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  • Writer's pictureIsabel Steele

Sipping tea with Maryse Condé : Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature 2018

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

One minute you’re accepting a job offer on the other side of the Atlantic, the next you’re chatting with a Nobel Prize laureate over a hot brew…

Diving into the colourful depths of Caribbean culture was so much more than drinking coconut water underneath palm fringes (which is usually tepid warm and sickly sweet if that makes anyone feel any better). When we imagine the Caribbean from the UK, we may remember Hurricane Irma back in 2017, a category five tropical cyclone, killing over 130 people and leaving thousands of people without shelter or electricity, facing hunger and disease. Or maybe the heroic Operation Ruman which saw the UK collaborate military and civilian efforts to bring tonnes of humanitarian aid the region. Or we may just fantasise about tasting mango cocktails as pelicans fly low over the shallows, just like we saw our friend enjoying in her honeymoon photos on Facebook last year.

This is the extent of my pre-trip musings! Little did I know what more the region has to offer.

I think it’s about time we look beyond our own limited perspectives of other regions of the world and see them through the eyes of the people to whom flash storms, lucrative harvests, wild landscapes and generous communities made up their childhoods. I spent 6 months living on Guadeloupe last year, and did everything I could to see beneath the European sweep of culture, to the Creole specificities of the region. A good place to start is the emerging Caribbean literature, of which Maryse Condé is a prominent figure; a literature which is only recently beginning to gain the recognition its due.

My most surreal memory from Guadeloupe is sitting with this distinguished author, in her ocean-side garden, watching the catamarans sail past, asking myself how on earth did I get this lucky? Condé has often admitted great regret that her country is only recognised when there are hurricanes or earthquakes. Hopefully by reading on you can get an insight into the extensive artistry that the Antillean region is home to, and see it not as a place on European terms or existing through European aid, but rich and successful in its own right.

« Avec ce prix, cela prouve qu’une Guadeloupéenne méritait qu’on l’écoute »

“With this prize, it proves that a Guadeloupian deserves to be listened to”

(Maryse Condé, le Mag, 01/12/2018)

I was introduced to her work by my colleagues at the local school. The teachers told me of her controversial publications, which are written with such honesty that they are often criticised for rustling the status quo of what is expected of a middle class Guadeloupian woman. I instantly took a liking to her books, which narrate personal accounts of reconciling motherhood with striving as a business woman, or the harrowing tale of a slave woman in a man’s world, or her own childhood battling for an identity against neo-colonial education and racism. These last two issues remain difficult aspects of Caribbean society, their immediacy obvious whilst working in the local schools. For those interested, her books are written in a very accessible style, which can be enjoyed as much in English as in French. They are fascinating reads, making us aware of the extent of the colonial mission in our minds to this day.

A classic Guadeloupian garden scene. I really didn't appreciate these cows just popping up out of nowhere when out running!

The thing I love the most about her writing is the way they are loyally staged against a Caribbean backdrop, like most Caribbean publications. For example, the strength of a woman is equated to the force of the storms that ravage the islands, changing the usual perception of extreme weather into a representation of the power of women. It is very common to see this feature in Caribbean literature - the weather personified as a character in the story, Confiant and Chamoiseau do the same. A favourite metaphor is her description of a man’s attention span to that of a colibri, or hummingbird, fluttering around one flower for a few seconds before losing interest and moving on. Each morning, fuelling on hot coffee before school, I’d watch my garden’s colibri hovering for a few seconds by the passion fruits thinking: oh how very relatable.

Her writing just came alive as I spent more time on the island, experiencing her descriptions in real time and real smells. One preconceived idea that the Caribbean is a place of sensory overload definitely stayed true; you could get fat just by smelling the caramel scented, heavy air that hangs around the food markets.

Half way through my trip, I heard Condé was coming back to Guadeloupe over Christmas to visit family and give talks about her recent prize winning in local schools and press conferences. I decided to join the group of 100 or so (mostly women) locals singing and dancing as she came through the doors at Pointe-à-Pitre airport. Everyone was clapping and celebrating, it was quite something to be a part of – people clearly appreciate her work. I was overwhelmed by the colourful dresses, the rising song and the sheer crowds of compatriots surrounding this incredible woman.

Ridiculously nervous and quite frankly pessimistic that it would be successful, I approached her daughter fumbling to pay for the parking metre as they swept Maryse away in a short convoy of black cars. I explained that I was a language student from the UK, trying to write a literature review on her mothers work, and I’d appreciate it a world over if I could interview the lady herself. She stuffed the letter into her bag in a hurry, promising to hand it on. Seeing she was quite flustered I backed off, content to have seen Maryse Condé myself but sure that would be the last time.

Taken at the airport welcoming Maryse Condé home (she is sat in the copper jacket and wicker hat).

A few weeks later I received an email from her daughter, welcoming me to Condé’s home in Bas-du-Fort to discuss her literary work, her political visions and her implication in feminism. I sat for an hour or so with her and her husband Richard Philcox, who has translated some of her works into English. I was taken aback by her humble demeanour, respectfully listening to what I had to say about my perceptions of her writing and the impact of her characters. I felt honoured to be having such an honest conversation with a woman who has had the courage to say what grates society’s expectation of women, and who has spoken out for people who don’t have the means to speak out for themselves. She is brutally honest about Guadeloupian culture and all its societal issues, which made for an interesting conversation about our different experiences of this butterfly island.

Maryse Condé wearing Guadeloupian dress

Before I leave you all to get back to your quarantine days, here are some take-aways from my conversation with Condé while we drank brews from (ironically) British imported tea bags.

Much like we shouldn’t always believe everything we read, don’t always interpret readings so seriously. Search for the satirical implications behind characters. She told me to use whatever means you have been gifted to voice justice and equality in our volatile world. Despite suffering with multiple sclerosis, she took the time to patiently talk with me - for all she knew, I was just another young woman with over ambitious dreams and naïve views of the world. Probably true. But she reinforced the value in generosity and remaining grounded however far you go in life, to not overlook those trying to follow in your footsteps.

She has shown the world another side of the talented Caribbean region that is often disregarded. As an author who has not always been well received due to her courageous opinions and modernist stance, she has inspired me to strive to be ever more outspoken for the values I believe in. Because it pays. One thing I believe is that there is something special in us all, a burning potential ready to inspire those around you if you are true to yourself and concentrate on what truly matters. We are all capable of so much more but fear holds us back. Be outspoken. Be courageous. And don’t ever let others people’s opinions put out that fire. Maryse Condé certainly didn’t.

Taken at the airport, her daughter trying to control the madness behind (stood in the white shirt).

Below are some of her best publications (in my opinion), which may be appreciated as lockdown reads! She really is a pioneering female author who should be read by anyone interested in foreign culture or colonial history (British history is as guilty of colonial subjugation as any). Her books represent feminist activism or just beautiful descriptions of Caribbean landscapes we all dream of – especially now whilst stuck at home! All English translations (or the originals) are available on Amazon and allow a virtual voyage to the Caribbean, from the perspective of a woman who grew up between the palms, left to live in Africa and the UK, but who will always remember Guadeloupe as where it all started.

Crossing the Mangrove (1995)

Windward Heights (2000)

Tales From The Heart: True Stories from My Childhood (2004)

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (2009)

(My favourite! I read this in one afternoon and was so engrossed I ended up with a world class sunburn)

The Journey of a Caribbean Writer (2014)

Issy x

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