Interview: Maryse Condé for WAITING FOR THE WATERS TO RISE
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2021 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR TRANSLATED LITERATURE
Embark upon a journey between Mali, the Antilles and Haiti through the eyes of three men bound by their friendship and their burdensome past.
Waiting for the Waters to Rise was published by World Editions, translated by Richard Philcox and wond the Prix Mondial Cino-del-Duca 2021.
About the Book / Editor's note
Babakar is a doctor living alone, with only the memories of his childhood in Mali. In his dreams, he receives visits from his blue-eyed mother and his ex-lover Azelia, both now gone, as are the hopes and aspirations he’s carried with him since his arrival in Guadeloupe. Until, one day, the child Anaïs comes into his life, forcing him to abandon his solitude. Anaïs’s Haitian mother died in childbirth, leaving her daughter destitute—now Babakar is all she has, and he wants to offer this little girl a future. Together they fly to Haiti, a beautiful, mysterious island plagued by violence, government corruption, and rebellion. Once there, Babakar and his two friends, the Haitian Movar and the Palestinian Fouad, three different identities looking for a more compassionate world, begin a desperate search for Anaïs’s family.
Interview with Maryse Condé
Institut français: In Waiting for the Waters to Rise, we travel around different places in the world. How did your life in Mali and Guadeloupe help you to shape this novel and the story?
Maryse Condé: Waiting for the Waters to Rise is not about making a peculiar depiction of the societies explored in the book. It is about conveying the strong impression that Mali and Guadeloupe had on me and the images that will now forever be on my mind. For example, in Mali, I have heard the call of the muezzin, a call that has haunted me no matter what I do since that day. In Guadeloupe, I liked some landscapes and some forms projected by Nature, and particularly the sea. I cannot help but having these images coming to my mind.
Institut français: When reading the novel in English, we still feel a particular type of poetry of yours. Can we say that for Richard Philcox, witnessing and sharing with you some moments that influenced your writing helped him to catch some aspects of your style and retell the story? How was the translation process done?
Maryse Condé: We must get rid of this romantic idea that Richard and I share our ideas because we are married. We both do our work separately and try our best. When Richard hesitates about anything regarding the translation of my works, he simply asks me. What matters is that we lived together, first in Mali and then in Guadeloupe, sharing the same realities and experiences. For example, we discovered the beauty of Malian cities along the Niger river: Tombouctou, Djenné, and Mopi.
Institut français: Haiti is a country marked by colonialism and slavery. Yet, in this novel we also discover Fouad's story, a Palestinian. Why did you want to include this character into your story ? Is it also to speak of some sides of nowadays colonialism ?
Maryse: Yes, I wanted to show the diversity and the toxicity of colonialism that takes under charge different societies.
Institut français: Babakar, the main character, is an obstetrician. His wife died while she was pregnant, and while he is himself in prison. Babakar, this male character, is erupting in this very feminine universe - pregnancy, giving birth. Why did you express the pain and grief from a male point of view?
Maryse: Marguerite Duras has powerfully struck me. In L’amant, she paints the desire felt by a young girl, while until her, writers had almost always drawn desire from a masculine point of view. I wanted to paint Babakar in my writing, as a man caught into feelings usually believed feminine. It's my way of showing how human beings react differently accordingly to their gender.
Institut français: Your recent book, L'Evangile du Nouveau Monde (Buchet Chastel, 2021) is a rewriting of the Bible in Guadeloupe. How does this idea come to you, and why did you choose to set the story in Guadeloupe?
Maryse: I had been particularly impressed by José Saramago’s book L’Evangile selon Jésus, but it took years before I was able to take a similar path, one that in a way, made him famous. I didn’t dare to write about this topic because I felt like I was not talented enough. It seemed natural to me to think about the country where I was born and that I know the most regarding Guadeloupe. Don’t you agree?
Read an extract
FOR HIS DAUGHTER, Babakar wanted a nursemaid who was in touch with modern times. None of those toothless old hags from years gone by with their starched madras head ties and mouths full of Creole proverbs such as Fout la vi sé yon sélérat! (Life's a real bitch!) Such a nursemaid might very well cast a cloud over the child's character. Furthermore, he wanted the nurse to speak French-French, and preferably to be pretty, patient, and loving, and capable of putting up with a baby's bawling for no rhyme or reason. Some nursemaids can't cope with the pandemonium, fly into a rage and consequently into court. It was Hugo Moreno who introduced him to a niece of his wife, a woman who had been a coolie of exceptional beauty. Chloé Ranguin was a graceful apsara who had studied a serious course of pediatric nursing in Paris.
As soon as she was hired, Babakar became jealous, fearing she was having too much influence over Anais. In order to safeguard those precious moments of intimacy with the child, at six every morning, before the day began to color, he would take her in his arms and walk along the Simon Poirier forest path that wound through the savanna of pineapples, passing the ajoupa hut at the Little Waterfall before finally reaching the foothills of the volcano.
"Look at all this beauty!" Babakar whispered in Anais's ear. "Look at it before it disappears. That tree is a Honduras mahogany, recognizable by its jagged leaves. And that one is almost extinct; it's a guaiac tree, sometimes used as an aphrodisiac. Those over there grouped in a bunch are bay rum trees and mountain guavas. Look at the scarlet splash of the heliconia. I'll teach you to cherish this cramped little island where all of Nature's marvels rub shoulders.”
Anaïs seemed fascinated by his words. Head raised firmly on her neck, she looked around her and appeared transported, spellbound by the splendor of the landscape. As far as the eye could see, the green of the tree ferns colonized the grayness of the rocky foothills and the sun sparkled over all this motley mix of colors.
The neighbors, who in the early hours of the morning were sipping their coffee or hot chocolate, already spying on other people's comings and goings, watched the father and child, and with pursed lips commented on how anyone with common sense could possibly take a baby out at this hour of the morning without covering her head. And what if the rain, which was always lurking, took them by surprise?
That morning, as usual, the surgery was crowded. Don't be misled, it hadn't always been like that. This island is not just a land surrounded on all sides by water as the geography books tell us, it also feels perpetually threatened. It abhors foreigners and thinks them
the cause of its misery. But given its reputation as an island of prosperity in the midst of the persistent poverty of the Caribbean, Haitians, Dominicans, Dominicans from Santo Domingo, Puerto Ricans, not to mention African marabouts from Senegal and Mali, all
converged on this tiny piece of land. There are even a number of down-and-out Whites who come to warm themselves under the sun of its eternal summer. All it would take was for Babakar to save the lives of two or three poor agricultural workers for his reputation to
change, and even for him to become "the doctor in vogue."
"My doctor's the African.”
"An African doctor? I can't believe it!”
Babakar was surprised to see a man in the waiting room. A man in an obstetrician's surgery is like a gunshot in a concert of violas da gamba; unless accompanying his wife, his sister, or his mistress—a rare event in our macho lands. This one was obviously on his
own, sitting with his back to the window, and Babakar smelled danger. The man patiently waited his turn. It was past eleven when Babakar ushered him into his office.
About the author
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 as well as the 2021 Prix Mondial Cino del Duca for her oeuvre. She also received the Grand-Croix de l’Ordre national du Mérite from President Emmanuel Macron in 2020.
The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is also published by World Editions.
Watch Maryse Condé: A Wondrous Life, a tribute documentary, courtesy of the Ake Festival.
About the translator
Richard Philcox is Maryse Condé's husband and translator. He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts for the translation of Condé's works.