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.

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Maryse Condé is the author I discovered on the Man Booker International long list, the author that stood out for me, even if she didn’t win the prize. Since discovering her, I have read and reviewed the book she recommended for those wishing to discover her work, Tales From the Heart: True Stories From my Childhoodvignettes of her life growing up as the youngest and 8th child of a civil servant (who had been a school principal when her mother married him) and school teacher in a black bourgeoise family.

I decide to follow this up with another tale Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, though publishers label it as fiction, it is based on the life and facts of her grandmother. Victoire was an illiterate, white skinned woman she never met, who worked as a highly reputable cook for a white Creole family, the Walbergs, a connection that her mother Jeanne, though raised, supported and educated by this family, appeared to reject.

VictoireMaryse Condé wrote this account in a desire to learn more of her family history, a quest that began by researching the life of Victoire Elodie Quidal, speaking to a lot of people and a project that would take three years to complete.

When she questioned her mother Jeanne, a woman with no discernible palate, incapable of boiling an egg, she was shocked to learn her grandmother had been a cook.

‘And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?’ She continued without answering the question. ‘She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then …then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up until she died.’

Maryse wanted answers, but that was as much as her mother would share, they never resumed the conversation, the years passed by, in a kind of chaos, however that conversation never left her curious mind and her grandmother began to seep into her imagination.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

Victoire’s mother Eliette was a twin who died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. More than the shock of her pregnancy and sudden death, was the appearance of a child with clear eyes and pink skin. No one was aware of her having crossed paths with a white man, there were no whites in La Trielle where she lived except priests and at one point a garrison of soldiers, who’d been training in the area, before being despatched back to France.

Eliette’s mother Caldonia raised Victoire and became close to her, when most people were wary of her with her too white skin and transparent eyes. The only education she received was religious and at the age of 10, the Jovial’s requested she come and work for them in the kitchen. Given only the thankless tasks, she observed the others and began to acquire the culinary skills she would become so well-known for.

Obtaining a position as cook for the Dulieu-Beaufort family was a turning point in her life, perhaps even more so than finding herself pregnant at 16-years-old, for in this family she would meet her lifelong friend Anne-Marie, her same age, outraged at having been married off to Boniface Walberg, Victoire’s future employers and the beginning of a mysterious and enduring relationship, one that set people talking and would be seen by her daughter Jeanne (Maryse’s mother) with utmost disapproval.

Apart from a brief period when Victoire fell in love with another, causing a period of separation from her daughter, and a significant turning point in their relationship, she would stay loyal to the Walberg’s all her life. Though she could neither read or write, she accepted her life, despite suffering the disapproval of her unforgiving daughter Jeanne, who would obtain an excellent education and position, marry a man twenty years her senior, removing all risk of insecurity that she’d observed in her mother and previous generations, determined to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with Megan Doll, in Bookslut Maryse Condé explains her desire to write about her grandmother:

Maryse Condé‘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.’

Condé also finds a connection between her and Victoire through their creativity, her grandmother’s through her renowned cuisine, Condé’s through her writing. At times she almost appears to channel her grandmother, as she senses what she may have been thinking or why she reacted in a certain way,  connecting with this mysterious woman who was so different to the mother she knew, a woman equally misunderstood by the community around her.

This was the perfect follow-up to Tales of the Heart and an intriguing look into the impact of circumstances of birth of three generations of women, how the past constantly threatens and can mock one’s position in the present, somewhat explaining Jeanne’s instinct to distance herself from her illiterate mother while fulfilling her ambitions and then her guilt at having treated her mother badly, when she only wanted the best for her.

The two books I have read were translated from French into English.