Maryse Condé, Guadeloupean ‘grand storyteller’ dies aged 90 | Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, Guadeloupean ‘grand storyteller’ dies aged 90 | Maryse Condé


Maryse Condé, the Guadeloupean author of more than 20 novels, activist, academic and sole winner of the New Academy prize in literature, has died aged 90.

Condé, whose books include Segu and Hérémakhonon was regarded as a giant of the West Indies, writing frankly – as both a novelist and essayist – of colonialism, sexuality and the black diaspora, and introduced readers around the world to a wealth of African and Caribbean history.

Writing of the “unputdownable and unforgettable” epic Segu, Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo praised her as “an extraordinary storyteller”, while author Justin Torres wrote: “One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.”

Alain Mabanckou, the award-winning Congolese writer and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, wrote on X that Condé was the “Grande Dame of World Letters” and had bequeathed a body of work “driven by the quest for a humanism based on the ramifications of our identities and the fractures in history”.

Born Maryse Boucolon in Guadeloupe in 1934, the youngest of eight children, Condé described herself as a “spoilt child … oblivious to the outside world”. Her parents, she told the Guardian, never taught her about slavery and “were convinced France was the best place in the world”. She went to Paris at 16 for her education, but was expelled from school after two years: “When I came to study in France I discovered people’s prejudices. People believed I was inferior just because I was black. I had to prove to them I was gifted and to show to everybody that the colour of my skin didn’t matter – what matters is in your brain and in your heart.”

Studying at the Sorbonne, she began to learn about African history and slavery from fellow students and found sympathy with the Communist movement. She became pregnant after an affair with Haitian activist Jean Dominique. In 1958, she married the Guinean actor Mamadou Condé, a decision she later admitted was a means of regaining status as a black single mother. Within months their relationship was strained, and Condé moved to the Ivory Coast, spending the next decade in various African countries including Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Ghana, mixing with Che Guevera, Malcolm X, Julius Nyerere, Maya Angelou, future Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and Senegalese film-maker and author Ousmane Sembène.

Unable to speak local languages and presumed to hold francophile sympathies, Condé struggled to find her place in Africa. “I know now just how badly prepared I was to encounter Africa,” she would later say. “I had a very romantic vision, and I just wasn’t prepared, either politically or socially.” She remained outspoken until she was accused of subversive activity in Ghana and deported to London, where she worked as a BBC producer for two years. She eventually returned to France and earned her MA and PhD in comparative literature at Paris-Sorbonne University in 1975.

Her debut novel, Hérémakhonon, was published in 1976, with Condé saying she waited until she was nearly 40 because she “didn’t have confidence in myself and did not dare present my writing to the outside world”. The novel follows a Paris-educated Guadeloupean woman, who realises that her struggle to locate her identity is an internal journey, rather than a geographical one. Condé later recalled the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo telling her: “Africa … has codes that are easy to understand. It’s because you’re looking for something else … a land that is a foil that would allow you to be what you dream of being. And on that level, nobody can help you.” “I think she may have been right,” Condé later wrote.

In 1981, she divorced her husband after a long separation and, the following year she married one of her English-language translators, Richard Philcox.

She gained prominence as a contemporary Caribbean writer with her third novel, Segu, in 1984. The novel follows the life of Dousika Traore, a royal adviser in the titular African kingdom in the late-18th century, who must deal with encroaching challenges from religion, colonisation and the slave trade over six decades. It was a bestseller and praised as “the most significant novel about black Africa published in many a year” by the New York Times.

‘I just wasn’t prepared, either politically or socially’ … Maryse Condé in Ségou, Mali, in 1984.
Photograph: Jean-Jacques Bernier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The next year she published a sequel, The Children of Segu, and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in the US. Over the coming decades, she would become a prolific writer of children’s books, plays and essays, including, in 1986, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, based on the story of an American slave who was tried for witchcraft; Tree of Life in 1987; Crossing the Mangrove in 1989; Windward Heights, a Caribbean retelling of Wuthering Heights, in 1995; Desirada in 1997; The Belle Créole in 2001; The Story of the Cannibal Woman in 2003; and Victorie: My Mother’s Mother, in which she reconstructed the life of her illiterate grandmother, in 2006.

After teaching in New York, Los Angeles and Berkeley, Condé retired in 2005. She wrote two memoirs: 2001’s Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, and in 2017, What is Africa to Me? She was awarded France’s Legion of Honour in 2004, and shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, then a lifetime achievement award, in 2015. When she won the New Academy prize, the one-off award intended to replace the Nobel prize in literature when it was cancelled in 2018, she described herself as “very happy and proud”.

“But please allow me to share it with my family, my friends and above all the people of Guadeloupe, who will be thrilled and touched seeing me receive this prize,” she said. “We are such a small country, only mentioned when there are hurricanes or earthquakes and things like that. Now we are so happy to be recognised for something else.”

In her final years, she lived in the south of France with Philcox. Her novel The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, translated into English in 2020, explores the dangers of binary thinking through the lives of two twins. Her eyesight became too bad for her to write unassisted, so she wrote her last books by dictating to a friend.

Her last novel, The Gospel According to the New World, published in 2021 and translated into English in March 2023, was shortlisted for the International Booker prize. The novel follows the journey of a baby rumoured to be the child of God.

Writing, she once wrote, “has has given me enormous joy. I would rather compare it to a compulsion, somewhat scary, whose cause I have never been able to unravel.”





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