A Voice of Her Own: Maryse Condé wins Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature

Due to an ugly scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and corruption, there was no Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2018. Apparently it will resume next year, however to fill the gap, an alternative prize was awarded by The New Academy, a one-off to replace it. They describe themselves like this:

The New Academy was founded to warrant that an international literary prize will be awarded in 2018, but also as a reminder that literature should be associated with democracy, openness, empathy and respect. In a time when human values are increasingly being called into question, literature becomes the counterforce of oppression and a code of silence.

I didn’t know this was happening, but I can’t help but wish to celebrate it, given the winner of the prize for 2018, was Maryse Condé, one of my very favourite writers, whom I discovered in 2015, when her lifetimes work was nominated for the Man Booker International (MBI), in the old format, when that prize was held every two years and for a body of work, not a newly published title.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé didn’t win the MBI prize that year, but she was the writer I chose from the long list to read and following her advice in an interview about where one should start with her writing, I began with her extraordinarily beautiful essays Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean writer who was the eighth child in her family and as such, the one who knew her mother for the least amount of time and her grandmother she knew not at all. Her mother was a wilful, determined woman, who rose herself up through education, married a successful banker and made sure her own children were well-educated.

Her writer’s instinct and curiosity  had her wondering about what had gone before her, what had made her mother into the woman she knew and observed, one who many found too severe. Condé decided to find out all she could about her grandmother, researching by talking to everyone who knew them.

‘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.’

Slowly she pieced together a picture of not just her grandmother, but the generations of women in her family, who’d followed a similar, tragic pattern in their lives of being used by men and left to raise children alone. Condé’s mother was determined to break the cycle, which she did, but by doing so, she also planted a seed of desire in this youngest daughter to want to know about her roots. It wasn’t just her immediate family she knew nothing about, but her own country, her descendants and the country and culture or their birth.

She set off, not just in search of grandmothers and great grandmothers, but in search of the Kingdom of Segu, about which write an incredible historical novel, Segu (see review) and it’s sequel The Children of Segu, which I have not read yet.

Though her books were all published in French, Condé had the fortune to be married to the translator Richard Philcox, so most of her novels were translated into English, although she is much less well-known in the English reading world, than here in France.

She visited Aix-en-Provence a few years ago, and I had the privilege of being in a packed audience listening to her speak animatedly on a variety of topics.

When asked which of her books was her favourite, she mentioned The Story of the Cannibal Woman, which I had on my bookshelf, so that became my next read, a story set in South Africa, which had similarities for me to Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door. Unfortunately she is almost blind, so I don’t know if she will be publishing many more books, I certainly hope so.

In 2011 Françoise Vergès a French political scientist, historian and feminist, wrote and collaborated with Maryse Condé, a documentary called ‘une voix singulière’ a journey into the life and mind of Condé through her particular voice and world view. It is in French but with subtitles.

Segu by Maryse Condé tr. by Barbara Bray

As I have been on something of a reading journey through Maryse Condé, I want to capture a little background leading up to how she came to write this masterpiece of historical fiction, set in a time of major change in this part of Africa where her ancestors came from.

Background

 Maryse Condé grew up in a large black bourgeoise family in Guadeloupe, well-educated, with regular family visits to Paris, in fact her parents felt French and were surprised when people they deemed of a lesser status than they, (like Parisian cafe waiters) commented on how well they spoke French, in a patronising way.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was the youngest of eight children, her mother married an older, financially and professionally stable man, she was a formidable teacher, a staunch, authoritative force to be reckoned with.

She died when Maryse was 14 and it wasn’t until years later that Condé began to question why her mother had been the way she had been with her and others, wondering what unseen forces had been pushing from within. this led her to research her grandmothers story, which she published as the novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother (reviewed here).

Her own childhood she writes about in the beautiful set of vignettes, autobiographical essays collected in Tales of the Heart, Stories from My Childhood (reviewed here).

What she discovered in researching her mother and grandmother’s lives was a history of struggle, of single, compromised women, forced by the abuses inflicted upon them – for which they were harshly judged, though little more was expected of them – to raise their children alone and make do as best they could.

While Condé’s mother was fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to acquire an education, it was a favour she wanted little or nothing to do with, never sharing the reasons  or people behind it, for her mother Victoire, had been the open mistress of her employer, a friend of his wife, a situation her daughter detested and determined to remove herself far from.

Embarking on her own education, the young Maryse Condé, discovered that though she’d had the best education possible, enabling her to find success in France and Guadeloupe, she learned little about her own history or that of  her people. It was a gap in her education she couldn’t live with, that she wished to fill and it sent her off on a historical pursuit to understand both her maternal history and the voyage of her ancestors.

HeremakhononHer novel Heremakhonon(1976), which I’ve not yet read, is a semi-autobiographical story of a sophisticated Caribbean woman, teaching in Paris, who travels to West Africa in search of her roots and an aspect of her identity she has no connection with.

It is an insightful and somewhat disappointing experience, however for Maryse Condé personally, it was a springboard to the research and work that would follow, as her subsequent novels explore issues of race, gender and culture in a variety of historical periods and locations.

From this context, we come to what is considered a significant and radiant accomplishment, Segu (1984), set in the 19th century Kingdom of Segu (contemporary Mali), entering the soul of the African continent, at a point of prophetic enlightenment, as multiple forces and influences enter into the lives of those, who until now have known great spiritual power and authority.

Review

SeguIn 1797, the kingdom of Segu is thriving, its noblemen are prospering, its warriors are prominent and powerful, at their peak. 

Their people, the Bambara are guided by story-telling griots and divining priests, their lives ruled by the elements and tradition. However their visions fall short in preparing their followers for what is to come.

From the East, religion revolutions have spread Islam across two-thirds of West Africa; from the West, despite laws passed to stop it, the slave trade continues to flourish, and from within merchants make new demands for tropical goods, developing legitimate commerce.

Segu follows the life and descendants of Dousika Traore. He is the king’s most trusted advisor and the fate of his four sons epitomise the challenges that threaten to tear their family and society apart, in this historical turning point of African history. 

Dousika falls out of favour with the King and his son’s each go off in search of adventure outside the kingdom, where they discover quite a different perception of their people and their race.

Tiekoro, renounces his people’s religion, travels North to become a religious scholar and embraces Islam. He is by turn revered, scorned, returns to his home and becomes respected. However his position is always in flux and the balance of power between peoples and their associated beliefs are continuously challenged, he falls in and out of favour.

Siga, initially accompanies his brother and must survive in the same town, but without the introductions his brother has received to help him, he retains his belief in the Bambara gods, defending tradition and becomes a merchant. Although he was born on the same day as Tiekoro, his mother was a slave, so he must accept a less ambitious, less well-connected future.

Naba, is snatched by slave traders and sold and somehow ends up as a slave on a plantation in Brazil. He escapes, only to live on another plantation, a kind of free slave, to be near the woman he loves, whose children will reconnect with the family through a series of coincidences.

Malobali, the youngest, could no longer bear to listen to his older prodigal brother preaching, storms off one day in contempt, never to return. He becomes a mercenary, spending a period of time in a makeshift army, eventually converting to Christianity to improve his chances and has an encounter with the spirit of one of his brothers.

Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervour, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national, tribal and family rivalries, racism and suspicion, amid the vagaries of commerce.

It shines a light on the impact of cross tribal marriage and partnership, of slavery, both that perpetuated by the Europeans and from within the African continent. The role of the son and the daughter, the rules of marriage, the perceptions of religion, the rise of Islam, the practices of fetishists and superstitions of their followers. The importance of relaying history through the storytelling griots, an inherited role, passed down from family member to family member.

Intuition

Just as with Condé’s previous work, here too there is communication and connections between family members not present, whether alive or manifesting as departed ancestors, they enter via dreams, intuition, providing guidance and reassurance. The presence and guiding voice of ancestors and the reincarnation of souls is important, as is the effect of love/lust on each of them.

As with the best of historical fiction, Segu takes us through a period of significant change, by engaging the reader with a family and its members, its traditions and those who wish to rebel against them, the will to modernise, to make their way forward in a world that is rapidly changing.

It engagingly portrays the balance of power and perceptions between people from different ethnic groups, where one is judged on everything except character. We encounter historic family feuds, feuds between peoples, religion and the rise of Islam, fetish priests, slaves, concubines and nobles, a complex society.

It was a deliberately slow read for me, but at the same time riveting, a book that scratches at the surface of a significant and fascinating subject and does wonders to assist in helping that era and people become more understood.

Buy Segu by Maryse Condé via Book Depository