Maryse Condé, writer and voice of Guadeloupe, died at 90

She was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on February 11, 1934. But more than anyone else, perhaps, Maryse Condé was a citizen of the world. France, Africa, the United States, she set down her bags on different continents, immersed herself in their cultures, before raising her voice and her roots loudly. Several times cited for the Nobel Prize in Literature, she was finally crowned with the Literature Prize of the New Academy, in Stockholm, in October 2018. It was the first time that her masterful work was rewarded.

Maryse Boucolon is the youngest of a large family of eight children, who grew up surrounded by books, in the big house in Pointe-à-Pitre. In this “middle of embryonic black bourgeoisie” – these are his words – we read French authors and we don’t mention African ancestry.

It was only in Paris, where she arrived at the age of 16 as a student at the Lycée Fénelon, that she understood that color had meaning. We are in the heart of the 1950s, the colonies are emancipating, black intellectuals are in full swing.

Aimé Césaire, a decisive meeting

It was the father of one of her friends, the Marxist historian Jean Bruhat, who opened her eyes. She meets the writer and politician Aimé Césaire and her perspectives change. “I understand that I am neither French nor European. That I belong to another world and that I must learn to tear apart the lies and discover the truth of my society and of myself”she said in a documentary in 2011.

As a young adult, she meets a Haitian journalist who leaves her upon learning of her pregnancy. Single mother of a little boy, she must give up Normale Supérieure. In search of respectability, three years later she married Mamadou Condé, an apprentice Guinean actor. But between the man and the role, there is a world of difference and their marriage is on the rocks.

In 1959, Africa became the imperative destination in his quest for his origins. First stop: Ivory Coast, where she is a French teacher at Bingerville high school. She lives with her first daughter and her son, before flying to Guinea and finding her husband, an alcoholic. Two daughters join the family. In Conakry, life is hard: “Four children to feed and protect in a town where there is nothing, it wasn’t easy”.

In Unvarnished Lifeautobiography published in 2012, she confides that “she cannot become African”. She is bruised to have stayed “the foreigner” despite his black skin. Furthermore, his marriage fizzled out. So she fled, to Ghana, with her children, then to Senegal, where she married a white British professor in the early 1980s. Richard Philcox will also be his translator.

It was only at the age of 42, after twelve years of trials in Africa and thanks to his new companion, who brought him “calm and serenity”which she begins to write.

Professor at Columbia University

In 1976, she published HeremakhononThen Segou (1984-1985), a bestseller on the Bambara empire in 19th century Mali. Her historical reconstructions may be successful, but she changes course and, in Crossing the mangrove (1989), Celanira neck-cut (2000) or History of the cannibal woman (2005), she addresses contemporary themes deeply tinged with Guadeloupean and Creole culture.

In New York, where she lived for 20 years, Maryse Condré opened a French-speaking studies center at Columbia University. She teaches a “literature in French which does not speak of France”. After the recognition of trafficking and slavery as crimes against humanity in 2001, she chaired the committee for the memory of slavery in France.

Suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, at the age of 80 she chose to retire to Provence where she dictated her latest book to a friend. The Gospel of the New Worldhis rewriting of the New Testament, in Guadeloupe.

Maryse Condé died on the night of April 1 to 2, at Apt hospital, in Vaucluse. She was 90 years old.

Isabelle Monnart (with AFP)

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