Maryse Condé Condé, Maryse - Essay

Maryse Boucolon


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthologie de la littérature africaine d'expression française [editor] (fiction) 1966
Dieu nous l's donné (drama) [first publication] 1972
Mort d'Oluwémi d'Ajumako (drama) 1973
Hérémakhonon [Heremakhonon] (novel) 1976
La poésie antillaise [editor] (criticism) 1977
Le roman antillais [editor] (criticism) 1977
La civilisation du bossale: Réflexions sur la littérature orale de la Guadeloupe et de la Martinque (essays) 1978
Notas sobre el Enriquillo (criticism) 1978
Le profil d'une oeuvre: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (essays) 1978
La parole des femmes: Essais sur des romancières des Antilles de langue français (essays) 1979
Tim tim? Bois sec! Bloemlezling uit de Franstalige Caribsche literatuur (criticism) 1980.
Une saison à Rihata [A Season in Rihata] (novel) 1981
Un gout de miel (short stories) 1984
Ségou: Les murailles de terre [Segu] (novel) 1984
Pays mêlé suivi de Nanna-ya (short stories) 1985
Ségou: La terre en miettes [The Children of Segu] (novel) 1985
Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem [I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem] (novel) 1986
Haiti Chérie (juvenile) 1987
La vie scélérate [Tree of Life] (novel) 1987
Pension les Alizés (drama) 1988
An tan revolisyon (drama) 1989
Traversée de la mangrove [Crossing the Mangrove] (novel) 1989
Victor et les barricades (juvenile) 1989
The Hills of Massabielle (drama) 1991
Les derniers rois mages (novel) 1992
La colonie du nouveau monde (novel) 1993

∗This work contains revised and translated editions of Le roman antillais and La poésie antillaise.

David K. Bruner (review date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Une saison à Rihata, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 390-91.

[In the following positive review of Une saison à Rihata, Bruner discusses Condé's depiction of her characters' psychology and their social relationships.]

As she did in her novel Hérémakhonon (1976) and in her plays Dieu nous l'a donné (1972) and Mort d' Oluwemi d' Ajumako (1979), Maryse Condé constructs in Une saison à Rihata a situation of political conflict in which to place a variety of characters in psychological and moral conflicts with themselves and each other. The result is an excellent and convincing work of art.

Although the political situations and plottings are exciting and clearly revealed to the reader, and although the writer's grasp of political realities is intellectually compelling, the novel is not a "protest novel," a novel with a political "message" or even a roman à clef. It is a novel about two sisters, two brothers, various children, various close associates—all caught in a complicated time of social eruptions. Paris, the Antilles and a West African country which was formerly a part of France are the geographic, ethnic and psychological origins and battlegrounds of its major characters. It is a novel about a past which lives in each character's memory in differing shapes; about futures which are...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Hilda van Neck Yoder (review date Winter 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Tim tim? Bois sec! Bloemlezing uit de Franstalige Caribische Literatuur, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 163-64.

[In the following review of the Dutch edition of Tim tim? Bois sec!, Yoder compares Condé's critical anthology to previous versions, noting several improvements.]

The recent Dutch publication of Tim tim? Bois sec!, Condé's combined revision of her 1977 critical anthologies La poésie antillaise and Le roman antillais (volumes one and two), reflects the growing interest in Caribbean literature in the Netherlands. The Dutch editor is Andries van der Wal, one of the editors of...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

John Williams (review date July/August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of La parole des femmes, in The Black Scholar, Vol. 17, No. 4, July/August, 1986, p. 57.

[In the following review of La parole des femmes, Williams finds Condé's work a seminal and important contribution to the quest for "the development of a new tradition of feminine voices."]

In the advent of the appearance of Maryse Condé's collection of essays about French Caribbean women novelists, La parole des femmes, black women writers witness the development of a new tradition of feminine voices.

This new tradition seeks to define itself not in terms of its relationship to the French feminists of the metropolis (i. e....

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Hal Wylie (review date Autumn 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Pays mêlé suivi de Nanna-Ya, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, No. 4, Autumn, 1986, p. 679.

[Wylie is an American educator, editor, and critic who specializes in Francophone African literature. In the following review of Pays mêlé suivi de Nanna-ya, he criticizes the work's essayistic prose style and the bleakness of its vision.]

The two stories of [Maryse Condé's] Pays mêlé present a literature of genealogy in which social relations are more important than individuals; the interpretation of the past is charged with political significance. Both stories follow Caribbean families through several generations. Individuals...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Charlotte H. Bruner (review date Spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 337-38.

[In the following review, Bruner discusses Condé's depiction of power in Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem.]

All of Maryse Condé's major fiction is rooted in a study of power. Her protagonists—fictional, legendary, or historical—appear to emerge almost haphazardly as heroes, martyrs, saints, or sacrificial victims. In tracing their lives, Condé shows the formative influence of their fervors upon a mass of characters. Somehow some very human individuals seem singled out for eminence or persecution. In her two-volume epic...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

David K. Bruner (review date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of La vie scélérate, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 498.

[In the following review, Bruner positively assesses La vie scélérate.]

La vie scélérate, though not as large a narrative as the two-volume Ségou, shares many of its characteristics. Seen through the eyes of a member of a large and powerful family, it reveals a historic epoch, its beliefs, conflicts, myths, and deeds. Beginning with the grandfather from Guadeloupe, it takes the reader through the early years of the building of the Panama Canal, where Jamaicans, American blacks, Guadeloupeans, and other exploited laborers struggle and die,...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

Phiefer L. Browne (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Segu, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 183-85.

[In the following review, Browne offers a mixed assessment of Segu.]

Segu is an epic historical African novel spanning the years from 1737 to 1860; the continents of Africa, South America, and Europe; and three generations of an aristocratic Bambara family, the Traores. Segu, the ancestral home of the Traores, is a town between Bamiko and Timbuktu in present-day Mali. The action centers on the four sons of the nobleman Dousika Traore and their sons. "Four sons—Tiekoro, Siga, Naba and Malobali, the last-born—had to be regarded as hostages or...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

Maryse Condé with VèVè A. Clark (interview date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "I Have Made Peace with My Island," in Callaloo, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 85-133.

[In the following excerpt, Condé discusses the influence her childhood in Guadeloupe, her family, and her political beliefs have on her literary work.]

[Clark]: How would you describe the Boucolon family's reputation in Guadeloupe?

[Condé]: My parents were among the first black instructors. My mother was the first black woman instructor among her generation, and also the first black director of her own school for girls. When my father stopped teaching, he founded a small bank with black and mulatto acquaintances of his called La Caisse...

(The entire section is 5268 words.)

Arlette M. Smith (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Semiotics of Exile in Maryse Condé's Fictional Works," in Callaloo, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 381-88.

[In the essay below, Smith discusses the themes of exile and alienation in Condé's fiction.]

Among the Francophone Caribbean writers, Guade-loupean-born Maryse Condé has produced a body of works which has won wide recognition for its appeal, its diversity, and its depth. A multifaceted talent, this playwright, essayist, critic, and novelist draws from a wide source of inspiration. The history of the African kingdom of Ségou provides the framework as well as some of the characters and episodes in both Ségou: les murailles de terre and...

(The entire section is 3834 words.)

Adele King (essay date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Caribbean Women Go to Africa: Maryse Condé's Hérémakhonon and Myriam Warner-Vieyra's Juletane," in College Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3, October, 1991, pp. 96-105.

[King is an American educator, critic, and editor whose works include French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style (1989). In the excerpt below, she considers the themes of gender and nationality in Hérémakhonon.]

Hérémakhonon (the title is a Malinké word meaning "to wait for happiness") is the story of a Guadeloupean teacher who goes to an unnamed West African country resembling Sekou Touré's Guinea as a co-opérante for the French government. While...

(The entire section is 1577 words.)

Howard Frank Mosher (review date 25 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Staying Alive," in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, pp. 11-12.

[Mosher is an American novelist and short story writer whose works include Where the Rivers Flow North (1978) and A Stranger in the Kingdom (1989). In the following review of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tree of Life, he praises Condé's sense of history and compassion, stating that "it is impossible to read her novels and not come away from them with both a sadder and more exhilarating understanding of the human heart."]

In the final chapter of Segu, Maryse Condé's historical novel of 19th-century tribal West Africa, the youthful...

(The entire section is 1507 words.)

Suzanne Crosta (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrative and Discursive Strategies in Maryse Condé's Traversée de la mangrove," in Callaloo, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 147-55.

[In the essay below, Crosta discusses Condé's narrative techniques in Traversée de la mangrove, stating that although there is no single authoritative voice in the work, "one notices in the use of varied points of view, the voice of an implicit author who prudently guides the reader to reflect upon the notion of identity as a cultural construct."]

Maryse Condé's latest novel, entitled Traversée de la mangrove, explores the question of gender and formal structures in light of the author's attempt to...

(The entire section is 4560 words.)

Ellen W. Munley (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mapping the Mangrove: Empathy and Survival in Traversée de la mangrove," in Callaloo, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 156-66.

[In the following essay on Traversée de la mangrove, Munley attempts to answer the question, "Why do some [characters] continue to struggle toward life while others stagnate, resign themselves to solitude and exclusion, or beckon death?"]

You cannot pass through a thicket of mangrove trees. Their stiltlike stems and roots impale you. You dig your own grave and suffocate in the brackish water.

I will seek the sun, air, and light to live the rest of my days.


(The entire section is 5609 words.)

Jeanne Pimentel (review date May/June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Ending of Her Own Choosing," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 3, May/June, 1993, p. 19.

[In the following review, Pimentel praises I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, considering Condé an author with "universal vision."]

(The entire section is 1117 words.)

Elisabeth Mudimbé-Boyi (essay date Autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Giving Voice to Tituba: The Death of the Author?," in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, pp. 751-56.

[Mudimbé-Boyi is an educator, critic, and editor who specializes in African and Caribbean literature. In the following essay, she discusses the themes of gender relationships and the search for identity in Condé's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.]

The story of the witches of Salem has been recounted in different ways by different authors: Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, Ann Petry's Tituba of Salem Village, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, and a 1982 film called Three Sovereigns for Sarah starring Vanessa...

(The entire section is 4478 words.)

Hal Wylie (essay date Autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cosmopolitan Condé, or Unscrambling the Worlds," in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1993, pp. 763-68.

[In the following essay, Wylie discusses the "universality" and "cosmopolitanism" of Condé's recurrent themes, including gender, nationality, and generational differences.]

Maryse Condé is a transcendental person and restless, but unlike many wanderers, she does not dissipate herself butterflying about. Instead, she is able to marshal her forces to draw upon the many places and episodes of her own Odyssey to forge a new unity by showing symbolist correspondances between the parts of the scrambled postmodern landscape. We know from...

(The entire section is 4687 words.)

Miller Newman (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tied to a Spinner's Shuttle," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 48, 52.

[Newman is an American educator. In the following review of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tree of Life, he discusses Condé's use of apparitions and ghost imagery.]

Maryse Condé's Tree of Life is a story of a West Indian family on the island of Guadeloupe. Told by the adolescent great-granddaughter, Coco, the story begins with the family's sire, Albert Quentin Louis, and his decision to leave the bondage of the island's cane fields in search of a better way of life. Albert travels to Panama, lured by the prospect of...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Andrade, Susan Z. "The Nigger of the Narcissist: History, Sexuality and Intertextuality in Maryse Condé's Heremakhonon." Callaloo 16, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 213-26.

Analyzes sexuality and sexual relations in Heremakhonon.

Bruner, Charlotte, and Bruner, David. "Buchi Emecheta and Maryse Condé: Contemporary Writing from Africa and the Caribbean." World Literature Today 59, No. 1 (Winter 1985): 9-13.

Comparative study of Emecheta and Condé. The critics state: "The works of Buchi Emecheta and Maryse Condé give ample evidence to show the falsity of the...

(The entire section is 300 words.)