WRITING IS COLOUR BLIND – An interview with Maryse Condé
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
New Academy Prize in Literature Winner
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 for her oeuvre. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is her latest novel.
1/ You received The New Academy Prize 2018, also called the Alternative Nobel Prize 2018, organised by 100 prominent cultural and literary figures in Sweden. This international literary prize was awarded to you in accordance with the New Academy’s values of “democracy, openness, empathy and respect.” Are these values that play a role for you while writing your books?
I was very honoured and pleased to receive such an award. Throughout my life I have fought for the world to become a better place. Although my novels deal with difficult topics, they are nevertheless filled with optimism. For example, I have always taken sides with the poor and oppressed and given them voice. I wanted to say that gender and the color of skin does not matter. I come from a small island but I wanted to prove, in spite of slavery, we have a rich culture.
2/ What is your view on the Black Lives Matter protests, and how do you relate to them? Being a black author yourself, do you feel responsibility to take part in any way? Are the characters in your book confronted with racism?
Naturally I am concerned by the Black Lives Matter movement but I do think that for a writer it is not a matter of color, but rather the power of writing. Writing is color blind. It is important to convey dreams and ambitions which everyone can share with you. When a reader tells me that my book resembles her life, it is the best compliment a writer can wish for. In my books, some characters are confronted with racism. For example, in my last novel The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, the main characters learn that society treats them differently because of their origin. Ivan rebels against this discrimination. I believe that one day a dialogue will be possible between people who are different and that the world will be one, as John Lennon says.
3/ The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is being called your most modern novel up to date, why is that, and do you agree?
I am very pleased with that comment because an old writer like myself tends to speak mainly of herself. My last three novels are more or less autobiographical. I write about my childhood and my education in Tales from the Heart, True stories from my Childhood; in Victoire, My Mother’s Mother I write about my mother and grandmother and in What is Africa to Me, my twelve years in Africa and how I became a writer. In Ivan and Ivana, I wanted to break this vicious circle and write about the world as it is now and of people younger than me who still suffer intolerance and racism.
4/ Can The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana be read as a reflection on colonialism, and if so, in which way?
I believe this comment is not entirely untrue as an interpretation. Ivan and Ivana are born in a former colony of France i.e. Guadeloupe. This shapes their desires and their horizon. I wanted to show how they managed to liberate themselves and how
difficult it is for them to express their inner self. Ivan rebels against subjection and Ivana tends to find a middle path in assimilation.
5/ What role does gender play in determining the fates of Ivan and Ivana? How do you explain the fact that Ivan walks the path of radicalisation, whereas Ivana does not?
I know it sounds old-fashioned but judging personally and from my three daughters, I believe a woman is mainly concerned by finding true love and being accepted individually by society; it is more masculine to fight against it and reject any form of compromise. For me a rebellious mind, someone who refuses society as a model, is more interesting to write about, hence the importance of Ivan in the novel.
6/ Does oral tradition inform the novel in terms of structure and plot?
No, not at all. Critics often say that Maryse Condé is an excellent storyteller. But the art of storytelling based on oral tradition is very different from the art of writing. A writer and a storyteller do not use the same stratagems. They don’t have the same models. A writer uses different ways of seducing the reader whereas the storyteller is more concerned with the power of the word and is closer to a singer.
7 What’s the role of geography in the novel? How does it affect the fates of the twins?
When you are born in a small island like Guadeloupe and it never makes headlines, you get the feeling you are not important. Consequently, you want to prove that you are as important as someone born in a bigger country, that your culture is just as complex and your place in the world does not depend on geography. That is what I said in my Stockholm speech where I said Guadeloupe is only mentioned when there is a hurricane, the Route du Rhum yacht race or a popular singer is buried in Saint Barthélemy. I was content that for once my voice was heard for other reasons. Ivan and Ivana belong to a poor family; they were educated in a negative way. Ivan wanted to prove to the world that he existed. Mali where their father was born is a former French colony. The UN classified Mali as one of the least advanced countries of the world and on arriving in France, the twins are looked upon once again as coming from a sub culture and belonging to a secondary place of origin. In order to prove he is a man, Ivan has to confront death and kill the girl he loves.
Book of the Week: THE WONDROUS AND TRAGIC LIFE OF IVAN AND IVANA by Maryse Condé
Translated by Richard Philcox
Published by World Editions (2020)
The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is the latest novel from the grande dame of Caribbean literature. Born in Guadeloupe, Ivan and Ivana are twins with a bond so strong they become afraid of their feelings for one another. When their mother sends them off to live with their father in Mali they begin to grow apart, until, as young adults in Paris, Ivana’s youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan walks the path of radicalization. The twins, unable to live either with or without each other, become perpetrator and victim in a wave of violent attacks. In The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, her most modern novel to date, Maryse Condé, winner of the New Academy Prize (the “Alternative Nobel”) in Literature in 2018, offers an impressive picture of a colorful yet turbulent 21st century.
Excerpt of The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana:
The twins ’first months on earth proved difficult. They were unable to cope with living distinct lives: sleeping in separate cradles, being washed one after the other, and taking turns to suck their baby bottle. At first all it needed was for one of them to start gurgling, crying, or screaming and the other would immediately follow suit. It took time for them to rid themselves of this annoying synchronization. Gradually the world around them took shape and color. They were at first filled with wonder by the ray of sun that entered through the shack’s wide open window and landed on the mat where they lay. On its way through it took on mischievous shapes which made them laugh, and this laugh tinkled like small bells. They rapidly remembered their names, pricking up their ears and waving their little feet at the mention of these syllables so easy to retain. What they didn’t know was that the priest at Dos d’Âne, a fat, dull-witted man, had almost refused to christen them.
“How could you give them such names,” he shouted angrily at Simone. “Ivan, Ivana! Not only do they not have a father, but you want to turn them into true heathens!”
Simone’s family was used to both multiple and singular births. In the nineteenth century, her ancestor, Zuléma, the first of a litter of quintuplets, had been invited to the Universal Exposition in Saint-Germainen-Laye in order to prove what could become of a descendant of a slave when he breathed in the effluvium of civilization. Dressed in a tie and three-piece suit, he was a surveyor by trade. He had learned opera arias all on his own by listening to a program on Radio Guadeloupe called Classical? Classical indeed! It was he who instilled the love of music that had trickled down to all his descendants.
The twins quickly discovered the sea and the sand. How wonderful it was to feel the warmth of the sand that cascaded through their chubby fingers, their nails pink like seashells. Every day Simone would put them in a wheelbarrow which served as a pram and push them to one of the creeks near Dos d’Âne where the sea breeze caressed their faces mingling with the sounds of an ample maternal voice.
How many years passed blissfully, four or five? They discovered very early on the beautiful face of their mother, who was always leaning over them, and her black velvety skin and sparkling eyes which changed color depending on the mood of the day. She hummed songs to them, much to their delight. When she went off to work with sweat on her brow, she placed them in a sort of basket which she covered with a cloth and set down under the trees. And the women who worked with her came to peek at them in raptures. They soon realized their mother’s name was Simone: two harmonious syllables easy to remember and repeat. Gradually the decor of their lives took shape. They had neither brothers nor sisters and had only to share their mother’s love with an old grandmother, and that was okay. They never tired of letting that wonderful sand trickle through their fingers: golden sand, endowed with a smell that filled their nostrils, sand that made an imprint of their bodies and could be tossed playfully into the air.
After a few months they began to stand up and walk bowlegged until their legs straightened and turned into two pretty pillars. They soon began to speak and endeavored to put the world around them into words. When silence was required they learned not to make a sound. Consequently Simone could take them to her choir of an evening. They sat on their little benches as good as gold, sucking their thumbs, beating their hands in rhythm to the music. Famous from one end of Guadeloupe to another, the choir specialized in the island’s old melodies, one of which, “Mougué,” dated back to the time of slavery when the slaves were in irons.
Mougué yé kok-la chanté kokiyoko.
The song “Adieu foulard, adieu madras” dated back to the time when the crowds sang on the quay while the steamships of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique left for the port of Le Havre, their berths loaded with civil servants on administrative leave.
Adieu foulard, adieu madras, adieu gren d’or, adieu collier-chou.
As for “Ban mwen an ti bo,” it was composed during the schmaltzy doudouiste period when Creole was considered to be nothing more than bird twittering and not a language of protestation.
Ban mwen ti bo, dé ti bo, twa ti bi lanmou.
After her singing Simone would dance barefoot and throw back her shoulders, her silhouette standing out from the other women who were incapable of rivaling so much grace and beauty. She was often accompanied by her mother, who was just as black, but with hair powdery-white like salt. Her mother was called Maeva. With no milk in her breasts she would feed the babies with spoonfuls of savory cereal. Maeva and Simone would take each other by the hand, bow, and do entrechats. For the two children this was the first such performance they were to see.
Simone never failed to tell them why they were called Ivan and Ivana and why she had stood up to the priest. Ivan was named after the Czar of All the Russias, a capricious and atrabilious man who had lived in the sixteenth century. Ivana was a feminine version of his name. When she was younger Simone was too poor to afford a seat at the cinema on the Champ d’Arbaud in BasseTerre. She only watched films when Ciné Bravo, a cultural association, set up a white cloth on the main square in Dos d’Âne. That was how she sat in awe through a series of films comprehending little of the cavalcade of images and matching music that filled her eyes. The children sat on numbered metal chairs in the first row. The older generations crawled out of the woodwork of their shacks like cockroaches on a rainy day. Everyone went on chattering loudly until a gong called for silence. Then the magic began. One of these films, Ivan the Terrible, had made a deep impression on her. She couldn’t remember the name of the director or those of the actors. All she could recall was the lavish jumble of images.