I cannot bear to have you niggers touching my food” (21). The jibe creates a self-SATIRE of a woman who expects a black domestic to perform the most intimate of household chores, yet cringes at the blackness of her hands.
African traditions prove Tituba's undoing among callous, stiff-necked Puritans. Alienated, abused, and helpless, she prays supine on the ground and receives a visitation from her grandmother Mama Yaya and mother Abena. In 1692, as punishment for telling the fortunes of supposedly innocent Christian girls, a skill based on nature lore that she learned from Mama Yaya, Tituba stands branded a sorceror. Remanded to Barbados to serve as midwife and herbalist to plantation blacks, she is pregnant when she goes to the gallows for practicing sorcery there. She looks forward to the afterlife as a reprieve from bondage and accession to “a kingdom where the light of truth burns bright and unrelenting” (172).
In subsequent bicultural storytelling, Conde has depicted more elements of the nightmarish existence of women victimized by empire's misogyny and cruelty. Through the voices of Mabo Sandrine, Sanjita the Housekeeper, and Sanjita's daughter Etiennise, the author narrated La migration des coeurs (Windward Heights, 1995). The novella restructures Emily Bronte's feminist Wuthering Heights (1847) by casting Razye, a swarthy foundling, as the passionate Heathcliff. A Byronic hero of unknown parentage, he pursues a doomed love for Catherine Gagneur, his foster sister. Against the backdrop of the racism and social stratification of Cuba and Guadeloupe, the action depicts a merging of cultures through islanders' participation in African tradition and Santeria, a form of obeah. Etiennise's lapse into the female fantasy of rescue by a strong male foreshadows a universal misadventure—the role of ignorance and naivete in a continuation of parental faults.
Conde, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.
Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
----- . Segu. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Penguin, 1998.
----- . Windward Heights. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Soho, 1998.
Hargreaves, Alec G. Memory, Empire, and
Postcolonialism: Legacies of French Colonialism.
Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005.