Maryse Condé: ‘An English author can reach the heart of a Caribbean child’

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A report by Anita Sethi for London’s Guardian.

The Guadeloupe-born novelist on discovering prejudice in France, making sense of the world when you’re elderly, and the power of Wuthering Heights.

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1937, earned her MA and PhD in comparative literature at Paris-Sorbonne University and went on to have a distinguished academic career, becoming professor emerita of French at Columbia University in New York. She has also lived in Guinea, Ghana and Mali, where she gained inspiration for her worldwide bestseller Segu. Condé was awarded the 2018 New Academy prize (the “alternative Nobel”), while her work has been acclaimed by Henry Louis Gates, Junot Díaz and Russell Banks, among others. Her latest novel, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, explores issues such as racism, terrorism and economic inequality. She lives in the south of France with her husband and translator, Richard Philcox.

What was the inspiration for your latest novel?
When I was a child it was easier to understand the world. Now that I’m old I don’t understand it at all, so I wanted to write about that difficulty. When you are an old writer, you tend to think all day about yourself – your parents, childhood. I decided to tell a story about the world of today, not yesterday, through two young twins, Ivan and Ivana. Another inspiration was the murder of Clarissa Jean-Philippe, a young police officer from Martinique, who was killed by Amedy Coulibaly, a terrorist from Mali, during the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. I was upset because a black man could kill a black woman and so Césaire’s theory of négritude, which claimed that all black people are brothers and sisters, therefore, no longer had any meaning.

You have said: “I could not write anything unless it has a certain political significance.” How do you feel in the current political moment, with global anti-racism protests? Do you feel change is going to come?
Yes, I hope change is going to come. I believe that things are going to improve but it will still take time. Some people in France are complaining about the violence of the Black Lives Matter protests. They are not only happening in America, but all over the world. In France, it took a long time for slavery to be recognised as a crime against humanity. In the 18th century, some scientists still supported slavery and claimed that black people were inferior and closer to animals and we are still fighting that misunderstanding. It is not easy. We shall overcome. But it will take a long time. I’m an optimist, in spite of everything.

Tell me about your early activism…
I was educated by parents who believed in France and were convinced France was the best place in the world. My father used to tell us: “Oh, la France est un beau pays”. But now I understand something they didn’t want to confront – we never talked about slavery or colonialism. I decided I was going to learn about subjects that were hidden from me. It is very difficult to have your own opinion and free thought when you are very young. You have to be older, strong enough and more mature to believe that you can change the world.

You’ve said that you did not publish your first novelHérémakhonon, until you were nearly 40 because you “didn’t have confidence in [yourself] and did not dare present [your] writing to the outside world”.
When I was a child I was very spoilt by my parents. I was oblivious to the outside world. I was convinced that I was one of the most beautiful girls in the world and certainly one of the most intelligent, but when I came to study in France I discovered people’s prejudices. People believed I was inferior just because I was black. I had to prove to them I was gifted and to show to everybody that the colour of my skin didn’t matter – what matters is in your brain and in your heart.

Was there a turning point in your development?
When I was a student at the Lycée Fénélon in Paris I became a friend of one of the girls. Her father, Jean Bruhat, was a communist professor of history at the Sorbonne and taught me to feel confident in myself. He taught me how to look at the world through the eyes of a colonised person and how Guadeloupe had been created by France for the benefit of slavery and how the native Amerindian population had been eradicated.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I was 10 or 12 when I read Wuthering HeightsA friend of my mother who knew I was fond of reading gave me the book. I’d never heard of Emily Brontë. It was the first time in my life that a book became close to my heart – it showed the power of literature that you can be an English author but reach close to the heart of a Caribbean child. There is a very desolate place in Guadeloupe with the ruins of a sugar mill and a plantation house that resembles Wuthering Heights and the Yorkshire moors. When I went to tell my mother’s friend how much I had liked the book and wanted to be a writer she replied that people like us don’t write. Did she mean black people, women or people from small islands? That I will never know.

What writers have been an inspiration to you?
I am very fond of Marguerite Duras and like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Violette Leduc and Louis Aragon.

What books are on your bedside table?
I now listen to audio books and have recently enjoyed authors such as Édouard LouisLeïla Slimani and Alice Zeniter.

What is your writing routine?
Now I dictate to a friend of mine because my eyesight is too bad. I prepare everything in my head and dictate. When my friend reads the chapters back to me I can correct the parts I don’t like. Writing comes to me like a force I can’t resist.

• The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana by Maryse Condé (translated by Richard Philcox) is published by World Editions (£12.99).

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