A post by Peter Jordens.
Arjan Peters recently interviewed Maryse Condé at her home in Gordes, Provence, France, for De Volkskrant. They discussed Condé’s latest novel, Le fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana [The Fabulous and Sad Destiny of Ivan and Ivana]*, and Condé talked about the need to write, the freedom to joke, and the power to dream. Here is a translation; the full, original interview (in Dutch) is available at https://www.volkskrant.nl/cultuur-media/neem-van-niemand-advies-aan-doe-wat-je-moet-doen~b565cc68.
Let’s begin with the title: The Fabulous and Sad Destiny of Ivan and Ivana. It appears to evoke some old legend.
For me, actually, the title evokes one specific book. Do you know the American-Dominican writer Junot Diaz? In 2007, he wrote the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I wanted to parody that title. It’s in jest.
With the difference that your title also contains tragedy.
That’s true. I intended to write a book that is both funny and sad. Hence the title, which in my view expresses both despair and hope; it sets the stage for the story. Of course, if you do not know Diaz’s book, you won’t get the joke. Personally, I enjoyed it.
She laughs, Maryse Condé (82), seated in the living room of her comfortable home near the picturesque, rocky village of Gordes in Provence. She and her husband, the translator Richard Philcox, have been living there for six years. Because of an illness, Condé has difficulty seeing, walking, and speaking. Writing is no longer possible. She has decided to dictate her stories, because her mind and willpower are unbroken.
That is also apparent from her recent novel, a spirited fairy tale about a poor black woman in Guadeloupe who gives birth to twins from a Malian musician who soon disappears. The children, Ivan and Ivana, stick together as much as possible, but whereas the boy hangs out with the wrong kind of friends as a hotel security guard, his sister is a smart and exemplary teacher and singer. Together they travel to Mali to find their father, but there too they must deal with warlords and tyranny. When they reach Paris and think that they are finally safe, they find themselves in the midst of the terrorist attacks there.
The new novel, written in an almost exuberant style, contains many elements typical of Condé, especially the combination of a small family story and grand history, and the undermining of fixed ideas. For example, Condé reminds us that Africans collaborated in the slave trade and that black nationalism can translate into intolerance toward everything western and white.
Condé has been quirky ever since her 1976 debut novel, in the voluminous African diptych Ségou (1984 and 1985) about the history of the Bambara Empire in the nineteenth century that made her world-famous, and in the stream of novels and essays that earned her the first and only Alternative Nobel Prize in Literature (96,500 euros) in 2018, courtesy of the Swedish notables who would not accept that the official Nobel Prize in Literature could not be awarded because a #MeToo scandal had caused the Swedish Academy to fall apart.
There is drama already in the first sentence of your novel: the twins Ivan and Ivana are born. That means they must leave the womb and enter an unsafe world.
And the children don’t understand why they have to leave the warm and peaceful space where they have stayed for so long, lying against one another, seeing nothing, while occasionally recognizing the soft and singing voice of the person who carried them, their mother Simone. No longer are they allowed to be together, truly one. They have to accept the separation.
It’s notable that mother Simone, a black woman in Guadeloupe, loves the [French] singer Barbara.
That’s another joke. Can you imagine a poor woman in Guadeloupe knowing who Barbara was? By now you must realize that I am joking all the time. Because I felt like it.
Does that hold also for the young Ivan discovering the poet Paul Éluard at school?
You got it! And Ivan is named after a film that his mother once saw and that made a big impression on her: Ivan the Terrible. Another joke! When the book appeared in France, I noticed that almost nobody laughed. Oh well, I’m used to that. Even though nobody understands them, I will continue to make jokes.
But surely it is not entirely arbitrary that you mention Barbara and Éluard. Are they personal favorites of yours?
Indeed, I love Barbara’s songs. Éluard is not a favorite of mine, but in school I was taught that he was an important French poet.
The author speaks to the reader, sometimes with wisdom like this: “It is also known that to be happy on this earth, one needs a hefty serving of blindness.” It helps you to deal with poverty, for example. That’s not a joke, I suppose.
Unfortunately, we leave life behind without understanding it, without even knowing why we had to suffer. It’s an enigma. Happiness is only conceivable by artificially unthinking all misfortune.
We follow Ivan and Ivana in Guadeloupe, later in Mali where their father lives, and then in Paris during the terrorist attacks. In your story, Ivan is more or less forced to participate, he becomes a Muslim, not out of conviction, but because of peer pressure. In order to survive.
Terrorism is not usually associated with the Caribbean. But I know from a friend of my daughter’s that there are young people in Guadeloupe who are being seduced by terrorists. They are so desperate and their lives are so boring. Terror is a possibility for survival. I didn’t make this up; it exists. Therefore, my Ivan can become a terrorist.
Ivan and Ivana are connected to one another, but develop in a completely different direction. Do you want to suggest that we are not defined by our origins?
In the Caribbean you have two choices. Either you accept being part of the French Overseas Departments and you start behaving as if you are French, as Ivana does. Or you do something else. I did the latter; I refused to be called French. In my family that was unusual: my father and mother believed that they were French. Their skin was black, but they were French. Their soul was French. They spoke French. To me, that was a lie. So, in Ivana and Ivan you see those two choices again: acceptance and refusal.
Which choice is better?
I do not know. Those of us who have refused have failed, because to this day Guadeloupe is still a French Overseas Department.
Another joke, about a sex position called “the small rings: more daring than those of the Kamasutra, we dare not describe it here.” Much later in the book, Ivan assaults his Parisian neighbor Stella: “Without a word, he pushed her onto the couch and penetrated her wildly. Grumpy people will say that it was rape, because that’s the name for sex that isn’t consensual. We won’t discuss it here. Rape or not, Stella enjoyed the pleasure that had befallen her.” What is this?
This, now, is a provocation. Daring to make a joke even about something like that. Part of me simply wants to be able to laugh at anything. Listen, when the terrorists invaded the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, you remember, on January 7, 2015, the newspapers wrote: “One shouldn’t mock just anything and anyone.” I disagree! As a writer, I, Maryse Condé, want to defend that freedom. Even when it comes to things that I would reject as a person. The writer laughs at everything. The person perhaps not; we’ll never know.
And that causes Condé to smile again.
How much time did it take to write?
One and a half year. In the period before I start writing, I think about it thoroughly; that also takes a year. Then I know in my head where I will start and where I will end. The idea is there. Only then can a story gain meaning. Along the way, I allow myself to be surprised. That’s the adventure of creating.
And once you are writing, do you write for 8 hours a day?
More. And interrupted only by talking with friends, and cooking. It’s a full-time job.
Do you have someone reading along?
No one. I don’t even let my husband know what my book is about while I’m working on it. It is my business, and mine only.
And may an editor provide comments once the story is finished?
He may not. Commentary is distracting. You don’t need advice. You do what you have to do and you do it alone.
That’s how you’ve always done it?
From the start. People ask me all the time: If you could give advice to young writers, what would you say? Then I answer: Nothing! A writer should be original. It is wonderful that people are touched by my books, but it also surprises me, because I did not write the books for them. Sometimes I hear from readers: “Your story, it seems like it’s about my life.” That can make me laugh, because [in my books] I have never thought of anyone but myself. Of course, it proves that people, whether white or black, resemble each other on the inside, anywhere in the world.
Did you follow anyone as an example when you started writing?
No. No one. You have to find your own voice, your own technique.
In Mali, Ivan is housed by Alix and Cristina, both members of families of acrobats, a white couple who run a resort.
I believe that love can make people into twins, that they can be so close that they look like twins. Alix and Cristina are like that.
But they are faced with extremist violence. There is nothing comical about that.
Ivan can hide with them for some time while he is persecuted because of a terrorist act. They treat him like their son. That is an old dream of mine: that a white couple can have a son who is not white. Love is more important than skin color.
But that love ends tragically.
Unfortunately: dreams don’t produce reality. In fact, reality injures and kills dreams. But I hope to have described the dream so powerfully that you will remember it. According to some, I have succeeded. That is what a writer can achieve.
At the award ceremony of the Alternative Nobel Prize, at the end of last year in Stockholm, your work was praised because you write about male-female relationships and the consequences of colonialism and post-colonialism. Can literature contribute to a better world?
Literature cannot change or improve life; it cannot force people to become better people. But it can offer people new glimpses of a world that perhaps offers more hope than the one we know. As a result, readers may be able to open themselves more to the differences in the world. That is what a book can achieve.
And is that what keeps you going? You continue to work despite your limitations.
Due to illness I can no longer write. So, a month ago I called in a friend. Three times a week she sits down over there with her computer, at my desk. I dictate to her what I want to write. I use her as a machine. It’s not very nice to have to ask someone to become a machine. But that’s what I need: a pair of hands. I can no longer use my own, so someone else has to do the job.
I dictate, she types. We have now completed one chapter of a book that I still want to write. And that will continue. For always. It is impossible for a writer to stop. Stopping means dying.
Le fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana
Paris: Éditions JC Lattès, 2017