Maryse Condé, the “Grande Dame” of Francophone literature, dies at 90

Maryse Condé, a writer from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe whose explorations of race, gender and colonialism in the Francophone world made her a favorite for the Nobel Prize in literature, died Tuesday in Apt, a city in the south of France. She was 90 years old.

Her death, in hospital, was confirmed by her husband, Richard Philcox, who translated many of her works into English.

Condé’s work, which began with her first novel, “Hérémakhonon” (1976), came at a crucial moment, when the notion of French literature, centered on the canonical works of French writers, began to give way to the multifaceted notion of literature francophone. literature, drawing from all parts of the French-speaking world.

Having lived in Guadeloupe, France, West Africa and the United States, Condé has managed to imbue her work with a kaleidoscopic cosmopolitanism; she was equally at home with memoirs, novels set in 18th-century Mali and 17th-century Massachusetts, and even a book of writing about food. Her sure hand earned her the acclaim of “grande dame” of Francophone literature.

She has been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize, awarded to novelists who write in languages ​​other than English. After the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was canceled following a sexual abuse scandal within the awarding committee, she received the New Academy Prize, created by a group of Swedish cultural figures as a temporary replacement: the first and last person to receive the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. award.

Like other writers grappling with the legacy of colonialism, Condé focused her work on generally political themes, examining the formation of various individual and collective identities. But she stood out for her adamant nonconformity.

She supported African independence, but was critical of leaders who came after, accusing them of corruption and empty promises. She was proud to call herself a black writer, but she indulged in movements like Negritude and Pan-Africanism, which she believed replicated white racism by reducing all blacks to a single identity.

Much of his work was historical. His best-selling novel, “Segu” (1984), which sold more than 200,000 copies in France, traces the life of a royal advisor in West Africa’s Bambara empire, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries but collapsed under pressure from Europeans and Islamic forces.

Among her favorite books as a child was “Wuthering Heights,” and in 1995 she revisited Emily Brontë’s classic story of obsession and revenge with “Windward Heights,” set in Cuba and Guadeloupe.

He had already done something similar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” and with Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”, drawing on elements of both works to tell the story of an enslaved woman involved in the witches of Salem in “I, Tituba”. , The Black Witch of Salem” (1986), which won the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme.

She was since said to be a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize, although she professed a lack of interest in achievement – ​​or the trappings of success in general.

“I am attracted to people who are ready to disobey the law and who refuse to take orders from anyone, people who, like me, do not believe in material wealth, for whom money is nothing, owning a house is nothing, a car it’s nothing,” he said in a 1989 interview with the Callaloo newspaper. “Those kinds of people tend to be my friends.”

Maryse Boucolon was born on February 20th. 11, 1934, in Pointe-à-Pitre, a city in Guadeloupe, an overseas department of France. Her parents were both wealthy educators: her mother, Jeanne Quidal, ran a girls’ school and her father, Auguste Boucolon, taught school before founding a bank.

The youngest of eight children, Maryse grew up sheltered and isolated by her parents’ relative wealth. Her parents did not allow her to participate in the island’s ubiquitous street festivals or mix with people they considered socially inferior to them, which she said also kept her in the dark about the worst impacts of colonialism and racism.

He began writing at an early age. When she was about 12 she wrote a one-act play to give to her mother for her birthday. But his political awakening occurred more gradually.

As a teenager he read “Black Shack Alley” (1950), a semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Zobel about a poor black boy from Martinique, another department of the French Caribbean. This book revealed to her the fate of the experiences that most Black Caribbeans had to endure under colonialism.

When she was 16, her parents sent her to Paris to complete her studies. They had told her that the city was the center of reason and justice, but instead she found herself the object of racism and sexism.

He continued to study at the Sorbonne and frequent the black intellectual circles of Paris. In 1959 she met a Guinean actor, Mamadou Condé, and they married a year later. But the relationship soon soured and in 1960 she moved to Africa to teach.

Over the next 13 years he lived for long periods in Guinea, Ghana and Senegal. The region was in the throes of independence and decolonization and attracted thinkers and activists from across the black diaspora.

As she moved among them, Ms. Condé absorbed their heady mix of Marxism and Black Power, and began putting those ideas into writing, first as a playwright and then, in 1976, in “Hérémakhonon,” meaning “Waiting for the happiness”. ” in the West African Malinke language.

Ms. Condé imbibed a heady mix of Marxism and black power in her first novel, “Hérémakhonon” (1976).Credit…Rienner Publishers

Although he insisted that it was not autobiographical, “Hérémakhonon” tells the story of a black woman from Guadeloupe who lives for a time in Paris before going to Africa in the hope of finding herself – only to realize, in the end, that geography doesn’t hold up. the key to one’s identity.

In the meantime she had returned to Paris, where in 1975 she obtained her doctorate in literature at the Sorbonne. Long estranged from her husband, she had begun an affair with Mr. Philcox. She eventually divorced Mr. Condé in 1981 and she and Mr. Philcox married a year later.

Together with her husband, Mrs. Condé leaves behind three daughters from her first marriage, Sylvie, Aïcha and Leïla Condé; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

He held a professorship at Columbia University and also taught at the University of Virginia and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ms. Condé and Mr. Philcox returned to Guadeloupe in 1986 and lived there until a few years ago, when they returned to France so she could be closer to the treatment of a neurological disease.

The illness left her unable to see. She wrote her last three books, all published since 2020, dictating them, chapter by chapter, to her husband.

She was first shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2015 for her body of work. She was selected again in 2023, when she was 89, for her latest book, “The Gospel According to the New World,” about a dark-skinned boy from Martinique who may or may not be the son of God.

Although he didn’t win the prize – it went to Georgi Gospodinov for his book “Time Shelter” – he achieved the distinction of being the oldest person ever shortlisted for a Booker.