French Book Week: WRITING IS COLOUR BLIND – An interview with Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1937 as the youngest of eight siblings. She earned her MA and PhD in Comparative Literature at Paris–Sorbonne University and went on to have a distinguished academic career, receiving the title of Professor Emerita of French at Columbia University in New York, where she taught and lived for many years. She has also lived in various West African countries, most notably in Mali, where she gained inspiration for her worldwide bestseller Segu, for which she was awarded the African Literature Prize and several other respected French awards. Condé was awarded the 2018 New Academy Prize (or “Alternative Nobel”) in Literature for her oeuvre. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is her latest novel.

1/ You received The New Academy Prize 2018, also called the Alternative Nobel Prize 2018, organised by 100 prominent cultural and literary figures in Sweden. This international literary prize was awarded to you in accordance with the New Academy’s values of “democracy, openness, empathy and respect.” Are these values that play a role for you while writing your books?

I was very honoured and pleased to receive such an award. Throughout my life I have fought for the world to become a better place. Although my novels deal with difficult topics, they are nevertheless filled with optimism. For example, I have always taken sides with the poor and oppressed and given them voice. I wanted to say that gender and the color of skin does not matter. I come from a small island but I wanted to prove, in spite of slavery, we have a rich culture.

2/ What is your view on the Black Lives Matter protests, and how do you relate to them? Being a black author yourself, do you feel responsibility to take part in any way? Are the characters in your book confronted with racism?

Naturally I am concerned by the Black Lives Matter movement but I do think that for a writer it is not a matter of color, but rather the power of writing. Writing is color blind. It is important to convey dreams and ambitions which everyone can share with you. When a reader tells me that my book resembles her life, it is the best compliment a writer can wish for. In my books, some characters are confronted with racism. For example, in my last novel The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, the main characters learn that society treats them differently because of their origin. Ivan rebels against this discrimination. I believe that one day a dialogue will be possible between people who are different and that the world will be one, as John Lennon says.

3/ The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is being called your most modern novel up to date, why is that, and do you agree?

I am very pleased with that comment because an old writer like myself tends to speak mainly of herself. My last three novels are more or less autobiographical. I write about my childhood and my education in Tales from the Heart, True stories from my Childhood; in Victoire, My Mother’s Mother I write about my mother and grandmother and in What is Africa to Me, my twelve years in Africa and how I became a writer. In Ivan and Ivana, I wanted to break this vicious circle and write about the world as it is now and of people younger than me who still suffer intolerance and racism.

4/ Can The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana be read as a reflection on colonialism, and if so, in which way?

I believe this comment is not entirely untrue as an interpretation. Ivan and Ivana are born in a former colony of France i.e. Guadeloupe. This shapes their desires and their horizon. I wanted to show how they managed to liberate themselves and how difficult it is for them to express their inner self. Ivan rebels against subjection and Ivana tends to find a middle path in assimilation.

5/ What role does gender play in determining the fates of Ivan and Ivana? How do you explain the fact that Ivan walks the path of radicalisation, whereas Ivana does not?

I know it sounds old-fashioned but judging personally and from my three daughters, I believe a woman is mainly concerned by finding true love and being accepted individually by society; it is more masculine to fight against it and reject any form of compromise. For me a rebellious mind, someone who refuses society as a model, is more interesting to write about, hence the importance of Ivan in the novel.

6/ Does oral tradition inform the novel in terms of structure and plot?

No, not at all. Critics often say that Maryse Condé is an excellent storyteller. But the art of storytelling based on oral tradition is very different from the art of writing. A writer and a storyteller do not use the same stratagems. They don’t have the same models. A writer uses different ways of seducing the reader whereas the storyteller is more concerned with the power of the word and is closer to a singer.

7/ What’s the role of geography in the novel? How does it affect the fates of the twins?

When you are born in a small island like Guadeloupe and it never makes headlines, you get the feeling you are not important. Consequently, you want to prove that you are as important as someone born in a bigger country, that your culture is just as complex and your place in the world does not depend on geography. That is what I said in my Stockholm speech where I said Guadeloupe is only mentioned when there is a hurricane, the Route du Rhum yacht race or a popular singer is buried in Saint Barthélemy. I was content that for once my voice was heard for other reasons. Ivan and Ivana belong to a poor family; they were educated in a negative way. Ivan wanted to prove to the world that he existed. Mali where their father was born is a former French colony. The UN classified Mali as one of the least advanced countries of the world and on arriving in France, the twins are looked upon once again as coming from a sub culture and belonging to a secondary place of origin. In order to prove he is a man, Ivan has to confront death and kill the girl he loves.

This interview was originally published on the Culturetheque Blog on 2 July 2020.

Photo of Maryse Conde © P. Matsas Leemage-Hollandse Hoogte

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