On Maryse Condé / Text Serubiri Moses

Condé was one of the earliest to dispute the claims made by both Aimé Césaire  and Leopold Sedar Senghor about the black essence of Negritude.

Maryse Condé by Valérie Oka

Maryse Condé is a celebrated novelist, and literary scholar, who over the last fifty years has paved the way for a critical and important literary innovation, within France, Africa and the Caribbean. Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Condé has lived in West Africa, France and the United States. Her novel Segu (1987) won the Le Prix de L’Académie Française (1988), and this year the novelist won the New Academy Prize in Literature. I have come to embrace her critique of Negritude as a pioneering effort at challenging the ideology of Cultural Nationalism, as well  as enabling a feminist literature from African and Caribbean perspectives. Her character inventions such as Bebe Sephuma, a black South African woman poet in L’Histoire de la Femme Cannibale (2005),  who « enjoyed a reputation as dazzling as that of Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Derek Walcott in St. Lucia, or Max Rippor in Guadeloupe », imagines a more just and fair world beyond the patriarchal and populist one we currently inhabit, and in this way that she has made an incredible political achievement in re-configuring the literary imagination of the Caribbean and African novel. 

Rosélie, one of two major characters in the novel, L’Histoire de la Femme Cannibale, by Condé, and translated into English by Richard Philcox, says: « Look! I’m tired of telling you. Guadeloupe and Martinique actually exist! People live and die there. They make babies who in turn reproduce. They claim they have a culture unlike any other: Creole culture. » In reading this statement, I howled out loud in laughter, because it resonated deeply with my own experience as a Ugandan critic, to whom many have asked: Where is Uganda? And does Uganda have a history of art? And thus, did we exist? 

Many, including myself, only heard of Martinique after reading the first few pages of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal the 1939 book-length poem by Aimé Ferdinand David Césaire. In that book, the real disgust that the persona feels about the island of Martinique is palpable. As a result, I entirely digested the sentiment underlying Rosélie’s proclamation. The angst and frustration that gave birth to that reaction. At its core, Maryse Condé’s short story wrestles with the coming together of parts (« No individual is identical to another »). The story rebelliously contests what is often held as universal truth. What so-called « truths » have shaped an account of the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe? How has a predominantly Western perspective on the island territories obfuscated and stereotyped what could be understood as a creole culture? These questions are taken apart in L’Histoire. 

Guadeloupe and Martinique actually exist!  The insistence here on the place is foretold by the film at whose screening Rosélie makes this protest. Sugar Cane Alley (1983), directed by Euzhan Palcy, was adapted from the 1950 novel of the same name by author Joseph Zobel. Palcy and Zobel were born in Martinique. Rosélie’s statement can be seen as a political indictment of the framework of a Western perspective, within which such places like Martinique and Guadeloupe neither exist, nor possess their own culture. It is, of course, not a secret that Western education is at times understood to be the epitome of a universal culture. And in the 20th century, various Caribbean, African and African-American authors refuted this notion. Sugar Cane Alley, which is set in Martinique tells the story of Caribbean slaves working on sugar cane plantations; experiencing the brutal regime of French colonialism. The film, perhaps like, L’Histoire shows and expresses an underlying violence that no one, not even those in the guarded French Cultural Center in Cape Town can escape. 

« Simone and Rosélie first met at the French Cultural Center. The French Cultural Center was guarded like Fort Knox ever since its wine cellar and stock of foie gras had been raided one Christmas Eve. Despite its cafeteria which, until that terrible raid, had served excellent wines as well as delicious sandwiches, the Center was always deserted. » The phrase « guarded like Fort Knox » implies terror.

Dating back to the Civil War, the United States Army post in Kentucky, only became a Fort in 1932. It was first a settlement before becoming a camp. Named after Henry Knox, the Continental Army chief of artillery, during the 1930s it became the site of military and mechanistic experimentation and ideological creation. While this sounds precisely like imperialism under steroids, Condé’s use of the expression in the story reveals the mechanistic tendency and neo-imperialism tied to « well-meaning » cultural institutes in Africa such as the French Cultural Center. While I don’t intend to exaggerate its neoliberal character, I appreciate the literary logic that Condé expresses in just that paragraph, making the reader question the security of cultural imperialism in Africa. 

Maryse Condé by Valerie Oka

Condé was one of the earliest to dispute the claims made by both Aimé Césaire  and Leopold Sedar Senghor about the black essence of Negritude.  She “(argues) that the « nègre » does not exist and is only a legitimating invention of the imperial West, » wrote Doris L. Garraway (2010). Condé launched her critique in the 1974 essay, “Négritude césairienne, négritude senghorienne.” In differentiating the two strands of Negritude, Condé alerted readers, not only to subtle shifts in between the two poets, but also to the larger denial of creole culture and ultimate suppression of African cultures under the essentialist universalism forwarded by the term « nègre ». As an Anglophone African critic, there is always the temptation to attack Negritude, as Wole Soyinka did years ago. Though there have been exceptions. Nigerian author Teju Cole pointed out the weaknesses of Soyinka’s critique to me during a visit to Addis Abeba in 2016. 

As a visiting instructor with Teju Cole in Àsìkò, the roving art school, run by curator Bisi Silva, I took-down and kill-joyed the famous poem by former Senegalese president Leopold Sedar Senghor, Femme Noire. In the poem Senghor writes about the black woman as play object: « Tamtam sculpté, tamtam tendu qui gronde sous les doigts du vainqueur »  (Carved tamtam, taut tamtam, muttering under the Conqueror’s fingers). I vehemently opposed this image, built to depict the black woman as a drum, sexualized and exoticized for male pleasure and consumption. Though Anglophone critics have often misunderstood Francophone poets, my argument was not new. Condé, had been equally critical of Negritude, and surely expressed it before me. 

Condé’s fictive imagination of Bebe Sephuma, a black South African woman poet, in L’Histoire encapsulates another facet of her critique of Black Essentialism and Cultural Nationalism. In the context of the short story, Bebe, is the desirable artistic patron for Simone, Rosélie’s close friend, an artist seeking a wealthy patron to visit her art studio and secure a solo art exhibition. « Bebe Sephuma, who enjoyed a reputation as dazzling as that of Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Derek Walcott in St. Lucia, or Max Rippor in Guadeloupe, » wrote Maryse Condé. Thus, have any black women matched the merit and history accorded to the Leopold Sedar Senghors, the Derek Walcotts, or the Max Rippors? Condé is not intimidated by this ambiguity within history and its lack of recognition for black women intellectuals. Instead she disavows this fact, by refusing to accept the blatant tendencies of Pan-Africanism to carry out  erasure. Thus, Bebe Sephuma is a necessary invention and her fictive presence in L’Histoire amounts to throwing down the gauntlet.  

Rosélie buckles down to Simone’s taunts, when, as Condé says, Rosélie had “the regrettable habit of being intimidated by anyone whose willpower was stronger than hers. » Simone also evokes the kind of stubbornness with which Senegalese women have, indeed, pushed back against the various colonial and postcolonial patriarchal and nationalist regimes. This, for me, is an exceptional aspect of the story: « (Simone) had created an association, the DNA, the Defense of the Negress Association, her bible being a book by the Senegalese writer Awa Thiam, La Parole Aux Negresses, which she had read while at university. To those who balked at the word « Negress » and its colonial connotations and who proposed paraphrases such as « women of African descent, » « women of color, » « women of the South, » or even « women on the move, » Simone retorted that on the contrary it was good to shock. » Awa Thiam, a politician is not only reflected in Simone’s studies on “all the classics of decolonization”. Awa Thiam, Senegal’s feminist author, bears a forcefulness that is matched by the wit and intelligence in Maryse Condé’s writing, pressing urgently for a culture inclusive of women. Going against detractors, women like Simone, Thiam, and Condé forward their determination to rise above the lies told about those who do not exist.  

                                                                    in something we Africans got issue 7
                                                                                                              Serubiri Moses