From liminality to a home of her own? The quest motif in Maryse Conde's fiction.
Isn't it ever possible to live in the present? And, if need be, to put up with the hideous aspect of one's wounds? The past should be put to death. Otherwise, the past will kill. Weren't Djere and Justin what they were because of all these stupid stories about ancestors and Africa? Two magi kings, to drunkards, the laughing-stocks of dreary Verdol? Wasn't this the downfall of too many of their black acquaintances who were so busy constructing imaginary genealogies that they no longer had the strength to conquer their own America in their turn?(124)(1)
This utterance by Spero, the protagonist of Maryse Conde's 1992 novel Les derniers rois mages, represents what I see as the culmination of the quest motif both in Conde's six "Caribbean novels," as I shall call them (from Heremakhonon to Les derniers rois mages but with the exception of Segou), and in her own personal quest.(2) In both cases the quest involves a reconsideration of several assumptions which Conde considers to be characteristic of Negritude: Africa as motherland for the Antillean, an idealized image of Africa as a lost paradise for the black diaspora, the innate solidarity of the black race, and even the very concept of race itself as an explanation of difference.(3) Indeed, read side by side, Conde's interviews and lectures on the one hand, and these six novels on the other, bear the relationship of statement to illustration.
Through a reading of the six novels in question as representing a drawn-out quest, and with constant reference to Conde's lectures, critical articles, and interviews, in this study we will examine the quest motif in Conde's work. In doing so, we shall at the same time notice a movement from a liminal position towards a sense of belonging on the part of both Conde herself and also her Antillean protagonists. I am using here Victor Turner's terminology positing the three phases of the rite of passage as progressing from separation to liminality to reincorporation.(4)
Since Francoise Lionnet, in her article "Traversee de la Mangrove: Maryse Conde et la creolite," provides us with an excellent study of Conde's return to creolite as manifested in Traversee, comments on this text will be limited mainly to the discussion of race. In her article, Francoise Lionnet refers to the personal path Maryse Conde has travelled since 1953. Lionnet sees a parallel between the author's lived experience and the evolution of her thought as expressed in her fiction "from Heremakhonon to La vie scelerate, from Segou to Tituba" (2). She states that by 1989, in her interview by VeVe Clark, Conde has made a complete turn-about in relation to her attitude ten years earlier, and that "the irony and self-distancing of the seventies had been replaced by a total entrenchment, a sincere reflection on Caribbean specificity." This reflection has resulted in a
rejection of nostalgia in any form, rejection of historical, aesthetic, exotic or political preconceptions that tend to fetishize the past or slavery and to idealize political commitment, nature or the people; rejection of a self-pitying ideology that would reduce Guadeloupe to a marginal and oppressive land that one flees of necessity. (3)
According to Lionnet, Traversee represents to some extent the crystallization of Conde's return to her native land. However, she does not dwell on the quest motif in Conde's fiction, her article being primarily concerned with an analysis of the creole qualities of Traversee de la Mangrove. Nor have other critics of Conde's work done the kind of analysis that I offer here.(5)
Maryse Conde herself aptly summarizes the argument in the words, "From one rejection to another, from one closed door to another, I arrived before a third door which was the Antillean door" ("Notes sur un retour au pays natal" 17).(6) In this lecture, given in Haiti in 1986, Maryse Conde (nee Boucolon) traces her personal quest, similar to the pilgrimage of many a Caribbean of her day, stating that, though born in the Caribbean, she was not born a Caribbean: she became one. Born into the Guadeloupian black middle class and brought up in a closed environment, the young Maryse Boucolon assumes she is French until she goes to Paris. There, she makes the same discovery the Negritude fathers had made twenty years earlier: skin tone is all. This awakening to the fact that the French society defines her by "race," not by the kind of passport she carries or by the culture she espouses, leads her to the conclusion, "Not to be French meant to be black. And to be black, what did that mean? To be African" (12). Here then begins Maryse Conde's quest for her identity, first in Sekou Toure's Guinea that for her at the time represents "the rejection of both my childhood, and also of the land of my childhood, the native land, Guadeloupe, and of all that culture they had tried to force down my throat ..." (12). Conde's quest leads her full circle back to Guadeloupe, after having realized the cause of her discomfort in Africa. Speaking of herself and other Caribbeans in Africa during the 1950s, she states: "We finally understood why we were so ill at ease in the African culture. It is not our culture. We were the bearers of the Antillean culture that we carried within us without realizing it ..." (14). The reason they did not realize it, Conde seems to say, was Negritude.
In some of her interviews, Conde makes it clear that she has had accounts to settle vis-a-vis the Negritude ideology. In her 1989 interview with VeVe Clark, entitled "I Have Made Peace With My Island" (henceforth to be referred to as "Peace"), she states:
The proponents of Negritude made a big mistake and caused a lot of suffering in the minds of West Indian people and black Americans as well. We were led to believe that Africa was the source; it is the source, but we believed that we would find a home there, when it was not a home. Without Negritude we would not have experienced the degree of disillusionment that we did. (117)
Indeed, in "Notes" Conde explains how discovering Negritude, and especially Cesaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, for the first time in Paris in the 1950s not only led her to recognize the need to redefine her identity, but also drew her to Africa in search of a motherland.
In "Negritude cesairienne, negritude senghorienne," published in 1974, she had criticized specific aspects of the Negritude ideology. After analyzing in some detail the poet's call for revolt (expressed in Cahier) against assimilation and exploitation by Europe, Conde concludes, "the rejection of assimilation does not necessarily culminate in struggle and could be the result of a misguided self-apprehension, which is more dangerous still" (413),(7) and she identifies this "misguided self-apprehension" as the weak point in Cahier. For, she asks,
What does Cesaire, throughout Cahier, propose for himself and, through him, for his people, his race? A complete acceptance of oneself as Negro. Now, the Negro does not exist. Europe created him wholesale, for the purpose of legitimizing exploitation. (413)
Since Europe created the concept of the Negro, endowing him with qualities of its own making for its own convenience, refusal of assimilation while accepting this constructed category "amounts to accepting Europe with all its cultural blunders" (413).
In the same essay Conde reproaches Senghor's brand of Negritude for glorifying the kingdoms of ancient Africa, ignoring Africa's faults and magnifying its virtues. Thereby, says Conde, Senghor presents a picture of Africa that cannot withstand close scrutiny from a lucid researcher,
since, the black person might wonder, what vices did this much-praised Africa possess in order for the structures of its civilization to have crumbled entirely? What internal weaknesses, shortcomings or failings? (417)
If this were not the case, and if the enemy were so powerful as to overcome a solid, virtuous Africa such as the one Senghor depicts, then should we not be justified to stand in awe of such an enemy and indeed to welcome assimilation into such a superior state?
Of course Conde's logic is faulty here, since virtue does not guarantee physical invincibility, any more than advanced technology implies a superior morality. That guns overcame shields and spears in the conquest of Africa is no proof that those who wielded the guns were morally superior to those who carried the spears, or the converse. Besides, Conde fails to acknowledge the fact that the Negritude discourse of the 1930s was the only discourse available at the time to counter the European discourse on Africa. Senghor's praise of the old African civilizations was in direct response to Europe's claim that no civilization had ever existed on that continent. While one can agree with Conde's argument that the concept of "Negro," along with the qualities attributed to this creature, is a European construct and therefore to endorse the category is to accept being so constructed, Conde's reading of the Negritude ideology ignores the constraints that informed that discourse, despite the fact that they are crucial to her own arguments.
To return to Conde's discourse, we find that she answers her own questions with the declaration that "ancient Africa possessed its share of flaws as well as virtues" (417), and the existence of those flaws, according to her, was the key to the eventual fall of the old civilizations. In "L'Afrique, un continent difficile" she reiterates that Africa as "a paradise on earth where people are merry and happy, living in harmony with nature" is a figment of the imagination (22).(8) So too is the concept of a universal community of black people, an idea also promoted by Negritude:
Basing itself on an illusive "racial" community founded on a heritage of suffering, [Negritude] ignores the real problems, which have always been political, social, and economic in nature. ("Negritude" 418)
Conde, then, reproaches Negritude for three errors. First, for having embraced a false identity by endorsing the category of "Negro," and thereby having preached a false solidarity of black people. Second, for having portrayed Africa as the motherland for all black people of the world, and third for having idealized Africa, thereby making of it a mythical, nonexistent space. In other words, Negritude propagated a lie in several ways, and, in a response that takes the form of a subversive, fictional quest, Conde addresses these various issues.
In her first two novels, Heremakhonon and Une saison a Rihata, Conde problematizes the question of a return to Africa for the Caribbean. From the outset in Heremakhonon the protagonist, Veronica, views her journey to Africa as a return to her roots. She very carefully distances herself from the current fad to "do Africa." The purpose of her journey to Africa, she says, is to find herself, "to try and find out what was before" slavery (12). One could say, as Jonathan Ngate indeed has said, that Veronica is trying to reverse the middle passage (8). However, once in Africa, she finds it impossible to blend in with the milieu so as to be perceived as belonging. To begin with, she is easily identifiable as a foreigner by her looks, to such an extent as to wonder to herself, "Is it that obvious that I'm not from here? Will I end up plaiting my hair as well and renaming myself Salamata to try and merge with the crowd?" (55).
In Une saison the protagonist, Marie-Helene, experiences an identical problem. It is not her mixed blood that has earned her the nickname of Semela, or "the woman from over there." Rather, the text explicitly explains that
The "over there" was not just written in the colour of her skin or her hair. The inhabitants of Rihata were used to cross-breeding.
... But there was a whole manner of being that was written into her gestures, attitudes and reactions which disconcerted, intimidated or attracted, depending on the case, and made her stand out as boldly as a birthmark in the middle of the forehead, a club foot or a crippled leg. (2)
Marie-Helene, perceived as a foreigner and hence isolated by the community, ends up endorsing her own solitude and isolating herself.
Although Veronica may at first appear to be less marginalized than Marie-Helene, given that everyone calls her "sister," this sisterhood is soon revealed to be as illusory as it is elusive, given people's total lack of understanding towards her and her own lack of understanding - indeed, her lack even of the very desire to understand - towards them. All fail to appreciate both that she is on an individual quest and that her quest is incompatible with their present concerns and struggles. Indeed, her lover, Ibrahima Sory, finds Veronica's preoccupation with her identity frivolous. In mocking tones he enquires, "in other words, you have an identity problem?" and ends by exhorting her, with some irritation, to "Go to sleep. And stop dramatizing for nothing" (52, 53). The fact that throughout the novel virtually everyone, including her lover (but with the exception of his sister Ramatoulaye, and also the mad gardener), uses the formal "vous" when addressing Veronica, despite the fact that she herself addresses all as "tu," only highlights the distance between Veronica and the Africans. In fact, her self-isolation and her unwillingness to understand others effectively render Veronica's use of "tu" meaningless. Moreover, in her internal monologues she further isolates herself by a preponderant use of the third person plural "they." The pronoun "we" occurs very seldom in her speech, a fact that serves to situate her outside all community. It is not surprising that she ends up admitting the error of her journey to Africa in the following terms:
I didn't find my ancestors. Three and a half centuries have separated me from them. They didn't recognize me any more than I recognized them. All I found was a man with ancestors who's guarding them jealously for himself and wouldn't dream of sharing them with me. (36, my emphasis)
Veronica has clearly understood the misguided nature of her quest; Africa has never been, and never can be, her native land. Her ancestors are to be sought elsewhere. In "L'Afrique, un continent difficile," Conde herself says of Veronica and Marie-Helene:
They are in exile since they find no real welcome. When she first arrives [in Africa] people say to Veronica, "You're our sister," but they thereby deny her difference and consequently her identity, and hence fail to be truly welcoming. (22)
For these protagonists, Africa becomes not a motherland regained but a land of exile. They have separated themselves from the land of their birth to go in search of incorporation in a place they initially suppose to be the land of their origins, only to become mired in permanent liminality there. Africa is not the land of their origins, as Conde herself observes in "Notes," and the necessity of a return to the true native land finally becomes apparent, at least in Heremakhonon.
Indeed, in that novel Conde seems to propose the Caribbean as the solution to the exiled condition of her protagonist. In a passage in which the words "chez moi" appear five times in the space of one paragraph, and that I shall quote here first in the original French, Veronica meditates:
[If I want to come to terms with myself, i.e. with them, i.e. with us, I ought to return home. To my island specks (dixit the general) tossed to the four corners of the Atlantic by Betsy, Flora and other females. Home Not here, where I'm a foreigner. Where I'm torpedoed into matters of which I know neither head nor tail. Home!] (71)
And in "L'Afrique, un continent difficile," Maryse Conde states:
An Antillean's quest for identity can be resolved without having to go to Africa; or, if you like, a trip to Africa simply proves that Africa is not indispensable to an Antillean's identity. (22)
In these first two novels, Conde appears to go even further in demonstrating that it is in fact impossible for the Antillean to find self-definition through Africa. Africa negates this identity and becomes an obstacle, first, because the protagonist cannot identify with the milieu. Far from finding the place "where time stands still" that she is seeking, Veronica discovers in Africa that the "transformations that cultures [necessarily] undergo through time and transplantations" render a return impossible, as Francoise Lionnet aptly points out in Autobiographical Voices (170). Second, in order for the Africans to acknowledge the protagonist as one of them, she would have to accept adaptation (that is, deny her true identity and allow herself to be defined by others and re-created in their likeness). But Conde's first two protagonists have already rejected assimilation in relation to France, and they reject it once again vis-a-vis Africa. These two protagonists, however, continue to exist in liminality because they have not unequivocally claimed a Caribbean identity. For instance, though Veronica does glimpse the fact that her quest needs to culminate in Guadeloupe, at the end of Heremakhonon we see her headed back to Paris. One could argue, of course, that since the connection between Africa and the Caribbean has from its very beginnings existed through Europe, Veronica's going back to Paris is a logical and necessary step in her implied return to Guadeloupe. Her return to Paris would then highlight the lack of a direct connection between Africa and the Caribbean and point up the role of Africa as a "detour," as Edouard Glissant would say, in the Caribbean person's quest for an identity.(9) Beyond this, however, the return to Paris leaves Veronica on the threshold for two reasons. First, we know that Paris functioned as a place of exile for Veronica even before the African "detour." Furthermore, a second separation has occurred, this time from Africa.
From now on in Conde's fiction, Africa will not serve as a stage in the Antillean character's quest for a home. Starting with Moi, Tituba, sorciere, Conde thenceforth reclaims the Caribbean as her characters' native land.
For Tituba, the protagonist of Moi, Tituba, sorciere, being cut off from her native Barbados automatically entails severance from her life-source (the community consisting of her deceased relatives) and, thereby, isolation and nostalgia. In her native land Tituba enjoys constant communion with those who have passed on. Leaving the land of her birth creates a distance between her and them that is almost impossible to bridge since, as Man Yaya says, "It will take so long to cross the ocean! And ... it will be so difficult" (52). In Tituba, the ocean water represents the boundary line that delimits the identity of the individual from that of the community. Hence, even after they are both dead, Tituba, in Barbados, remains cut off from Hester in Salem, separated from her by the ocean. Before her death Tituba chooses to go back to Barbados in order to retrieve her identity, for although she confesses her town to be "ugly," "small," and "mean," an "unpretentious colonial outpost, reeking of avarice and misery," she also recognizes her relationship with the island to be one of "a constant and singular symbiosis" (218-19, 270-71).
La vie scelerate relates the life of a Guadeloupian family whose members experience much suffering and tragedy as a result of race. The father, Albert Louis, disowns his son, Bert, for having married a white woman. As a consequence, the son plunges into poverty and commits suicide after the birth of a son, Bebert. The latter never sets foot on Guadeloupian soil. For Coco, the young narrator and Bebert's great-niece, the family genealogy becomes an obsessive concern, desirous as she is to trace all the descendants of Albert Louis and to bring their memory back to Guadeloupe. Even Aurelia, Bebert's daughter, born in France, abandoned by her father and brought up by her French mother, identifies herself first and foremost with a Guadeloupe she has never known. As Coco, at school in France, prepares to go home for the school holidays, Aurelia assures her, "J'y retournerai chez nous, en Guadeloupe. Bientot, bientot!" [I'll go back to our home in Guadeloupe. Soon, soon!] (322). The use of the verb "return" is significant here, coming from the mouth of a person whose sole contact with Guadeloupe has been through the yellowed photographs of a grandfather she never knew. In the meantime Jacob, Coco's grandfather and Bert's brother, completes what he calls "a monument to the dead" by adding to the family tombstone the names of all those who have so far been excluded. On the eve of Coco's departure for France at the end of her school holidays, her grandfather takes her to the cemetery and tells her:
You see, they are all there. Every one of them. I asked their forgiveness. I asked them for permission to inscribe their names there. With those of the others. Of all the others. With us. At home. (339)
The words "chez nous" (literally "at our home") echo the same phrase spoken by Aurelia and make Coco, to whom they are uttered both times, the character through whom all the Louis family members find their way home. If, as I have suggested, one reads all Conde's novels as representing one continuous quest, these words also complete Veronica's "chez moi" ("at my home") in Heremakhonon and supply the "nous" ("we") that is missing from her discourse. The sense of community, impossible to achieve in Africa, finally exists in Guadeloupe.
The problem of identification with Africa, resulting from difference, is exacerbated by the fact that once in Africa Conde's protagonists are immediately disabused of the image of this Africa as a Utopia, an image inherited from Negritude's depiction of the continent. Conde, in both of her first novels, provides settings in countries broken under the yoke of dictatorship and torn by violence, both consequences of neo-colonial leaders' egotism. In this manner, far from idealizing Africa, Conde sets before the reader the realities that often govern all relationships within the given societies. The unrelentingly political nature of all relationships in Heremakhonon provides the main motive for Veronica's departure for France at the end of the novel. For as long as she remains in Africa, she must decide either to commit herself politically or to remain Ibrahima Sory's accomplice by continuing to be his mistress.
A paradisical Africa does not exist and has never existed. The Africa of the age of the great empires, so dear to Senghor, was also the Africa of exploitative kings and exploited masses. Conde advocates both an honest portrayal and the acceptance of reality, whether of Africa or elsewhere. Thus, when the Caribbean becomes the setting for three of her later novels, she offers the reader protagonists who are fully aware of the meanness, sometimes even the ugliness of their milieu, but who still embrace it as home. In her refutation of some of the aspects of the Negritude ideology, Conde borrows the following exhortation from Onwuka Dike:
We should accept our entire past as it was, the splendour of Benin art along with the horrors of human sacrifice, just as Europe must accept its past, El Greco masterpieces along with the horror of the Inquisition. ("Negritude" 417)
From Tituba onwards, rather than flee their Antillean origins, Conde's protagonists accept them, along with the responsibility a sense of belonging entails. In La vie scelerate Jacob accepts Marie's indictment of the Louis family. Accusing them of having killed her men, Bert and Bebert, Aurelia's grandmother Marie brands the Louis family as assassins. On behalf of the family, Jacob assumes responsibility for this accusation. Likewise, his granddaughter Coco realizes that to her falls the duty of keeping the family history alive and intact, with both its glories and its flaws. She understands that her mother Thecla's dream of writing a grandiose history of "Black People's Revolutionary Movements" constitutes an evasive gesture. She, the daughter, must look reality in the face:
Shouldn't I perhaps tell it, this story? At the risk of causing displeasure and shock, shouldn't I perhaps, in turn, settle my debt? It would be the story of very ordinary people who in their own very ordinary way nevertheless shed blood. . . . A book with no great torturers or magnificent martyrs. But one that would nonetheless contain its measure of flesh and blood. The story of my people. (340)
Marie's accusation helps Jacob and Coco understand that whites do not hold a monopoly on racism and are not alone in deserving the label of "assassin." Coco's ancestor, Albert Louis, having himself suffered profoundly from the effects of white racism, visits misery on his own flesh and blood for racist reasons. Coco's rite of passage involves coming to terms with that legacy.
One could read Les derniers rois mages as an antithetical approach to this same question of owning one's legacy and embracing one's identity and homeland in the present. Whereas in La vie scelerate we witness the healing effects of this acceptance, in Les derniers rois mages we again see the paralyzing results of excessive preoccupation with the past. Djere, born in Martinique of a Martinican mother and an aging African king in exile, is "abandoned" in Martinique by his father when the latter returns to Africa.(10) Consequently, "Instead of forgetting the past and simply facing the present, Djere [has] hung on to shreds of bygone days" (19).(11) He goes through life hoping
that he would again be the child of a great man, that he would live elsewhere. Away from this miserable land tossed about in the ocean! Away from the crowded, stifling, dreary Verdol! (77)
In other words, Djere leads a paralyzed existence because he cannot accept who he is. His son Justin, inheriting this same fascination with the ancestor from his father, becomes equally incapable of leading a meaningful life in the present, convinced that "he would not live out his old age [in dreary Verdol], and that another land awaited him" (52). Justin's wife, Marisia, deplores the ritual surrounding the story of the ancestor because she understands that "these stupid stories of a royal ancestor . . . were just an excuse for Justin's laziness, as for that of his father before him" (16). The same inertia evident earlier in Veronica manifests itself here and seems to result from the inability of the protagonist to own her/his geographical and cultural space. This inability stems from the fact that the protagonist has been reared with stories that serve to uproot rather than to anchor, and by fathers who are themselves living out their uprootedness. Owing to the lack of dynamic male role models, Justin's son, Spero, experiences childhood as*** an interminable corridor, a zigzagging path across desolate savannas. He had come out [of his childhood] pathetic, not at all prepared to seek a career, meet women, make love, have children, and even less, teach those children the meaning of life. (62)
Spero does, however, recognize the negative consequences of evading the present by living perpetually turned towards the past, and realizes too that fascination with a glorified Africa is an evasion mechanism. He sees through his wife Debbie's need for illustrious ancestors, for an untainted history: "Debbie needed to admire. Admiration was her religion" (98). This need in Debbie, together with Spero's incapacity to become a successful artist - and, thereby, an illustrious husband - constitute some of the factors that lead to the couple's estrangement. Debbie's idealization of Africa also costs them their daughter, Anita, who eventually leaves her parents for Africa. Anita's departure inspires Spero's angry tirade that very aptly summarizes what I see to be one of this novel's main statements, and which I have quoted at length at the beginning of this paper.
Some of the passages quoted so far afford us a glimpse into Conde's uneasiness with the racial categories to which we assign members of the human species. Besides problematizing Africa's place in the Caribbean's quest for identity in Heremakhonon and Une saison a Rihata, Conde in the same two novels obliquely questions the validity of "race" as an explanation of difference. She does so by making a shift from "race" to culture in an attempt to explain problems of integration. In "Notes" she goes so far as to agree explicitly with the anthropological stand regarding the so-called races of humanity. In this lecture Conde says that the discomfort she and other Caribbeans and African-Americans experienced in Africa in the 1950s led them to conclude that "race does not exist . . . only cultures exist" (14). In the last four of the six novels under consideration, she implicitly revisits this matter.
In Tituba, the affinity Tituba shares with some of the other characters is based on the diverse forms of oppression across "racial" barriers. In Hester, a white woman, Tituba finds a kindred spirit (or a soul sister), the feminine condition serving them as common ground. Among her various lovers Tituba can count a white man who is himself persecuted by his fellow townspeople for being a Jew. Tituba acknowledges that, like her, he too is a victim of oppression and is a kindred spirit. Through their positions as victims of bigotry, all three characters have gained both compassion and a desire not to be reduced to the oppressor's level. Tituba is finally betrayed by Christopher, leader of the maroons, a man who not only has been her lover but who is also of the same "race" as Tituba. His guiding motive is personal interest, not "racial" solidarity.
The society of Riviere au Sel, the setting for Traversee de la Mangrove, provides us with a microcosmic view of the racial hierarchy often said to characterize Martinique and Guadeloupe. Conde, however, diffuses the focus on race by depicting, as one of the central events in the novel, the levelling wrought in the community by Francis Sancher's death. Francis Sancher's brief existence among the inhabitants of Riviere au Sel has been as mysterious as his death turns out to be. No one has ever penetrated the mystery of his origins (he simply appeared among them one day), nor now understands the cause of his death. While he lived, his source of livelihood remained his secret - he could have been an honest man or a thief for all people knew: "They didn't know if he was White, Black, Indian. He carried all racial genes in his body" (243)(12); "Who was he really, this man who had chosen to die among them? they wondered. Could he not be a messenger from some supernatural power?" (265).
One could say that, metaphorically, Francis Sancher is a reflection of the Antilles and their history. However, to a certain extent, he could also represent Maryse Conde's voice inviting these people to accept their creole identity, an identity forged by a specific past and having a real present. The book that Francis Sancher is writing (in contrast to the one Lucien Evariste plans to write) concerns only "men and women put in this world with the same continuous desire to live. Clear. No glorious battles!" (233). Francis Sancher also represents, then, communal and individual history, providing a common reference point for an apparently disparate community. For not only does the watch over his body physically unite the whole community, white, Indian, black, and mulatto alike under the same roof for one night, but his death also leads each person to reflect on the manner in which their meeting with Francis Sancher affected them both individually and in their relationships with each other. It transpires that without exception all, rich and poor, the ambitious and the modest, have been touched through and in what all human beings have in common: human relationships and quotidian living. Memory of Francis Sancher inspires Lucien Evariste with the desire to write a book different from the one he originally had in mind, one that would force him to "Look dangerous truths in the face. Cause displeasure. Shock," words almost identical to Coco's in La vie scelerate (240).
In Les derniers rois mages, Spero too comes to the realization that what counts in his relationship with his African-American wife, Debbie, is not "race" but culture. Although in his opinion Debbie lives as a prisoner of what she considers to be her "race," Spero knows that culture represents one of the many barriers in their relationship, despite the fact that they are of the same "race." Indeed their estrangement begins, though almost imperceptibly, the moment they board the ship to move to the United States from Guadeloupe as newlyweds, and Debbie meets an African-American couple on the ship. It is during that crossing, at that meeting, that "suddenly, [Spero] realized that [Debbie] came from a different country, that in fact a thousand invisible cords linked her to a family, a past, a people" (208). These factors, more than the fact of their both being black, determine the course of their relationship. In this novel Conde seems to be revisiting themes first broached in Heremakhonon, and reinforcing the point by setting her novel in the African diaspora, both in the United States as well as in the Caribbean. One could see this as taking the reader full circle back to the protagonist's original status in the first two novels and therefore raising the question of whether the Caribbean character in Conde's work ever does find a home - hence the question mark in the title of this paper. I choose to read Les derniers rois mages as belonging with the first two novels in thematic development though not in historical chronology, and as serving to fill in a gap. In "Notes" Conde speaks of the ill effect certain aspects of Negritude had on both Caribbeans and black Americans of her youth. It seems fitting, then, that in her fiction she should illustrate the case of the African-American along with that of the Caribbean.
In Tituba, La vie scelerate, and Traversee, however, a sense of finally arriving home, with all illusions of a perfect elsewhere and racial harmony gone, does clearly exist. In Traversee, Conde brings about the levelling that, in Heremakhonon, Veronica ponders thus:
I am beginning to understand where I went wrong. If I want to come to terms with myself, i.e. with them, i.e. with us, I ought to return home. To my island specks (dixit the general) tossed to the four corners of the Atlantic by Betsy, Flora and other females. Home. Back to the obscene caricatures of my childhood. After all, our black bourgeois clique only represents two or three families. And the mulatto set, very little too. There are all the others. What do they do? (71, my emphasis, except for the word "home")
In Riviere au Sel's society, Veronica might find the answer to this question. The answer to her "What do they do?" might be simply that they are all human beings together. She also might find her native land.
I conclude by reiterating that - as I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating - in Heremakhonon, Conde's first novel, we not only have in Veronica the liminal protagonist par excellence, but also one who can never achieve reintegration, given the misguided nature of her quest. In Africa the Caribbean's initiatory quest cannot be completed; she is destined to remain forever in liminality, and therefore always voiceless. However, with La vie scelerate, Tituba, and Traversee, Maryse Conde's protagonist may be said to have attained the other shore and reincorporation, not in a land where peace, harmony, and "racial" unity reign, but in a place subject to all the pain of the human condition: the conflicts, meanness, and ugliness that partly make up the fabric of human relationships; but, nevertheless, in her land, a real land. What is most important is that in arriving home she has attained a voice as well as a presence. For so long as a person continues to want to exist elsewhere and as someone other than who she is, that person remains absent and voiceless. We need to own both our legacy and our space in order to be. Conde's protagonists seem to progress towards this conclusion, eventually acquiring the consciousness of a Caribbean identity wherever they happen to find themselves geographically. Maryse Conde's consciousness, too, seems to have followed this same itinerary. Whereas in "Notes" she ends her lecture by wondering whether a writer needs a native land, two years later in "Peace" she seems unequivocally to embrace a Caribbean identity. In both cases, in her fiction as well as in her own life, this development could be read to indicate Conde's latest stance (as of 1992, that is) vis-a-vis those elements of Negritude with which she was uncomfortable. However, since we are dealing with a living writer who will presumably continue writing and giving interviews for some time to come, we cannot speak of a final stance but rather perhaps of a moment in a constant process of becoming.
1. My translation, as are all subsequent translations of this text.
2. By "Caribbean novels" I mean those of Maryse Conde's novels having Caribbean characters as protagonists and dealing, at least in part, with the question of belonging concerning those protagonists. Heremakhonon, Une saison a Rihata, La vie scelerate, Traversee de la Mangrove, Les derniers rois mages, and Moi, Tituba, sorciere fit this definition. Segou, however, does not.
3. The terms Caribbean and Antillean will be used interchangeably throughout this paper. I first read a shorter version of this article at a CIEF Conference held in Strasbourg in June 1992. An objection was then raised against the generalization that my use of the term "Antillean" entails, and the claim made that Haitians have never looked to Africa for a sense of identity, yet they too are Antilleans. The generalization, if it indeed is one, is Maryse Conde's, as several of the quotations in my text will attest. I have not yet found evidence to justify taking issue with her use of "Antillean" to designate a geographical region with a shared social and cultural experience, and have therefore chosen to keep her usage. However, the reader will want to keep in mind that Haiti may not be a comfortable member of this set in this context.
4. In a paper entitled "The Female Liminal Space: A Reading of Anne Hebert's L'Ile de la Demoiselle and Maryse Conde's Heremakhonon," read at the RMMLA conference in Salt Lake City in October 1990, I have done a more detailed analysis of Heremakhonon as an example of what I call "the liminal novel." For a discussion of the pattern of the rite of passage, see Victor Turner's work, especially The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1967); The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967); Process, Performance and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology (New Delhi: Concept, 1979); and "Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology," Rice University Studies 60 (1974): 53-92.
5. See Jonathan Ngate, "Maryse Conde and Africa: The Making of a Recalcitrant Daughter," A Current Bibliography on African Affairs 19.1 (1986-87): 5-20; Beverly Ormerod, "Writers in Search of Paradise," Studies in Caribbean Literature (London: Heinemann, 1985), 1-15; Elisabeth Wilson, "Le voyage et l'espace clos - Island and Journey as Metaphor," Out of the Kumbla, ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990), 45-57; Clarisse Zimra, "Negritude in the Feminine Mode," The Journal of Ethnic Studies 12.1 (Spring 1984): 5377.
6. Henceforth referred to as "Notes." All translations of this lecture are mine.
7. All translations of this paper (subsequently referred to as "Negritude") are mine.
8. At the CIEF conference mentioned in footnote 3, someone remarked how ironic it was that, given her quarrel with Negritude's idyllic image of Africa, Maryse Conde in Segou paints a similar picture of Africa, one in which harmony and peace reign until Europe's intrusion destroys it. I did not then have a good response to that observation because I had not yet read Segou. Now that I have, I find no contradiction whatsoever in Conde's vision. If she portrays the kingdom of Segou as prosperous, she nonetheless makes it clear that its prosperity has been won through violence and exploitation: "Segou waged war against all these peoples and thus obtained slaves that she either sold in her markets or used to cultivate her fields. War was the sinews of her power and glory" (Segou, Les murailles de terre 15, my emphasis). Later in the same volume she emphasizes the point: "Killing, raping, looting! Blood, what a lot of shed blood! In any case, wasn't all Segou's history bloody and violent?" (33). Moreover, jealousy, strife born of ambition, and suspicion exist even among the free-born citizens of Segou - indeed, between the king and one of his subjects - and is bound to lead to suffering. In prosperous and seemingly happy Segou, the seeds that will lead to the barbarous Atlantic slave trade with Europe are already in the soil.
9. See Edouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1981), chapter 1, "Le retour et le detour."
10. In fact, as we learn in the course of the novel, the king does try to take his young son with him but is not allowed to by the French authorities.
11. All translations of this text are mine.
12. All translations mine.
Clark, VeVe. "I Have Made Peace With My Island." Interview with Maryse Conde. Callaloo 12.1 (Winter 1989).
Conde, Maryse. "Negritude cesairienne, negritude senghorienne." Revue de la litterature comparee 3-4 (juillet-decembre 1974).
-----. "Notes sur un retour au pays natal." Conjonction: revue franco-haitienne (supplement 1987).
-----. Heremakhonon. Paris: Union Generale, 1976.
-----. Une saison a Rihata. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1981.
-----. Moi, Tituba, sorciere. Paris: Mercure de France, 1986.
-----. La vie scelerate. Paris: Seghers, 1987.
-----. Traversee de la Mangrove. Paris: Mercure de France, 1989.
-----. Les derniers rois mages. Paris: Mercure de France, 1992.
Jacquey, Marie-Clotilde, and Monique Hugon. "L'Afrique, un continent difficile." Entretien avec Maryse Conde. Notre Librairie 75 (avril-juin 1984).
Lionnet, Francoise. "Traversee de la Mangrove: Maryse Conde et la creolite." Paper read at Wichita State University Conference on Foreign Literature, April 1991.
-----. Autobiographical Voices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Ngate, Jonathan. "Maryse Conde and Africa: The Making of a Recalcitrant Daughter." A Current Bibliography on African Affairs 19.1 (1986-87): 5-20.
WORKS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Conde, Maryse. Heremakhonon. Trans. Richard Philcox. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1982.
-----. A Season in Rihata. Trans. Richard Philcox. London: Heinemann, 1988.
-----. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Trans. Richard Philcox. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
-----. Tree of Life. Trans. Victoria Reiter. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
WANGARI WA NYATETU-WAIGWA was born in Nyeri, Kenya. She is author of The Liminal Novel: Studies in the Francophone African Novel of the 1950s, forthcoming from Peter Lang. She teaches at Weber State University in Utah.
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|Title Annotation:||Maryse Conde: A Special Issue|
|Author:||Nyatetu-Waigwa, Wangari wa|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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