Maryse Condé

by Maryse Condé 

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David K. Bruner (review date Spring 1982)

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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 imagined but never arrive; about passions which lead to murder, self-abasement, resignation and martyrdom; about those who learn to perceive a bit more clearly and those whose 20/20 vision will forever be false, without their knowing that it is.

Even the hateful characters are highly credible. The rest—despite their often mortal differences—draw the reader's human sympathy in large measure. Zek, basically amiable, is definitely inhibited by his dead father's contempt for him, by his mother and his wife; he neglects his talents in the dull river town of Rihata and envies his younger brother Madou, who had their father's preference, is politically eminent in the lively city of N'Daru and is loved and only partly resisted by Zek's wife Marie-Hélène (partly for political reasons). Like Zek, Madou and Marie-Hélène have their own internal stories to discover and reveal. Other characters emerge and become interlaced with the main three; what began with the appearance of a triangle becomes a multi-faceted, three-dimensional human formation.

An emotionally and intellectually mature novel, Une saison à Rihata deserves translation and a worldwide reception. The dust jacket compares it with the novels of Graham Greene; it fully merits that comparison.


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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...

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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."

Hilda van Neck Yoder (review date Winter 1982)

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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 Met Eigen Stem, an anthology of literature of the Netherlands Antilles. Excellent translations from the French are provided by Fred de Haas.

Tim tim? is divided into two parts. The first section offers a concise introduction to the history, themes, movements and works by major writers of the French-speaking Caribbean (excluding Haiti). The second section provides an anthology of twenty-nine short excerpts from novels and thirteen poems. The work concludes with brief biographies of the authors anthologized and a bibliography of secondary literature. Regrettably, no footnotes or biographical references are provided to the critical introduction or to the prose excerpts and the poems.

A comparison with the 1977 French anthologies shows that the Dutch edition is definitely enriched by two additions. First, Condé has added a section on the essay, with examples from Césaire and Fanon; second, she has included a brief analysis of the role of the traditional oral tale, followed by such a tale, entitled "Lapin and Zamba in the Belly of the Ox" (recorded by Ina Césaire). Obviously, Condé intends to stress the significance of oral literature in the development of Antillean literature by using the formula with which the tale begins ("Tim tim bois sec") as her title for the Dutch edition.

Believing that "l'histoire de la poésie antillaise suit étroitement celle de l'évolution de la société," Condé has also expanded and updated the section on the historical context of Antillean literature. The critical introduction, as a whole, is informative, and her thematically organized anthology is strengthened by headings that relate to the themes analyzed in the introduction (e. g., "The Past," "Color Prejudice and Alienation," "Africa as Seen by the Antilles," "Resistance," "Negritude," "New Directions"). A similar English translation of Condé's anthologies would be useful in providing an overview of Caribbean literature in French for English-speaking students of this increasingly significant region and literature.

Principal Works

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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.

John Williams (review date July/August 1986)

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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. Simone de Beauvoir) nor by its natural affiliation with the "male dominated" black French language or "negritude" writers of the '30s (i. e. Jacques Roumain, Aimé Césaire). Instead, it falls midway between the traditions of the francophone and anglophone Caribbean novel, respectively, within the matrix of the history of the women's movement.

A provocative novelist, playwright, essayist, and scholar of Afro-Caribbean literature of French expression, Condé hails originally from the small French Caribbean protectorate of Guadeloupe. During the course of her prodigious literary career, she has published two plays, Dieu nous l'a donné (1972) and La mort d'Oluwemi d'Ajumako (1973); three volumes of literary criticism, Le roman antillals (1977), La poésie antillaise (1978), and Almé Césaire: Profil d'une oeuvre (1978); two books of essays, La civilisation du bossale (1978) and La parole des femmes (1979); an anthology, Tim, Tim: Anthologie de la littérature antillaise en néerlandais (1978); and two novels, Hérémakhonon (1976) and Une saison à Rihata. Her third novel, Ségou: les murailles de terre (1984), was just recently published by Editions L'Harmattan in Paris.

This seminal work, which seeks to delineate a new sensibility among black women writers of the Caribbean of French expression, brings into focus the problematic of those exploited on four fronts simultaneously—racially, socially, sexually, and (as Condé points out in the introduction to the book) "geographically," indicating the unique form of colonial domination which exists in the Caribbean due to its "dependent" relationship vis-a-vis the global superpowers.

In La parole des femmes, Condé has assembled many of the most prolific feminine voices of the French Caribbean, the majority of whom have never been introduced to an English-language audience before. These novelists include Michèle Lacrosil (Guadeloupe), Simone Schwartz-Bart (Guadeloupe), Marie Thérèse Coliman (Haiti), Marie-Flore Pélage (Martinique), and the author herself.

In this monumental treatise on the history of the women's movement, Condé adopts the task of explicating the role of the Afro-Caribbean female as guardian of the traditional values of her society, caught in the cesspool of economic, political, and social upheaval engendered by the urbanization, modernization, and cultural values of the West.

This preoccupation with the notion of "Caribbean society in transition" has prompted many scholars of Afro-American literature to compare the works of Condé with those of another black woman writer commanding knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean experience in the Americas—Paule Marshall.

La parole des femmes is a vital work desiring to bridge the gap between black women writers of English expression and black women writers of French expression. It is also an important contribution to the growing plethora of scholarly endeavors dedicated to the subject of the French Caribbean woman novelist. For those seeking to probe the depths of this new tradition of the black woman writer of French Caribbean expression, it is a necessity.

Hal Wylie (review date Autumn 1986)

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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 come and go so quickly the reader may be disoriented, until he sees that Condé is primarily interested in the web of connections between parents and children, blacks, whites and mulattoes, the powerful and les misérables. Most of the characters are female and emotionally crippled. Trauma and resulting alienation are major themes. Condé seems to believe that an individual's identity depends upon the traumas experienced, not only by the individual, but by her ancestors also. The title indicates that the Caribbean world is one of mixture, where the métis (half-breed) is the norm. Condé is balanced in her treatment of races and classes but emphasizes the female, seeing mothers as the glue that holds society together.

There is so much factual and explanatory material that the tales come to verge on essay form (there are discourses on social geography, psychology, sharecropping, the results of the new industrial capitalism, et cetera). One is reminded of Lukács's conceptions of social and critical realism. Here the realism is starkly cruel, however; perhaps the best label would be "analytical realism." The first story analyzes the strong support of Caribbean youth for the new independence movements, exploring both psychological and historical roots, while the second takes up the broader theme of the role of literature in evolving Third World cultures. Condé clearly wants to document current problems and injustices and seems to intend to cheer on those who are attacking the vestiges of colonialism. Is this tragic vision the way?

Further Reading

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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 supposition that a woman writer is inherently limited to certain kinds of writing and certain kinds of subject matter."

Chamoiseau, Patrick. "Reflections on Maryse Condé's Traversée de la mangrove." Callaloo 14, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 389-95.

Discusses Condé's use of language and characterization in Traversée de la mangrove.

Garcia, Cristina. "The 'Rich Cadence' of Caribbean Life as Conveyed by Novelist Maryse Condé." Tribune Books (11 October 1992): section 14, p. 6.

Positively assesses Tree of Life, nothing that "Condé conveys the many subtle distinctions of color, class and language" that characterize Guadeloupe.

Thornton, Lawrence. "The Healer." The New York Times Book Review (16 July 1995): 17.

Laudatory review in which Thornton discusses the tone, structure, and themes of Crossing the Mangrove.

Watson, Christine. Review of Crossing the Mangrove, by Maryse Condé. Rapport 18, No. 6 (June-July 1995): 19.

Positive review in which Watson states: "Like memories, or ghosts, the stories told in Crossing the Mangrove will stay with you."

World Literature Today: Special Issue on Maryse Condé 67, No. 4 (Autumn 1993).

Addresses such topics as spatial and psychological themes in Les derniers rois mages, maternal imagery in Moi, Tituba, sorcière … noire de Salem, and Condé's attitude towards gender and identity.

Charlotte H. Bruner (review date Spring 1987)

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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 Ségou, for example, she portrays three generations of a Bambara royal dynasty at the time the march of Islam pushed aside the traditional animist empire of Ségou. The many family members in the novels undergo psychological, cultural, and geographic uprooting as they experience cultural change. Power is traced mainly through the male protagonists, a natural consequence of historical accuracy.

In Condé's latest novel, Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, she introduces an interesting variant of her power theme. The actual historical Tituba was a West Indian slave who confessed to witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Records of her part in this Salem power struggle are full and well documented. However, her history before and after the trials is conjectural only. Several legends conflict as to her death or her disappearance from Salem following the trials. In a brilliant re-creation Condé shows Tituba's early life in Barbados. Conceived on a slave ship in a public rape of a black slave by a white sailor, Tituba is forever an outcast from both black and white worlds. As a little girl she escapes servitude by running away when her mother is hanged for resisting and knifing her white owner. The girl is sheltered by an old herbalist in a remote area of the island, where she learns the healing arts, communication with the dead, and the exhilaration of freedom. Her passion for a métis slave, John Indian, drives her back to plantation life in slave quarters. However, her rebellious spirit outrages the owner, who sells the couple to the Reverend Samuel Parris, a Puritan minister on his way to Boston and, later, to Salem village. Condé convincingly draws together the traits of Tituba's personality to explain her use of the healing arts for the Parris children, her "false" confession after they betray her as a witch, her visitations with the spirits of the executed witches, et cetera.

Condé goes beyond the historical record in her new novel. Her Tituba becomes a martyr to Barbadian independence. Condé's own Guadeloupe has had its female martyrs in independence struggles; Simone Schwarz-Bart, also from Guadeloupe, has commemorated an ancestral female martyr in La mulâtresse solitude. As a critic, Condé has often commented on the social, literary, and political power of West Indian women. In Ségou she presented many linkages between Africans, West Indians, and Brazilians of the black diaspora. In Tituba she again links the Americans to Africa in the history of power struggles. Tituba, witch or saint, rebel or martyr, did exert actual power over Salem village in one of the few ways women activists of her time were able to influence their culture.

David K. Bruner (review date Summer 1988)

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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, or sometimes survive. It moves to San Francisco, to Jamaica, to France, as various members of the grandfather's burgeoning family gain power, quarrel among themselves, yet retain a family identity. Some become Marcus Garveyites, some become race-mixers.

As in Condé's other major works, there is a mixture of carefully researched data and her own experiences in the lands and among the peoples about whom she writes. Whether Rastafarians or Harlem blacks, middle-class families in France or people in the Chinese enclaves in San Francisco, all are interacting individuals struggling for individual ends. Always, however, larger sociopolitical questions of power, of expediency, of national and racial strategies dominate.

In revealing historical movements by focusing upon domestic matters (as, for example, Galsworthy did in The Forsyte Saga with an upper-class, ruling-class family) Condé is flexible in her writing style. There is a good bit of humor; there is use of mythic characters (a dead wife still "acts" upon those who remain alive); there are "family records" and "family letters" which are introduced by the character who acts as narrator and interpreter of the entire family history. La vie scélérate should be translated into English—and other languages. It doubtless will .be. From Heremakhonon on, Maryse Condé's work has been that of a major writer of our age.

Phiefer L. Browne (review date Spring 1989)

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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 scapegoats, to be wantonly ill used by fate so that the family as a whole might not perish."

The novel presents a polygynous, patriarchal world, with most of its female characters playing a passive, reactive role. The Bambara woman's life revolves around her son and husband. The two most important female characters briefly occupy center stage when they publicly and eloquently plead for the lives of their son and husband, those who give their lives meaning. When the favorite, first-born son of the matriarch Nya is executed and the husband of the Catholic convert Romana dies from smallpox, these proud women lose their will to live. While the maladjusted, unhappy man has the freedom simply to walk away from the family compound to begin a new life, the most vulnerable and unhappy of the women, the concubines from another tribe, escape the family compound by committing suicide.

The major conflict in the novel is not between characters but between the opposing world views and value systems of Islam and fetishism. This conflict is established at the outset by the forced exile from Segu of Tiekoro, the first-born son of the patriarch Dousika Traore and the first Bambara convert to Islam. The spirits of the gods and the ancestors endow the fetish priest Koumare with a prophetic vision: "This new god, this Allah who'd adopted young Tiekoro, was invincible. He would be like a sword. In his name the earth would run with blood, fire would crackle through the fields. Peaceful nations would take up arms, son would turn away from father, brother from brother. A new aristocracy would be born, and new relationships between human beings." Although Islam inexorably transforms the traditional way of life, the magic of fetishism permeates the world of the novel. Newborns reincarnate the wondering souls of the dead, and at moments of crisis apparitions of the dead materialize to advise and guide the converts to Islam as well as the fetishists.

By the end of the novel, the third generation of Traores sees the final dramatic conquest of Islam over fetishism in Segu. The grave of the martyred Tiekoro becomes a Muslim shrine, the fetish priests undergo a public ritual humiliation, and the most sacred household fetishes are publicly burned. By the time of its final triumph over paganism, however, Islam, "the sword that divides," has become both corrupt and compromised. Sectarianism destroys the unity of Islam. Muslim leaders make war on each other, in the process making alliances with the fetishist kings. And the Fulani, the ancient enemies of the Bambara, use the propagation of Islam as the pretext for seizing Segu's considerable wealth and controlling its markets. The invasion of his homeland by the marauding Fulani sets off an inner conflict in Muhammed, the devout Muslim son of Tiekoro, between Islam's deal of universal brotherhood and clan loyalty. "But these were his people, their wounds were his own, and he found himself hating a God who manifested Himself through fire and sword." The final vision of Muhammed's closest friend, heretofore a devout Muslim also, is one of religious toleration: "He suddenly understood there was no universal god; every man had the right to worship whomsoever he pleased; and to take away a man's religion, the keystone of his life, was to condemn him to death. Why was Allah better than Faro or Pemba [tribal gods]? Who had decreed it?"

Christianity, the third major religion in the novel, is mainly a European influence, and, as such, its roots in Africa are more shallow than those of Islam and fetishism. In a time of crisis one of the most devout Christianized Africans, the Catholic convert Romana, covers all bases by praying to the powerful Yoruba gods of her childhood as well as to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But in their attempts to convert the fetishists, the white Christian missionaries are as much zealots as the black Muslims are. The two Catholic priests in Dahomey had eyes "pale, transparent, but with an unbearable flame in their depths like that of a forge." "Sometimes when he was not blinded by hatred," Malobali, the nominal Christian, secret fetishist, "would briefly feel a kind of admiration for these men: driven by some ideal they had left their own country and people to live here, indifferent to solitude and danger …"

Not only religious forces but also economic forces sweep through Segu. Trade offers an alternative to the traditional agrarian way of life, and the basic commodity bought and sold is the human being. At the height of the slave trade in Northwest Africa, Naba, one of the Traore brothers, is kidnapped by slavers and ends up on a plantation in Brazil. One of the most recurrent images is the manacled wretch waiting for transshipment to the New World. African towns such as Ouidah and Lagos are the "'creation of the whites, born of the trade in human flesh. Nothing but vast warehouses.'" As a result of the onslaughts of Islam, Christianity, and the slave trade on his family, Eucharistus, a third-generation Traore, becomes the detribalized African, a figure common to modern African literature. Eucharistus, who sees himself as a "creature of the whites," is, unlike his forebears, neither Yoruba, Bambara, or Brazilian. "What was he? He could not tell!" Although he goes to college in London to become trained to "christianize and civilize Africa," he longs for "the purity of his Segu ancestors which he had lost forever…. He would never recover the proud self-assurance of that past."

Segu—a bestseller in France—is a richly textured novel with a sometimes confusing welter of characters. And it ends abruptly, leaving its various plot strands hanging. But it well shows that a remote, little-known part of the world was undergoing religious, economic, and social changes as profound as those transforming the Western world of the period.

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

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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 Coopérative des Prêts which later became La Banque Antillaise. The original enterprise was designed to provide loans for functionaries. Under pressure from the capitalist world, the bank became a French-controlled bank like all the others. My parents were very well known; my father had been awarded the légion d'honneur. The family was rather sure of itself, arrogant, scornful toward persons who were not successful, but at the same time very conscious of being black. During that period, one had to maintain clear divisions between blacks, mulattos, and whites. My parents were very proud of being black, and raised us with the understanding that in the larger society, we were considered niggers (nègres), and that we should work for the uplift of the race.

How did they make that consciousness clear to you, through reading books by black authors, a certain manner, or what?

It was a certain manner. Early on, they showed an admiration for black America. They never knew anything about it save what they read in magazines like Ebony. You know that kind of photograph you find only in black American magazines? A family that has succeeded in some way: there is the father, mother, the children all around, and the commentary tells you about their accomplishments, their degrees and so on. My mother had hung a picture like that in her room and would always point to it and say: "I want my children to grow up just like that." So, it was a question of behavior—not to talk to just anybody below our level. It was their general attitude toward life.

Tell me the first names of your father and mother.

My father was Auguste Boucolon and my mother, Jeanne Quidal. She was born on a small island, Marie-Galante, off the coast of Guadeloupe. That fact is very important because people from that island are supposed to be very proud of themselves, very creative.

In the generation just before them, were family members equally as illustrious?

No. My parents were self-made people, because as I understand it my paternal grandfather was a merchant, a salesman, member of the petty-bourgeoisie, and my maternal grandmother was simply a maid in someone's family. No one knows who my maternal grandfather was, but whoever he was, he did look after my mother by giving her money and paying for her education. Although my maternal grandmother was a maid without a husband, she had the means to support the education of her daughter.

One of your latest short stories in Voies de pères, voix de filles, "La châtaigne et le fruit à pain"(1988), is obviously not the story of your family. Is it your mother's story?

Nothing to do with me. The only thing autobiographical about it is that the mother comes from Marie-Galante. In most of my work, there is always the presence of the little island, even in Hérémakhonon where people go off to vacation in Marie-Galante.

Most readers identity your father with the portrait of the marabout mandingue in Hérémakhonon. To what extent is that portrayal true to life?

Yes [emphatically]. He was a very, very handsome, tall, thin, elegant man. So arrogant, self-important in his face and the way he walked. Of course, he is the marabout mandingue, no doubt about it. But my mother is not Marthe. In real life, my mother was full of herself, bad-tempered; she used to abuse people verbally whenever they were not paying enough attention to her. There was a story in the family about a policeman who forgot who she was and told her not to do something or other, so she beat him up with the umbrella she was carrying.

Was this the post-war period in the 1940s?

It seems to me that they started being well-off some time before the Second World War. At the beginning of their marriage, they were simply two clever, industrious black people working hard for the well-being of their children. They became affluent just before the war. My birth more or less coincided with the period when they started to become affluent. You know my father married twice and from the first marriage had two sons, Serge and Albert. Albert is known as Bébert in La vie scélérate (1987). At that time, the family was simply average, living in a small house in rue Condé. After that they moved to their big house in la rue Alexandre-Isaac which in La vie scélérate becomes la rue du Faubourg d'Ennery. I have three sisters (Ena, Jeanne, Gillette) and four brothers (Auguste, Jean, René, Guy). I am the youngest after Guy, born eleven years after him, so I am the last and the spoiled child. My mother was about forty-three years old when I was born and my father was sixty-three. My mother thought she was in her menopause; she was somewhat ashamed when she discovered she was pregnant. My parents gave me everything. They were getting old; they had more money, and their other children were almost grown up. They were so happy to have a little girl around. They never refused me anything, took me everywhere—to France with them. My sisters and brothers spoiled me very much, especially Jeanne. She was very fond of me, looking after me all the time. Ena, the eldest girl, is also my godmother. When she was in France, she would send me dolls, presents of all sorts.

How many members of the family are still living?

René, Jeanne, Ena and Gillette—five counting me. Jean died in the Second World War; my brother Guy died young. My mother died when I was nineteen (in 1956). When you read the selection in A ma mère (1988), you will learn all about it. My father died about three years later when I was only twenty-one or twenty-two.

Did you write your first short story when you were ten or eleven years old?

No, I think it was when I was seven; perhaps I am exaggerating, but I know that I was very, very small. Maybe ten, but it was certainly before age twelve. It was not a short story but a one-act, one person play about my mother. She was the actress and at the same time the subject of the play. I wrote it for her birthday. She did not like the play at all. She said, "Okay, but I am not at all like that."

Is Veronica's childhood in Hérémakhonon the remembrance of your anti-moi?

Veronica's childhood is mine in a way. What is true about it is the relationship that I had with my father who, it seems to me, was never fond of me. He was fond of my other sisters. When I was a youngster, he spoiled me a great deal, but when I started having a personality of my own, we disagreed because I was a bit argumentative. He used to say, "Maryse est folle" (crazy). You can say that Hérémakhonon is an accurate portrayal of parts of my childhood.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe your childhood, what figure would come to mind?

In a way, my childhood was so dull. All those years spent with a family that never wanted to see anyone else because others were socially beneath them. At the same time, I was very spoiled so that I didn't miss anything. If anything, I was a bored, discontented princess.

Did you have special talents that became evident to you and your parents during your childhood?

Only writing; I was very good at writing and had a gift for caricature, but not the nasty type. I had a sense of humor, and created nicknames for people. Because I was so spoiled at home, I wasn't a very nice child, more a pest. For example, in school the teachers were very fond of me at the outset because I was so bright and a cute little girl. I can remember seeing their attitudes change after two months or so. They were fed up with my sarcasm and critical attitude toward them. They couldn't stand me any longer. I would recognize the weak points in a person and laugh at them. I remember one year when we were studying the epigrams of Voltaire at the lycée, I made up epigrams about the other girls and the teachers.

Is there an experience from elementary school that stands out so clearly in your mind that you will never forget it?

Yes, one day at school we had to write a devoir de français which was entitled, "describe your best friend"—something very banal. I described a girl I was very fond of, Eddy, who in my opinion was bad-looking, although she was my friend. In the paper, I said that Eddy was my best friend, not very pretty. The teacher made me stand before the class and read the paper aloud. I remember how shocked I was by the idea that to write was to lie (because for me to write was to tell the truth). I thought, then I shall never write. Moreover, I got the feeling very young that it is a dangerous thing to write and if I ever did, there was going to be trouble, because I could not understand why the teacher was blaming me for telling the truth. Whenever Eddy and I meet, we recall the story and laugh together about it. She lives in Mali, West Africa now.

You were a non-conformist early on.

Yes. It was so boring to be brought up in Guadeloupe during that era. You had to go to the Place de la Victoire, play and be back home before 6 p.m., before dark, before the church bells began to ring. I could not go to the ball to dance because my father wouldn't permit a boy to hold his daughter in his arms. It was all too boring, and I wanted to break out; I was ripe for leaving, leaving the family, leaving the island. There was a big scandal because of a mulatto boyfriend I had; he was almost white. Although the relationship was platonic, everyone was curious about it, and there was a lot of talk. There is a bit of that in Hérémakhonon. Probably I chose him just to annoy my family, and yet there was nothing to be annoyed about. I was maybe sixteen years old, in the last year at the lycée, just before I left for France in 1953.

What would you have preferred to be doing? You mentioned dancing.

I didn't know then exactly what I wanted to do, but was fed up with people telling me not to do so and so. For instance, because of the idea the family had of itself, during Carnival when everybody was out in the streets, dancing, moving and shaking, I had to stay indoors. I could come on the balcony, and look at the masked dancing. I wanted to be in the streets like everyone else, to stand on the corner and clap hands. My family felt that only "niggers" and servants participated in street festivals.

Are there any teachers or people from elementary school who influenced you?

No. I had a kind of contempt for them, found them uninteresting and dull.

Was it common for someone like you to leave home for France at that period?

It was normal for every boy and girl of that generation to go to France for further study after the baccalauréat. My elder sisters and brothers had gone; everybody had to go. When I took the two parts of the baccalauréat exam, I received a mention (honors), and was given a scholarship. Even if one's family had money, money counts, so my parents asked for assistance and I received a quarter of a scholarship calculated according to the family's income.

For how long did you attend the Lycée Fénelon in Paris?

Lycée Fénelon from 1953 to 1955 because I was expelled immediately. When I arrived, I got into trouble with the instructors who were totally racist. There was a Senegalese girl in my class. We were the only black girls in the school out of hundreds of students. The teachers would call upon her first and me afterward, drawing comparisons between our responses: yes, the Africans were more like this and the West Indians like that—right in the middle of class. And our schoolmates insisted that I was more pleasant or beautiful because my Senegalese classmate was so black. I resented the whole place, and was expelled after two years. I also had lots of problems with the discipline in the school: boring classes, interminable museum visits and concerts. I could not do that anymore; I was fed up. So I went to the Sorbonne to continue my studies. I was finally free.

Did you have favorite authors you read while still in the lycée?

Among the French, François Mauriac. I was very fond of his work; I read and reread everything he had written. Among my favorites was his novella, Le Sagouin.

Can you remember the first book by a black author that you read?

Of course, it was Return to My Native Land by Césaire. A white girlfriend of mine from the Lycée Fénelon, daughter of a Marxist historian at the Sorbonne, gave me that book. She also took me to a meeting where Césaire and other leaders from Africa and the West Indies had come to speak about decolonization. This would have been between 1955 and 1958.

In retrospect, when you think of the 1953–1958 period in Paris, how had the social climate changed since the 1930s when Césaire, Damas, and Senghor were there? Had it changed measurably for a black person, a young, black woman in the city?

It is difficult to answer that question. Who was I then? I was simply a young West Indian girl residing in a boardinghouse full of other West Indian girls—not at all co-ed, obviously. We were a closed world of West Indians. We had little to do with the people in the outside world of Paris. Certainly, we had friends from Caribbean families that had settled in Paris, the correspondents, whom we visited, but that was all. Until 1958, I was protected within the West Indian circle. I received a prize among the students for writing a short story, "Adélia" or something of that sort. I wasn't political then, but showed a concern for culture. With some other West Indians, we founded a club called the Luis-Carlos Prestes club—don't ask who the man was, for I have totally forgotten, but I think he was the leader of a Latin American country. So you see, we were already interested in the problems we faced. I gave a talk about what it is to be a West Indian. Frantz Fanon had just published Black Skin, White Masks, and some time later, my comrades asked me to write a reply to Fanon. We were so angry about his portrait of West Indians. I was to submit the reply to the journal Esprit, and I went to see the editor, Jean-Marie Domenach to tell him how we young West Indians disagreed with Frantz Fanon. We were involved in a few events, but not really prepared for anything significant.

Having left Guadeloupe behind with its small narrow places, naturally I enjoyed Paris with my friends from the West Indies. At the lycée, they had tried to force us to enjoy cultural events. Later we were free to discover on our own the cinemas and concert houses of Paris. At the time, I had a craze for Italy; instead of going home to Guadeloupe for the long holidays in 1956, I left with a girlfriend to wander about Rome and Florence. It was a tremendous discovery. By the way, just after we returned to Paris from that excursion, I learned that my mother had died. There I was trying to discover Europe, and missed the last days of my mother's life. It was emotionally very difficult for me. After my mother died, I fell gravely ill. They sent me to spend a year in a sanitorium because I had something wrong with my lungs. Back in Paris after that experience, I broke away from the West Indian circle. I don't remember exactly how, but I came in contact with the African community in Paris, and that's how I met Condé.

Tell me about Condé.

I went with a friend of mine to a rehearsal of Les Nègres/The Blacks by Jean Genêt in 1959, and there was an actor in the play who seemed handsome and striking. Mamadou Condé. I cannot remember which role he played, but he was in the production. After the play, we spoke to the actors to express our admiration for their performance. Condé was there, I met him, and that's where the whole relationship between us began. My family considered it a scandal for me to marry him. They were racist in a sense; so proud of being black, but at the same time so contemptuous of Africans. They embraced a false image of Africa. For my father, my relationship with Condé was a shame. He was not surprised because "Maryse is crazy, she would marry an African and even worse go to Africa with him." You should know that my sister Gillette had married a Guinean, Jean Deen; but he was from a very wealthy family. His father was a doctor and he, himself, was studying medicine. Condé, on the other hand, was an actor; he had no money, no education. Even my sister was concerned about the low level of Condé's education and was against the idea of my marrying him. I have three daughters from that marriage, Sylvie, Aisha, Leila.

September 28, 1958, the date of DeGaulle's Referendum on African Autonomy, was a significant one for the future of Africa. Did the date mean anything to you at the time?

I heard stories about the independence movement and knew what it was. I knew about the Loi Cadre, the Referendum, the "no" vote of Sékou Touré. When I think back on it, I realize that I was not very much involved at the time. People tend to say that I was involved from the very beginning, but I wasn't. I was simply happy to leave the narrow circle of the West Indies in Paris, all the while becoming closer to the Africans. Of course I heard the stories of independence, but they were vague in my mind.

What was the complot des enseignants that occurred in Guinea in 1962?

It was very complicated, and linked to my own personal situation at the time. Condé and I were married in August, I believe, of 1959; by November, we were already in deep disagreement. I no longer wished to stay with him, so I decided to go alone to Ivory Coast where I taught for a year in Bingerville. My first child, Sylvie, was born there in April of 1960. It was only when I returned to Guinea for the long holidays that I began to be politically conscious, not before. I was welcomed by a group of Marxists—Louis Béhanzin, Nene Khaly Basile (now deceased)—who helped me understand the society. They were very cordial to me, unlike others who didn't seem to care much about a West Indian girl like myself. My friends attracted me to their ideological position, and I became a Marxist because my friends were Marxists. They told me that Guinea was not what it seemed to be; rather, it was a country full of injustice. Obviously, they were trying to open my eyes. I listened, but was not involved in any real struggle. Condé and I had very little money; I was pregnant again and had a child—so many other things on my mind. One day, this same group of Marxists came to chat with me after dinner. Why did they seek me out? I imagine they noticed the distance between Condé and me. I feel now that they saw the possibilities I possessed. They came to talk with me the day before the opening of the Congrès des Enseignants, Conference of Teachers. The next day during the conference, some of them read papers about Sékou Touré's government; there was also a poem by Djibril Tamsir Niane, critical of independence. Two days later, all of them were arrested … and the strike by the students began soon after. It was after the arrests that I became involved. These were friends of mine with whom I had talked a day earlier; two or three days later, they were in jail or expelled from the country.

We were young, naive in a way, but the situation was an eye-opener for me especially when I saw the wife of Seyni Niang, Liliane, forced to take a plane to the Soviet Union with her three boys because her husband was in jail. Seyni Niang was a member of one of the political parties in Senegal. Since he was a foreigner in Guinea, they expelled his wife and kept him in jail…. It was because of that incident that I began to understand what was happening in the country, to comprehend the real face of African Socialism. As for the marriage, it was a bad one from the start; everything was on the rocks, so I decided to leave for Ghana in 1964. Why Ghana? By that time, I had become a kind of Marxist. Friends told me that Ghana was not Guinea; it was a true Marxist country. So I went to join them. I was seeking a job there, and had three little girls to feed.

In 1969, I met Richard Philcox [Condé's second husband] who is an orderly, organized man—I had by then left Condé for good. At the time, I was in a complete mess. My life was chaos: kids, unhappy with my work, frustrated with everything. Richard helped put some order in my life. First, I decided that I should resume my studies beyond the licence that I had at the time, and go on for the Ph.D. I gave the kids to Condé just to be free for a while. At that time my life started to be organized.

Why did you keep Condé's surname?

I had started publishing under my married name, so I kept it. Condé never wanted to divorce. For years, Richard and I could not reach him; whenever I tried, I did not succeed. Condé and I did not actually divorce until 1981….

Would you explain how it was that you first came to the United States as a writer/scholar to teach?

Clarisse Zimra [Southern Illinois University] had read Hérémakhonon and wrote to me praising the book. When I told her that I was coming to America in 1978 just to visit, she put a notice in BREFF [the Bulletin de Recherches et d'Études Féministes Francophones 15 (November 1979): 6] announcing my arrival. No one knew me at the time; however, I received a few invitations from Annabelle Rea (Occidental College), Sue Houchins and Lloyd Brown (University of Southern California), Gérard Pigeon (UCSB) and Wilbert Roget (Tufts University). The following year in the fall of 1979, I taught for one semester at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You have a loyal network among scholars in American universities, teachers who respect your work. Do you have a similar network in French or African university systems?

No one in either area, only in the United States….

1986 was important because that year I decided to go back home and start living in the West Indies. Also, my first important novel about Guadeloupe was in press then, La vie scélérate (1987). I had wanted to go home a long time before during the 1970s when Richard and I left Africa to live in France. Unfortunately, we had no money at all. I applied for jobs in Guadeloupe, but had no contacts there whatsoever. I had a bad reputation of being someone who was not on the right side of anything, of being a contentious person, so I could not get a job in Guadeloupe for more than ten years. I kept planning though, filling out application after application, receiving letters of rejection, being refused by everyone left and right. In 1984, after Ségou, when I had enough money to buy a house in Montebello, I did. We were supposed to return in 1985, but the Fulbright fellowship to teach one year in the States at Occidental College came through. Therefore, we stayed for a year in Los Angeles while the house in Montebello was being completed, and afterward left for Guadeloupe. The return home was a long-standing dream finally realized.

Were there changes in Guadeloupean society during the 1980s that made return more possible for you?

Honestly, I would have returned no matter the circumstances, because I was so keen on doing just that. If I had tried it some years before in the 1970s, I would have been faced with racism, political narrow-mindedness and intolerance, causing my stay on the island to be very difficult, indeed. In the 1970s, some Guadeloupeans were fighting to reassess our culture. If you are committed to such an agenda, you must be hostile to everything which is foreign. These activists built a kind of cultural wall around Guadeloupe so that no one from the outside could enter. It was a time when the UPLG [Popular Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe] was extremely active in raising the consciousness of the people, often forcing the populace to speak Creole, and so on. When they finally realized that the directions they were taking had significant limitations, that they were going to destroy something important—by trying to protect so much, they had already begun to lose ground. People were fed up with the conditions that activists were asking them to accept. It was then that the leaders understood they had to make some drastic changes. I was fortunate to have returned at this juncture because now Guadeloupe is more open, more curious, more ready to accept people and values from abroad. The situation is decidedly different now. I came back at a time when people wanted relief. People seemed to be waiting for a voice that could express openly points of view a majority harbored about the excesses of the UPLG. As a result, I felt comforted by the support of many people.

Do you see yourself as the griotte (critical, oral historian) of contemporary Guadeloupean society?

No. La vie scélérate is full of criticism of the independence parties. Some independence activists have wondered aloud about what Maryse Condé is doing. "She belongs to us, and look at the way she has portrayed our cause in her novel," they complained. They didn't come directly to me, for as you know in our country all is said behind the back. In my opinion, the role of griotte just does not apply, because what does a griotte do? Praise a given situation, some leaders and their achievements; it seems to me that I am doing just the opposite. I am saying that the independence activists have not achieved very much. In La vie scélérate, I ridicule one of them (Uncle Jean Louis) who goes out of his way to live with the people in a hut, and who writes a book that few people will read, La Guadeloupe inconnue.

How would you describe the ideology of persons with whom you feel most comfortable whether they live in Guadeloupe, France, Africa, or the United States?

Non-conformism is the primary factor: people who are always on the wrong side of society; people who are never self-satisfied, never complacent, never blinded by the weaknesses of society or their own faults. I feel at ease among people who are just like me; quite able to laugh at themselves and other people's misfortunes or mistakes if need be. I am drawn to people ready to disobey the law and who refuse to accept orders from anybody—people who, like me, don't believe in material wealth, for whom money is nothing, owning a home is nothing, a car is nothing. Those kinds of people tend to be my friends. It does not mean that the people who surround me in Guadeloupe are all like this. When they are not, I can accept their company if they are friendly and sincere in their relationship with us. I accept people who are very different from me.

How would you describe the political ideology that motivates you now, if indeed there is one?

I have some remains of Marxism. I shall always be on the side of people who possess nothing—the exploited, the masses considered unimportant in the world. Formerly, I had political masters deriving from my readings, but now I am through with that. When I was in Guinea, my friends encouraged me to read Marx, Hegel and Gramsci, particularly the latter. At the time, I was very fond of reading Fanon because his was a new theory adapted to the West Indies. I have not read Fanon for a long while, although I remember his ideas very well. And Cabral was a master for me. People seem to have forgotten all about Cabral. He was one of the most frank political theorists, and clear in his thinking about the politics of progress in Africa and throughout the diaspora. These were my masters. Now I don't have a concrete philosophy. I believe, however, that we have to make life a task that is not too difficult for each of us to undertake.

One final question relates to the first concerning your family. The essays in Voies de pères, voix de filles are testimonies by women describing their relationships with their fathers. You submitted something fictional. Why didn't you write about your father?

I had nothing to say about my father. Looking back, I'm not sure that I could fill even one page about my father. He was a man with whom I had very little in common. Sixty-three years old when I was born, always preoccupied with banking business, he was not at all active within our family. He was simply a handsome, elderly man with white hair and a beautiful face. I could not write anything about him, as I told the editor, Adine Sagalyn. She insisted that I participate. As a result, I wrote a short story about an absentee father—a situation that could likely have happened to any West Indian girl. That is the way fathers behave in our society. And the editor agreed to publish the piece as I had submitted it.

Arlette M. Smith (essay date Spring 1991)

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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 Ségou: la terre en miettes. Hérémakhonon focuses on the psychological problem of alienation, while the surge of religious fanaticism associated with the which hunt in seventeenth-century Salem constitutes a salient aspect of yet another novel, Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem.

In addition to its diversity, Maryse Condé's fictional universe is also strikingly convincing. True to life circumstances, plausible psychological situations, and dramatic developments succeed in conveying an impression of reality. The dominant topics of the novels—such as cultural alienation, the political climate in the emerging nations of Africa, the arrival of Islam and European imperialism in the Sahel—all correspond in some respect to psychological or historical reality, and thus point to an identifiable referent. With such a faithful representation of the actual world, facts and fiction become so closely intertwined that it would be justified to assess their significance exclusively in terms of their mimetic value. In the light of such a reading, those novels would be viewed primarily as psychological, social, or historical documents, which, however, would leave aside one of their major merits: their literariness, the very characteristics which define them as the products of literary creativity distinct from documentary statements whose sole function consists in communicating accurate information. A different reading approach would make it possible, to use Jean Rousset's words [from Forme et signification (1962)], "[de] saisir des significations à travers des formes … [de] déceler dans les textures littéraires … ces figures … qui signalent l'opération simultanée d'une expression vécue et d'une mise en oeuvre" (to find meaning through the formal configurations themselves, to detect in the literary fabric representations that can be identified both as the verbalization of an authentic life experience, and as a word construct designed with artistic intent). Although the facts, events, and characters in Maryse Condé's fiction possess a strong quality of authenticity or verisimilitude, her specific mode of writing is by itself expressive, and its expressiveness deserves critical attention. "Art makes use of reality, obliterating it, and replacing it with reality of a different order." This paper deals with one aspect of this "reality of a different order," an artistic universe which itself originates from existential and historical elements. More specifically, the focus is on the metaphors used to convey the notion of exile, and on the crystallization process involved in the development of these metaphors.

Exile and other related themes are indeed insistently featured in Maryse Condé's novels, explicitly so, in plot developments and in their effects on the characters, and in a more oblique and less readily recognizable manner, in the form of certain writing devices which assume symbolic significance because of their high rate of recurrence, and of the associations they suggest.

Alienation being one of the central themes in Maryse Condé's novels, it comes as no surprise that exile, which is part of the same thematic field, occupies likewise a prominent position. Different modes of exile are portrayed. In Hérémakhonon, Véronica, a young woman in search of her cultural identity, feels divorced from her native Guadeloupean milieu, from French culture (which she has assimilated brilliantly, however), and from the African cultural heritage from which she feels excluded and is anxious to adopt. Her journeys from Guadeloupe to France and to Africa which chart the course of her quest fail to alleviate her feelings of isolation and nostalgia as she searches for that which would command her loyalty and to which she could feel strongly bound. In Une Saison à Rihata, the town of Rihata is perceived as exile in its final and irrevocable form. Each of the protagonists experiences a feeling of nostalgia for a place altogether beyond reach. Stranded in this drab provincial town located in an undetermined African nation, they go through life haunted by the memories of their failed hopes. Christophe, the heroine's nephew and adopted son, attempts unsuccessfully to unveil his mysterious past by discovering the circumstances of his birth. Overcome by apathy and an acute feeling of uprootedness, they keep assessing their failures and disillusions, yet they still remain in a land with which they feel no bond. The notion of exile is inherent to the very topic of Ségou: les murailles which deals which the era of intense mobility and cultural transition resulting from the simultaneous effects of the slave trade, and the spreading of both Islam and Christianity on the African continent. The preceding are straight, obvious, and concrete representations of the concept of exile set in a psychological or historical context. In addition, throughout the whole work, other images are used that also embody the same notion; among them three metaphors, the absent mother, the adoptive mother, and the seductress.

Mothers are familiar figures in these novels, and understandably so, considering the symbolic connection between native land and motherhood: both suggest origins, primary source of nurturing, both are seen as the earliest molding forces. The association between the two has become an institutionalized feature in literary discourse. The mother motif assumes a specific interest in Condean fiction, however, because it is treated from a distinctive perspective. It is noticeable that, indeed, in most cases the child-mother relationship is a traumatic one. Mothers are seldom shown in a caring, protective role, cushioning their children's world to keep them from being hurt. On the contrary, absence, death, desertion, ambiguity are the motifs most frequently associated with mother figures who often appear as immaterial and ineffectual characters with little or no grasp on the dynamics of the situation. They remain enshrined in the memory of their children who long to be reunited with them, or in their imagination when actual remembrances cannot be called forth. The circumstances of the mother's absence vary from deliberate or imposed separation to death and disappearance of the child (as is the case for Naba, stolen from his village by slave raiders). In Ségou: les murailles, the young slave Sira flees toward freedom leaving behind the son she bore for her master. Christophe's mother ends her life shortly after giving birth to him, and Nadié also commits suicide, abandoning her children. Their mothers' presence is felt mentally and emotionally by the children through the intensity of their desire to be with her; nonetheless, their absence is an irrevocable fact. Absence and presence are then the structural components which command both the themes of motherhood and exile, and other related themes: forced expatriation, nostalgia for the native land, attempts to recapture the lost country through compensatory memories and fantasies—in short, a whole process aimed at conjuring absence with the delusion of presence. The thematic correlation between the mother's disappearance and the inaccessibility of the native land is evident, which justifies considering one term as the signified and the other as the signifier. Their interrelatedness is further exemplified in Ségou: les murailles where the protagonist's native land and his mother are the objects of his single quest. Ségou, the cradle of the Traoré family, and Nya, the archetypical mother are inseparably linked in the minds of her exiled sons in whose memories they merge.

The mother figure still functions as a metaphor for the native land even when it is not in the least the object of the child's regrets, for even then it remains associated with the notion of lack and deprivation. Such is the case in Hérémakhonon: the relationship between Véronica and her mother bears the stamp of incompatibility. Véronica views her mother as an insignificant woman forever echoing her husband, following his lead submissively, and totally inept as a mother. Her feelings toward her are a combination of mild pity, irony, and condescension. Even though the two women have been away from each other for several years, Véronica's memories of her mother are free from anguish or grief. In the present case, the metaphoric equivalent of exile is neither the mother's death, nor her actual disappearance, but rather her failure to perform her duties as a mother. The absence of maternal qualities becomes synonymous with the notion of absence itself. Once again, the exiled person's awareness of his native land is defined by the coexisting notions presence-absence.

Still another figure, the adoptive mother, in a complementary relation with the mother, also appears frequently. She is evocative of the land finally reached by the expatriate. Both the adoptive mother and the land of exile represent shelter for the outcast and the disinherited. They both provide for survival without granting their protégés any emotional fulfillment, and without giving them a feeling of total belonging as they had once experienced it. Expatriates must conform, if only outwardly, to a new and alienating way of life, but, inwardly, they are unable and unwilling to stifle their loyalty to their former existence. In his article, "Utopia, Promised Lands, Immigration and Exile," Fernando Ainsa uses the term "integration" to identify the moment of the exile process when it becomes necessary to pretend adjusting to an imposed and hostile surrounding, adding that such a pretense is not compelling enough to blur memories of the native land. Living in exile means confronting diverging aspects of reality, and facing ambiguity, being part of the present while feeling oneself removed from it, being tied to a past no longer valid, yet responding to its echoes. An adopted child in the care of the mother's substitute finds himself in a parallel situation. Nya (Ségou: les murailles), Marie-Hélène (Une Saison à Rihata), and Mabo Julie (Hérémakhonon) treat the children entrusted to them with undeniable devotion, which still does not alter the fact that, as adoptive mothers, their role remains a vicarious one. Well aware of the solicitude bestowed on them, the children continue all the same to keep alive the lingering memory of their natural mothers to whom they give their deepest affection.

The ambivalent function of the adoptive mother is aptly brought out in Nya's statement to Malobali, her husband's natural son whom she raises as her own: "Je suis ta mère puisque je suis la femme de ton père et puisque je t'aime. Pourtant ce n'est pas moi qui t'ai porté dans mon ventre" (I am your mother because I am your father's wife, and because I love you. However, I am not the woman who carried you in my womb) (Ségou: les murailles). Those words affirm concisely and straightforwardly the irreductible difference between biological and natural mothers, while also denying that difference on the emotional level. According to Nya, such difference is obliterated whenever the adoptive mother provides the child the love and attention of which he is deprived as a result of his mother's unavailability. From her perspective, parity between the two roles is thus achieved, but not so for the adopted children in Condé's fictional universe for whom the disparity remains inalterable, as evidenced by the anxieties and contradictions which mar their lives despite their adoptive mothers' affection. Nya's words assume a significance all the more symbolic for being addressed to Malobali, a constant wanderer, a man without a country, a son without a mother, whose repeated attempts to find acceptance in the land of exile have been fraught with ambivalence. As he travels from the Sahel down to the coast of Benin, the thought of his unknown mother is constantly with him.

Malobali's aimless wandering are emblematic of his failed quest for his mother; as a man in exile, as an adopted child, he faces a problematic situation which results from the interplay of two opposite notions: identity and difference. His life bears the mark of an irreductible contradiction because the two notions cannot be reconciled.

However, in Ségou: les murailles, the land of exile offers characteristics quite unlike those which have been associated with the image of the adoptive mother. This time, it is embodied by the image of the seductress who at first uses her wiles in order to attract the exiled man, then when, fascinated by her, he attempts to win her acceptance, she reviles him for being an outsider, and finally she rejects him. Through her rejection, his status as a permanent outcast is sealed: a final refusal is opposed to his wish to be ever reconciled with his exile, and to be accommodated to it; he is forbidden any attempt to develop any intimate bond to the land of exile. His fate is to remain forever unwelcome, dispossessed. Such is Thièkhoro's case: as he pursues his Koranic studies in Tombouctou, he is scornfully rejected by his teacher's daughter who at first had invited his advances (Ségou: les murailles). In the same novel, Eucaristus meets with a similar fate at the hands of Eugenia, a wealthy mulatto girl in Lagos.

Those two representations of exile, the adoptive mother and the seductress, stand in sharp and puzzling contrast, as far as their connotative content is concerned. The explanation lies in the fact that each of them reflects the expatriate's changing perspective and evolving feelings as he becomes gradually better adapted to his condition with the passing of time. Ainsa describes him as accepting, maybe unconsciously, his new environment "without realizing that he is putting roots in the new country and from simple adaptation he is passing to integration." Then, as his longing for his native land becomes less acute, he develops new habits, and the trials of uprooting become more bearable, he is able to value more objectively the place which is to be his home from then on. The enigmatic or traumatizing aspects of the foreign universe appear gradually more rational, friendly, and reassuring; the new land appears alluring, and some of its practices and values worth trying. The metaphor of the foreign seductress represents the crystallization of the newly discovered attractiveness and desirability of the land of exile, while the rejected lover motif embodies the notion of condemnation to permanent exile and the forbidding of any inclination to allow oneself to adjust to the conditions of exile.

Each of these figures, the absent mother, the adoptive mother, and the seductress has a representational content of its own. They stand in relation to one another as the successive stages of a developing metaphor which itself stems from the archetypical analogy between the native land and the mother. Then, the distinction between native land and land of exile is effected through a ramification of the original mother metaphor with, as a result, the formation of dual figuration, natural mother, adoptive mother. Finally, the image of the seductress which carries no connotation with motherhood represents an entirely new step in the series.

Regardless of the process of modulation and transformation undergone by those metaphors, they retain a common characteristic which is an antithetical structure. The contrasting notions of absence/presence, identity/difference, and seduction/rejection in the case of the seductress stand as opposite poles of the respective metaphors. As a sign of wide difference and sharp contrast, antithesis is the figure of incompatibility. Here, it conveys pertinently the irreductible character of the contradictions experienced by those in exile, as well as the tensions to which they are subjected. Their lives are beset by conflicting realities: loyalty to their native land, yet obligation to stay away from it, occasional temptation to yield to the attractiveness of the land of exile, yet awareness of the prohibitions that render any bond with that land impossible. Exile, therefore, is perceived as an unceasing problem never to be resolved.

The concept of exile is thus communicated through the use of certain metaphors which have been studied so far from the point of view of their figurative content and of their structure, respectively. However, there is still another dimension to the functioning of the exile imagery in Maryse Condé's novels. When those metaphors are studied in relation to their frequency and pattern of distribution, a vision of exile emerges carrying deeper implications and endowed with profound meaning.

Condé's fictional discourse is markedly self-referential; it contains frequent instances of duplications, parallels, echoes, and mirror effects either in the space of a single novel or throughout other works. Characters, segments, situations, and of course metaphors are parts of this echoing process.

Self-referentiality, a literary device with obvious merits, has been abundantly documented by contemporary critics. Among them, Janet Patterson, author of an article titled, "L'Autoreprésentation: formes et discours," underlines the complexity of this narrative technique, as well as its expressive power. Her description of self-referentiality could be applied to Maryse Condé's fictional discourse, "Par le biais de répétitions, le texte se dédouble (se représente littéralement) et en présentant tel syntagme ou telle scène, deux, trois, quatre fois, il exhibe sa pratique signifiante" (Through the use of repetitions, the text is duplicated [literally speaking it represents itself], and by presenting a particular syntagm or scene two, three, four times, it demonstrates its own capacity to generate meaning). Recurrences are so numerous that their frequency cannot be discounted as mere coincidences; rather, they must be viewed as indicators stressing the theme of exile through the work, and making it more visible. The image of the motherless child is typical of Maryse Condé's fiction writing in this respect. It is used repeatedly not only in its general configuration, but also some of its specific features are recurrent. Its importance is forcefully brought out through the process of repetition. For example, Christophe, in Une Saison à Rihata, Siga and Malobali, in Ségou: les murailles, are all three motherless. A further similarity then appears between Christophe and Siga in the fact that both mothers died by suicide. In two other cases, it is the mode of suicide that is identical: both Nadié and Siga's mothers drown in a well. As has already been mentioned, the figure of the adoptive mother is a familiar one; Marie-Hélène, in Une Saison à Rihata, Nya, in Ségou: les murailles, Mabo Julie, in Hérémakhonon are at least three of its incarnations. Tièkhoro's and Eucaristus's experiences as rejected suitors further illustrate the prominence of redundancy as a literary technique in Maryse Condé's novels.

Besides assuming a thematic function, these emphasis-producing mechanisms play a significant role in developing the ideology that informs the work as a whole. In the space and time framework of the novels, they make up a pattern through which a specific concept of exile emerges which represents an aspect of a specific world view. It is, indeed, noteworthy that the metaphors recur in spatial and temporal circumstances quite distinct from one another while involving the same actants, and dealing with similar and identically structured situations. Exile, as represented by those metaphors is presented as an event repeated several times, and regardless of specific circumstances. They occur according to a cyclical pattern, which further emphasizes the character of doom and permanence of the exile situation. From such a perspective, the notion of exile assumes a much broader meaning: it transcends the literary significance of the word which refers to a situation of imposed expatriation, and instead, it designates a condition perceived as universal in scope and fatidic in its manifestations which could apply to any state of affairs that creates a sense of alienation resulting from irreconcilable tensions and irreductible ambiguities.

From this broadened conception of exile, it follows that expatriation is not the only form of exile, and that other figures as well as the expatriate can also embody the isolation and frustration experienced by those who have no more hope of recovering their country. Exile is a condition shared by all the people engaged in their quest for a demanding ideal that remains unattainable; it is then viewed as an intrinsic part of the human condition, as the fate of anyone who feels inescapably constrained by adverse circumstances.

Whether they wander in search of their lost origins, or try to recapture their vanished past, whether, surrendering to defeat, they retreat from action, Maryse Condé's characters experience a feeling of mental exile no less acute as their experiential exile embodied by the latter. They try unsuccessfully to reach the deeper levels of their psyche from which they feel hopelessly remote. They are both acutely aware of their inner inconsistencies and of their own inability to reach a harmonious psychological and emotional balance.

As literary characters, they have many precedents, among them, Chateaubriand's René whose aspirations could not be fulfilled; like him, "le bien inconnu," the unknown delight that they pursue constantly remains inaccessible. As a result, they become disenchanted, and feel the need to escape, some by appealing to their memories, others to their imagination as a way to compensate for the inadequacies of their actual condition. In this regard, they are reminiscent of Emma Bovary, whose uneventful life was enlivened by her imaginary fantasies. Still, other characters face the discrepancy between their aspirations and their own circumstances more dynamically: they undertake an active search for the land/mother instead of allowing memories and dreams to dominate their lives. The exile metaphors can be seen as symbolic of the notion of dilemma because they represent incompatible options forcing individuals to face unresolvable conflicts. Those metaphors offer some similarity with Baudelaire's "double postulation" which also exerts a tension on those who are subjected to its actions, and leave them at the crossroad of divergent and equally compelling realities.

One could ponder over the reasons why the exile metaphors are so frequently and so organically integrated in Maryse Condé's writings. Biographical circumstances might account for this phenomenon by bringing out the fact of the writer's Guadeloupean birth: her works could be seen as reflecting the tensions inherent to the alleged cultural conflict faced by Antilleans divided between allegiance to their remote African heritage and the necessity to accommodate the values associated with the Western model. It remains that speculating on the deeper and more complex motivations which come into play in the act of literary creation is highly hypothetical, Biographical sources often prove to be insufficient in identifying the authentic origin of a creative work. However, beyond the field of speculation stands the assertion that the exile imagery in Maryse Condé's fiction results from a conscious and controlled artistry, further reinforcing the coherence and depth of a body of work already endowed with numerous merits.

Adele King (essay date October 1991)

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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 French West Indian bourgeois men had of course gone to Africa for many generations as members of the French colonial bureaucracy, Véronica is part of a distinctly modern world in which women, particularly foreign women, have moved beyond traditional roles; she teaches philosophy, to male students. She also expects a kind of sexual freedom usually denied to African women. Ambivalently, she wants to find a place for herself in the country and yet to remain apart. She refuses for some time to be involved in politics, even after her favorite pupil and the head of the school where she teaches are imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed for opposing the regime; indeed, she starts a love affair with a government minister responsible for the torture of her friends. Finally, however, she decides to return to Paris and possibly to her white French lover.

Hérémakhonon is an exploration of the various boundaries Véronica has experienced and the ways in which they intersect. Specifically, she is concerned with defining her identity as a woman, a native of the Caribbean, a black for whom Africa is largely mythical, and a member of an intellectual elite within the French tradition. Véronica describes her childhood experience as having taught her to be proud to be black; her family's way of life, however, was completely shaped by French customs and by a middle-class scorn of the poor black community. Consequently, her search is partly for a community not divided by class considerations. But it is also a search for a black man who can be free; as she puts it, she wants to sleep with a black man who has never been branded. Véronica's attempts at moral and intellectual honesty are often at odds with her psychological need to find a strong man.

Condé treats with irony the tensions resulting from the various roles into which Véronica tries to fit. She does not, however, leave Véronica without hope. Hérémakhonon is a bildungsroman in which, at the end, there is real moral and intellectual development, as well as a chance for a new start. Writing in French Review [Vol. 62, 1988], two American critics present a model of how gender considerations may influence the reading of a novel, a model almost too good to be true for a feminist theorist. [In "Reading below the Belt: Sex and Sexuality in Françoise Ega and Maryse Condé,"] Arthur Flannigan suggests that the novel has a negative message: Véronica looks for a father figure and does not find one. Arlette Smith, on the other hand, [in her La parole des Femmes and her "L'Afrique, un continent difficile,"] claims—as I would, and as Condé herself has stated in interviews—that Véronica leaves West Africa not defeated, but with a new sense of her identity. Smith sees Hérémakhonon as a search for a mother figure, which becomes for Véronica not Africa but Guadeloupe. Looking for mothers appears positive to a woman critic; looking for fathers—even, for Flannigan, seeing one's female self as primarily "a sexual being"—strikes a male critic as negative. Similarly, Smith speaks of the love felt for the surrogate mother, Mabo Julie, a servant in Véronica's family home, whereas Flannigan writes that Véronica "holds all the women that populate her past and her present more or less in contempt."

Women are often symbolic figures for national identity in texts by men; this trope also appears in these novels. It is tempting to see Véronica as a figure for Guadeloupe itself, in her passivity, lack of purpose, and need to see herself in relation to both France and Africa. Thus her decision that she must return home can be read as an indication that Guadeloupe should define itself as a separate society; indeed, Condé has suggested as much in various articles and interviews where she speaks of creativity coming from a culture that is part of the New World, neither French nor African. While Africa has often been envisaged by Caribbeans as the "mother country," for Condé it is "difficult, even impossible to retie the broken threads," [as noted in her Le roman antillais, Vol. 1, p. 18]. She comments that "a Caribbean's quest for identity can very well be resolved without going, especially physically, to Africa, or, if you want, the journey to Africa simply proves that Africa is not essential to Caribbean identity" ("Afrique"). Likewise, the heroine of Condé's La vie scélérate (1987), after an ironic look at all the confusions and betrayals of the previous generations of her family; their travels to many countries; their adoption of Garveyism, Marxism, Black Power, or Christianity, decides that she must find the "book that needs to be written" in the history of her own family, not in the theories of Marcus Garvey, a "dangerous crank" who "naively forgets that three centuries have passed."

But Véronica's problems are not merely typical of her gender, nationality, and background; she is also an individual. Part of her appeal as a narrator is her racy style, her outspokenness, even her obsession with sexual activity. She is clearly a sexual being, and this is perhaps the most obvious way in which Condé (who has stated that feminist demands are not typical of Caribbean women's writing [Parole]) shows how women have been denied their own voice in Western culture. Indeed, in her sexual frankness Véronica reminds us of some of Colette's narrators, whose sensuality surpasses that of later, more overtly "feminist" writers in French.

Condé has created for Véronica a distinctively individual method of narration. She seems to be giving us an interior monologue, narrating her story with some formal coherence but essentially reproducing her thoughts. But since we often find other characters replying to what the reader assumed were Véronica's reflections, we realize that she speaks without always clearly distinguishing between conversation and interior monologue. One of her conversations with her lover, Ibrahima Sory, offers an example. The text punctuates only his dialogue as if it were spoken:

"I found out about your student. He was sent to the North with his comrades. He will tarmac the roads and clear the forest. That will give him time to think."

Think about what? What do they want him to think about?… [Her comments seem to be her thoughts, but Sory responds.] He closes his eyes.

"Women are exhausting. That's why I live 600 kilometers from mine."

From his? It's all very well to be broad-minded. So he's married? [Again she refers to him in the third person, but he replies.]

"I was married off while I was studying in Paris, to a young girl I had seen twice…."

And where is she? What does this bride do?

There are many such examples. The style shows partly Véronica's obsession with herself, the narcissism that makes her desire for sex seem almost as important as the torture and imprisonment of her friends; it may also show the very insecurity of her sense of self. Does she know when she is speaking to others and when to herself? Véronica's use of direct free thought presents what she says and what she thinks in such an intermingled fashion that we are never sure exactly what is spoken. Françoise Lionnet sees this device as setting "Véronica's discourse within a frame of reference so alien to Sory's own that whatever she may say will not be heard by him." The style can also be seen as a reflection of the passivity that in Condé's view has largely defined the intellectual elite of Guadeloupe: "Caribbean society is a dependent society—economically, politically, culturally. It is attached, across the ocean, to a 'metropolitan' center which influences its life" (Roman).

Although Véronica comes to some realization of her own problems and to an awareness that modern Africa is a real continent with pressing needs that have nothing to do with her search for either a "mother" land or a replacement for her father (whom she calls "le marabout mandingue" because he resembles a portrait in an African encyclopedia), Condé does not leave the reader feeling that a message has been given. Indeed, she has been very critical of theories of "littérature engagée," terming "naive" Aimé Césaire's belief that reading or writing could make a difference ("Afrique") and inverting Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum "Writing is a way of demanding liberty" ("Ecrire, c'est une certaine façon de vouloir la liberte") to "Writing means that the artist needs liberty" ("Ecrire sous-entend la liberté du créateur" [Roman]). The style of her work, with its combination of mockery and affection for her characters, and the antiromantic treatment of their sexual experiences, provides a sharp contrast to the seriousness found in much African and Caribbean fiction.

Howard Frank Mosher (review date 25 October 1992)

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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 Muhammad, scion of one of the great families along the Upper Niger, is about to take part in a huge and terrifying battle. As blue-turbaned horsemen gallop toward him brandishing lances, as sabers clash and iron balls whirl on chains, he thinks fleetingly of his mother. "Then," Ms. Condé writes, in the last sentence of the novel, "he set his teeth and didn't think of anything except staying alive."

The world's literature has always abounded with great survivors. And although contemporary American fiction may offer readers fewer heroes than the notable novels of earlier generations, there are still plenty of first-rate novelists, here and abroad, whose characters not only survive the worst that life can throw at them but also often prevail, on their own terms, against overwhelming odds. The brilliant and prolific Maryse Condé—born in Guadeloupe, a longtime resident of Paris and now a professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley—is just such a writer. And with the appearance this fall of uniformly excellent English translations of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tree of Life, readers in this country will have the considerable pleasure of acquainting themselves with more of her durable survivors.

Ms. Condé's Tituba is based loosely on the black slave woman who was tried for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692. In Ms. Condé's fictional rendition of the story, Tituba is born to an African mother who was raped by an English sailor on the deck of a slave ship called Christ the King. In Barbados, Tituba's childhood abruptly ends when, at the age of 7, she watches her mother try to fight off a rapist; the child hands her the cutlass with which she defends herself. Tituba's mother is hanged in the presence of all the other slaves. "I watched her body swing from the lower branches of a silk-cotton tree," Tituba says. "She had committed a crime for which there is no pardon. She had struck a white man."

Tituba's luck improves when she is driven off the plantation and adopted by an old woman who knows the secrets of spells and herbs and how to communicate with the dead. But although her years learning Mama Yaya's lore are happy ones, the teen-age Tituba succumbs to the temptations of the outside world and marries a happy-go-lucky slave named John Indian. Brought back into slavery by love, Tituba falls afoul of her new mistress and is sold to a tyrannical Puritan minister named Samuel Parris, who takes Tituba and her husband to New England.

What a fanatical sect Ms. Condé's Puritans turn out to be: sadists and murderers, rabid misogynists and racists who hang and torture women, imprison tiny children, burn Jewish families out of their homes and regularly accuse black slaves of being in league with Satan. Tituba offers an ingenuous appraisal of their doctrine of eternal damnation: "Perhaps it's because they have done so much harm to their fellow beings, to some because their skin is black, to others because their skin is red, that they have such a strong feeling of being damned?" At the same time, Tituba has a few shortcomings of her own—including a blindly passionate sexual dependence on the feckless John Indian—which make her a fully believable and very appealing character.

In less sure hands, this short, powerful novel, which won France's Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986, might well have become merely an extended denunciation of a perverted and evil society. What makes it larger and richer are Ms. Condé's gift for storytelling and her unswerving focus on her characters, combined with her mordant sense of humor, (Hester Prynne, from The Scarlet Letter, makes a cameo appearance when she's imprisoned with Tituba, lamenting that her new friend will never be much of a feminist.)

Miraculously, Tituba manages to extricate herself from her tormentors and return to Barbados, where she becomes a legendary figure to the black population. However, in the final irony of the story, she is brought up for execution by an official eager to make an example of rebellious slaves. Her life seems about to end in martyrdom, just as her mother's did.

Or does it? With the help of some ghosts from Tituba's past, Maryse Condé has fashioned a marvelous final surprise for her readers. Part historical novel, part literary fable, part exploration of the clash of irreconcilable cultures I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is most of all an affirmation of a courageous and resourceful woman's capacity for survival.

The forces of good and evil are not so sharply differentiated in Tree of Life, Ms. Condé's passionate, multigenerational novel (originally published in France in 1987) about the endlessly intriguing family of Albert Louis, born on Guadeloupe in the early 1870's, a patriarch as morally complex as he is simply stubborn. A devout disciple of the American black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Albert doesn't hesitate to wring every last cent from the impoverished black families who dwell in the wretched tenement houses he owns. He's a man of deep contradictions and still deeper gloom. Yet, in his own way, Albert is nearly as tough a survivor as Tituba.

As a young boy, Albert manages to escape harm after taking a long plunge "from the main limb of a breadfruit tree, for he had taken it into his head to fly." A few years later, he boldly strikes out from Guadeloupe to Panama, where the Americans are "tampering with the very structure of the world and cutting continents in two." As a member of a daring explosives team at work on the Panama Canal, he emerges relatively unscathed from all kinds of potential disasters, until the loss of his wife, Liza, in childbirth almost drives him mad. After taking his infant son home to his mother in Guadeloupe, Albert heads for San Francisco, hoping his luck will change. After all, aren't the mountains of California glittering with gold nuggets, free for anyone who wants to bend over and pick them up?

Like their forebear, many of Albert's descendants range out to far-flung destinations beyond their native country, including New York and Paris, both of which Ms. Condé renders with great vivacity. Best of all, though, are her vivid evocations of Guadeloupe. She can even make a cemetery seem enticing: "Situated at the town gates, the graveyards of Guadeloupe are cities of the dead, where the filau, the beautiful beefwood tree, keeps weeping watch over the departed. There marble, glass and carefully whitened concrete strive to outdo each other. Ornamental bowls, flowers, crosses or crowns of pearls are placed on the graves. Votive lamps are kept lit on each side of a picture of the deceased, their tenacious and fragile flames symbolizing the affection of the living."

The family of Albert Louis is haunted by suicide, as expatriates succumb to loneliness and desperation. They are also stricken with grief, retreating into prolonged and impenetrable states of despair. Somehow, though, most endure—occasionally as thoroughly appealing ghosts.

In one of the funniest episodes of this immensely entertaining novel, the fiercely jealous spirit of Albert's first wife, Liza, torments her son, Bert, with the most explicit sexual fantasies about his stepmother, Elaise. Only after Elaise dies and becomes a ghost herself do Albert's wives become friends—preparing breakfast together for their brooding old husband, chatting companionably with him on the veranda in the evening. They discreetly look the other way when Albert takes his early-morning nip. "A little rum never hurt anyone. It's even the best remedy for life."

Other memorable survivors in Tree of Life include Albert's son Jean, who spends seven and a half years writing a folk history entitled Unknown Guadeloupe, which eventually becomes a national classic after being virtually ignored in its author's lifetime; Thécla, Albert's scholarly, lovelorn granddaughter, and Coco, Thécla's troubled daughter, the narrator of the novel, whose destiny it is to recount the amazing story of her family.

From 18th-century Africa to the America of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Maryse Condé has chronicled in her wonderful fiction the lives of a series of remarkable individuals and the families that surround them. 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 all its secret intricacies, its contradictions and marvels.

Suzanne Crosta (essay date Winter 1992)

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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 define a narrative center that would effectively subvert not only patriarchal discourse but also the colonial discourse within which it is inscribed. It is relevant to note that there is no single authoritative voice in Traversée de la mangrove and yet 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 whose limits and boundaries define the individual self. The premise of a narrative center here is not to be confused with a single vision or narrative voice. Condé's text defies, or, more accurately rejects this notion since the varied points of view would have us redefine the center as a homogeneous entity. It would be more appropriate to speak of a multiple individual whose divergent perspectives challenge the assumptions of a particular representation of reality.

It is most befitting that at the narrative center of the text is the ambiguous character of Francis Sancher whose untimely demise serves a twofold purpose. First, the deliberate silence and death of the main character forces the reader to adapt his/her reading from a referential mode (a given representation of the universe) to a cognitive mode (the subjective or objective perception of the represented universe). Second, this strategy serves as a pretext to study how one's personal identity is defined and determined by the other's mirror image of him/her self with regard to others. The dialectical relationships between men and women, between the young and the old, between the individual and society are brought to the foreground and are formally introduced by the divergent points of view of the characters and their respective discourse.

A careful reading of Traversée de la mangrove allows the reader to discover the tension between the semiotic and the symbolic as they relate to one's identity as a cultural and linguistic construct. The oscillation between the first and third person narrative in the text is indicative of the implicit author's intention to differentiate and problematize the narrative voices of her characters. From this intention emerges the search for a style or a form capable of reflecting and refracting impressions and perceptions of reality, a reality that Condé seeks to evoke rather than legitimize.

It is necessary to distinguish the two narrative planes of Traversée de la mangrove from each other where the different points of view are articulated and are differentiated. The first level, which Genette would call diegetic, relates to the wake of Francis Sancher; the second, the metadiegetic level, involves the thoughts, impressions, testimonies of the deceased's acquaintances. The diegetic narrative is assumed by an implicit narrator that we have designated as implicit author while the metadiegetic narrative can be divided into two groups of narrators: those whose subjectivity is represented by the first person and those whose subjectivity is objectified and relegated to the third person. The implicit author does not take over the narrative; on the contrary, the coherence of the text is assured by the personal testimonies of those who knew Francis Sancher. Consequently, the narrative of the wake figures prominently in the prologue, "Le Serein," and the epilogue, "Le Devant-jour," thereby enclosing the body of the text, entitled "La Nuit," which includes the various testimonies of the characters. The titles of the prologue, the narrative and the epilogue emphasize the temporal dimensions of this text, where the reader will delve into the night and emerge into the first light of daybreak. The temporal references allude to a transition, a possible transformation that may be seen as a new beginning.

From the outset of the text, the reader notices that all female characters (Mira, Man Sonson, Léocadie, Rosa, Vilma and Dodose Pelagie) express themselves in the first person. This strategy is undoubtedly used to sensitize the reader to the material and social conditions of women in the small community of Rivière au Sel as well as to eliminate all barriers that could indeed separate the reader and the narrator/character. The introspective nature of the narrative further aims at giving the reader a sense of the diversity of perspectives of those who speak in the first person. Perceived by the other as an object of desire, the women characters of the text subtly reverse this objectification by assuming their own discourse. They recount, and sometimes evaluate very harshly, the discourse of the community at large. Man Sonson underscores the hypocrisy and jealousy of the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel, and she goes so far as to show the personal motivations that dictate their behaviour and actions. When recalling the value judgments that the community ascribed to Francis Sancher, Man Sonson reveals the subjectivity and the trivialization of his existence. She remarks that there are some who fear the viciousness of his dogs; others, his nonchalance; others, his sexual prowess.

Although Mira, Dinah, and Vilma subject themselves one by one to Francis Sancher in the hope that he will better their situation, their respective accounts show how Francis Sancher's death initiates their resolution to redefine their existence according to their needs and possibilities. It is interesting to note that Francis Sancher, "un mulâtre foncè" [a dark mulatto] is associated with the white plantation class. This claim is no doubt important to consider in light of his relationships with the men and women of Rivière au Sel. Condé may indeed imply that in the context of the Caribbean, racial differentiation of men and women within and outside their group exists because racial categorization is subordinate to socioeconomic status. In Traversée de la mangrove, the fascination of women for Francis Sancher, the virile, intelligent stranger, is symptomatic of the consequences of the economic superstructure of (post-)plantation society. Condé seeks to highlight the situation of the colonized women who are attracted to the male colonizer only in so far as he represents a possible way out of their misery. The notion of compromise may be extended to the situation of the colonized writer, who is forced in most cases to translate her/his experience and write in the language of the colonizer in order to be published.

Mira's recollection of her relationship with Francis Sancher indicates her geographical and psychological isolation and her subsequent fascination with anyone who comes from "Ailleurs" [Elsewhere]. For her and the other women of Rivière au Sel, Francis Sancher symbolizes another way of life. The disparity between the referential representation of Francis Sancher (based on a reading of the sociological data of the character) and the symbolic representation of Francis Sancher (based on a reading of the form and interpretation of the data) would in fact explain the intention to transform the constants that determine the social and verbal representations of the female subject. The accounts of the older women in the text, such as Rosa and Léocadie, reveal the interiorization of a patriarchal value system which judges women according to their potential gratification powers. Timothée Léocadie, spinster and retired school teacher, longs for her youth and for the ability to seduce men. Her encounter with Francis Sancher is all the more upsetting since his fright and evasion at the sight of her forces her to deal with the realities of old age:

Je suis rentrée chez moi, j'ai barricadé ma solitude et j'ai pleuré toutes les larmes de mon corps, j'ai pleuré comme je n'avais pas pleuré depuis cinquante ans.

[I came back home, I barricaded my solitude and I shed all the tears of my body, I cried as I had not cried in 50 years.]

Similarly, Rosa, Vilma's mother, has also subjected herself to patriarchal authority, as represented by her husband. She continues to perpetuate the oppression of women by forcing her daughter into a marriage of convenience. As their separate accounts reveal, these older women act in this way because of their long victimization at the hands of those who represent the patriarchy (father, brother, husband, lover, etc.)

Inversely, the male characters in the text speak for the most part in the third person (Moïse, Aristide, Sonny, Loulou, Sylvestre, Cyrille, Carmélien, Désinor, Dodose, Lucien and Émile Étienne). The author opts for an objective perspective from which she will subtly interpret their thoughts and acts by using the free indirect discourse. It is also worth noting that the subjectivity of the male characters is in most cases framed by the punctuation of the text, such as quotation marks and dashes. When a male character expresses himself in the first person, his discourse is contained within quotation marks or introduced by a dash. The sections entitled "Moïse" and "Carmélien" are but two succinct examples where the subjectivity of the male characters is marked from the very outset. This distancing effect is found in most sections where the male character's perspective is emphasized: "Désinor," "Lucien Évariste," "Émile Étienne…." In cases where there are no introductory quotation marks, the author goes directly to free indirect discourse in the third person. The marked subjectivity of the male discourse raises a number of questions: Is it a strategy to associate male discourse with the biased social discourse? Is it a strategy to warn the reader against the ideological implications of such discourses? It seems that the views and statements put forth by Moïse, Carmélien, Désinor and other men are not shared by the implicit author. This authorial stance sheds some light on the mirror image of the author, who allows herself to be partially represented by female characters but not by male characters.

This distance between character/narrator and author can be explained by the ambiguous relationship between patriarchy and colonialism. In the sections that focus on the male voice, the social discourse naturally introduces itself, leading to hearsay, gossip, prejudicial remarks and so on. In the section where the voice of Moïse is supposed to reflect his subjectivity, the community's biases and prejudices figure so prominently in his discourse that the reader is led to conclude that his voice and vision are determined by the value judgments of the community. His narrative is peppered with impersonal pronouns ("on," "ils," "les gens"). The frequent use of introductory verbs that imply conjecture—"Il [Moïse] se croyait …" [He thought himself …]; "Il avait cru deviner …" [He had suspected …]; "Il avait commencé par s'imaginer …" [He had begun to imagine …]; "moïse crut avoir mal entendu …" [He thought he had misunderstood …]—further emphasizes that Moïse's thoughts and statements are subordinated to the social discourse of his community. It is highly significant that at the end of his narrative, Moïse's voice fuses with that of the chorus of mourners at Francis Sancher's wake. The subtle use of narrative voice, free indirect discourse and punctuation expose the verbal trappings of the social discourse prevalent in the speech of the male characters. The implicit author herself intervenes twice to warn the reader: "Mais les gens racontent n'importe quoi" [But people will say anything]; "Toutefois, je la répète, les gens disent n'importe quoi" [However, I repeat, people will say anything at all] [Emphasis added by author.] Invested with the impersonal pronoun "on," Moïse's discourse is problematized both for its referential ambiguity and for its ideological implications.

Conversely, it is revealing that the narratives in the first person criticize the discourse of the community of Rivière au Sel. Although the prejudices and biases of the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel are reproduced in Man Sonson's narrative, they are in turn exposed and subverted. In sharp contrast to the narratives in the third person, those in the first person resist on a discursive level integrating themselves into the dominant discourse. The female subject refuses to submit herself to the history of the subject where the masculine objectivity-claiming discourse took precedence. If male objectivity has led to the effacement of the subject, the author is here facilitating the emergence of a female subject that will not be fettered by the dominant social discourse. And again, as in her other works of fiction, the possibility of a sexual fusion would at best be inchoate if one considers that there seems to be no viable male/female relationship in Traversée de la mangrove.

There exist however two exceptions that deserve our attention. My earlier remarks regarding narrative voice do not apply to two sections of Condé's Traversée de la mangrove: "Joby" and "Xantippe." In these two sections, the discourse of the characters is expressed in the first person, reserved for the most part to express female subjectivity. This anomaly would suggest that the implicit author favors the representation of Francis Sancher by Joby and Xantippe, indeed that she favors their perception of reality. What are the distinctive traits of these two characters? Other than their social marginalization in the small community of Rivière au Sel, Joby and Xantippe are sensitive to the plight and emotions of women, and they also have the ability to decipher the symbols that define their existence.

The verbal stance of Joby subverts the patriarchal order represented by his father, Loulou. The use of the first person supports this argument since Joby refuses to assume the code of behavior considered by the community as appropriate for "a man," especially in circumstances where emotions are perceived to be a sign of weakness. During the funeral of his mother, Loulou expected his son to master his emotions and kiss the deceased:

Voilà pourquoi papa m'a emmené ici. Pour que je voie un mort et me comporter comme un homme devant lui.

[This is why my father brought me here. So that I can see a dead woman and behave like a man in front of him.]

Joby refuses to adopt the social code dictated for a man and suffers the consequences: he is ignored by his father and marginalized by the male brotherhood.

Xantippe, for his part, is a loner. Associated with the "soucagnan" whose gaze has mortal consequences for the beholder, Xantippe is gifted with powers that the community dreads. And yet, Xantippe mourns endlessly the loss of his wife. He is the only male character in the text to have experienced sexual and emotional gratification with his wife. Xantippe is also the only one to know of Francis Sancher's crime, thereby elucidating the mystery [the night] to the reader. His total mistrust of and disgust toward Francis Sancher is linked to the consequences of his crime—a crime that has forever broken affective and sexual ties with the female subject. While recounting his most memorable experience to Lucien Évariste, Sancher admits to having raped a young girl and the pleasure that he felt, declaring that "Je sens encore dans mes narines l'odeur de son sang vierge" [I can still feel her virgin blood's odor in my nostrils]. Although Francis Sancher's crime is never explicitly revealed, Xantippe claims he is answerable for multiple homicides. Xantippe's hatred towards Sancher stems from the fact that he holds him accountable for his profound sense of loss, a loss that is tied to his wife's death. Whilst Xantippe's hatred towards Sancher is linked to the victimization of women, Joby's hatred is directed towards the father image that Sancher comes to assume in the text:

Je me demande si d'autres garçons détestent leur père comme moi. Je voudrais qu'il meure. J'aimerais qu'il soit allongé là devant moi à la place de Francis Sancher qui lui aussi a fait beaucoup de mal authour de lui.

[I wonder if other boys hate their father as I do. I wish he was dead. I'd like to see him lying before me in the place of Francis Sancher who has also caused much harm around him.]

The common denominator between Sancher and Loulou is their attempt at objectifying their existence, an attempt that can be explained by their adherence to, or interiorization of, the dominant discourse. On the one hand, Sancher would like Joby to distance himself from the oppressed because of their ingratitude; and on the other hand, Loulou would like Joby to act like a man and remain impervious to the emotions and sufferings of others. In both cases, the dominant discourse is demeaning and exclusive. The polyphonic nature of Traversée de la mangrove aims at reversing the existence of an authoritative voice. The diversity of perspectives and the various distancings within the narrative voice subvert the linearity of the narrative while allowing the author to explore the possibility of a plural discourse where the meaning of the text can be expressed semiotically and symbolically.

As I have stated, Traversée de la mangrove gathers a series of testimonies, nineteen in all, whose primary function is to elucidate for the reader the identity of Francis Sancher. However, the subjectivity of each character determines the interpretation of the information given. The facts revealed are symbolized and interpreted according to the particular impressions of the character and mediated again by the implicit author. The nineteen testimonies could in fact act on a symbolic level as markers in the mangrove. The spatial nature of the mangrove can mislead the stranger, just as the verbal trappings of the text can mislead the reader. The spatial disposition of the characters (they form a pious circle around the body of Francis Sancher) and the disposition of the narrative voices (each one claiming to know the truth) suggest the difficulty of deciphering the true identity of the deceased from the corpus given, as well as suggesting the impossibility of objectively reconstructing his (hi)story. It is interesting to note that the names and physical descriptions of the characters in the text further develop the symbolic dimension of the characters. Some examples are the patronyms "Boisgris" and "Boisfer" or even Francis Sancher's epithet "Piébwa" which each designates a type of tree. This association would imply that the characters personify the trees that define the mangrove. The implicit author alludes to "la forêt de ses poils" [the forest of his body hairs], "sa ramure argentée" [his silvery foliage], "son bras lourd comme une branche morte" [his arm heavy as a dead branch] and to the fact that "sa taille haute comme un mahogany" [he was as tall as a mahogany]. His friend, Moïse, is nicknamed the mosquito (the mangrove would thus be his natural habitat) and his mistresses, Mira and Dinah, are compared to flowers. These names further reinforce their symbolic association with the "pié-bwa," Francis Sancher.

All references to the constitutive elements of the mangrove are motivated. Joby claims to know the name of every "pié-bwa," that is of every tree belonging to the mangrove. Xantippe is also well acquainted with the flora of the island. From the outset of his narrative his relationship with nature is emphasized:

J'ai nommé tous les arbres de ce pays. Je suis monté à la tëte du morne, j'ai crié leur nom et ils not répondu à mon appel.

[I have named all the trees in this country. I have climbed to the top of the mountain, I have cried out their names and they have answered my call.]

The topographical knowledge of the mangrove allows the two characters to cross the spatial and verbal topoi of Sancher. It is in the mangrove that Joby uncovers Sancher's stance against the oppressed. Joby escapes Sancher's verbal control thanks to his knowledge and comprehension of the flora. In Joby's case, nature plays an important role in the affirmation of self since it affords him the opportunity to escape from the seductive power of the oppressor.

Xantippe's topographical knowledge leads him to uncover the hidden meanings of nature, of words. He has the power to read and interpret the natural signs of his universe. It is not surprising that Xantippe should be the one to locate the scene of the crime. He is the only character that Sancher fears. The gaze and the words of Xantippe unmask truths that the other characters, Sancher included, cannot unearth. In this one feels an analogy with the colonized writer, whose vision also uncovers the violence that the language of the colonizer may be made to convey. Hence one can understand the author's predilection for metaphors, natural signs, for modes of knowledge that do not fix meaning.

The enigma surrounding Francis Sancher is never really resolved because of the ambiguities and the contradictions that best the nineteen accounts. It is impossible to reconstruct the identity of the deceased because the referential data is sometimes misleading, sometimes suppressed, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes altered altogether. The reader does not quite know what is what. For example, the rumors concerning Sylvestre Ramsaran and Francis Sancher generate ambiguity. During a ceremony in the temple, Sylvestre Ramsaran, nine years of age at the time, is so overwhelmed by the sacrificial death of the "cabri" (young goat) that he wets his pants. This incident, when evoked among the inhabitants of the community, takes on such proportions that no one knows

s'il avait vomi, uriné, déféqué, s'il avait hurlé, s'il s'était enfui terrifié au bout de la savane.

[if he had vomited, urinated, defecated, or if he had yelled, if he had run away terrified to the end of the savannah.]

Similarly, according to the gossip and hearsay of the community, Francis Sancher was either a murderer, a drug runner, or an illegal arms dealer. The implicit author warns the reader that no accusation was ever substantiated. A collective portrait of Francis Sancher does not shed more light on his identity. Man Sonson claims that Francis Sancher was "un moulin à paroles" [chatterbox] while Vilma complains of his silent nature:

il ne m'a jamais révélé de lui-même et je ne saurais pas dire la vérité dans toutes les bêtises que les gens de Rivière au Sel racontent.

[he has never revealed himself to me and I wouldn't be able to tell the truth in all the foolishness that the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel are saying about him.]

Aristide and others accuse him of raping Mira, yet the latter denies the accusation. Carmélien and Aristide hate Sancher, while Lucien Evariste admires him. It is next to impossible to reproduce an authentic portrait of the deceased.

It is true that Sancher's death seems to have remedied the situation somewhat. He helped Dinah, Rosa and Dodose, for whom life had become "une geôle sans espoir" [a prison without hope], find their freedom. And at the same time, both Dinah and Dodose, prisoners of a failed marriage, decide to leave their husbands. Remembering the words that Francis Sancher had spoken to her: "Pour donner l'amour, il faut en avoir reçu beaucoup" [In order to give love, one has to have received a lot of it], Rosa, imprisoned in a past that took away her precious Shireen, decides to reconcile with the daughter she had so long neglected. But, in fact, Sancher acts as a catalyst; his death shakes up the whole community and forces everyone to rethink his or her priorities and redefine his or her existence. Although he seems to invite those who knew him to assume their voice and follow their path, the women of Rivère au Sel redefine their existence for themselves in terms of what they truly perceive to be happiness.

The representation of Francis Sancher is hence problematized. He represents an unattainable object of desire because he is dead. His death allows the implicit author to show the authority of his presence and his voice on the existence and discourse of others. Instead of depicting the exterior pressures that influenced the characters, the implicit author sheds light on the mediation of these pressures that influence our perception of the individual. The presence and power of Sancher manifest themselves in the individual and collective discourses of the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel. Sancher's words are at the source of their initiative to speak; they legitimize and determine their existence after his death. Is not Sancher the bearer of an ideology in so far as he dominates the verbal and psychic spaces of others? In fact, the implicit author tries to master and transform the ideology by creating not so much a diversity of female subjects but a way of perceiving in a feminine mode. The omniscient presence of the implicit author is manifest in her mastering the meaning of Sancher's statements. According to the testimonies of the characters, Sancher eschews assuming the image of a doctor/messiah, but his death subverts his original stance, and his words, detached from their referential context, convey a project of transformation through which the characters will find meaning and direction in their lives. This metamorphosis, potential or actual, is the work of the implicit author, whose transformative power exceeds that of Sancher's.

Finally, Traversée de la mangrove invites the reader to play a dynamic role in the process of signification. Condé's manipulation of the conventions of detective plots (the identity of the mystery man; the particulars of the crime) underscores the importance of the act of reading within and outside the parameters of the text. Conscious of the levels of reference and symbolic interplay within which Sancher's identity can be explored, the implicit author purposely situates him outside the narrative, thereby directing the reader in and out of the text by the use of narrative and discursive strategies. Denied a concrete referential existence, Sancher's story is mediated by the perception and images that others have of him. But the author encounters two main difficulties: How does one balance the emphasis on male representation against an emphasis on a female mode of perceiving and interpreting? Since Sancher is at the source of the text as language, how does one reconcile the overdetermined meaning of the text with the perspective and discourse of the implicit author, who refuses to validate any attempt to fix or objectify reality? By the author's constant modification of them, distances and narrative voices serve as markers to guide the reader through the trappings of the mangrove—through the trappings of the text as language. The emergence of a female mode of perception, through which female and male (for example Joby and Xantippe) subjects could articulate their experiences, be they historical, political, or sexual, seems to be the primary focus of Condé's text. Therefore, the crossing of the mangrove, the understanding of the text as language, is meaningful only if the reader is willing to relinquish the notion of a single perspective or a unified perception of reality as the sole basis of knowledge and truth.

Ellen W. Munley (essay date Winter 1992)

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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.

Contrary to the novel bearing the same title within Traversée de la mangrove which its mysterious author, Francis Sancher, will never complete, Maryse Condé's novel bears thoroughgoing witness to the stories of twenty individuals. Some become entangled and drown in the mangrove thicket, a metaphor for present-day Guadeloupe; others move toward an originative sun illuminating the way home to personal truths that they must discover by themselves. On another level this complex narrative, comprised of ten first-person and ten third-person accounts intricately interwoven between a narrative introduction entitled "Le serein" [dusk] and a closing chapter named "Le devant-jour" [dawn], furnishes the reader with a metaphoric map detailing all the death-inducing traps in the mangrove thicket and ways to avoid them. The path to life and freedom stretches out unencumbered to welcome the reader at book's end. The passage through the thick forest which surrounds us all has already claimed Francis Sancher's life when the novel begins; at least six of the characters whose stories surface during the night of Sancher's wake slip further into their figurative graves. Other characters, however, succeed in extricating themselves from the obstacles that have thus far choked off life, and they move toward the light of a new day and the promise of collective salvation.

What are the obstacles and why do some continue to struggle toward life while others stagnate, resign themselves to solitude and exclusion, or beckon death? All casualties in a literal or figurative sense can be traced to social exclusion or parental rejection; all rebirths spring from an empathic connection between the individual characters and Francis Sancher, the dark sun at the center of this interconnected galaxy, who reflects the insights and wisdom which each of the characters possesses but is initially incapable of generating without him. A representative of the past, he sees into the souls of all but himself. His stories unlock the untold stories and secrets buried in his listeners. He becomes mentor, friend, and ally to those who come in contact with him, mirroring the thoughts and feelings comprising their inner lives and empowering them.

Francis Sancher, alias Francisco Alvarez-Sanchez, has come to Rivière au Sel to die. To him the place resembles a watery grave and conjures up the briny water he envisions engulfing and choking those who try to cross a mangrove thicket. We never discover why this idealist beyond ideals gives up and fatalistically courts the death he anticipates as ineluctable on his fiftieth birthday. Several interlocutors hear the stories of his ancestors who were forced to succumb to a curse that deprived them of life after half a century in spite of their best efforts to escape. He cannot possibly save himself, or can he?

Whether his death is occasioned by an ancient curse pronounced on his forefathers and their progeny because of some unspeakable deed committed in the past or whether it results from a self-fulfilling tragic prophecy remains an open question for all but Xantippe. This outcast poet and prophet who assumes mythic proportions in the text discovers answers which the novel does not presume to provide. His life-story, juxtaposed with all the others, nevertheless offers several clues: "Personne ne sait exactement en quelle matière le coeur de l'homme est fabriqué" [No one knows exactly what the human heart is made of], declares Aristide. Sancher's death is no more imponderable than the jealousy which motivated Xantippe's enemies to set fire to his home and family, condemning him to a life of irreparable loss.

The real unanswered question at the heart of this novel is why we inflict death and suffering on each other. Man Sonson, the older woman who peers into others' souls and futures as acutely as she reveals the healing powers of plants, comments that "sur le coeur des Nègres la lumiére de la bonté ne brille jamais" [the light of goodness never shines on the heart of Negroes]. Mira Lameaulnes, the striking, light-skinned object of desire and the malice seething in her neighbors' hearts, lives as if in exile on "notre île à ragots, livrée aux cyclones et aux ravages de la méchanceté du coeur des Nègres" [our gossip-filled island, at the mercy of cyclones and the ravages of spiteful Black hearts]. Moïse, the physically unattractive product of his father's unexplained relationship with a Chinese woman, receives the nickname "Mosquito" and the unmerited disdain of all the islanders he encounters on his mail route every day. Spurned even by the local prostitute, he withers along with his dreams, observing that "Seul celui qui a vécu entre les quatre murs d'une petite communauté connaît sa méchanceté et sa peur de l'étranger" [Only one who has lived inside the walls of a small community knows its malice and fear of strangers]. The place that serves as the locus of this "small-minded community" is Rivière au Sel, a name which symbolically reflects a social fabric composed in large part of prejudices, hatred, and misunderstandings. It needs purifying as much as the salt-laden water in order to support life.

Each of the spokespersons whose names divide the novel's twenty central chapters lives in virtual isolation, excluded from participation in a larger community by the barriers that have defensively grown up in their own hearts, or by the fences that shut them out of the narrow boundaries defining the acceptable in Guadeloupean society. Francis Sancher, whose story lies embedded in the personal accounts of these individuals, shares their profound exclusion. In reality the exclusions are multiple and overlapping and fall into three main categories: parent-child, wife-husband/lover-beloved, social insider-outsider. At the end of Traversée de la mangrove, Francis Sancher has found acceptance through death. His death in turn acts directly on the lives of nine of his acquaintances whose actions will undoubtedly affect their children, their cocitizens, and perhaps even touch the two patriarchal representatives of wealth and social standing who head the Ramsaran and Lameaulnes families.

The dynamic that triggers these transformations lies in an acceptance and validation of one's self that can then be extended to other individuals and groups. Francis Sancher, a former doctor often referred to as "el curandero" [the healer] in former times and places, serves as the healer of hearts and minds in Rivière au Sel. Discussion of his role within the context of the practice of psychoanalytic self psychology elucidates the power for personal and political change that can result from empathic attunement.

Psychoanalytic self psychology is a theory of psychotherapy based on the analyst's empathic immersion in the patient's experience. It grew out of the work of Heinz Kohut, a Freudian analyst who reconsidered his theoretical perspective when confronted with patients who "stumped" him by not responding to treatment in the classical tradition of psychoanalysis. His prolonged empathic immersion in the inner worlds of these patients led him to explore new and previously unrecognized psychic configurations. In a letter to another analyst dated May 16, 1974, Kohut wrote:

It was on the basis of feeling stumped that I began to entertain the thought that these people were not concerned with me as a separate person but that they were concerned with themselves; that they did not love or hate me, but that they needed me as part of themselves, needed me as a set of functions which they had not acquired in early life; that what appeared to be their love or hate was in reality their need that I fulfill certain psychological functions for them and anger at me when I did not do so. [Crayton E. Rowe, Jr., and David S. Mac Isaac, Empathic Attunement.]

This intuition offered new perspectives on the place of empathy in analytic cure. The psychological functions he refers to in the above excerpt came to be theorized as the mirroring selfobject transference and the idealizing selfobject transference.

Briefly stated for our purposes, the selfobject is "another whose responses and attitudes are vitally experienced by the developing psyche not only as shapers of but as part of the self." [Joan A. Lang, "Self-Psychology and the Understanding and Treatment of Women," Review of Psychiatry, Vol. 9, 1990.] The term, then, denotes one's experience of another part of the self. In the mirroring selfobject transference, the analyst tries to be in tune, be "in" the experience of the patient, understand the experience, and verbally express that understanding. The idealizing selfobject transference occurs when the analyst is experienced "as the consistent, powerful, and protective parental image." Mac Isaac and Rowe summarize Kohut's speculations that this latter transference allowed patients whose idealizing needs were thwarted as children to move beyond an arrested stage of development in which they continued to long for a perfectionistic image of their parents and "tended throughout life to search for someone who could fit this unfulfilled and primitive picture." Since the power of the selfobject relationship is not simply one of "reinforcement" but of extending the boundaries of what is or is not "Me" beyond the individual self, this method of analysis based on interdependence and relationship has enormous potential for the understanding of relationships between individuals as well as those between intrapsychic and sociocultural forces. New ways of verbally formulating and seeing interconnectedness imply possibilities for transforming those relationships. Extending the boundaries of the self permits a purificatory return to the sources of the figuratively salt-tainted and life-threatening waters of Rivière au Sel. There is hope for reconfiguring the social fabric and common existence, beginning with the individual.

In order to examine how Francis Sancher functions as a catalyst for psychic healing in the novel, let us group the characters according to the three categories of exclusion alluded to above (parent-child, wife-husband/lover-beloved, social insider-outsider) and elaborate the relationships between one or more representative persons from each group and Sancher.

Among those who experience rejection from either or both of their parents, we find Sonny Pélagie rejected by both his parents, Loulou Lameaulnes rejected by his mother, Sylvestre Ramsaran rejected by his father, Vilma Ramsaran rejected by her mother, and Mira Lameaulnes whose illegitimate birth coincided with the death of the "Négresse," Rosalie Sorane, who bore her. The mother and stepmother of the two young women provide a fruitful starting point for this discussion because they verbalize convictions that harken back to preceding generations and echo forth in the lives of their daughters. Rosa Ramsaran's statement that "le malheur des enfants est toujours causé par les parents" [children's unhappiness is always caused by their parents], recalls Dinah Lameaulnes's fear that "les malheurs des enfants sont toujours causés par les fautes cachées des parents" [children's misfortunes are always caused by their parents' hidden faults]. These reflections can be understood and positively acted upon when we examine them in the light of self psychology which goes beyond the Freudian legacy wherein an unhappy woman who was either frustrated, repressed, martyred, never satisfied, or rejecting was afflicted by the repression of her instinctive wishes and the distortions which this strangulation of need created in her relationships. Calling upon the concepts of the mirroring and idealizing transferences explained above, these two statements relate directly to Vilma and Mira as two children who did not experience certain representatives of their human surroundings as joyfully responding to them and as available to them as sources of idealized strength and calmness.

Vilma and Mira both live individually with Francis Sancher for a period of time; the former is lodged in his house and pregnant at the time of his death, the latter has already given birth to his son. Curiously enough, neither of these young women has a transformative relationship with Sancher in spite of their physical intimacy with him. Both will escape the confines of their previous lives but not because he has exercised a direct influence on them as he does on the other people he helps to redirect. Convinced of the curse upon his family, he wants only to end it with his death, not perpetuate it in future generations. Mira and Vilma will be liberated from the stifling confines of their families and the narrow possibilities in Guadeloupean society as a result of Sancher's association with other members of their families and the community.

Both young women underscore the central importance of another relationship recurring throughout the novel and probed by Sancher in his conversation with Vilma's mother: that between mother and child, and here specifically between mother and daughter. Mira cannot understand that, for her, there is no mother on this earth, and finds her sole refuge in the flowing water of a hidden ravine whose scarcely audible song recalls her in utero relationship with her mother. There she imagines life with a flesh-and-blood mother who approvingly watches her growing up, meets her at the end of the day, and explains all the mysteries of her body to her. After Sancher gives Mira an infusion designed to put her to sleep long enough to abort the child she is carrying, she poetically evokes her sleep-state in terms that again harken back to the embryonic period:

Mon esprit s'est détaché de mon corps, paisible, paisible. Il m'a semblé que je revenais habiter comme autrefois le ventre ombreux de ma mère, Rosalie Sorane aux dents de perle. Je flottais, je nageais éperdue de bonheur dans sa mer utérine et j'entendais assourdis, affaiblis, les tristes bruits d'un monde dans lequel j'étais bien décidé à ne jamais faire mon entrée.

[My spirit detached itself from my body, peacefully, peaceful. It seemed as if I were coming back to live, as in times gone by, in the shadowy womb of my mother, Rosalie Sorane with the pearl white teeth. I was floating, swimming, wildly happy in her uterine sea and the sad sounds of a world I had resolutely decided not to reenter were coming to me, muted, diminished.]

Reenter she does, in time to save her unborn child. She later realizes at Sancher's wake that her true life begins with the latter's death and her personal quest for truth: "Alors, moi, je dois découvrir la vérité. Désormais ma vie ne sera qu'une quête. Je retracerai les chemins du monde" [And so then, it's up to me to discover the truth. From now on my life will become a quest. I will search on all the roadways of this world].

Vilma Ramsaran, on the other hand, wants only to follow Sancher to the grave, thus reenacting the fate of her Indian foremother who followed her beloved to the funeral pyre. A better fate, however, awaits her. Having grown up under the resentful gaze of a mother who mourned the death of Vilma's recently deceased sister, the former has known only rejection from Rosa Ramsaran. When Rosa visits Sancher to speak with her daughter, she flees from Vilma's menacing shouts but not before she has a conversation with this enigmatic man which will change not only her life but her daughter's as well. Francis Sancher, this "moulin à paroles" who seems to articulate what each person might find written in his or her heart if all defenses were down, remarks in passing that his mother had Rosa's black, lustrous hair but that she did not love him very much. In response to Rosa's stammering protestation that all mothers love their children, he respectfully notes that his mother was impregnated in less than ideal circumstances; his parents made love without any real communication: "Pour donner, pour rendre l'amour, il faut en avoir reçu beaucoup, beaucoup" [In order to give, to return love, you have to have received a great deal of it, a great deal]. Rosa feels the shock of recognition; he has stated her case. She responds with a remark that others will repeat verbatim upon hearing Sancher utter their as yet unformulated but deeply felt convictions: "Comment savezvous cela" [How do you know that?]. Sancher's words, "In order to give, to return the love, you have to have received a great deal of it, a great deal," continue to reverberate and punctuate Rosa's review of her empty life. They ultimately lead her to the realization that the absence of understanding, love, and sharing might still be supplanted by their presence in the days to come:

Je dirai à ma fille, mienne:

—Sortie de mon ventre, je t'ai mal aimée. Je ne t'ai pas aidée à eclore et tu as poussé, rabougrie. Il n'est pas trop tard pour que nos yeux se recontrent et que nos mains se touchent. Donne-moi ton pardon.

[I will say to my daughter, mine:

—Outside of my womb I loved you badly. I did not help you to blossom and you grew up stunted. It is not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Forgive me.]

Rosa's determination mirrors the ultimatum that Dodose Pélagie addresses to herself regarding her child, Sonny, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after birth and has lived with the consequences ever since. Francis Sancher welcomes the boy and becomes his only friend, the only person to speak with him and treat him humanely and not as punishment or a nuisance. Although Dodose refuses to listen to Sancher's evaluation of Sonny and meets his steady, unreproachful gaze with a barrage of injurious words, she relives this chance meeting with him on the Saint Charles path in the forest where he has met many other inhabitants. Remembering his look and his words, she begins to question herself during the night of his wake, asking herself if she has ever really loved her son or regarded him as a cross to be borne, a wound to her pride, a punishment to her husband, Emmanuel, whom she hates but has not know how to leave. Visualizing Sancher on that twilight path leads her to clarify her direction as dawn approaches: "Pourtant, il m'a montré la voie…. Désormais, je prendrai soin de lui (Sonny). Je frapperai à la porte de chaque hôpital, de chaque clinique, de chaque dispensaire…. Je laisserai Emmanuel, enfermé dans ses rancoeurs et Rivière au Sel, ses petitesses immuables" [However, he showed me the way…. From now on, I will take care of him (Sonny). I will knock on the door of every hospital, every clinic, every dispensary…. I will leave Emmanuel, wrapped in his resentment and Rivière au Sel, in his meanness].

It is not too late for parents and children to find new ways of relating to one another. Children relate to their parents as selfobjects; adults continue to interact with others as selfobjects throughout their lives. Insight and new beginnings follow empathic contact with a therapeutic other capable of reflecting the needs and remembrances "safe-guarded in the folds of memory, in the deep recesses of the heart" (Mangrove).

There are two powerfully drawn, joyful, sensuous relationships in Traversée de la mangrove: the first briefly alluded to between Man Sonson and Siméon, her dead husband, "un vaillant Nègre, de l'espèce qui a disparu de la surface de la planète" [a valiant Negro, of the kind who has disappeared from the face of the planet]; the second between the mythical figure Xantippe and Gracieuse, the wife he has mourned for time immemorial. Excluding Francis Sancher's ties with Vilma and Mira, however, there are three prominent marriages in the novel between Loulou Lameaulnes and Dinah, Sylvestre Ramsaran and Rosa, and Emmanuel Pélagie and Dodose, within which husband and wife have withered and felt imprisoned. The Ramsaran and Pélagie marriages were arranged, and neither Rosa nor Dodose ever overcame their initial repugnance at being married to men they would never have chosen. Dinah chooses to marry Loulou against her mother's advice who warns her that "Il a trois garçons et une fille bâtarde. Tout ce qu'il cherche, c'est une bonne pour eux. Voilà ce que tu seras" [He has three boys and a bastard daughter. All he's looking for is a maid to take care of them. That's what you will be]! She is largely ignored by her husband, and her home becomes her "prison" and her "tombeau": "Par moments it me semblait que j'étais déjà morte, que mon sang ne coulait plus chaud dans mes veines, qu'il était déjà caillé" [At times, it seemed to me that I was already dead, that my blood no longer flowed warmly through my veins, that it had already clotted]. Curled up alone in her bed at night she imagines her mother and the father she has never known there with her, and hears their bedtime stories until she drifts off to sleep in the early hours of the morning. Mme Dinah Lameaulnes seems no more than a child herself. In the period before either Mira or Vilma takes up residence in Sancher's household, he visits Dinah in hers. After one of their conversations, during which she tries to fathom why Loulou has brought her from Saint Martin to be his wife only to abandon her, she is left with two questions which he has asked her: What kept her tied down? Why didn't she go away? She comes to a decision the night of Sancher's wake: she, Dinah Lameaulnes, will. Francis Sancher, the first person whom she feels has understood and talked with her, provides the empathic bond that leads to the power to make changes in her life.

Deeply rooted prejudice against anyone "different," "from the outside," or from a different ethnic or racial background smothers at least half of the characters in Traversée de la mangrove. Here the individual tragedies and the redemptive power of the novel meet. If, as Heinz Kohut theorized, we all possess lifelong needs for selfobjects and the functions they provide, if the healthy self cannot survive or thrive without others who affirm our deepest sense of person and selfhood and steady us on our way, then the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel are doomed to think little of themselves and feel even less enthusiasm for life. This is a society where relationships are governed by malice. Social and cultural exchanges in this closed society thwart rather than foster those mutual selfobject functions essential to the capacity for empathy and a sympathy for the realities of others.

Each of the people who tells his or her story, or whose story is recounted by a self-effacing narrator who prioritizes the individual's experience, is susceptible to the rejection and exclusion they encounter in society. Inclusion and exclusion, the longing to be accepted as one is, and the experience of rejection dominate the novel. Moîse, dit Maringouin, le facteur; Désinor, l'Haîtien; and Xantippe live in permanent exile where no place is home. If Léocadie Timothée, the retired schoolteacher, and Loulou Lameaulnes have any say in the matter, it will remain that way. Both decry the fact that Guadeloupe is "on the auction block," in the words of Léocadie Timothée: the influx of Haitians, Dominicans, all kinds of Whites from Canada or from Italy, Vietnamese, and "puis celui-là (Francis Sancher), vomi par on ne sait quel mauvais portuer" [then that one (Francis Sancher), vomited ashore by who knows what bad tide].

It is ironic that Léocadie Timothée, the privileged Black who taught in order to better her race, was rejected by those Blacks less fortunate than she: "A leurs yeux, j'étais une trâtresse! Je souffrais de cet isolement, car j'aurais voulu qu'on m'aime, moi. Je ne savais pas que le Nègre n'aime jamais le Nègre" [In their eyes, I was a traitress! I suffered from that isolation, for I would have liked people to love me. I did not know that Negroes never love their own]. She never questions, however, what distinguishes her from the outsiders she herself relegates to the margines of society.

Examples of discrimination and exclusion abound in the novel, but Emile Etienne's situation illustrates both his marginality and the determination to overcome it, thanks to the influence of Francis Sancher. Emile summarizes his childhood as that of a "petit Négre noir, sorti du ventre d'une malheureuse, assis aux derniers bancs de la classe, du C.P. au C.M. 2. Son adolescence morose. Aux bals de 'La Flamme,' les filles se cachaient de lui et le surnommaient 'Sirop Batterie'" [small black Negro, born to an unfortunate woman, seated in the last rows of class, from C.P. to C.M. 2. His morose adolescence. At the dances held at "La Flamme," the girls hid from him and nicknamed him "Sirop Batterie"]. With the aid of scholarships and his mother's sacrifices, he obtained the baccalaureate but then had to be satisfied with becoming a nurse to help support his younger sister and brother. Speaking with the older people of the island on his nursing visits to their homes, he is struck by their vivid recollections of the past and writes Parlons de Petit Bourg. After two years of work and savings invested in the printing of the book, it is met by the sneers of the educated in La Pointe who make fun of its misprints and "stylistic improprieties." When he is with Francis Sancher, however, he speaks of himself and his great ambition to write a different kind of oral and social history of Guadeloupe. Sancher approves and, as he has done with so many others in Rivière au Sel, poses the question that Emile is afraid to ask himself: "Qu' est-ce qui t'en empêche" [What's stopping you?]. And once again, contemplating Sancher's coffin the night of the wake like so many others, he confronts what prevents him from acting:

Regardant le cerceuil, Emile Etienne eut soudain honte de sa lâcheté…. Qu'est-ce qui lui faisait peur?… Il se sentit plein d'un courage immense, d'une énergie nouvelle qui coulait mystérieuse dans son sang.

[Looking at the coffin, Emile Etienne suddenly felt ashamed of his cowardice … What was he afraid of?… He felt full of immense courage, new energy which was flowing mysteriously through his blood.]

Feeling that his promise to write the book unites him to Sancher beyond death, he is ready to work, to search for a place where the color of one's skin does not matter. It is as though Francis Sancher's death has been the catalyst for Emile Etienne's self actualization. His death functions in a similar way to liberate the living in regard to another young writer ensnared in a different trap.

Lucien Evariste, the aspiring novelist caught between his favored background rooted in Catholic France and the Patriotes espousing atheism and creole, finds himself buried alive in Guadeloupe, waging a no-win battle mainly against himself. Through his conversations with Francis Sancher, including the last one the night of Sancher's wake when he remembers and hears again segments of previous exchanges, he succeeds in placing himself within the narrow confines of the island and beyond it. For him, Sancher was "le grand frère et le jeune père qu'il n'avait pas eus, moqueur et tendre, cynique et rêveur" [the big brother and young father that he had never had, mocking and tender, cynical and dreamy]. Overwhelmed by emotion and an irresistible life force, Lucien integrates his feelings of loss and caring for his dead friend with his literary aspirations smothered from the right and the left:

Au lieu, enfant d'aujourd'hui et de la ville, de traquer des nèg mawon ou des paysans du XIXe siècle, pourquoi ne pas mettre bout à bout souvenirs et bribes de confidences, écarter les mensonges, reconstituer la trajectoire et la personnalitè du dèfunt?… Il lui faudrait refuser le vertige des idées reçues. Regarder dans les yeux de dangereuses vérités. Déplaire. Choquer.

[Instead of remaining a child of today and the city and tracking down escaped slaves or peasants of the nineteenth century, why not bring together memories and snatches of secrets, dismiss lies, reconstitute the trajectory and the personality of the deceased?… He would have to refuse the headlines of preconceived notions. Look dangerous truths in the eyes. Offend. Shock.]

He will write the biography of Francis Sancher.

Light is a puissant metaphor in Traversée de la mangrove. Those characters who affirm and recover their faith in themselves as a result of their friendship with Francis Sancher feel compelled to act, to speak, to write, to leave, to move toward the light, each one as vulnerable and indestructible as a plant toward the sun. Dinah Lemeaulnes, whose recitation of psalms is answered in chorus by the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel assembled at Sancher's wake, echoes the resolution of those who have escaped impalement or suffocation in Maryse Condé's figurative mangrove when she states:

Je chercherai le soleil et l'air et la lumière pour ce qui me reste d'années àvivre.

Ou les trouverai-je? Je n'en sais encore rien. Ce que je sais, c'est que je les chercherai!

[I will seek the sun, air, and light for the remainder of my days. Where will I find them? I don't yet know. What I do know is that I will seek them!]

One place the sun and the air and the light will not be found is in isolation. All the characters struggling to cross the mangrove are drowning in loneliness; the individual resolves of those who succeed in freeing themselves entail moving beyond their solitary prisons, clearing the fences and barriers from their hearts as well as their discriminatory society. Having experienced an empathic relationship with Francis Sancher, the characters beginning anew become self-affirming and capable of extending themselves to others.

Mira Lameaulnes, one of the two young women who tries to escape rejection by offering herself to Francis Sancher, is motivated by an intense desire to know who he really was: "il me fallait trouver qui il était" [I had to know who he was]. After experiencing a lifetime of cruel remarks and envious disdain, she better than anyone knows how little a person's thick and impenetrable external appearance might correspond to their inner needs and feelings. The protective layers mask the inner reality. Désinor, the Haitian gardener who politely conforms externally to the disadvantaged inferior status conferred on him by the other inhabitants, lives in rage and despair. He poignantly depicts the injustice of this contemporary version of slavery and the marginalization of the outsider when he muses that "Pour une fois qu'il était de plainpied avec les gens de Rivière au Sel, il aurait aimé les insulter, les choquer, leur faire savoir qui était réellement ce Désinor Décimus qu'ils confondaient avec un misérable jardinier haïtien" [Now that he was on an equal footing with the people from Rivière au Sel, he would have liked to insult them, shock them, make them know who Désinor Décimus really was, this man whom they confused with a miserable Haitian gardener].

The inner life of another person seldom corresponds to the person we perceive in social intercourse. Not one of the individuals in Traversée de la mangrove is transparent to the larger community. The continuous flow of inner experiences and the fluidity of intersubjective experiences in the novel reproduces in all its complexity the process that happens constantly in human interaction. Translating that experience into fiction, immersing the reader in the character's spoken and unspoken feelings, juxtaposing the character's inner life with his or her impressions of the other characters in the novel, moving back and forth from first person to third-person self-effacing narration in which the character's thoughts and feelings are privileged—Maryse Condé accomplishes no less in this novel. The reader recreates these relationships, weaving together all the threads in this infinitely complex yet simple tapestry of the heart. "We," the narrator and the reader, become empathically attuned to all the characters, including the omnipresent Francis Sancher. We think and feel our way into their inner lives as we read the book that Emile Etienne, l'Historien, speaks of writing, and that Maryse Condé has written:

… une histoire de ce pays qui serait uniquement basée sur les souvenirs gardés au creux des mémoires, au creux des coeurs. Ce que les pères ont dit aux fils, ce que les mères ont dit aux filles. Je voudrais aller du Nord au Sud, de l'Est à l'Ouest recueillir toutes ces paroles qu'on n'a jamais écoutés …

Francis Sancher approuvait.

[a story of this country that would be based solely on the memories buried in the depths of one's consciousness, in the depths of one's heart. What fathers have told their sons, what mothers have told their daughters. I would like to go from North to South, from East to West, to gather all these words that have never been listened to …

Francis Sancher approved.]

These are the unspoken words we have read and heard, the map we have been given to navigate toward the light.

Jeanne Pimentel (review date May/June 1993)

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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."]

Around a flimsy patch of historical material, Maryse Condé weaves [in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem] the birth-to-death story of a woman whose mind and body we come to know intimately. Though much of the story takes place in New England in the seventeenth century, its character is Caribbean and its relevance is to the present.

Historical documents mention only briefly a West Indian slave tried and imprisoned during the infamous Salem witch hunts. The scant facts in these records are incorporated in the telling of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The book begins with a fictional recreation of Tituba's childhood, scarred with the traumas of slave life on the bucolic and beloved island of Barbados. Here she develops both the skill in traditional healing and the strong sexuality that determine her course in life. Condé portrays vividly how these traits lead to Tituba's suffering at the hands of the ruthless puritans of Salem.

After recounting the period anchored to the brief factual references, Condé constructs "an ending of [her] own choosing," completing the story as an act of revenge for the neglect of a black person in the historical record. A benign revenge indeed, for the reader. But then Tituba herself has great difficulty being an aggressor; her natural bent is "to heal and console rather than to do evil."

Into a plot as action-packed as a romance novel. Condé introduces lively arguments not only on the themes of racism and feminism but on hypocrisy, intolerance, and exploitation. The existence of the spirit world is a given in the book, and the reader should be prepared to suspend disbelief and enter into this rich culture for the duration of the story.

Tituba's long-dead parents and guardians appear to her frequently, and influence her decisions. Though they hover above ground, their comments are earthly to the point of vulgarity and their otherworldly advice is peppered with human pettiness.

Condé's storytelling reflects a relaxed acceptance of unexplained phenomena, intuitive rather than analytical, more prosaic than dogmatic. Whether dire physical affliction visited upon evil people might be ascribed to natural causes rather than magic spells is not worth discussion—in Tituba's world, one would not preclude the other. Whether Hester Prynne, Tituba's adored jailmate, is actually brought to life from Hawthorne's tale to suffer a fate he never assigned her is irrelevant. Condé appropriates the nature of the culture for her own purposes: the glossary contains, besides definitions of Caribbean terms, many a "literary invention by the author."

The narrative is often conversational in tone, drawing on the oral tradition of the culture. Condé also experiments creatively with chronology: Tituba steps outside her fictional self to protest, "I can look for my story among those of the witches of Salem, but it isn't there," and Hester Prynne appropriates twentieth-century terminology to deliver her feminist views.

Besides the richness of Richard Philcox's translation, this edition provides the double bonus of a forward by Angela Davis and an afterword by Ann Armstrong Scarboro. Davis praises the "voice of a suppressed black feminist tradition," while Scarboro explores theoretical postmodern concepts such as "otherness." Their complicated readings attest to the rich layering of the text—though I'm not sure Condé would agree with all the hidden agendas attributed to it. "Don't take Tituba too seriously, please," she begs in her interview with Scarboro.

The first time I heard Condé speak, she shared the podium with a flamboyant young deconstructionist who spoke almost exclusively in abstract academic terms. By contrast, Condé was down-to-earth and warmly humorous—a writer for whom the world was concrete, but also spiritual. Asked why she preferred one African country over another, she replied unhesitatingly "Because it's more spiritual."

Condé's wide-ranging novel based on her own colorful family history, Tree of Life (Lavie scelerate) was recently published by Ballantine, and two more of her books are expected within the next year: Journey Across the Mangrove (Traversee de la mangrove) and The Last Magi (Les derniers rois mages).

A writer with a strong Caribbean identity, Condé also demonstrates a universal vision. Clearly she has thought deeply about the turbulent history and complex social and political structures of her native Guadeloupe. As the settings of her various works demonstrate. Condé is as much at home in Guadeloupe as in the ancient halls of Sorbonne, or the timeless sands of the African desert. She is an inhabitant of the world; her "own country," no longer limited to her birthplace, is the locus of the spirit embracing many geographical and cultural locations. Condé imbues her half-fact, half-fiction characters with qualities and motives which reflect her view of women today, as well as the universality in time and space of issues from exploitation and political intrigue to the maternal urge and sexual betrayal.

Elisabeth Mudimbé-Boyi (essay date Autumn 1993)

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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 Redgrave. If Tituba is mentioned at all, there is little room for her in the narratives; and as she states in recounting her story in Maryse Condé's novel Moi, Tituba, sorcière … Noire de Salem (Eng. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), she has been reduced to

… having played only a minor role in the whole affair and having had a fate that no one could remember. "Tituba, a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing 'hoodoo.'" A few lines in the many volumes written on the Salem witch trials. Why was I going to be ignored? This question too had crossed my mind. Is it because nobody cares about a Negress and her trials and tribulations? Is that why?

I can look for my story among those of the witches of Salem, but it isn't there…. Not a word about me.

Tituba's question mark could be recast as an interrogation about existence, identity, and presence in History. Brought to Massachusetts not of her own free will but as a slave in a society of people who migrated from their native Europe in search of freedom, she lives at the margins. Her territory is on the borderland of the Massachusetts Puritan community as well as of literary and historical representation. By virtue of her race, her geographic origin, and her social status, Tituba embodies marginality and is perceived only as a voiceless "exotic other," an object to be talked about. She summarizes her situation with a taste of bitterness: "It was not so much the conversation that amazed and revolted me as their way of going about it. You would think I wasn't standing there at the threshold of the room. They were talking about me and yet ignoring me. They were striking me off the map of human beings. I was a nonbeing. Invisible. More invisible than the unseen, who at least have powers that everyone fears."

Tituba is a statement against effacement, exclusion, and reduction to invisibility. In Condé's book one finds interwoven recurrent motifs present in her other works, from Hérémakhonon to Ségou, Traversée de la mangrove, and Les derniers rois mages: motifs such as exile and return, the quest for identity and for the self, the reconstruction of history, and gender relationships. Within Condé's oeuvre, Tituba takes on a political significance and resonates as a powerful counterhistory.

Michel Foucault classifies the use of language among the "discursive practices" that allow the exercise of power. In Discourse on Language he suggests that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures. In letting Tituba speak and tell her story in her own words, Condé gives her a voice, restores her history and her identity, and allows her to acquire language and thus to participate in society. The writer also creates a territory for her—the textual space—and incorporates her into the stream of a history from which she had been excluded. With different means, Condé's endeavor connects with Simone Schwarz-Bart's resurrection of the forgotten figures of black women's contribution to Carribean history, as exemplified in her novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, or in Marie Chauvet's book La danse sur le volcan. Condé's Tituba emerges from the author's imagination and creativity and does not pretend to the status of a historical novel. The narrative is nevertheless inscribed in the larger project of reconstructing Caribbean history, as exposed by Edouard Glissant in his masterful essay Le discours antillais (Eng. Caribbean Discourse) and as illustrated by many other Caribbean novels in which the search for and the reconstruction of history constitute a major focus.

This brings us to the examination of several theoretical questions arising from Tituba's narrative as composed by Condé. What is the relationship between writer and character? How does the writer preserve the integrity and the authenticity of Tituba's discourse and voice in the process of transcribing it from oral into written form and translating it into French? In other words, how does the writer negotiate the preservation of her own function as "author" in the textualization of Tituba's story without undermining at the same time the power and the presence of Tituba's own voice, which is precisely the one Condé would like to unveil?

In actuality, Tituba unfolds a long monologic "conversation" in which the writer becomes the simple listener of a narrating subject telling her own life story. The book is thus a fictional "autobiography" from which the writer has completely disappeared, leaving Tituba to take preeminence and become simultaneously both the narrator and the narrated. Tituba, in telling her story, re-creates the context of an oral performance, with herself as the performer and the writer as the audience. Condé's epigraph to the book contains, as a subtext, a tacit pact between the performer and the spectator: it signifies an act of trust, since the narrator told Condé "things she had confided to nobody else before." The author of the book henceforth takes on different roles: as the repository of Tituba's life story, she becomes her interpreter as well as her mediator. As the interpreter of Tituba's text, Condé the writer also assumes the role of a translator, and in this context her position, as Philippe Lejeune puts it in On Autobiography, in the chapter apropos of "the autobiography of those who do not write": "The translator finds himself in a hierarchically dependent situation…. The position of the writer is in many aspects similar to that of the translator, with just one difference, but an enormous one: in the writer's case, the original text does not exist. The writer … draws the text from a 'before-text.'"

In assuming the functions of interpreter, mediator, and translator, Condé fulfills the tacit pact in transmitting what Tituba had entrusted to her, specifically her concern not only about her descent into oblivion but also about never being rehabilitated.

I felt that I would only be mentioned in passing in these Salem witchcraft trials about which so much would be written later, trials that would arouse the curiosity and pity of generations to come as the greatest testimony of a superstitious and barbaric age…. There would be no mention of my age or my personality. I would be ignored…. Petitions would be circulated, judgments made, rehabilitating the victims, restoring their honor, and returning their property to their descendants. I would never be included! Tituba would be condemned forever! There would never, ever, be a careful, sensitive biography recreating my life and its suffering.

I would like to focus, in the development of this essay, on the authorial position in relation to the voice of the character, with the assumption that author and character are positioned into two different cultural and linguistic codes: oral and Creole for Tituba, written and French for Condé.

As a slave, Tituba could certainly not read or write. Therefore, the narrative device of referring to some form of mediation such as a notebook discovered by the author, as in Myriam Warner-Vieyra's fuletane, or brought to her by an intermediary, as in Michèle Maillet's Etoile noire, has been skillfully replaced by "autobiographical conversations" between the writer and her character. As Michael Awkward reminds us, in "talking and telling," Tituba addresses an audience constituted here solely by the writer. In transcribing her conversations with Tituba, the author of the book translates Tituba's story from an oral form into a written one.

An apparent ambiguity seems to accompany the writer's position here. On the one hand there is the desire to place Tituba in an environment familiar to her in re-creating the traditional context of the oral performance. On the other hand, since this is a oneway conversation, the usual interraction and communication between performer and audience are lacking, and the audience is quiet and just listening, thus re-creating the context of a Western performance. In actuality, the context created by Condé embodies a strategy of subversion by reversing the relation of power between writer and character and thus between French (the language of the writer) and Creole (the language of the character) and between the oral and the written. The writer is indeed in the passive situation of a listener, whereas Tituba is playing the active role of the speaker, in control of the narrative unfolded through the conversations. Condé, in fact, reproduces the social organization and power's conventional dynamics, in which the one who speaks exerts power over the one who remains silent and the possessor of the written belongs to the ruling class and exerts power over the one who does not write. Condé subverts that dynamics in giving up her position of power as a member of the ruling class, only to become what Antonio Gramsci characterizes as a subaltern. Condé's subversive strategy could be represented by a double chiasma, showing clearly the shift of power and speech from Condé's side to Tituba's.

Lejeune's statement quoted above allows the decoding of the writer's subversive operation also at the level of language and the text. Indeed, the text constituting the narrative is Tituba's; thus it is a "before-text" and is transmitted by her in a language other than the (colonial) master's. Condé's strategy of subversion leads to the empowerment of a voiceless Tituba and gives her the authorial position in the narrative. In giving a voice directly to Tituba, Condé implicitly renounces the status of the magisterial function, allowing thereby a voice to emerge from elsewhere than from an "authority" or from the social location of the writer and her lieu d'élocution. In withdrawing to the unauthorial position of an interpreter or mediator, Condé ensures the authenticity of the character's voice.

Seen from this perspective, Tituba's life story, even if it is a fictional one, assumes a value and a meaning comparable to Rigoberta Menchú's testimonial I, Rigoberta Menchú. Tituba is certainly speaking of herself, but her narrative also tells the story of many other black women who, like her, have been relegated to the margins of history, if not erased from it, reduced to invisibility and silence.

If there are similarities between Tituba's and Rigoberta's cases, there are also differences: one is a fictional character, the other a real-life individual. Rigoberta taught herself Spanish, the language of the dominant class, and communicates with her interviewer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray directly in Spanish, even if her speech is sometimes deficient in grammar. As for Tituba, a slave and uneducated, she could not possibly speak French, the language of the educated class and the official language into which the writer will translate her account. Rigoberta, in telling her story, is from the beginning very well aware that her personal history represents, as she puts it, "everyone's life: the life of all the Guatemaltec poor." She is also aware that she is using the power of speech as a weapon in order to expose the situation of her people and to bring about changes in it. Tituba does not display Rigoberta's political awareness or will, yet her narrative takes on political significance. Although Tituba is speaking only of herself and recounting her individual life, her narrative also encompasses the story of many other black women who, like her, have been relegated to the margins of history, if not erased from it, reduced to invisibility and silence. Both Tituba and Rigoberta, not knowing how to write, have to entrust their story to the mediation of a "writer," who then assumes the responsibility of conveying it.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is the account of a yearlong conversation between the writer and Tituba. The presence of the author of the book as an interlocutor is maintained not by a dialogic inclusive "you" within the narrative, but rather by the oral mode involved in the narration. What Roman Jakobson identifies as the "phatic function," intended to keep the communication between performer and audience flowing, is represented here by the numerous rhetorical questions asked by Tituba. While acknowledging the writer's presence on the scene, the rhetorical questions serve to prevent her from intruding into the narrative and usurping or covering Tituba's voice. The textual strategies used by Condé in shaping the narrative as an oral performance insert Tituba into the traditional cultural context of orality and, at the same time, incorporate the orality conveyed in Tituba's narrative into the context of a new culture: the written one.

Condé introduces Tituba's narrative with an epigraph, which Gérard Genette in Seuils defines as being a quotation outside the text or "en exergue": "Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms. During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else." Genette's commentary on the epigraph enlightens and sets forth the relationship between the writer and her character, between Condé's position outside the text and Tituba's narrative within it. Among the four functions Genette assigns to the epigraph and to its relation to the text, there is the function of commentary on the title and the text. Another is the legitimation of the book author's own text by reference in the epigraph to a well-known figure or authority. For legitimation, Condé does not refer to a well-known author but rather to Tituba herself, thus granting her the status of an authority. With the epigraph, Condé excises herself from the text that follows, or, more precisely, places herself, to quote Genette, at the bord d'œuvre, at the "margin of the work," effacing herself and leaving the entire textual space and a full voice to her character. In textualizing Tituba as an "I," a subject, the writer withdraws her own authority from the narrative. At the same time, via the epigraph, Condé legitimates her own written work, the book, as a faithful interpretation, translation, and transcription of Tituba's oral text and of her voice.

What I am suggesting here is that the tacit pact alluded to earlier has bound writer and character in a collaborative endeavor embedded, on the one hand, in the reverberation between the oral and the written and, on the other, in the shifting of the subject pronouns. In this shifting, the epigraph presents the subject pronoun "I" as the writer/narrator and "she" as Tituba: "Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms. During our endless conversations, she told me things she had confided to nobody before" (emphases added). The narrative itself is a first-person account, with Tituba as the subject recounting her life story from beginning—"I was born from this act of aggression"—to end: "And that is the story of my life" emphases added). In the writer's concluding historical note, which provides closure to the book, the "I" again represents the writer, who refers to Tituba in the third person: "I myself have given her an ending of my own choice," (emphasis added). This shifting interplay of subject pronouns indicates clearly the respective roles of the writer and of Tituba and the responsibilities of each in the construction of the narrative. What appears to be an ambiguity of the writer's position, as pointed out earlier, in fact reflects the cultural configuration of the Caribbean and its dominant trend: métissage and pluralism, at the racial, the cultural, and the linguistic levels.

At this point writer and character, the author of the book and the author of the life story recounted in that book, come together in the making of the narrative, thus achieving a merging of the oral and the written. This strategy blurs the polarization between written and oral and, in this way, puts an end to what Glissant calls "la déchirure et l'ambivalence," the rending and the ambivalence. Furthermore, through the writer's desire for creativity and the character's concern about self-representation, the esthetic and the political become connected within the same textual space, creating a territory for both the writer and Tituba. For both of them, generating a text becomes possible only through the exercise of memory: the author of the book reminding us of her conversations with her character; the character, in her turn, remembering her life and recounting it in order to fill the space of their conversations. Tituba, as suggested earlier, functions as a collaborative enterprise between writer and character in the fulfillment of common concerns: to give a voice to the voiceless black women, to rehabilitate Tituba, and to validate one's cultural heritage in the valorization of the orality which has become the vehicle of the text—Tituba's. If Condé is the "author" of the book that has been written, Tituba definitely emerges as the "author" of the text that allowed the birth of the book.

In the autobiographical narrative unfolded, Tituba's voice is the major and dominant one. Indeed, the narrative tells the life story of "a common Negress," a black slave woman. The authenticity of her voice is preserved thanks to specific narrative strategies implemented by Condé: self-effacement and subversion, interplay with the subject pronouns, and the creation of an autobiographical narrative. Through the mediation of "autobiographical conversations" Tituba engages in an initiation process that relieves her of anxiety about being forgotten and about her survival through the written medium. She reaches a new awareness to other ways of surviving: spiritual motherhood, collective memory, and oral tradition. As she states in her epilogue: "I do not belong to the civilization of the Bible and Bigotry. My people will keep my memory in their hearts and have no need for the written word. It's in their heads. In their hearts and in their heads." Indeed, despite her one-time companion Christopher's condescending statement that she is "nothing but a common Negress" who wants "to be treated like someone special," Tituba will be recollected all over her native island, legendized and immortalized in the folklore of the land, thereby entering history and the collective memory. The following passage, situated in Tituba's afterlife, concludes her autobiographical account:

… And that is the story of my life. Such a bitter, bitter story.

My real story starts where this one leaves off and it has no end. Christopher was wrong or probably he wanted to hurt me—there is a song about Titubal I hear it from one end of the island to the other, from North Point to Silver Sands, from Bridgetown to Bottom Bay. It runs along the ridge of the hills. It is poised on the tip of the heliconia….

I hear it wherever I go.

In the official accounts mentioning Tituba, she has been constructed and fixed in the negative figure of a witch. Her own account in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem seems to suggest that her condemnation as a witch was, in actuality, the resounding projection of the fears and obsessions of a community: first, the Puritan community of Massachusetts, which condemned her; then the community of slave owners, who, because she became a revolutionary, put her to death for political reasons. The autobiographical form in which Tituba tells her story positions her as the narrating subject who proclaims her identity: "I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem." Her life story as she recounts it brings up questions of identity, of origins, of race, of access to language, of the power of language.

For Tituba, telling her story means also remembering her genesis: where and how it started, where and how it will end. The recounting of her life becomes also a therapeutic means of healing her complex about exile, the anxiety about identity, linked at least partially to the absence of a national or ethnic genealogy because of the transplantation and the absence of a legitimate genealogy, since her coming into the world originated in an act of violence aboard the slave ship: "Abena, my mother, was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16∗∗ while the ship was sailing for Barbados. I was born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt." Although in the land of slavery, Tituba grows up as a happy child in the home of a stepfather, Yao, whose presence and affection compensate for her rejection on the part of her mother, in the mind of whom Tituba was the living memory of the violence endured on the slave ship. After her mother has been hanged and her stepfather sold, Tituba is adopted by an old woman, Mama Yaya, who introduces her to the magic realism of the Caribbean, perpetuating the African traditions, and believes in contact with the spirit world and the African art of healing with plants. While living in Massachusetts, and after returning to her homeland of Barbados, Tituba retains her healing powers. In endorsing the identity of "the black witch of Salem," Tituba subverts and disrupts the meaning ascribed to it by hegemonic institutions: the Church and the slave masters who condemned her for "witchcraft."

What is a witch? I noticed that when he said the word, it was marked with disapproval. Why should that be? Why? Isn't the ability to communicate with the invisible world, to keep constant links with the dead, to care for others and heal, a superior gift of nature that inspires respect, admiration, and gratitude? Consequently, shouldn't the witch (if that's what the person who has this gift is to be called) be cherished and revered rather than feared?

These question marks translate Tituba's anxiety about the asymmetry and the disjunction between what she is and society's representation of her. In unfolding the narrative of her life, Tituba wants to restore the integrity of her persona. The strong declaration of the title, I, Tituba, echoes the character's will to speak in an autoreferential mode and to assert a self-ascribed identity, with herself as the narrating instance: the producer and the center of her narrative.

In Tituba's fictional autobiography as well as in real auto-biographies, memory constitutes the matrix from which the narrative is extracted. Tituba, in reconstructing one individual's story, also allegorizes the collective history of the Caribbean. History here conflates into literature, and the text reveals itself as a lieu de mémoire. As Pierre Nora puts it so beautifully [in his "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire," Representations, Vol. 26, Spring, 1989]:

In fact, memory has never known more than two forms of legitimacy: historical and literary. These have run parallel to each other but until now always separately. At present the boundary between the two is blurring; following closely upon the successive deaths of memory-history and memory-fiction, a new kind of history has been born, which owes its prestige and legitimacy to the new relation it maintains to the past. History has become our replaceable imagination—hence the last stand of faltering fiction in the renaissance of the historical novel, the vogue for personalized documents, the literary revitalization of historical drama, the success of the oral historical tale. Our interest in these lieux de mémoire that anchor, condense, and express the exhausted capital of our collective memory derives from this new sensibility.

In transcribing Tituba's voice, Condé, as the writer, has not only joined her in challenging Christopher's assertion about the worthlessness of "a common Negress" but has also empowered her and created a territory for her in history and literature, allowing her to survive as a black female literary character, if not a historical figure.

Roland Barthes's "Death of the Author" and Michel Foucault's "What Is an Author?" challenge the role of the author as the master of the meaning encoded in the text, and contemporary critical theory tends to emphasize the role of the reader as the instance of interpreting and decoding meaning. By declaring "the death of the author," Barthes and Foucault also emphasize intertextuality. The disappearance of Condé from the narrative told by Tituba acknowledges and illuminates the inscription of orality into written form as well as the intertextuality between the two media. This could be deciphered in the relation between the epigraph en exergue and Tituba's text itself. In declaring the death of the author, Barthes and Foucault also challenge the authority of the book's author to ascribe a definitive meaning to the text. As for Condé, she asks Anne Scarborough, her interviewer in the U.S. edition of Tituba, "not to take Tituba too seriously," and she characterizes Tituba as a "mock-epic" heroine. For my part, as a reader or as a critic, I would like to believe that Tituba's life is neither a trivial subject matter nor a burlesque story. Without forsaking the parodic dimension of Tituba, I contend that Condé's strategies of subversion and self-effacement inform the semantics and the structure of the narrative, bestowing on Tituba a political significance and seriousness that, to quote Condé herself, "turns her into a female hero, an epic heroine."

Despite her declaration of not being "interested in giving models to young people," Condé has created in Tituba an exemplary character. Defying the official history, she has produced a counterhistory and substituted for the heroes of the Other's history (the well-known "nos ancêtres les Gaulois") a national hero who is a female. Condé has brought Tituba's voice out of silence and has added her name to those of Caribbean historical figures: Toussaint L'Ouverture, Makandal, Delgrès. I do not know if Tituba would have considered herself a heroic figure, and it does not matter if Condé's Tituba is not the historical Tituba; myths very often become more powerful than history. In fact, what I would like to ascertain is the role, the contribution, and the impact of the critics' work in shaping the destiny of a literary work. If the discourse developed by critics—in forewords, afterwords, or essays—seems sometimes to interfere with the voice of the narrating character, it nevertheless contributes to the diffusion and the recognition of the work, its presence in time and space as well as the continuation of the character's presence. Seen from this perspective, Tituba's narrative proclaims a victory over voicelessness and erasure, over effacement and exclusion. In asserting herself as "I, Tituba," Tituba comes into existence and signals the end of marginalization, the end of exile from language, literature, and history.

Hal Wylie (essay date Autumn 1993)

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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 published biographical information that she has lived in Guadeloupe, France, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, Jamaica, and Manhattan. Extrapolation from her works indicates that she has probably also spent some time in Mali, Barbados, Panama, South Carolina, Haiti, and Dahomey. She sees no contradiction between being Antillean and a wanderer. She has stated [in her "Notes d'un retour au pays natal"]: "Etre Antillais, finalement, je ne sais toujours pas très bien ce que ca veut dire!… Est-ce qu'un écrivain ne pourrait pas être constamment errant, constamment à la recherche d'autres hommes?" She shares many of the attributes of the traditional literary figures of the knight errant, the troubadour, and perhaps the Wandering Jew.

Early readers realized that the relation between the Antilles and Africa was an important concern, as Hérémakhonon (1976; Eng. Heremakhonon) and Une saison à Rihata (1981; Eng. A Season in Rihata) showed the problems her protagonists from the West Indies had in adapting to life in Africa. Ségou (1984; Eng. Segu and Children of Segu) sent her African characters to Jamaica and Brazil in the New World, but when she tackled the United States in Moi, Tituba, sorcière … Noire de Salem (1986; Eng. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem), a new dimension was added. Two of her most recent works have gone beyond Tituba in exploring the connections between the Caribbean and the U.S., by analyzing this relation throughout a prolonged period of time and by adding more places into the equation.

Is it fair to say that most of the universal classics of literature explore one place in depth, and that the concentration derived from unity of place is a major technique to increase literary density? (Of course there is The Odyssey, but even that explores the mythic Mediterranean of the Greeks.) The psychology of assimilation and culture shock seems to be a modern theme, one that has perhaps been most thoroughly explored by Francophone writers, especially in the Negritude tradition by such writers as Fanon, Césaire, Senghor, Camara Laye, Mongo Béti, and Sembène.

We may have arrived, however, at a new phase of transcultural and intercultural exploration with the works of V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, which seem to transcend the colonizer/colonized dichotomy to take a global approach to the problem. Jonathan Ngate has compared Condé to Naipaul in his article "Maryse Condé and Africa: The Making of a Recalcitrant Daughter." After noting Condé's "toughmindedness" and "her clear sense of history," he attacks her hostility toward Negritude and her preference for Naipaul, citing her statement that "Naipaul … est un esprit très contestataire, très négatif, très nihiliste." He focuses on the importance of negativity, ambiguity, and irony for both writers. Both may be seen as relishing the role of devil's advocate and a refusal to acquiesce in accepting the slogans and simple theories that characterize the early politicizations of intercultural conflict. Naipaul, Rushdie, and Condé insist upon taking their analysis a step or two deeper, to go beyond simple dualities like black/white, male/female, or First World/Third World to examine the swarming multiplicity of realities, situations, positions in the vast panoply of the social world, where many nations, many cultures, many religions, many personality types clash and try to harmonize. Their works tend to stretch out and grow longer in the effort to synthesize all the nuances of the truth in all its over-whelming variegation. For them it is impossible to separate the political from the literary. For instance, in La vie scélérate (1987; Eng. Tree of Life) Condé furnishes many examples of the harm caused by a too-rapid understanding of a problem, the central one being the death of the second Albert Louis, "killed" by his own father for fathering a half-breed child. We might state that these writers see their political contribution as purely a literary analysis, except that even this is too simplistic, it seems, now that apparently Maryse Condé has consented to run for office on an "independence" ticket.

Condé's transcendental cosmopolitanism may have its roots in a certain ambiguity of class, in that, like Rimbaud and Zola, she experienced a major shift in the family fortune when she was quite young (although in the opposite direction). Like Arthur and Emile, she might be said to have experienced both working-class and bourgeois cultures and be unable to see reality through one or the other. Her interview in Callaloo with Vèvè A. Clark brought to light much fascinating information, including the fact that her father's change of profession from teacher to banker made the family rich. Condé also talked about her own family politics and her special situation as an "enfant gâté." This seems of interest given the attention she lavishes on family politics in her novels. She also admits in the interview to "un penchant pour la controverse" and to being "douée pour la caricature." Of course this early understanding of the great complexity of human reality was enriched by her study in France and her marriage in Africa, where her daughters were born.

It seems Condé might accept the view that everything is political in her awareness of the political aspect of family life, culture, economics, religion, and the relations between the sexes. Her works insist on the complexities of the interrelations among all these domains. One reason she may have waited so long to write about her own island while examining Africa is that she may have felt unable to cope with all the ramifications known from in-depth experience and may have preferred to describe the more distanced material of Africa, which she could handle with more objectivity, though the tantalizingly bizarre character of Véronica (in Hérémakhonon)—which she labeled as a sort of "anti-moi"—impinges on Caribbean culture.

The first two international surprises in Condé's works were the difficulties experienced in Africa by her Caribbean heroines in Hérémakhonon and Une saison à Rihata and the opening out of the African world of Ségou to the Anglophone world of the Gold Coast and Jamaica. Many had insisted on the unity of Africa before, but not many writers had involved their characters in both Francophone and Anglophone worlds. When the focus shifted back home to the Caribbean, readers were surprised by the emphasis on the U.S. Perhaps we should have been less surprised, since clearly the Caribbean has been an "American lake" in the twentieth century, and neocolonial lines of force leading to the U.S. have supplanted the old colonial ties to a large extent.

Condé is a writer who reminds one of Voltaire, in several ways. 1) She prefers to study cultures, generations, and worlds rather than limit her focus to one individual. Her big works are all genealogical studies of generations and family histories, showing how an individual reflects an evolutionary pattern deriving from family and culture in history. 2) She keeps her distance from her inventions, her characters, and is not averse to subjugating them to shocking and sadistic treatment, to using them like marionettes so that by pulling strings she can dramatize certain abstract points. Some have characterized her works as soap operas. 3) She may be seen as something of a social philosopher, concerned with certain abstract social patterns that can only be understood across a large expanse of time and space. 4) She seems to like to conduct rather outrageous social experiments. Where Voltaire can see what might happen if a Saturnian came to Earth, Condé can try out what would happen if an African king visited his kinsmen in the New World (Les derniers rois mages [The Last Magi; 1992]).

All of Condé's works seem to manifest the openmindedness of the empirical scientist conducting an experiment, but the earlier works displayed more reliance on preconceived ideas and theories. There is not much theory describing the social results of late-twentieth-century immigration to the United States and/or the impact on French and Creole speakers arriving here. Francophone writers have not by and large, related to the States; Léon Damas is the note-worthy exception. So it is a rather original experiment for Condé to bring herself here to explore the intercultural territory, and even more original to send her characters on their way to America. Condé seems to be defining herself increasingly through the active dialogue in American literary journals like Callaloo and through her interactions with her "network of loyal friends in the U.S.," mostly literary scholars. What might be some of the factors in this choice?

One surely is the desire to strike out into new literary territory and to avoid repeating what others have done. Francophone African literature is full of interesting stories of Africans' and West Indians' adventures in France. Another seems to be a desire to break out of established limits of the Francophone world, to become a "universal" or world writer. Another might be to look for those dramatic encounters of a little-expected kind based on bringing vastly different beings together. New surprises, new colors, new permutations are produced. One last explanation might be the necessity to bring back into play historical facts lost for many years in the archives Condé loves to frequent. La vie scélérate and Les derniers rois mages both seem sustained meditations on just how relevant is history. Are we determined or obsessed by history? One example is the Panama Canal. The building of the canal can be seen as a dead fact. It also seems to have provided a certain inspiration for the writing of La vie scélérate. The political relevance of the information Condé puts before us (the use of Third World workers to build the canal and their dying like flies in the effort) to the America of today and its involvement in Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, et cetera—this relevance seems obvious. The racism of America in the 1920s and the lynchings deserve reconsideration in the 1990s, thinks our author. (It is the gratuitous "lynching" of his friend Jacob in the San Francisco bar that sends patriarch Albert back to Guadeloupe to found his dynasty.) Marshall McLuhan said that electronic communications had woven the world together into a tribal village, and Condé wants to get to the central switchboard.

Perhaps it is too early to come up with generalizations about the postmodern, postindustrial, postcolonial relations between the Third World and the United States, but certain items may be noted in Condé's literary experiments. We must be patient, however, because, like André Gide, Condé is more concerned with asking the right question than providing an answer, especially when one considers the rapid proliferation of social and literary theory in the late days of the twentieth century, when we are so aware of the multiplicity of variables to take into account: race, class, and sex, of course, but also identity, language, culture, religion, family, roles and professions, and even sexual persuasions. [In a review of Moi, Tituba, Sorciere … Noire de Salem], Charlotte Bruner has noted that all of "Condé's major fiction is rooted in a study of power," and Condé herself has stated in an interview that the Carribbean islands are always affected by American policy and that "c'est à cause de l'Amérique que plusieurs îles ont des problèmes." In the interview she calls upon Americans to familiarize themselves with the culturally rich island peoples to their south. Writers are more aware than those who gain their information about the world from TV news and journalism that power is not merely military and economic but has its foundation in ideas and beliefs, in symbols and myths. Condé is aware of the power of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and America's dominance in the area of international photojournalism. Two minor works give us clues to her own attitudes, which tend to be hidden behind those of her characters in the major novels.

One strange link between her island and the U.S. was Hurricane Hugo of 1989, which left such an impact on Condé that she made a children's book, Hugo le terrible, from it. The storm may also have led her to choose South Carolina as the setting for Les derniers rois mages. Characters in Hugo debate the nature and desirability of going to the States. America's "marvelous" democracy, skyscrapers, and technology are opposed to its oppressed minorities and homelessness in the debate of "les opinions les plus contradictoires sur ce pays." The most telling detail, however, is an aspect of the plot dealing with how information from the Third World is gathered and disseminated to the world. At the outset of the story photographers arrive to cover the hurricane, admitting that they play the role of "voyeurs." The most interesting subplot involves an adolescent boy who takes advantage of the chaos and steals a camera in order to take pictures to send to France. He ends up selling them, however, for a thousand francs to an American photographer who has flown in from New York. In germinal form many of the U.S./Third World connections are demonstrated here: the redirection of Third World energies and attitudes by American economic and journalistic power; the selective nature of the American regard directed toward the Third World, which looks only for sensation and disaster there; the imposition of this American vision on the people of the Third World themselves; and the perverse nature of the whole process. (The native photographer has access to realities the international outsider does not and does not hesitate to intrude into the misery of his neighbors.)

Condé's view of the nature of this informational struggle is further revealed in another minor and surprising work, a seemingly official tourist-promotion book, Guadeloupe, with beautiful photographs by Jean de Boisberranger, wherein Condé seems to have decided to collaborate in a suspect genre in order to redirect its message and slant. Instead of fighting tourism, her attitude seems to be to use the genre to educate and inform the tourist of the social realities as seen by the permanent resident, while also furnishing the tour information needed. She elevates journalism to the status of literature. Or it might be better to say she sees journalism as an important form of popular literature, with an important power that must be redirected.

Condé begins her text by listing a number of "idées reçues à balayer" and leads the reader through a social and cultural description of the island, eventually plunging right into the critical politics of the struggle for independence, a very controversial and divisive matter for both Martinique and Guadeloupe. She concedes that only 3 percent have voted for independence candidates, but sees the option as much more important than that figure would indicate. She speaks directly to the tourist-reader in a friendly tone of equality, with the implication that the cooperative collaboration of rich and poor from the First and Third Worlds be in everyone's mutual interest. Her last words describe the sadness of "Les Saintes" islanders (part of Guadeloupe) because of the "hemorrhaging" of their population as young people leave for the imperial centers.

Micheline Rice-Maximin and I invited Maryse Condé to speak in San Antonio and Austin in April of 1986. The French Department lounge at University of Texas in Austin was packed when she addressed us on the women writers of her island. She told us she was resigning her professional position at the University of Paris and was going to live in Guadeloupe and write for Guadeloupe. Some of us were therefore surprised thereafter when we learned she was teaching at Berkeley, but she has indeed made an effort to write specifically for Guadeloupe. Françoise Lionnet interprets Traversée de la mangrove (Crossing the Mangrove; 1989) as the major effort to express literarily this "return to her native land," which was also a return to writing about the present. Another example is more specific: An tan revolisyon, a play financed and published by the Conseil Régional (of Guadeloupe). Contrasting this work with the cosmopolitan novels is revealing.

Although the title is in Creole, the text is in French, but with a note that Creole may be used "partout où voudra, sauf pour le conteur." The title seems to mean "Longtemps révolution" (Longtime Revolution). Although it would be difficult to evaluate the success of this play showing the French Revolution from the Guadeloupean standpoint, it seems likely that it was received favorably in Guadeloupe. The book form seems less successful. The typesetting and printing are disappointing, and distribution was undoubtedly quite limited. Condé must have enjoyed working with the local people to produce the play, but any clearheaded person, especially one interested in power, could derive obvious conclusions about the objective, material facts of the natures of these two kinds of literature (i. e., writing for a local audience versus publishing with international publishing houses texts designed for transnational consumption). Condé seems to be very lucid about her own talents and work and must consider addressing the issue of the loss of Third World youth (the ones on whom the play is least likely to have made an impact) in the international arena more important than the development of a purely local literature. In directly addressing the problem of immigration (and other international connections) in her cosmopolitan writings, she undoubtedly feels she can have a greater political impact in both the local and international arenas.

Just as we are drowned in information amid the din of radio and TV and the deluge of paper, we are overwhelmed by historical detail. The question is to find that which is relevant and meaningful and to apply it correctly to our lives. I believe literature is the tool we use to carry out this operation. Marshall McLuhan says one of the roles of the writer is to warn us of the perils of the future by interpreting the past. Les derniers rois mages surprises by adding a new element, antithetical to the earlier conception of history in Condé's works. The protagonist comes to view himself as having been victimized by history and its cultivation, and he rebels. We might say that the novel takes up historiography as a theme. It seems that Condé is refining her understanding of the importance and nature of history.

We are all obviously victims of history, predestined to inherit a biological form, predispositions, a family, an ethnic, religious, and national culture, a language, and an economic situation. There is little we can do to modify them when we are children, during our formative years. To rebel against this history is foolish. But Spéro, the protagonist of Les derniers rois mages, becomes critical of the tendency to focus on knowing the past to the extent of becoming fixated on it, which weakens the ability to live in the present, to see the freedom and freshness of the existential moment. There are many qualities in Spéro that make him different from his ancestors and from his wife Debbie, from those who tend to make of the past a fetish. He is an artist, whose eye seeks the essence of the object precisely in the way in which the existing object transcends its determinants, who prefers the light touch of water-color and its power to capture transitory, ephemeral qualities and who loves to paint the old buildings of Charleston and children's faces, even though the houses were those of the slaveholders and represent historically a system based on slavery and oppression. Debbie, in her insistence upon imposing a political interpretation, a priori, on his art, has ruined its spontaneity, so that the resultant oil paintings are mere illustrations of historical points.

Debbie is the antagonist and antithesis to her husband Spéro. In this bad marriage, doomed by her bad faith from the start, she represents all that is wrong about history, or a certain use of it. She married the uneducated Guadeloupean because he was the descendant of an African king. Unlike most African Americans in the United States, he could trace his genealogy. In fact, his father had made this history into a cult and ritual based upon the "Cahiers" (notebooks) written by his father in an effort to fixate the fragmentary remembrances of his father, the African king in exile in Martinique. The image of these West Indian princes of Africa is a source of derision and alienation, related to the males' dependence on women in this lineage and their inability to affirm their male existence. While repeating the pattern, Spéro comes closest to breaking out of the rut. Ironically, his daughter does, to a certain extent, by finally going back to Dahomey, now Bénin. Unfortunately, we never find out how she does there and if this return is a true break or more of the same.

Debbie is a historian, one who has seemingly lost control of her materials and is now drowning in the flotsam of oral history, endlessly tape-recording the senile reminiscences of an egoistic elder and enmeshing those around her in her oppressive web. She compulsively imposes a moralistic reading on the story of her ancestors and on the history of her race.

That is my reading of this problematic story, which I realize may be seen as one-sided. One of the virtues of Condé's storytelling technique is that she (like Rushdie) tells such good stories that they resemble those drawn directly from life: they have all the ambiguity, realism, resistance to interpretation of lived experience. Would Condé go so far as to agree with the husband in this couple? With the philandering male, the unproductive, undisciplined father who hates Mickey Mouse and wonders if he might have been tempted to sexually abuse his own daughter? The novel ends with his attempted suicide as he judges himself quite severely, but his judgment, as judge, seems the most clear and perceptive of all the characters (he is Guadeloupean, after all). His mind has the dialectical play of the author's. He knows a higher form of history, one not marked by a revisionist interpretation that falsifies the story by imposing a "logical" reading. He understands history as a nonlinear, multifarious, ambiguous, contradictory entity, often displeasing to the theorist.

The story of the African king, partly told in the "Cahiers," reads like a cruel joke (although we must remember the framing of this story within a story). This king is descended from the panther whose "enormous scarlet erection seemed like a barbarous flower" to the African maiden destined to become his wife and mother of the dynasty. We learn that the funerals of these kings involved the death of scores of wives and hundreds if not thousands of slaves. Condé's satiric re-creation of the African kingdom is mocking; the last king, Spéro's great-grandfather, is shown to have been happiest wandering in the woods after the loss of his power and property to the French. It seems clear Condé does not like African kings.

In the public lecture given just before the opening of the Puterbaugh Conference at the University of Oklahoma on 25 March 1993, Maryse Condé talked about how we are haunted by history. The use of ghosts has become more forceful as it has evolved from Ségou to Tituba, from La vie scélérate to Les derniers rois mages. In Tituba and La vie scélérate the ghosts are literal and seem used mainly for melodramatic impact as a kind of narrative shorthand. In Les derniers rois mages they are metaphorically woven into the narrative framework. The last king and his son and grandson all lose themselves in schizophrenic mythomania in which they become their ancestor(s). Spéro, while disidentifying with his predecessors, is haunted by crabs swarming over and attacking his body in a repeated nightmare associated with his self-critique and loss of nerve, which recapitulates the story of the third "Cahier" entitled "Totem and Taboo" that describes the role of the "genies" or spirits of the animals, which both protect and punish. Spéro comes to see his alienation from Debbie as derived from "all the cadavers between them."

The postmodern writer needs ghosts and sorcery and all the magic of "marvelous realism" to cope with the complexities of our late-twentieth-century reality. Condé, for whom "Africa is no longer in Africa" and "America is no longer America," for whom the essence of present-day Guadeloupe is impossible to know, uses ironic reversals (e. g., the daughter of the actual African prince in La vie scélérate, abandoned by father and mother, is brought up by a simple Breton [white] wet nurse) and feedback loops (back and forth across the Atlantic, from Africa to America in Ségou and Les derniers rois mages, from the U.S. to Guadeloupe in La vie scélérate) to short-circuit history and get right to essential meanings. The presence of a significant outsider in a foreign culture (Spéro in South Carolina, Albert Louis in San Francisco, Tituba in Salem) quickly throws certain values into relief. They may be seen as living ghosts and further explain the cosmopolitan tendency in Condé.

Condé's two recent epic novels show a synthesis that goes beyond the first-level history of Tituba and Ségou, which deal only with the relatively distant past. They both attempt to integrate the past with the present by tracing all connections right through to the present. The result, however, is another paradox: the past seems clearer, more interesting, more meaningful, and of course more literary. Perhaps it is endemic to the genre that the ancestors always emerge as the Titans; perhaps that is history, but Albert Louis looms above all the others in La vie scélérate, even over the narrator, whose life might be seen as equally interesting. Perhaps we tend to devalue our own time as banal and prosaic.

Still, Condé's ambitious insistence upon seeking the links between the generations, and between the ethnic groups, must be seen as a quest for the meaningful factors of our time. We must learn how to make the ghosts work for us rather than being haunted by them. At one point in Les derniers rois mages Spéro wonders about the significance of being black and concludes, "Pourtant, cela a-t-il encore une signification?" Both La vie scélérate and Les derniers rois mages analyze the evolution of racial identity in the complexities of time and space and effect a kind of demystification of identity. Condé seems to be groping beyond identity to look for the universal meaning, the touchstone values that may have been lost sight of or even that may remain to be defined. Africa, America, and Guadeloupe have changed; they are no longer themselves in the sense that their old myths are no longer functional in defining the geographic or social realities. Spéro and Claude "Coco" Elaïse Louis, the storyteller of La vie scélérate, are lost souls, unable to assert an identity comparable to those of their ancestors of the Titan generation, but they may be better guides for us in our days of whimper, when everything, indeed, does fall apart. Nothing is to be gained by inventing a new myth of Africa or positing a new identity for Guadeloupe apart from the global reality. We must now look at all the scrambled pieces and try to assemble a new image of totality and harmony capable of reflecting the complex interactions of a multicultural and multifarious entity.

Miller Newman (review date Spring 1994)

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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 a job with the Americans who are paying $.90 an hour for laborers to work on the canal project. Coco recreates her ancestor's encounter with the first of his life's trials, and a family legacy of economic success at the expense of personal happiness is set into motion.

Coco ends her family's odyssey with the revelation that it is she who will be forced to "recount this story … a story of very ordinary people who in their very ordinary way had nonetheless made blood flow." Coco is right. The story is indeed about ordinary people who, when faced with the hand life dealt them, played it out. There are no real heroes in The Tree of Life, only fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who love and hate each other. They demand much of the world and get little for their trouble.

Predictably, the men drink, marry as best they can, take mistresses, try politics, run their businesses, and in between have children who break their hearts, resent them for selling out to the establishment, spend their money, and act injured when their parents do not understand the motives for their childish abuses, Prejudice, politics, oppression, and, on an occasion or two, natural disasters all prove obstacles that the Louis family must overcome.

Condé's use of the family's ghosts to advance the plot or explain away the bizarre, however, tests the reader's patience. True to what I have come to believe is a cultural tendency, Condé revives her use of apparitions in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Her cadre of benign ghosts includes Mama Yaya, the woman who reared Tituba when her mother, Abena, was hanged by her owner; Abena herself; and Yao, Abena's husband, who killed himself when Abena was hanged. Arming Tituba with an arsenal of supernatural kinfolk, herbal medicines, fervent prayer, and blood sacrifices, Condé creates a credible scenario of Tituba's part in the Salem witch trials. The Caspar-like apparitions and the self-martyrdom of Louis's granddaughter Thécla, whose disappointment with life results in her abandoning her family for the life of a wandering slut in search of redemption sets the reader's blood pounding.

What is most affecting in this story, however, is the chillingly realistic retelling of the Salem witch hunts. Condé weaves the fabric of her story so tightly that the reader is pulled through the Salem trials as if tied to the end of a spinner's shuttle. It is difficult to tell when reading the novel whether the air is sucked out of the reader's lungs by the very powers Tituba is supposed to have or by the sense of foreboding Condé creates with her powerful words. I closed the book more than once when the hair on the back of my neck began to rise at the deeds of Sam Paris in the name of God. I wanted no part of this vivid recreation of the acts of slavers, zealots, and mean-spirited humans.

Tituba is born to a life of troubles, observes Mama Yaya and, with the innocence of youth and a surge of hormones, Tituba strides boldly to her destiny. "Oh, God, why can't women do without men?" This is Tituba's epitaph and the theme for the novel. Her trials start with John Indian, a slave who appears outside her house. From then on, her every move seems to be dictated by her need for a man.

Tituba is a victim, first of the master who drives her off his land after he kills her mother, then of John Indian. When she fights back; she is forced into a life of servitude by John Indian's owner, who sells him to Paris. Since Tituba cannot live without John Indian, she becomes a slave to the Paris family as well. Tituba leaves her beloved island, Barbados, and her family of apparitions only to face the cold and unerring justice of the people of Salem. "Do I have to go on to the end? Hasn't the reader already guessed what is going to happen?" Tituba cries. To Condé's credit, the answer is no. Although Condé alludes to Tituba's destiny from the beginning, those of us who believe in happy endings or justice for the oppressed read on, hoping to see our heroine vindicated or, at least, at peace.