People are showing an increased interest in Francophone Caribbean literature in the United States. Although ignored for a long time, academic circles have started to notice its writers in recent years. Solicited by a number of establishments in the country, novelist Maryse Condé finally settled in New York in 1995 where she accepted a post at the prestigious Columbia University. Here she evokes her experience as a West Indian in New York.
You have taught in Africa and in France. What brought you to America?
In 1985, I was invited to teach at Berkeley in California for a year. Other proposals followed the Universities of Virginia, Maryland, Harvard, and finally Columbia here in New York.
Each time, you were attached to these universities’ French departments. Was it hard to impose your specificity as a Francophone writer?
A group of lecturers are fighting in that direction. There is a kind of myth that America is very open to Caribbean/Francophone studies. It’s not really the case, however. It is definitely more open than France, but we have constantly to fight to impose our specificity. Fortunately, the students and young researchers are very interested, which is motivating.
What type of student comes to your classes?
Columbia is an « Ivy League », conservative university. As a result, the « minorities », as they’re called here, are not very well represented. However, there are a few second-generation Haitian students. This interest in Caribbean literature offers them a way to connect with their parents’ identity, with an elsewhere they dream of in a sense. It is a way of trying to construct their own identities in relation to America.
Are African-Americans also interested in this « elsewhere »?
They are not at all interested in the Caribbean. It doesn’t exist for them. It’s too small, uninteresting, and unimportant. They are interested in Africa, on the other hand, but the relation they have to Africa is always quite mythical. They imagine a somewhat paradisiacal Africa, an Africa of the past, of the days of kings and princes, when everything was beautiful It’s a mythical relationship, therefore, which I think is necessary, but which doesn’t help them to understand the realities of the 21st century.
You evoke the theme of cultural alienation, which your own parents suffered from, in your latest novel, Le coeur à rire et à pleurer. Do the African-Americans suffer from this same problem?
I think it’s very complex for them. That is why I have never tried to judge the African-Americans. They are attached to their African origins to a certain extent, but as I said, they mythicize Africa. They don’t really know what Africa is, but they feel attached to it. But, at the same time, in the reality of their relationships, they are terribly American. So, there is a kind of contradiction here, which makes relationships with them quite difficult. For example, they reproach the West Indians, people like me, for being too familiar, too intimate almost, with the Western world. Yet they are just as intimate with the white American world. They don’t realise how similar they are. In short, they are a little bit set in a mould, but they claim to be different. Relationships with them are always a bit unsettled, therefore. I don’t know whether we can talk about alienation in their case, but certainly a confusion.
You are a lecturer and a prolific writer too. Has New York been a source of inspiration?
I have been marked by the theme of violence, and particularly rape. There is also that ambient aggressiveness towards black people, like the murder of Amadou Diallo, for example. I think that this has given me a kind of sharpness that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed in Guadeloupe, or even in France, where things are always a bit more cushioned. Living in America really gives you the impression that you don’t belong to the Western world.
How would you describe your experience of New York so far?
It’s a positive experience, in the respect that it is possible for me to be myself, without referring to a model. Being Guadeloupean in France involves conforming to a dominant model, whereas here, no one really considers me to be French. They see me as a French-speaking Caribbean. That gives me a lot of freedom to speak about where I come from, about my culture, with a kind of independence I wouldn’t have in France. I am not at all subservient to a metropolis. I am really an entity.
Do you like New York?
A lot, although I have no illusions. I am a foreigner in New York. I speak French, I live in French, my friends are French-speakers, and my centres of interest are French-speaking. I will go to see a film with Isaac de Bankolé in it because he is a French-speaking African. I go to see exhibitions of photos from Mali, for the same reason, I go to the African market in Harlem, not just to shop, but above all to find myself with the people.
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