Guadeloupe’s Maryse Condé, winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, talks about liberation, satire, and her hopes for the world.

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Maryse, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, your latest book translated into English, seems deeply interested in liberation – a term which is often deployed in the context of good (anticolonialism, democratic revolution, independence), but which, in the book, is complicated by its proximity to terrorism and violence. Talk to me about ‘liberation’.

‘Liberation’ is a key word in my work and in my life. In 1946, after the law of assimilation was passed in the French Assembly, my island of Guadeloupe was decreed an overseas département of France. We had the same schoolbooks and the same curriculum in the university as in France. Later on, I joined the UPLG, the party which called for political emancipation. We were convinced that, because of its singular past, Guadeloupe had a distinct identity. This political notion of liberation had to be coupled with an individual one. We had to prove to the world that we had a culture based on the specificity of history.

Individual liberation cannot be separated from feminism, as every woman of my generation who has read Simone de Beauvoir ‘s Le deuxième sexe knows. I was struck by her phrase: ‘You are not born a woman, you become one’. I realised that my liberation as a woman was different from that of my male friends, and that it involved a greater effort.

This notion of liberation has become increasingly complex since we have had to avoid the trap of terrorism and simplistic radicalisation. In The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, Ivan wants to assert himself. But, because of his lack of education and social deprivation, he cannot understand clearly the world around him. He is a victim, rather than a heroic warrior.

The false binary (amongst many other false binaries) of victim and perpetrator is challenged in the book – as it has been, in different ways, in many of your works. Could you speak a little about that?

Ivan dreams of a more harmonious world. But to achieve his goal he is dragged into dangerous and violent acts, and once they are set in motion, he is incapable of changing their disastrous ending. He submits to acts that are out of his control.

One review of The Wonderous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana says that you ‘spare no one’ in your satire. Should we all be satirised equally? Should we all be free to satirise equally?

I believe that humor is the main tool of writing. A writer is not a sermoniser. A story should not be presented to the reader too seriously; you need to add jokes to make it more convincing. Since The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a very sad story, I tried to lighten the tone with amusing cultural references and a sense of humor. For example, Barbara, an intellectual French singer, is the favourite of a small choir of Guadeloupean women, and when a group of enlightened Haitians come to sing on the grave of Ivana, they launch into a song by a popular singer called Sheila about the Three Wise Men. I believe that everybody and everything can be satirised. Life is a combination of joy and sadness, cruelty and tenderness, as well as satire and seriousness.

The book says a lot of serious things in its humour, but it must have been fun to write. With dozens of books behind you, what drives you to continue writing?

I don’t know how to do anything else but write. For me, writing is to be alive. When I stop writing, I stop living. I am now writing my last book, which is a modern interpretation of the Gospel entitled The Gospel of the New World.

When you won the “Alternative Nobel” in 2018 – which emerged from the sort of horrific and sordid institutional mire that I can imagine you writing about – how did you feel? I think it’s quite poignant that you’ll likely be the only person ever to win it.

I was very proud and happy to be awarded this prize – especially for my family, who for so long have watched me writing in the dark with very little recognition. I was proud and happy, too, for the people of Guadeloupe. As I said in my Stockholm speech, Guadeloupe is totally absent on the international scene: it is only mentioned when there is a hurricane, or when a pop star like the French singer Johnny Halliday is buried on the nearby island of Saint Barthélemy. I was glad that, for once, the voice of Guadeloupe could be heard.

Twenty years ago, in another interview, you said that race had become a secondary concern for you, with culture becoming the primary. Is that still the case?

When I said I did not believe in race, it was just after I had met my second husband, Richard Philcox, who is English. To my great surprise I fell in love with a white man. For me, it was a revolution. But now, I am struck by the persistence of racism. I see that the 18th Century scientists who declared that black people are inferior in order to justify slavery delivered a powerful message that is still relevant today. You only have to look at what is going on in the US and France right now. The fight is not over. Black people still have to prove that they are human beings – that Black Lives Matter.

Of our world today – of its politics; of its cultural, racial, environmental, religious concerns; of its relationships with gender and sexuality – how do you feel? Do you feel hope? Do you see change?

When I was a child, my parents brought me up with the idea that the world would improve. Although we came from a small and oppressed island, they were convinced that, individually, we the children were gifted enough to achieve miracles. In spite of the state of the world today, I still believe they were right. There is a French song by the group Téléphone that I like very much, which says that ‘One day the earth will be round’. Because of my education, I am a fervent optimist, and believe that one day the world will indeed be tolerant and harmonious.

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1937 as the youngest of eight siblings. Condé 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 New Academy Prize (the ‘Alternative Nobel’) in Literature in 2018 for her oeuvre. She currently lives in the South of France.

Photo credit: P. Matsas Leemage-Hollandse Hoogte.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

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