Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé dies aged 90

APR 2, 2024 LISTEN

Guadeloupe-born author Maryse Condé, who best known for novels tackling the legacy of slavery and colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean, has died aged of 90.

Condé died in her sleep at hospital in the town of Apt in southeastern France on Monday night, her husband Richard Philcox said.

She was known as one of the greatest chroniclers of the struggles and triumphs of the descendants of Africans taken as slaves to the Caribbean.

The mother of four, who once said she "did not have the confidence to present her writing to the outside world", did not pen her first book until she was nearly 40.

Often tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature, "the grand storyteller" from the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe won the alternative Swedish New Academy prize in 2018.

By then the francophone novelist, with close cropped grey hair, was confined to a wheelchair with a degenerative disease.

Tackling racism, corruption

Her first book Heremakhonon, which means Waiting for Happiness in the Malinke language of West Africa, centred on a Caribbean woman's disillusioned experience in Africa.

It caused a scandal in 1976 and three West African countries ordered the copies destroyed.

"In those days, the entire world was talking of the success of African socialism," she later wrote.

"I dared to say that... these countries were victims of dictators prepared to starve their populations."

She found popular and critical success with novels like Segu set in the Bambara Empire of 19th-century Mali.

Then came I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem in 1986, about a slave who became one of the first women accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials in the United States.

But Condé still felt snubbed by the French literary establishment, never winning its top prizes.

There was belated recognition in 2020, when President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to "the fights she has waged, and more than anything this kind of fever she carries within her," awarding her the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit.

Eventful life

Condé's life was almost as eventful as one of her historical novels.

Born on 11 February, 1934, as Maryse Boucolon, she grew up the youngest of eight children in a middle-class family in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, and only became aware she was black when she left to go to an elite school in Paris when she was 19.

Growing up, she had not heard of slavery nor Africa, and her mother – a schoolteacher – banned the use of Creole at home.

Her literary imagination had been fired by Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which she later transplanted to the Caribbean in Windward Heights.

In Paris her mind was opened to questions of identity when she met the Martinique writer and politician Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the negritude literary movement that sought to reclaim black history and reject French colonial racism.

But unlike him, Condé was a passionate believer in independence from France.

"I understand that I am neither French nor European," she said in a 2011 documentary. "That I belong to another world and that I have to learn to tear up lies and discover the truth about my society and myself."

African roots

Condé fell for a Haitian journalist, who left her when she got pregnant. Unmarried and with a small boy, she gave up on university.

Three years later she married Mamadou Condé, an actor from Guinea, and they moved to the West African country.

It fulfilled a need to explore her African roots, but life in the capital Conakry was tough. "Four children to feed and to protect in a city where there is nothing, it was not easy," she recalled.

Her marriage to Condé fell apart and she moved to Ghana and then Senegal, eventually marrying Richard Philcox, a British teacher who became her translator and, she would say, offered her the "calm and serenity" to become a writer.

Condé lived in New York for 20 years, founding the Center for Francophone Studies at Columbia University before moving to the south of France.

Her later works tended to be more autobiographical, including Victoire: My Mother's Mother, about her grandmother who was a cook for a white Guadeloupean family.

(with AFP)