Maryse Condé, at Home in the World
Maryse Condé’s long life and career — at 86, the Guadeloupean writer has published more than 20 books — has been shaped by some of the world’s biggest political and cultural upheavals.
And she, in turn, has played a role in interpreting those shifts. With roots in Guadeloupe, but encompassing the years she spent in Africa, Europe and North America, her work has explored the many threads of the Black diaspora — always keeping the Caribbean at the center.
In the past few years, Condé has been showered with honors and accolades across the globe. And even if she plays it down — “My children and grandchildren must be proud, but I don’t think about it much,” she says — it’s prompted her to reflect on her dizzying journey and extraordinary life.
“The world changes and the writer changes with it,” Condé recalled by email from her home in Provence, France. “It’s not a question of age, but rather sensitivity to change and the desire to write about it.”
The Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat sees Condé as a “giant of literature,” whose prolific work connects continents and generations. “We can follow not just the history of the Caribbean, but the African diaspora in her oeuvre,” Danticat said. “I always look forward to her work to see how she addresses the familiar anew, taking us on these unexpected journeys through past, present and future.”
One thing is certain: Condé is finally receiving the acclaim her wide-ranging body of work deserves. The attention, though, is all the more bittersweet coming so late in her life and career.
In 2018, Condé received the New Academy Prize, which was given the year that no Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded (owing to a scandal within the committee). Since then, she has been feted around the world: at the Aké Festival in Nigeria in 2020, which included a video tribute by 24 female African writers, and during a two-day celebration at the Mucem museum in Marseille in November. She was included in the 2022 Royal Society of Literature International Writers program, along with authors such as Tsitsi Dangarembga and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and in January, a high school in Paris was named for her.
What took so long? “The Alternative Nobel afforded Condé much overdue recognition,” said Louise Yelin, a retired professor of literature who has known Condé since the late 1980s. “But why not the actual Nobel Prize in Literature?”
Condé lives in Provence, France. “I can’t fathom to which kind of society I belong,” Condé wrote by email. “Is it the West? I don’t know for sure.”Credit…Violette Franchi for The New York Times
This month, Condé will publish “The Gospel According to the New World,” her third book to be released in the United States in her 80s, all published by World Editions and translated by her husband and longtime translator, Richard Philcox. (Condé, suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder that makes it difficult to speak and see, dictated her last two books to Philcox.)
The novel follows a mixed-race, Christ-like figure who travels the world in search of meaning and belonging. Along the way, he encounters revolutionaries, tyrants, false prophets and actual Judases — not to mention a string of passionate lovers. It feels like a capstone work, but as the scholar and translator Kaiama Glover, the editor of “Maryse Condé: A Writer for Our Times,” joked, “She’s been writing her last novel for 20 years now.”
Condé had long “dreamed of writing about the Bible and the New Testament, which I believed to be a series of sumptuous stories and not really a religious text,” she said. “I was torn between mockery and the spiritual. Very often, I imagined God as an ordinary Guadeloupean who went about his daily activities such as playing cards, drinking rum or going to the cock pit.”
“The Gospel According to the New World” follows the English-language releases of “The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana” (2020) and “Waiting for the Waters to Rise” (2021), which explored critical aspects of the current world, including Islamic radicalism in Europe and migrations across the Caribbean and beyond. Condé’s books — including her early historical epic, “Segu,” which put her on the literary map, and “Windward Heights,” her homage to “Wuthering Heights” set in Cuba and Guadeloupe at the turn of the 20th century — have always featured a lively and subversive vision, often reimagining the Western literary canon with Caribbean life at the center.
Condé was nearly 40 when her first novel, “Hérémakhonon,” was published, and has called writing a “force she can’t resist.” She still feels its powerful compulsion.
Her work has been one constant in a restless, nomadic life. Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, she left to study in Paris in 1953, eventually earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. A Fulbright scholarship took her to the United States, where she taught at several universities (including Columbia, for many years). In the 1960s, as a young Marxist, she moved to newly independent Guinea and Ghana, in West Africa, where she rubbed shoulders with figures such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara, and surrounded herself with filmmakers, activists and Caribbean exiles.
That was a fervent and formative period for her, even if it ended on a sour note: Disillusioned with the government of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s president, she was expelled from the country after suspicions of subversive activity. “I have been witness to many contradictory events,” she recalled, including the deaths of Nkrumah and Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s leader, which “signified the end of a certain radicalism and the beginning of interconnectedness between African societies.”
In her essay collection “The Journey of a Caribbean Writer,” she describes Africa’s profound impact on her. “It was Africa that revealed me to myself,” she wrote, allowing “me to see, with my own eyes, the world in which I live and to look at things round me in my own way, I Maryse Condé, Black, female and Caribbean.”
Her extensive roots around the world have enriched Condé’s work, giving it a distinct perspective on the Black diaspora. The French Guadeloupean writer Sarah-Estelle Bulle, the author of “Where Dogs Bark With Their Tails,” sees Condé’s life and books as historical and cultural bridges. “Her experiences in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe, as well as the U.S., are so vast that they allow us to think about the complex links between those worlds,” Bulle said. “She has an open culture and she is deeply attached to the notion of a global world and human culture. This is not so common in French literature.”
While Condé’s perspective may be somewhat rare in French letters, Francophone readers take seriously her literary importance. She has a smaller readership in the United States, which Malaika Adero, her editor at Atria Books in the 2000s, attributes to the tastes of American readers and publishers. “Americans are often sadly uninterested in things they regard as foreign,” Adero said. “I was disappointed — and embarrassed even — by our own company sales representatives who stated in field reports that the titles weren’t selling well because ‘people aren’t interested in these Jamaican novels.’”
And yet Condé has remained steadfast, continuing to probe our “troublesome and traumatic” times with both humor and insight. “As long as she has something to say,” Glover said, “she’s not done telling stories.”
Condé, naturally, has the final word. “I am still Maryse Condé, Black, female and Caribbean, and always will be.”
Anderson Tepper is a chair of the international committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival and curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh.