‘For a writer there is no mother tongue: he forges his own language according to his or her needs’: A Q&A with Maryse Condé

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Our Author of the Month for August is Maryse Condé. You can find out more about her work here.

LRB: Maryse, I believe you’ve been a writer since a very young age, and your first work was a one-act play written for your mother’s birthday. Were your parents a strong influence in determining your future career?

MC: My parents were old when I was born – my mother was 43 and my father 63 – consequently they had no influence on my writing since by the time I had become a writer they had died. They belonged to the embryo of a black bourgeoisie in Guadeloupe. My mother was the first black school teacher of her generation. My mother’s character, however, always intrigued me. She was the daughter of an illiterate cook, Victoire, employed by a white family. My mother was very fond of her but also ashamed of her and it was this duality which explained her complex attitude to the world. I tried to explain all that in my book Victoire, My Mother’s Mother. Understanding my mother was a way of understanding myself and the education I received.

LRB: You’ve spent many years living and teaching in Africa, and perhaps your most celebrated book Segu was described in the New York Times as ‘The most significant novel about black Africa in many a year.’ Could you tell us a little about how, as a Caribbean, Africa has functioned for you as a writer, as subject and symbol, and indeed home?

MC: When I was young, my parents never told me about Africa or mentioned slavery. I suppose they were ashamed of this terrible past and believed they deserved it since, as the colonizers said, Africans were not fully human beings. I discovered all the lies of colonization when I was a student in Paris. The father of my best friend in Paris was a history professor at the Sorbonne and he explained to me the deportation and enslavement of the Africans in the Caribbean. It was thanks to him that I discovered my origin was in Africa. It was the reason I spent so many years in West Africa looking for this past which had been hidden from me. The description I gave of Segu was not accepted everywhere by the Africans since I was a woman and a Caribbean.

LRB: As a writer language is clearly crucially important to you. Are there, do you think, particular challenges and opportunities presented by writing about the legacy of colonialism in French, given that the language is itself part of that legacy?

MC: French has become my own language and I have assimilated it. No other language can portray my dreams, desires and difficulties. I like to say that I write in Maryse Condé which means I use the French language according to my inner self. In fact, for a writer there is no mother tongue and he forges his own language according to his or her needs. That is why I was never involved in the debate about French and Creole as a writer’s language, the former being seen as the colonizer’s language and the latter as the indigenous language born in the plantation system of the Caribbean.

LRB: Congratulations on winning the alternative Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018, which was richly deserved. Have you any thoughts about the usefulness and importance of such prizes and awards in promoting literature and its readership?

MC: I was very proud and happy to receive this award. I said in my Stockholm speech Guadeloupe is only mentioned internationally when there is a hurricane or an earthquake, so it was great that the voice of Guadeloupe could be heard at another level. I noticed that following the award there were numerous demands for translations of my work, thus initiating a new readership.

LRB: Finally, political activism has always been an important part of your personal and literary project, but without necessarily restricting yourself to the political, and at the risk of seeming either vague or vacuous or both, what do you most fervently wish for in the world, and for future generations?

MC: My answer will be very banal. I hope that the world will be more tolerant, open to differences and more harmonious, that people will not have to migrate for a better life elsewhere. I am very fond of the song by the French group Telephone which says that one day the earth will be round.

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