Maryse Condé | Guadeloupean ‘Grand Storyteller’ Passes Away Aged 90

The revered writer exploring Caribbean and African identities, peacefully passed away in southeastern France. Her vast body of work leaves an indelible mark.

by GRIOT - Published on 04/04/2024
Maryse Condé in her house in Gordes, southern France (7 October, 2021) Photo: Clement Mahoudeau, via Jelly

Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, a prominent voice in international and Francophone literature, passed away peacefully in her sleep at Apt hospital. Born Maryse Boucolon on February 11, 1934, in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the youngest of eight children she dedicated her life to exploring Caribbean and African identities, addressing themes of Africa’s history, slavery’s legacy, and Black culture in approximately thirty mostly fictional works.

Since childhood, Condé was an avid reader. However, her deeply religious mother disapproved of her spending time imagining and writing stories, dismissing them as “a load of lies“(1). At the age of eight, Condé wrote a one-act play dedicated to her mother. Tragically, both of her parents passed away before she gained recognition as a writer. Though she never knew her illiterate mulatto maternal grandmother from Marie-Galante, she reconstructed her life in Victoire, les saveurs et les mots (2006, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother), delving into the complexities of family relationships.

Following an affair with Haitian journalist and activist Jean Léopold Dominique, she became pregnant of his first child, the novelist Denis Boucolon. In 1958, she wed Guinean actor Mamadou Condé, a decision she later acknowledged as a means of reclaiming her status as a Black single mother. However, their relationship quickly soured, prompting Condé to relocate to Ivory Coast. Over the next decade, she lived in various African countries, including Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Ghana, where she encountered influential figures such as Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Julius Nyerere, Maya Angelou, future Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, and Senegalese filmmaker and author Ousmane Sembène.

While studying at the Sorbonne, she immersed herself in African history and the struggles against slavery, finding solidarity within the Communist movement.

Critically, Condé questioned the limitations of the “negritude” concept advocated by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, arguing against essentializing racial identities. Despite facing personal challenges, including the loss of her mother, racism, and marital difficulties, Condé pursued her passion for writing, supported by her partner Richard Philcox.

Maryse Condé at home in Provence, France. Photo: Violette Franchi/the New York Times via O Globo

Condé’s literary career blossomed in her forties, marked by notable works like the 1976 Hérémakhonon, her debut novel that explores the internal journey of a Paris-educated Guadeloupean woman in search of her identity; and the 1984 acclaimed two-volume epic Ségou, depicting Mali’s history. She advocated for Guadeloupe’s independence before teaching French literature at American universities, ultimately retiring in southeastern France.

Following her teaching stints in New York, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, Condé retired in 2005. She chronicled her life in two memoirs: Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood in 2001, and What is Africa to Me? in 2017. Her literary contributions were acknowledged with France’s Legion of Honour in 2004, and she garnered a spot on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize, then a lifetime achievement award, in 2015. Although she was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, she received the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018 from the “New Academy”.

Florence Démocrite, a professor of history and geography at the Académie de Guadeloupe at Pointe-à-Pitre, expressed how Condé’s writing vividly captured her memories of Guadeloupe, underscoring her impact as both a feminist and humanist role model. Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo lauded Maryse Condé as an “extraordinary storyteller,” describing her epic Segu as “unputdownable and unforgettable.” Author Justin Torres added, “One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.”

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Condé as a towering figure whose unique and universal language depicted the struggles and aspirations of diverse cultures.

Condé’s publisher, Laurent Laffont, praised her courage and influence, emphasizing how she inspired numerous writers to join her in the literary journey. Meanwhile, Franco-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou lauded her as the “Grande Dame of World Letters,” highlighting her commitment to exploring humanism through identity and historical complexities.

(1) ‘Giving Voice to Guadeloupe‘ by Maryse Condé, The York Review of Books, February 6, 2019
(2) Conversations with Maryse Condé, by Maryse Condé and Françoise Pfaff, 1996, p. 2

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