Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean. She studied at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle), where she took her doctorate in comparative literature (1975). Her research was on black stereotypes in Caribbean literature. For twelve years, she lived in West Africa: Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal, where she taught French at various levels. She returned to France in 1973 to teach Francophone literature at Paris VII (Jussieu), X ( Nanterre ), and III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). Early in her career, she tried her hand at dramatic writing but took to the novel in 1976, producing Heremakhonon, inspired by events of her life in West Africa. It was not until her third novel, published in 1984, Ségou I, Les Murailles de Terre, and Ségou II, La Terre en Miettes, that she established her preeminent position among contemporary Caribbean writers. Since then, she has published regularly (ten novels to date) while continuing an academic career which brought her to University of California-Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and Harvard before moving to Columbia in 1995. At Columbia, she chaired the Center for French and Francophone studies from its foundation in 1997 to 2002. Maryse Condé’s novels have been translated into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.
Words without Borders: For those who will read you in the English translation, what advice would you give?
Maryse Condé: Try to read it in the original. Translation is a completely new work with a new musicality and inner sounds. But I have complete confidence in my English-language translator.
WWB: Could you talk about the writers who influenced you?
MC: The writers who influenced me are few and far between: Aimé Césaire (although I do not agree with his theory of Négritude); Frantz Fanon (who tells us that without a white world the black world would not exist); Marguerite Duras (who combined a form of social commitment in the portrayal of both a lyrical and realistic world); Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, the Brontë sisters (who gave a universal dimension to their description of their small island); Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint for years remained for me the absolute masterpiece).
WWB: What writers would you recommend English-language readers pay attention to?
MC: African writers such as Cheikh Hamidou Kane from Senegal, who wrote L’Aventure Ambigue, a portrait of subtle alienation imposed by colonization; Sony Labou Tansi from Brazzaville, Congo, who illustrates the difficulties of achieving a humane and tolerant governing authority; Simone Schwarz-Bart from Guadeloupe, who describes the trials and tribulations of the female condition in the Caribbean.