Guadeloupian Maryse Condé, who lives in the United States and teaches at the University of Columbia, has recently published a new novel, Célanire cou-coupé (Robert Laffont). This fantastical work is set in Côte d’Ivoire during the colonial era. On the occasion of its publication, the writer recaps her position on political commitment, identity, and the homeland.
You have said that your last novel, Contes vrais de mon enfance, enabled you, as a woman, to repossess a country, a language.
My whole childhood was about transforming myself, transforming the child I was into a perfect copy of a French woman. I had to work hard at school, to speak French well, to forget all that would stop me from obtaining what my parents believed to be the ideal. The West Indies were a vague setting, coconut trees and maybe the mountains, but they were not a land possibly with a culture. Later I had to relearn, or even simply to learn, what it is to be West Indian. I had to discover what it in fact means to be born there and not somewhere else, to define that relationship to an island you aren’t at all familiar with. It took a very long time. And one of the ways which helped me to express this repossession was writing.
Do you see yourself as a rebel?
I rebelled against my family. The other part the rebellion – if you can really call it a rebellion – is that until this very day, I go back to France with a passport marked « Nationality: French ». But, unfortunately, this is a collective problem, and as there is no collective struggle in Guadeloupe. Or rather, there is no longer any real struggle. I am no longer in rebellion. As it has not been successful in real terms, this rebellion has become a personal one.
Aren’t you a member of the independence movement anymore?
I first joined the independence movement in the Sixties at the time of the main movements. We did not succeed.
Because French mentality is utterly colonialist. I don’t see the French giving their former colonies the opportunity to leave the nation in the way that the British did. They say that there would have to be a referendum, a change in the Constitution. I believe that if they wanted to negotiate a way out, to negotiate their colonies’ freedom, they could do so. Look what happened to the Kanaks. Instead of letting the Kanak movement become an independence movement, they made them wait ten years. Ultimately, I don’t think that the French are ever decolonizers. They were forced to make concessions in Africa. But what they let go of on the one hand, they took back on the other.
Do you consider writing to be a political commitment and what kind of commitment?
My commitment has evolved a great deal. Twenty years ago, when I began writing, I had read Césaire, and thus saw writing as a collective act. I used to write for others. The theme of the novel always clearly had to be revolutionary – it is a strong word – a theme the people could identify with. I very soon realized that having positive heroes, exemplary situations, a happy and open kind of ending is a trap. In fact, if I respected all these demands, I ended up producing fake literature built entirely on clichés. Claiming that the « I » is a « we » is a myth. You cannot speak on behalf of a collective group when you write. You can only speak for yourself, about yourself, to yourself. So, I gradually realized that commitment was more complex. Commitment is in fact about telling stories which you feel very deeply, problems that you feel very deeply, and which may help other people find and enlighten themselves. But it is not about giving solutions to people who need them. We have no solutions. We are steeped in problems.
So, being committed is about stating reality?
Yes, but stating reality in a way that enlightens what might be difficult for someone who lives simply to perceive. The writer does have a duty after all. If writers have a duty, it is to think more deeply about situations than people who are caught up in life. They have the luxury of going into their offices, of spending the day thinking and writing. They have to take advantage of this freedom, of this miraculous fortune, to think more deeply about certain problems and to put them to others. For example, my penultimate book, Desirada, was a reflection on identity. People harass us West Indians a lot. People are always saying to us: « Choose! Are you African? Are you European? Are you this? Are you that? » The time will come one day when we won’t have to choose anymore. We will simply be able to say I am what I am, with a lot of shortcomings, voids, which we haven’t filled, but which we have nevertheless managed to identify. I think that the people around us are all overwhelmed by this question of choice, but do not have the time to think about how to answer. A writer has the time to think, and perhaps to offer his or her personal solution, in the knowledge that it may be helpful to others.
Do you think that is why there is so much re-writing of history, for example Assia Djebar…?
Yes, as we live in a world of lies, everything around us is false, I think that one of the writer’s duties is to help people to recognize themselves through all these lies, through all these counter-truths, to try to see the paths they might take more clearly.
You have chosen to live abroad, but what motivated this choice?
I tried to express myself in France using a voice that aimed to be different. It isn’t my home, but people could hear me as someone who speaks from elsewhere. But it was impossible because the elsewhere I came from was re-read and corrected by the French people around me. Living in France is hell for me. It is to be constantly reduced to the ranks of an exotic, secondary object, which has no place in the cultural panorama, which has no possible place in the cultural panorama. There is no place for West Indian words. So I couldn’t manage to express what I was. When I was at home in Guadeloupe, I wasn’t able to say what I was either, because it shocked people. It was absolutely impossible for me to fit in with the existing definition of the Guadeloupian. So, I am very happy abroad because I am me, Maryse Condé, with my contradictions maybe, but I live with them very happily since I have started to exist! Abroad I can express myself as I wanted to.
But why the United States?
America, contrary to what the French say, is a place where people are left completely in peace. You can live in New York very well even without speaking English. You can be different. You can have your imagination which functions in a completely unique manner, you can have your very own voice. Concretely speaking, why America? Because I was invited. You can already see the difference. I was invited to come to teach in the United States. I taught for ten years in France as a junior lecturer, with a lack of job security in all respects, whereas in the USA, I have a chair. The respect, the attention paid to me in the United States enabled me to express myself.
Haven’t you come across the racism, or the exclusion referred to earlier, in the United States?
I am wonderfully lucky in the United States. When I open my mouth, even if only to say « yes » or « no », people can immediately tell that I am a French-speaker. Which triggers the American reflex: « we have to do everything to make this foreigner like America. It is a great democratic, liberal country and she has to understand this ». For me, as a foreigner, I have to say that, bar a few very minor incidents, I have never come up against the problems of racism and exclusion that the African-Americans experience.
But doesn’t that put you in an awkward position vis-à-vis them?
It is clear that a West Indian has a problem, a problem of diaspora, vis-à-vis the African-American. What are the diaspora populations? We think that they are people who are all the same, who share the same problems, the same relation to Africa. It isn’t the case. It is an internal problem which we are in the throws of resolving through meetings, seminars, etc. There are a lot of individual friendships, but in collective terms, it is hard. We are seen as people who take their place, who claim that there is no racism, which is not true. We know that there is racism. We don’t suffer from it directly, but we know, we see. So, ultimately there is a process of communion to be undertaken between the communities.
What does the homeland represent for you?
I can define my homeland. It is called Montebello. It is a little corner of Guadeloupe where I have a little house with a gallery. When I am there, I have the freedom to be just the way I am as a result of a long specific history. I am surrounded by what matters to me, namely the country, the sky, the sea, the wind, the cyclones. When I am in that little corner there, I couldn’t care a less about what people might think, about the definition others give of me. So, at the end of the day, I haven’t really tried to find my roots because I carry them with me everywhere. The homeland is with me wherever I am.
Can language be considered to be a homeland?
I believe so, but not a first homeland. It is a homeland, but I would perhaps put it second because I do not share the same intimacy with French people from France – even though I mix with them a lot in New York – as I can do with West Indians from Porto Rico or Santo Domingo, even though they are not French-speakers.
Do you think that the word francophonie has changed meaning since ’62?
A little. In the beginning it was a group of French-speaking countries whose cultural motor was France. I think that this has gradually crumbled and that the countries have taken a kind of independence in one way or another, at least culturally speaking. I think that the word has changed meaning, but it doesn’t bother me in fact. Francophone means someone who speaks French. Why not? We speak French and I think that we do what we want with French. It isn’t because we speak French that we remain viscerally attached to France. It has to be recognized that we have a language in common which everyone manipulates in his/her own way. I think that languages belong to those who speak them, without feeling guilty, without being hassled about it. And, at the end of the day, we manage to impose the discourses of these literatures, which are expressed in French, but which convey a culture, issues, a narrative technique which are not French. You see, I do not believe that the French language belongs to the French. It belongs to the writer. That is how he/she expresses his/her self. Ultimately, there is no French language. There is every writers’ language.
What happens to the notion of francophonie when your books are translated into English?
My husband translates my books. In theory, it is meant to be a joint effort, yet – and he complains about this a lot – I get the impression that a book of mine translated into English immediately has another music, a musicality which I haven’t created. As a result, I don’t really feel concerned by it.
Does the American public think of you as a French writer?
No, they see me as a Caribbean writer.
Do you write for your own folks?
I get the impression that I am writing only for myself when I write. But afterwards, when I re-read it, I realize that I was thinking of a load of things: my family, which has always overwhelmed me a little, friends, or one of my husbands. You believe that you write only for yourself, but as we are social beings, the self is also the society which makes us. So, at the time, you only think of yourself, but you also think of a part of the self which is formed, which responds…
Which is inhabited?
Yes, by society. It is a bit of a specific relationship with Guadeloupe. It is simply a kind of continual performance. People know you, they see you on television, listen to you on the radio, they recognize your voice. They say, « It’s Maryse Condé speaking ». But they haven’t really read the books!
What about overseas?
Yes. West Indians in France, those we call the « Negrolitains », read us ten times more than the West Indians in the real country. Because they are abroad, I think, and need a presence which offers a little comfort more than those who are at home. And they are in societies where people read. They get into the habit. Our main readers are the diaspora West Indians. They read us, it’s amazing. They read well. I meet lots of West Indians, simple folk, who read books, who ask questions, who want to meet me. It is astounding. It is a pleasure to come to Paris for that, because that is where you meet your real readers the most!
What is left for you to tackle? I know you don’t really like talking about your projects…
No, no, I want – this is going to make you laugh – to write science fiction. Let me explain why. I have a friend in America, an African-American writer, Walter Mosley, who writes detective novels. He says to me: « Listen Maryse, the only way to slightly change the imaginations of our people who are obsessed with the problems of slavery, alienation, colonial domination, is to create science fiction, novels which speak to them of another completely different world ». That is a challenge I want to take up. It isn’t science fiction in the way the Europeans understand it. It is a kind of science fiction whose basic premise would be somewhat pedagogical, liberating. The aim would be to bring the West Indians to a world other than the one they know, to a world which belongs to them. The aim would be to make them possess their world, to become the winners this time instead of always having been the losers, the dominated. Try reading Célanire cou-coupé in this light. It is the beginning of the path I want to take. It is not at all like the stupid and nasty world we are in. There is a bit of that, of course, because I didn’t entirely manage to do what I wanted here as I wasn’t able to forget certain facts, but it is a first step, I think! I am going to go further and further down this path.
Catherine Dana is a lecturer in Francophone literature at the University of Paris VIII
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