Maryse Condé 1937–
(Born Maryse Boucolon) Guadeloupean novelist, critic, dramatist, short story writer, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Condé's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 52.
Condé is considered one of the most successful and important figures in contemporary Afro-Caribbean literature. She is acclaimed for articulating a distinctively black female perspective that is unmarked by the influences of imperialism and colonial oppression in the West Indies. Also lauded for her works of literary criticism, Condé often focuses—in her fiction and nonfiction—on the relationship of the individual with society, particularly the societies of Guadeloupe, other Caribbean locales, and equatorial Africa.
Born in Guadeloupe into a well-known family of academics and entrepreneurs, Condé was raised in an atmosphere of strong racial and familial pride. At the age of sixteen, she left to study in France, where she was the victim of severe racial prejudice. After being expelled from one school, Condé eventually completed her studies at the Sorbonne, where she was the winner of a short story writing contest among West African students. Thereafter, she traveled briefly in Europe and took a teaching position in the Ivory Coast. Between 1960 and 1968, Condé taught and lived in a number of African nations, including Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. She returned to France in 1970 in order to earn a doctorate from the Sorbonne, which she accomplished in 1976. Condé remained at the Sorbonne as a lecturer for nearly ten years and during this time released some of her best known fictional and nonfictional works. In 1986 she returned to Guadeloupe and established a permanent residence there. She has since taught and lectured at a number of American universities, most often at the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses of the University of California.
Condé is known for critical works that examine Francophone literature and feminist issues—notably La civilisation du bossale (1978), La parole des femmes (1979), and Tim tim? Bois sec! (1980)—and for fictional accounts of life in the Third World, primarily in the Antilles and West Africa—Hérémakhonon (1976; Heremakhonon), Une saison à Rihata (1981; A Season in Rihata), La vie scélérate (1987; Tree of Life), and Traversée de la mangrove (1990; Crossing the Mangrove). Hérémakhonon, a semi-autobiographical novel, is set in an unidentified West African country and details the adventures of a Paris-educated Guadeloupean woman. The protagonist unwittingly becomes embroiled in the nation's political turmoil through her relationships with a bureaucrat and a radical school-master. Condé's second novel, A Season in Rihata, again focuses on an African nation beset by internal problems in order to relate the story of a prominent family threatened by corruption and antigovernment sentiments. In her next two novels, Ségou: Les murailles de terre (1984; Segu) and Ségou: La terre en miettes (1985; The Children of Segu), Condé combines historical fact with fiction to recreate events in the West African kingdom of Ségou, which is now Mali, between 1797 and 1860. These works chronicle the experiences of members of a royal family whose lives are destroyed by such developments as European colonization, the slave trade, and the introduction of Islam and Christianity into Ségou's largely animistic culture. Tree of Life, set in Guadeloupe in the 1870s, details the life of a black nationalist patriarch and his scattered family, who, though haunted by loneliness, despair and suicide, struggle for survival. Other novels by Condé include Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem (1986; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), the fictionalized biography of a Barbadian slave who was executed for practicing witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts; and Les derniers rois mages (1992), the tale of the ghost of an African king who pays a visit to his kin in contemporary South Carolina. Condé has also published several plays, collections of short stories, and works for children.
Response to Condé's work has been generally positive. She has won numerous literary awards and fellowships, including the Prix littéraire de la femme in 1986 for I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and the Guggenheim fellowship in 1987. Charlotte and David Bruner have commented that Condé, in drawing on her experiences in Paris, West Africa, and her native Guadeloupe, has created several novels which "attempt to make credible on an increasingly larger scale the personal human complexities involved in holy wars, national rivalries, and migrations of peoples." Hal Wylie has called Condé's "ambitious insistence upon seeking the links between generations, and between the ethnic groups" to be "a quest for the meaningful factors of our time." Many critics have lauded Condé for her knowledge of African history, while others focus their praise on her struggle to create an independent identity for the Afro-Caribbean woman. Some critics, however, find Condé's plots convoluted and overburdened by details. Miller Newman has noted that, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Condé's use of apparitions and wraiths is "bizarre" and "tests the reader's patience." In discussing Segu, Phiefer L. Browne has stated that the work has "a sometime confusing welter of characters" and "it ends abruptly, leaving its various plot strands hanging." Although some critics have taken exception to Condé's literary style, many share David Bruner's opinion that "Maryse Condé's work has been that of a major writer of our age."