Lost Paradise: A Brief Interview with Maryse Condé

Editor’s note: Despite her failing health, Maryse Condé was generous enough to answer some questions. I hope this interview proves an enticing hors d’oeuvre and encourages readers to seek out the veritable feast of her impressive oeuvre.

George Salis: Gabriel García Márquez didn’t take to the term “magical realism” because to him and his people, the magic was as real as anything else in their world. To be more specific, he said, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Is this how you view the magic in your work? Does surrealism come from the reality of the Caribbean?

Maryse Condé: I have the same conception as Gabriel García Márquez. The Caribbean world is a world where magic is everywhere and where things are not always logical. In Guadeloupe, the dead speak to the living and the visible speak to the invisible. The Cartesianism of the French is totally unknown. The writer is obliged to take into account her surroundings and reality and endeavor to find an equivalent in her work. Surrealism is an invention of European intellectuals, such as André Breton.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers? Why?

MC: The book that inspired me to write was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Its appeal is universal because it speaks of revenge and unrequited love.

GS: What do you most love about the French language?

MC: I have never known another language besides French. When I was a young girl, my mother forbade me to speak Creole and read to me bedtime stories by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen which made me think that all writers were foreign. Hence my favorite book by Emily Brontë. Then I discovered French writers and fell in love with them. But I have always said that I do not write in French, I write in Maryse Condé.

GS: Which French authors in particular were your favorite at that time?

MC: Flaubert, Mauriac, Aimé Césaire, and Gide were my favorite French authors.

GS: What are some of your fondest memories?

MC: When I was a small girl, I used to roam my parents’ country property at Sarcelles in Guadeloupe. Part of it was a forest where breadfruit, mahogany, and ylang-ylang trees grew and I felt I was discovering the world.

GS: Out of everything written and unwritten, what story of yours would you like to be immortalized and why?

MC: I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tales from the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood. They appeal to the lost paradise of the islands of the Caribbean and childhood.

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Photo by Philippe Matsas

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean in 1937. She studied at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle), where she took her doctorate in Comparative Literature (1975). Her research was on Black stereotypes in Caribbean literature. For twelve years, she lived in West Africa: Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal, where she taught French at various levels. She returned to France in 1973 to teach Francophone Literature at Paris VII (Jussieu), X (Nanterre), and III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). Early in her career, she tried her hand at dramatic writing but took to the novel in 1976, producing Heremakhonon inspired by events of her life in West Africa. It was not until her third novel published in 1984, Segu (translated from the French by Barbara Bray), that she established her preeminent position among contemporary Caribbean writers. Since then, she has published regularly while continuing an academic career which brought her to UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and Harvard before coming to Columbia in 1995. At Columbia, she chaired the Center for French and Francophone studies from its foundation in 1997 to 2002. She retired from teaching in 2005. Maryse Condé’s novels have been translated into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. She won the New Academy Prize in Literature in 2018. Her recent works include The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana (2020) and Waiting for the Waters to Rise (2021), which were translated into English by Richard Philcox.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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