No silence: an interview with Maryse Conde.
I interviewed Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Conde, for the first time near the end of 1991, several days after her play, The Hills of Massabielle, opened at UBU Repertory in New York. Conde's play was the final and the most delightful as well as insightful offering in UBU's Fall 1991 festival of three French West Indian plays which also included Aime Cesaire's The Tempest and Ina Cesaire's Island Memories.
The Hills of Massabielle, directed by Cynthia Belgrave, was riotously alive with character and emotion. Briefly, the story contrasts a prominent island family and a rebellious young man who hates the idea that his people have almost no other livelihood except white tourism. His rebellion, however, is misguided; and he ends up failing the future, symbolized by the woman who is carrying his child. What impressed me most about Conde's play was the way she gave dignity to all the characters, the young and the old, the men and the women, those with and without money. It was obvious that she had written her play with love and a concerned, deep knowledge of the people. Watching The Hills of Massabielle, which I reviewed for the New York Amsterdam News, made me think of a vibrant painting bursting forth from its tacks and stays, no longer willing to be contained inside its imprisoning canvas.
I met and talked with Conde on a brisk Saturday afternoon in the lobby of her New York hotel just before Thanksgiving. To prepare for that interview, I translated the first pages of the play, Pension les Alizes, and of the novel, La Vie Scelerate, recently published by Ballantine Books as Tree of Life, translation by Victoria Reiter. Almost a year after that first meeting, in the beginning of October, 1992, I accompanied Maryse Conde to Vassar where she gave a talk sponsored by the French Department. We traveled upstate along the Hudson by train, and en route I asked her some questions about her two-character play, Hotel les Alizes, which in the interim I had finished translating. I've integrated the answers she gave me at that time into the text of the first interview.
LEWIS: Can you tell me something about your history as a writer?
CONDE: I started writing when I was a child. I used to write short stories and plays for my family, my brothers and sisters. I wrote my first play for my mother. Later, I wrote critical reviews about books and articles for a Caribbean magazine in Paris, but I started my first novel, Heremakhonon, after I was living in Guinea for about ten years. I saw so many things: people rioting, being killed, being sent into exile, being deported and so on. The years I spent in Africa were so tragic. I had to write about them.
LEWIS: What years were you in Africa?
CONDE: From 1960 to 1972.
LEWIS: One of the things that I noticed when I was translating your play, Hotel les Alizes, was that you pay homage to black American history. Your female character is compared to Josephine Baker. I was curious about that. America seems to function very much the way Rome did at a much earlier point in the world's history. Everyone seems to look up to this country. How has America affected Caribbean culture and is it an ongoing process?
CONDE: In the Caribbean we see the attention that people like Michael Jackson and Jesse Jackson are getting, and the writer Toni Morrison who wins a Pulitzer Prize. So the Caribbean people see America as a place where a black person can be successful. But those of us from the Caribbean who come here regularly, we know there's another reality. We tell our people that there are black people begging and living in the streets, and they don't believe us. We don't want to destroy all their hopes, because people have to hope for something. America is a positive symbol. We have to admit that. If a black person has energy and talent and works really hard, he or she can succeed in America.
LEWIS: There's another question I want to ask you about the different kinds of effects that the various colonial powers exerted on the native population. Is there a great distinction between being born in a place colonized by France and being born in a place colonized by the English? Is there a fundamental sensibility that's different?
CONDE: The French tell you all the time that there is no difference between a black person and a white person. You have the right to do everything you want; you can achieve anything at all. But it is totally untrue. Here, you see a kind of line. But you don't see the line in France. You can't put your hand on the obstacles along the way, but you know they're there. In the French government, there are few high-ranking blacks. We did have a minister for sports some years ago. Maybe you see an artist or two and you do see some writers because the French will accept a few intellectuals. France is a very complex country. In principle, there is no barrier that you can't get around. In America, you have a lot of barriers, a lot of obstacles, but if you are really hard-working, you can get around some of them. So I cannot explain why it's so, but this is the way it is.
LEWIS: I'm curious about the autobiographical aspects of Pension les Alizes. Emma's mother was born on the island of Marie-Galante close to Guadeloupe, and so was your mother. I was wondering whether that was the only part of the play that was autobiographical. Also, why is it important to you to include Marie-Galante in most of your work?
CONDE: It seems to me that the only autobiographical part is the fact that Emma's mother came from Marie-Galante. I have a tendency to use Marie-Galante in all my novels because my mother came from there, and in reality, when she died, I was studying in France. I was sick, and my family did not want to tell me that she had died. So I didn't learn about her death until about three months after she was already buried. So it was a shock for me, and I have a tendency always to go back to that piece of my life. The fact that Emma did not see her mother's grave is the only personal element in the play.
LEWIS: In an earlier interview with Veve Clarke in Callaloo, you refer to Emma as an elderly actress who's a little crazy. Why do you say she's crazy?
CONDE: Because in fact Emma reminds me of somebody. This woman was not an actress, but a West Indian who had lived in France for too long. She came before the war, and she came to study medicine, in fact as Emma did. After the war broke out, she lived with several German gentlemen and collaborated with them. Later, she met a French businessman who set her up in a beautiful apartment and paid her living expenses. She was a kept woman. This was the person who gave me the idea to paint Emma. At the same time she was a little crazy; having lived so long outside of Guadeloupe, having the desire to go back but not going back made her a bit weary, a bit off in her mind. So she was always mumbling stories about her childhood, about her parents, about the fact that she had come to study medicine. That was the woman who was the model for Emma.
LEWIS: For me, Emma was politically symbolic of Guadeloupe, misled into reduced emotional circumstances by her attraction to the model of exotic womanhood that America has set or, more precisely, that the western world has dictated. Is there any validity to that?
CONDE: Yes. Not just in Guadeloupe, but for all the black women in the Caribbean. They can be clever and talented, and want to use their brains. Most of the time, they were seen as the exotic. For example, when Andre Breton met Suzanne Cesaire, Aime Cesaire's wife, in Martinique, what he remarked about her was the fact that she was beautiful, not that she was brilliant. Even when they are very intelligent, the way that most black women can succeed is with their bodies, through their figures. For me, Emma was an exemplification of that dilemma.
LEWIS: Where does Emma get her money? She seems to have quite a lot of money. She even finances Ishmael's trip back to Haiti.
CONDE: It is not very clear, but it seems to me that she gets money from a lover, from an old French man who was very fond of her and gave her a big sum of money.
LEWIS: Why does Max recommend that Ishmael stay with Emma? Why not someplace else?
CONDE: Because he knows that Emma has a big heart and that she won't ask him many questions about his past or what he is doing in Paris. He believes it's a safe place for him to stay. He did not forsee that they were going to make love and so on.
LEWIS: Emma helps Ishmael. Is there a larger commentary in that alliance about the relationship between Guadeloupe and Haiti?
CONDE: I don't like to be that didactic, but I suppose that the links between Guadeloupe and Haiti have to be reinforced. And especially now that we have a lot of Haitian refugees living in Guadeloupe, it is time that we stop looking down upon them as people of no worth and see that we can help in the building of a new economic power.
LEWIS: You published two plays, Dieu Nous L'a Donne and Mort d'Oluwemi d'Aljumako before you published your first novel, Heremakhonon, but you hardly ever mention these plays. Why?
CONDE: Because I think I was rather young when I wrote them, and they are not very good at all. I'm not ashamed of them, but I see them rather as works of my youth. Of course, the second one is better than the first. There is something vibrant about the writing, but the play is not very well conceived. I wrote it when I was living in Ghana. There was a king who refused to commit ritual suicide after twenty years of reign, and he was barricaded in his castle and did not want to resign. And suddenly he got a fever, and he died. Death came to him even though he did not want it. Because of the story, I became interested in writing the play. It was when the traditional rulers of Africa had to forget about their power and leave all authority to the central government. Even now, in Nigeria and Ghana, there are still traditional kingdoms. These people don't have any political power, but they are still respected.
LEWIS: It seems to me that theatre has played a very important part in your life. Your first effort as a writer was a play you wrote for your mother. The first man that you married - whose last name you still carry - was acting in Jean Genet's The Blacks when you met him in Paris. Your first published writings were plays written while you were living in Africa with your first husband. Theatre has played this very prominent role in your life, but that doesn't seem to be highlighted.
CONDE: I'm not lucky in the field of the theatre. We tried to perform all these plays, but we never had any success. For example, the play that I wrote for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution was performed twice, and we could not get any funding from the French government to go on tour to the other islands. I have a lot of difficulties in putting on my plays. I believe that I am not very lucky with that form of expression. It seems to me that I am more successful with the novels.
LEWIS: How many plays have you written?
CONDE: Six. Four have been published, and two haven't been.
LEWIS: Do you have a particular regimen as a writer? Do you write every day at the same time? I know that Rosa Guy gets up before day every morning. What's your routine?
CONDE: I get up at five o'clock, and I work until twelve. At twelve, I go down and cook some food for my husband and myself; and since it is very hot in Guadeloupe at that time, I take a siesta until 3 p.m., and from three to seven, I work again. I don't work at night because I have very bad eyes. I developed something in one of my eyes, and I have to be very careful. So I don't work by electric lights. I work during the day. I work every day unless I'm sick or a member of my family or friends are visiting.
LEWIS: How many daughters do you have?
LEWIS: Do you have any sons?
LEWIS: Have any of them followed you?
CONDE: In fact, I discouraged them from writing because it seems to me that it's a very difficult life. Not rewarding emotionally. Financially, now I'm making some money, but emotionally I'm never satisfied with what I do. So I thought they should find other jobs where the mind is at peace. Of course, if this was what they had wanted to do, okay. But I never pushed any of them in that direction.
LEWIS: Excuse me, but it seems that writing could be a very fulfilling way to live in that for once the individual is able to express himself or herself, and in so many jobs the individual is pushed down, suppressed.
CONDE: You see, you're not writing only for yourself. Of course, when you are writing, you are doing it for yourself, so you are satisfied. Once your novel is finished, you have to publish it and then you have to call for other people's attention, and when you live on a small island like Guadeloupe, nobody reads on Guadeloupe. Nobody pays attention to your work. People just know you because they see your face sometimes on TV. They don't know anything about you as a writer. They have no use for you as a writer. They might see you on the street and they'll say, "Yes, I saw you on television, but what is your name and what are you doing?" That is the kind of discussion I have with people all the time. So it is very frustrating to be a West Indian writer. When you go abroad, people know you and pay more attention to you. But at the same time, they are foreigners, and they don't completely understand what you wanted to put in your book, what matters for you. There is always a kind of distance between your readers and yourself, so you are never satisfied with the impressions that you give, that you make on their minds. You know Simone de Beauvoir used to say "on devrait jamais rencontrer ses lecteurs" [one should never meet one's readers]. It is true. We are always dissatisfied. You feel that you are never properly understood. It is not very rewarding. Not at all.
LEWIS: But your audience is certainly not just limited, as you said, to Guadeloupe.
CONDE: No, but you would like to have a warm reaction to your books in Guadeloupe; and when you go to France, people respond to you like an exotic object.
LEWIS: Do you feel like you're a voice crying unheard in the desert?
CONDE: No. (Conde unleashes a tinkling peel of laughter.) That is too desperate. Some people listen to you, but very few people. I never met anybody who understood what I wanted to say in Segu.
LEWIS: What did you want to say in Segu?
CONDE: For me, Segu was a reflection on the history of Africa and the reasons for the present-day situation of decay and decline. Once powerful and beautiful, now there are people starving, fighting, rioting; and so I asked the question: what happened? And I'm trying to explain in my own way what happened, and people don't see that because they see the celebration of Africa. Explanation is for me more important than celebration. You have to celebrate, but you have to explain also and understand why there is little cause for rejoicing today. There is too much despair and sadness. That is more important to me than celebration. When I was in Africa, after I stayed there for a short time, I started disliking Africa. I was very unhappy there and wanted to get away. And then another stage came, I understood full well why it was the way it is now, and I started loving it again in spite of the weaknesses. To love Africa is not easy. You have to understand it thoroughly, and nobody takes the trouble to do that. People just celebrate it without really knowing exactly what it is and what it means. That's what I decided.
LEWIS: Another thing that I noticed when I read and did a preliminary translation of the first page of your novel, La Vie Scelerate, is that your concentration is very much on history. You're concerned on that first page with the grandfather. For me, the grandfather is symbolic of history, of generations past.
CONDE: It is not so much history, but memory.
LEWIS: What is the distinction?
CONDE: History is something official. Memory is in the mind of the people. It is something which may be very minute, very unimportant, but it can change a whole life. Memory may be something very trivial, very banal. But not to the person who lives that life.
LEWIS: I can't help but reinterpret this in some different terms and that is oral versus written culture. Oral culture, of course, is the history out of which Africa comes or that Africa celebrates. It is the retention within the memory of the significant or insignificant deeds of the people. Whereas the written, the historical, is the European way of recording, of documenting.
CONDE: But we can write history. It is not only the Europeans who can write. We can do it, too. We could write the history of Guadeloupe and Martinique, but we would lose the tiny events which have more importance to people than the big events. If you write a history of Guadeloupe, you are going to talk about the war, the First World War and the Second World War. You are going to explain the problems of immigration, how many people went to live in France, and so on. If you ask people what is important, they may never mention these things. They are going to mention the hurricane of 1928 or 1989. People like me tend to deal more with history than with memory. And the task of the writer is to forget about this kind of superstructure which is imposed upon us by education, tradition, and going to university. We have to listen to another voice. We can write just like the whites. But we must use another method.
LEWIS: There was a hurricane on the first page of the novel, and I remember there was a hurricane also in your play, The Hills of Massabielle. I interpreted the hurricanes as evidence of the forces of nature as major events in the lives of the people. One of the things that I've learned about Africa is that the reference point is the earth, and for western civilization, the reference point is the sky. And events that disturb the earth, that shake the earth, are the events that are important and change the reality of people's lives. These events have power; these events are important. I'm curious about that. I guess it has to do with a communion, a communication between the earth, and as African peoples we view ourselves as one with the earth. We are not divorced from the earth.
CONDE: When I went back to Guadeloupe, I realized again that nature has power, a presence. You cannot forget it. It is even more important than the people. At night, there is no silence. No silence. You are sitting on your veranda, and you hear so many sounds. You wonder whether you are going to sleep. We have so many bats. At the beginning, I couldn't sleep at night. You have the rain on the tin roof making a racket. So nature is so powerful, even furious, and you have to pay attention to it.
LEWIS: Something else that I realized in translating the first page of La Vie Scelerate was your concentration on the strong male. One of the images that I loved so much was the man with a mouth full of teeth ready to eat up the world. To me, that signifies not only physical strength, but metaphorically spiritual and psychological strength as well. Here in the United States - I don't know what it's like in Guadeloupe - we very definitely have a crisis with our men. Too few of them are strong. Is that true there?
CONDE: All over the black world, men are spoiled. They are like very small babies. You have to do everything for them. But we don't have a crisis in the West Indies. We believe that they have to amend their ways, to change, to become more responsible, to become more loving, but we don't have a crisis with them. You see, in Guadeloupe, they may be irresponsible, but they are still very nice. The feeling is more ambivalent. We would like to see them more adult, more grown-up, but we discuss with them how we would like them to change. So the crisis is not as dramatic as it is in black America, it seems to me.
LEWIS: Your second husband is a translator. He was one of the translators for Hills of Massabielle. What other works has he translated?
CONDE: He has translated several of my novels. He translated the first one, Heremakhonon, the second one, A Season in Rihata, and Tituba. He is now working on Traversee de la Mangrove.
LEWIS: May I ask you about the feeling between the two of you in terms of the daily work that you do? Do you feel that you have a very cooperative relationship? Do you work together on the translations?
CONDE: To translate is to work with another language, and it creates another book. We don't collaborate on the translations. He goes his own way because the process is fundamentally different. I keep my distance.
LEWIS: I remember earlier in our conversation, you said you started by writing plays. For you, how different is the play from the novel?
CONDE: I don't believe that I'm a playwright. I believe that I'm a novelist. I write plays when I am forced to do them by somebody. For example, I have a friend that I'm very fond of, Sonia Emmanuel. And as a black actress in Paris, she was having trouble getting jobs. So I wrote Hotel les Alizes for her. Another friend has a theatrical group in Guadeloupe, and I wrote three plays for him. I had the feeling that to write a play would be easier than to write a novel, which is definitely untrue. But what I really enjoy doing is writing novels. I like the characters, the situation, the places. I enjoy that. It is a great pleasure for me to write novels.
BARBARA LEWIS teaches theater at City College and writing at New York University. Her work has appeared in Fiction, African American Review, Ms. Magazine, and The Kenyon Review.
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|Title Annotation:||Maryse Conde: A Special Issue; African-American author|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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