Maryse Condé

by Rebecca Wolff

This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

Maryse Condé. All photos for BOMB by Sandro Michaelles.

Maryse Condé is the author of seven novels, all originally published in French and all inventively and variously exploring the existential legacy of African diaspora, with special regard for the aftermath of slavery and colonialism in Condé’s native French Caribbean islands. Condé left Guadeloupe for Paris at the age of 16, where she received an education in the concerns of her French, Caribbean and African peers. She moved to Ghana shortly thereafter and lived, traveled, taught and was politically active there until she was deported to London in the late ’60s—for her politics. In 1970 Condé returned to Paris, and in 1975 received her doctorate in Caribbean literature from the Sorbonne.

Her latest novel, Windward Heights, is an interpretation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in which the star-crossed lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, are here recast as Cathy and Razyé, the latter a French-Creole word referring to the “barren heath and cliffs” of Guadeloupe. In Condé’s retelling, Cathy and Razyé are torn apart, not only by Cathy’s willful inability to comply with her romantic fate, an inability conveniently designed to send her up the social ladder, but by racial maneuverings: Cathy, like Razyé, is black. She chooses to marry a white man, a well-intentioned liberal landowner, and in so doing weaves herself and her descendants into the fabric of the island’s social and political upheaval, an upheaval that is shown to be an inextricable part of any fate: romantic, tragic, personal, national, or otherwise.

Condé is a past winner of Le Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme (1986) and Le Prix de L’Académie Francaise (1988) and is currently a professor of French and Francophone literatures at Columbia University. She and her husband—and translator—Richard Philcox divide their time between the United States and Guadeloupe. I spoke with Ms. Condé in New York City in March of this year.

Rebecca Wolff Wuthering Heights is what is known as a “classic”; I read it at least six times before I was 15. What kind of place did it have in your imagination before you retold it?

Maryse Condé There is a strong tradition of what is called literary cannibalism in the Caribbean. A lot of people have done it before me. When I read Wuthering Heights, I was 14. It was given to me at a prize ceremony for being good in writing. I read the book in September, which is rainy season in the Caribbean. I was lying on my bed in my bedroom, and for me it was an enchantment. I really was transported to wherever Emily Brontë wanted to transport me . . . and then I forgot all about it. I saw it at the cinema after that, by chance—the version with Laurence Olivier. It revived memories of my adolescence, so I read it again and discovered it had a meaning beyond the actual meaning, beyond the meanings the author wanted to give. It was a story you could transplant into any society. I was teaching a few years later and I discovered Jean Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, a rewriting of Jane Eyre. I thought, It’s not so bizarre that I’m attracted to Emily Brontë. Because, in fact, there is something about the Brontë sisters that speaks to Caribbean women, regardless of their color, regardless of their age, regardless of the time they live in. So I decided I was going to rewrite it. But it was at least another five years for me before I really started. Because my husband, who is English, was shocked when I was telling him my vague intention. He did not see the connection between the Caribbean and Brontë’s work. It seemed blasphemy to him to rewrite Brontë’s masterpiece. So I took another five years to decide—and when I could not help it, I started to write.

RW Blasphemy!

MC But I totally understand. It is such a masterpiece, such a beloved work in England. For example, when we promoted the book in England we went to the Museum at Haworth, where Emily Brontë was born. People came to listen to me but I could see when they were sitting down looking at me, there was a kind of . . . I wouldn’t say fear, but a kind of shock. What is she doing to the text? How can she dare touch that text?! I really had to convince them that I did not do any disrespect to Brontë; on the contrary, I was paying homage to her. It seems to me the greatest homage that I pay is to her artistry.

And it is another way of telling people that you should not draw barriers between colors, ideas, et-cetera. Everybody says: But why an English novel? Why not a French one? Why not an African one? You see—it’s as if you should never cross a barrier, when, in fact, to live is to cross barriers.

RW You said that there is something about the novel that appealed to you, that struck a chord with you. Was it a parallel you saw there?

MC This is difficult to explain. It seems to me that Cathy, by refusing her passion for Razyé, was refusing the most vivid part of herself, which was, maybe, her African heritage. She was trying to look only at white values, the white element of her being. It is a kind of everlasting choice, a choice that everybody is confronted with: Follow your inner impulse, don’t look for respectability, money, and so on.

RW It’s fascinating that what you’re describing as the passion that she doesn’t follow is to marry within her race. The passion that you, in your personal life, followed, was to marry outside . . .

MC Outside.

RW It’s a beautiful parallel. Much has been made already of you, as an activist in the past and in the present, being married to a white European man and living in New York City. You have said, “I did not really choose to marry a European. For 12 years I lived with a man who happened to be European, then we got married.” How does one reconcile a position of practical apoliticism—the ways in which our lives and our decisions are guided by events and feelings, not principle—with the kind of political astuteness and caring you have in your work? How does it feel to be a politically engaged writer now, in ridiculous America?

MC That is a long story. I married twice. The first time I was married to an African, a man from Guinea, and there was a confusion for me between the man and the country behind him. Because Guinea was the first African country to say No! to General DeGaulle, the first African country to take independence in the French-speaking arena. So I confused a man, love, and marriage with making the revolution. Of course, the marriage did not work at all. It was a failure, and we divorced a few years after. So I was already conscious that marriage is an individual matter—only two persons are concerned, and there is no question of putting on the shoulders of the man you are going to marry all your idealistic views about your country, about your cause. I became very wary of that kind of confusion. So when I met Richard, I was already informed of the mistake I could make. But it was difficult for a politically minded person to pay attention to a white man. For me, he belonged to the enemy, and moreover, I had four children from my first marriage. For them, it was completely impossible to have a white man for a stepdaddy; that is why we refused to marry. We lived together. After having lived together for 12 years we had to accept that we were in love, seriously, and we had to follow the consequences.

I admit now the distinction between the private person, the private things we do, and the political person. For example, I used to believe that if you write, you have to be committed to expressing particular opinions. Now I don’t feel that it is necessary. You can be committed in your life and your activities and write novels that do not translate your political activities. Your question is a very sad one. I suppose that now, in 1999, I’m no longer a committed writer because everything that I tried to do failed miserably. I was involved in the African revolution and it failed. I turned to Guadeloupe and we dreamed that Guadeloupe would be liberated, that one day we should be Guadeloupe—a national entity, and now we are part of Europe. We are entering the Common Market. It seems to me that now, you see me in my old age, as somebody who is totally dissatisfied with the course of events, so I can be a nonpolitical writer in America, because America is not political and I’m just like that.

RW Your novel Windward Heights embodies exactly that ambivalence about the need to be political and the things that work against it.

MC I cannot prevent myself from thinking about political ideas, political fight, political struggles. But 30 years ago I was convinced that the conclusion of the fight would be positive—that we shall get to liberation, that we shall get to the end of colonialism. Now I know that we have fought sincerely, bravely, and that nothing happened and . . . okay, we have to face it.

In a way, for it not to be too sad, I still have what I call a cultural political activity. At Columbia, for example, which is such a conservative place, I teach Caribbean literature in French. We speak about politics, about people like Aimé Cesaire. I bring so many visitors from the Caribbean who give speeches and conferences. Although I realize that, without a plan, I can’t achieve any political agenda . . . On the other hand, I’m trying to remain active. I’m not just sitting in my apartment writing novels and going to the movies.

RW In another interview you said, “Race and color questions have become secondary for me.” This led me to wonder, What’s primary? If you can say something is secondary, then it means that something else is primary.

MC Yes, but you have to put that declaration into context. Some years ago, when I went to Africa, race was all-important. I was going to Africa because I was going to meet my people, I was going to find my true home. And when I got there, I discovered that, in fact, I had little in common with the people of Guinea, as I was a French Caribbean. So, what I put first is the question of culture. Now that I live in New York, for example, I relate socially mainly with people from the French Caribbean; for example Edwidge Danticat, who is a Haitian writer, is a friend of mine. I see now that culture is the most important thing. And you would be surprised, some of my closest friends are from France. Why? Because of the language. I discovered that language is not something unimportant; in fact, it is essential that you can communicate with somebody in your own language. You will say, "But what about your husband who is English-speaking?" I will say again that it is the exception. The private love affair has nothing to do with theory, or culture, or politics. It is something you cannot explain; it is the exception to the rule. There are some things you have to accept in your life, and to try to reconcile with your other opinions.

Maryse Condé.

RW One of the many things that fascinated me, reading Windward Heights, was how the tale had so many different tellers. In the sense that Wuthering Heights is a creaky old novel, one of those tales in which you know how the devices are being used—the maidservant begins the tale and retells the story from the present. But she, the servant, is really not a part of the story. She is the servant of the story. Whereas, in Windward Heights, the story is picked up by so many different voices; servants, children, who are not central to the story—yet, their stories are told.

MC One day I had a discussion with a friend of mine, a writer from Martinique, and we were wondering what is the most important element if you want to write a Caribbean novel—a novel that somebody will open and say, “Yes, it is coming from the Caribbean.” He believed that it was language; that if you could deconstruct French and use a lot of Creole metaphor and images, it would be enough. My feeling was that only by capturing the very structure of the narrative technique could you make a Caribbean novel. You have to find the Caribbean technique of telling a story, a polyphonous technique.

RW Polyphonous?

MC To mix chapters in the first person, chapters in the third person, to mix female and male voices, and especially, mix the people who are supposed to be important—like M. de Linsseuil, who is a master. But in a society like the Caribbean, who knows more than the servants about the construction of society, the details of the society? Nobody ever asks them their opinion, but they are there, they are witnesses; they are the ones who see, they are the ones who arrange everything. Simply, a Caribbean story could not really be told without reference to servants. Don’t forget that, after all, as a black person, I descend from the slaves, and the slaves were always silent, forced to be silent. They knew they were the real masters of the island. It was a way of giving voice to my people, who were never given voices before. So, it was an artistic and a political device.

RW It’s clear that there are extremely complicated racial politics within the islands, and set hierarchies. These are played out in the novel.

MC Now, in Guadeloupe, we are moving toward an understanding of races, of racism. We understand that we are a plural-ethnic society where black and white, mulatto, Indians, have formed and have given birth to a kind of common society. But not even 50 years ago it was totally different. My mother told me stories about how when she was a child going to school, you could not, as a black girl, sit by an Indian child or by a white child. It was a segregated society. At the time, in Guadeloupe, the color of skin was a marker for everything. It meant your class, your condition, your culture. It was a society based on hate, contempt, on tension. But I suppose it was too difficult, too painful to live in that kind of situation. Little by little, in Guadeloupe and Martinique, we’ve tried to find a way of settling differences in order to come together. Because after all, the three groups have invented a language, Creole. The three groups have invented a kind of religion, Kimbwa. The three groups have invented so many things in common. The time came when we looked for the end of that state of war. Now, it seems to me, we are going toward peace.

RW In Windward Heights, the central love affair is one that becomes a pattern, one that ruins people’s lives.

MC Emily Brontë wrote about the love between Cathy and Heathcliff; a young girl and a young man who was a bit of an outcast. Nobody knew where he was from and he had no family. You can take that as a kind of metaphor for the need to accept your love for somebody as coming out of the blue. And that you shouldn’t have to leave true love for any social position or situation in your society. The mistake Cathy committed was that she preferred Edgar Linton, who was a well-educated man, and a landed-property man. My Cathy cannot accept being in love with a black or Indian man, somebody with no family, and she decides she is going to climb up into the white society by marrying de Linsseuil. In so doing, she’s killing herself.

RW I was thinking a lot about essentialism reading Windward Heights. In Wuthering Heights, what gives Cathy and Heathcliff this unbreakable bond is their essential sameness. They perceive themselves as having the same soul and arising from the same place in the world. So the mistake is to pull them apart. In Windward Heights you’ve translated the essentialism into a racial characteristic.

MC I wanted to say that I believe in that kind of essentialism. Two people are made for each other. These people can be extremely different—one can be white, one can be black, one can be yellow, or what have you. Cathy and Razyé were made to be together. But instead of living their love to the full expression, Cathy decided to become an important lady, to marry a man who had money, who had land, who used to have slaves, and to climb the social hierarchy of the country. She turned her back on her true love, and of course, that was the end of her. In the pursuit of your private happiness, class and color should not come into consideration.

RW You’re really implying the total separation of the political from the personal.

MC I do believe that.

RW And yet, political reality is the only reality of the novel.

MC Yes. I wanted to portray the period of time they were living in. It was fascinating in Brontë that the outside world did not exist. There were the two of them, Cathy and Heathcliff, and nothing around. At the time of my novel, Guadeloupe was full of chaos, noise, fury; it was the emergence of the black people, it was the decline of the white people, of the white majority. You cannot separate the life of an individual from the society he belongs to. That is why I took so much pain to portray their society. The lesson of my book is that Cathy and Razyé, in spite of the political situation around them, should have listened to themselves. Because of their political situation, they could not and so they faced death. They should have been strong enough not to pay attention to all the differences between black and white and all the conflicts around, because it did not matter for them.

RW In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff despises Edgar Linton because he’s a passive man who doesn’t really have much of a spine or fire, the way that Heathcliff and Cathy do. In Windward Heights, Linton’s character is translated into Aymeric—a knee-jerk liberal, bleeding-heart white guy whose intentions are good. He’s the one who climbs the racial barrier to marry Cathy.

MC Because in Guadeloupe there is a tendency to see white people, the beke, as we say, as bad, negative characters. Aymeric is a man trapped in a society, a class, an ethnicity, in everything. But he would like to do good. He’s trying to be good to his slaves, he fights negative ideas about the blacks. But he remains, whether he likes it or not, a prisoner of his class.

RW I found it amusing that, throughout Windward Heights, the male member—to use the term used in the translation—seemed to be a defining characteristic of Razyé and his son: they are these virile, literally well-endowed men . . . and then Aymeric—

MC Had nothing, in fact. But, you know, there is a bit of irony too. When I was writing that, I was playing with the idea that people see the black man that way, as opposed to the way they see the white man. You can use stereotypes in so many ways. Seriously, sometimes. But, a lot of times, I use irony just to make fun. I smile at the readers—of course they don’t see it most of the time. There is a bit of a stereotype in the confrontation between Razyé, the black powerful man, the native of the island, with the weak, the mild. A stereotype, yes, but in a way all stereotypes build stories. If you want to build a fascinating story, you have to use some stereotypes.

RW There’s this one really priceless quote: "Razyé made an appearance. How can I describe the contrast between the two men? Never had I noticed how the master’s nickname suited him so well. He looked like a choirboy who serves at high mass on Sundays or else a lamb that sucks his mama’s teat, or a red-eyed twitchy-nosed rabbit in its hutch. As for Razyé, he was a volcano, a hurricane, an earthquake—a nigger stud with his iron spike pointing between his legs." There’s a much more frank sexuality, obviously, being discussed.

MC You know there is a kind of proverb in the Caribbean, saying that a black man is an earthquake, a volcano, and so on. In Brontë, the sexuality is always there, but she was too shy to speak of it by name. So it was very enticing for me to bring it out in the open and speak those ideas, which were her ideas—but she was mute about them.

RW Basically, Cathy is attracted to Heathcliff and not attracted to Edgar.

MC The idea is that in the original novel, Cathy and Heathcliff never made love. And there they were, alone all the time . . .

RW Out on the heath . . .

Your Cathy says, "Heaven is not for me, I dream of an afterlife where we can express all the emotions and desires we have had to stifle during our lifetime: an afterlife where we would be free at last to be ourselves. Ever since I was little, I’ve wondered if the Christian religion is not a white-folks religion made for white-folks, whether it’s right for us who have African blood in our veins."

MC Emily Brontë says that. I think Nelly Dean was telling Brontë’s Cathy about heaven and Cathy replied, “I don’t want to go there, I don’t believe that I’m fit to go to heaven.” I just elaborated on that idea. My Cathy doesn’t want to go there, she’s not interested in heaven, because she believes it’s a white man’s place.

RW It’s still fascinating to me that when Cathy says “Free at last to be myself” in Wuthering Heights, she’s referring to this humanist, human-nature-type quality that she was purportedly born with, which she shares with Heathcliff. In Windward Heights, Cathy speaks of literal bloodlines and racial characteristics as what keeps her out of heaven—where she would, in the end, rather not go.

MC But that’s the humanness that somebody from the Caribbean has. To be part of so many worlds—part of the African world because of the African slaves, part of the European world because of the European education—is a kind of double entendre. You can use that in your own way and give sentences another meaning. I was so pleased when I was doing that work, because it was a game, a kind of perverse but joyful game.

RW It seems that you’re expressing a certain belief in something essential, something inherent in African blood, in racial distinction. I’m curious to know what you think about white people and white culture’s apparent desire to emulate black culture in music and otherwise.

MC Why not? Because after all we must communicate, we must exchange. I don’t believe that you should only stick to your own culture and legacy. For example, I have a friend who is a Haitian and a well-known musician. His last record was a kind of Brazilian music. Why not? We have to borrow. I did the same thing—I borrowed the idea from Emily Brontë, who, after all, is a white writer.

RW I’m glad you see that as a positive thing.

MC Yes. I do, I do.

Maryse Condé.

RW Speaking about West Indian literature, you have said, “Blacks were always depicted as victims. They were also portrayed as spontaneous, sensitive, and in tune with nature.” Now you’ve written a novel in which there is an essentialism at the heart of its plot. Does this make you a grand ironist?

MC I have a lot of irony all the time in my novels, irony about ideas that are supposed to be set, but I’m always trying to find the reality behind the clichés. It seems to me one of the best clichés we have in the West Indies is the separation, or division between races, and each of us behave according to a set pattern. Yes, there is a lot of irony in it.

RW Are you worried that there will be those who miss the irony?

MC Oh, they certainly will. People don’t like irony, especially in the Caribbean. They want a writer to say seriously what she or he believes in. They don’t like people to mess around. Give “false” images or “false” ideas. They don’t like the writer to joke. So, I mean, if you joke you are bound not to be understood, and not to be liked.

RW And yet you joke.

MC I shall go on joking.

RW Windward Heights is a complicated and delicate balance between romantic tragedy—with fate, blood, undying devotion, and, quite literally, magic—and historically accurate political and social struggle in which the characters play out a tragedy of extremely material proportions. You have said, “The very act of writing is supernatural in itself.” Thinking also of the presence of real magic in your fiction; it is a force not to be dismissed. Is there a struggle within you, as a writer or activist, and as a thinker, between superstition and rationalism? Between a magically real vision of the world and a politically real, or, just an everyday wordly world?

MC Yes, but I don’t feel that one must fight. I suppose that if you belong to the Caribbean—meaning that, if you are a creolized person, you have a lot of influences in you. You have the African coming through you because of the science of the magic, the respect for the invisible. But you have been trained by Europeans, so you adopt some of their values. You realize that faith in magical realism is faith in social realism, socialist realism. With all these different influences your inner self is always in a kind of turmoil. You believe in this or that, which seems to contradict another kind of belief, but they can cohabitate in your mind. The words that you are producing are a reflection of all the elements, all the influences that are in you. If you reduce a human being to one single line of thought or opinion, it is petty. Maybe the advantage of being a colonized person is the realization that you have so many things that belong to you: your tradition, something coming from the West, something indigenous to the area where you have been living—you have to blend all that to express yourself. I don’t see a fight, I just see a kind of complexity.

RW A negative capability. I am curious about the spiritual aspect of the novel. In Wuthering Heights, everything is based on the romantic notion of the soul; Cathy basically withers away and dies, of her own volition. This seems to be very similar to the whole basis of Santeria—I don’t know if I’m using the correct term.

MC There is an idea in the Caribbean that people who are dead are still with you. Normally the room is full of dead people, close to me, who like to see the way I live now, how I go on with my life. But I cannot see them, I do not have the power, I’m not trained to see them. Some people are trained to see them. Those people belong to what we call Santeria, or Kimbwa, or voodoo, and if I had their services, they could well come in here, and say, "Yes, your mother is sitting there, looking at you." The idea is that we are always trying to be in communication with the souls of the people that we love and who have left us. A very Caribbean idea.

RW And a very Wuthering Heights idea.

MC That is one of the reasons why it pleased me so much. Because that idea is a Caribbean idea.

RW Right, and it’s an idea about passion, really.

MC When Heathcliff was opening the windows in the captain’s room and telling her, "Come, and possess me," Caribbeans find nothing strange in that. We could easily do that. For example, if a girl loses her husband—I have a friend who lost her husband two months ago—she was all the time to the Kimbwa, because he had promised to help her meet her husband again. He never did. He was just taking her money for nothing. But, in fact, there was nothing surprising in the quest. Emily Brontë doesn’t know how close she was to the Caribbean imagination.

RW It’s interesting, because in the Caribbean tradition, that would be commonplace, but in the English culture . . .

MC The idea that you want to be reunited with somebody after death could be very shocking. I heard Wuthering Heights shocked the English readers when it was published.

RW I’m continually surprised at how little mainstream acceptance there is in America of the supernatural.

MC People are afraid. I suppose it is fear. It is much more convenient to believe the world is a closed place. Especially in America, where they don’t want to see anything related to death. “Let them be where they are.” In the Caribbean there is close communication between the two worlds. Everything is open for us.

RW I’m curious why, in Windward Heights, you never provide the closure, as we say, of a real meeting again between—

MC First of all, it would be treason to the original. Secondly, the charm. The charm of the quest is that it has no end. He is all the time looking for her and he cannot find her. If I had found an end, if they met and were reunited, the book would lack poetry and mysticism. It is a gesture that is not finished that speaks more to your imagination. A gesture that is closed is finished.

I was a child when my mother died—I was in France, so I didn’t go see her. At that time, it was very difficult to get back to Guadeloupe. Imagine the number of Kimbwa who offered to me, for 1,000 francs, 2,000 francs, “I shall make you see your mother.” And nobody had any success at all. I never found one. So I suppose that maybe I didn’t find the best one.

RW When I was in college, and in graduate school—in the early ’90s—I was very aware of a tremendous outburst of interest and academic activity around Caribbean women’s literature, around any kind of marginalized, oppressed communities. My impression now, living outside the academic world, is that there was a fashion for this kind of literature which has perhaps receded, to a certain extent.

MC I don’t think Columbia University has ever been touched by that kind of fashion.

RW Really?

MC The place is—I like it after all—but Columbia is a very white, conservative place. It was, for example, one of the last to have a department of Francophone studies. It is only when I came four years ago that they started to teach Francophone literature here at Columbia.

RW Really.

MC All these ideas of political correctness—I think Columbia is not touched by that at all. What we thought at the beginning, even my students, was that there would be a kind of unity between my Francophone literature classes, and the department of African American studies. I did everything I could to join forces with them, and they were never interested.

RW That’s strange, it seems as though it would be a natural alliance.

MC The Caribbean does not interest them; they are interested in their own issues in America—the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Caribbeans are not black enough for them. But we are close to the Pan-African studies program, the Institute for African Studies, we work together a lot. It’s normal: African Americans have their own agenda. After all, they are Americans, they are first and foremost Americans, dealing with white Americans.

RW So when you’re thinking about what you’re going to be working on next, what are you considering?

MC I have written so many serious novels, with a very serious concern, and so on—so my next novel is going to be a kind of fantasy, about a person who is not a human being, who is supposed to be a kind of she-devil, doing all sorts of harm and wrong around herself. Of course there will be a political representation of Guadeloupe because it is set at the beginning of the century, around 1920. I shall have to deal with politics, but mainly, it is a kind of entertainment.

RW Perhaps you are unwilling, or unable, to leave that political context behind.

MC It seems that is what is left of my political involvement. I could not write anything—although I write an entertaining fantasy novel—unless it has a certain political significance. I have nothing else to offer that remains important. I could not write something with no meaning. I could not.

RW So, it would be impossible for you to write, say, just a love story.

MC No. It has to be a love story as you would have in Wuthering Heights. It is a love story, but has a background of oppression and is political. I could not do something different.

RW Would it be boring to you?

MC Yes. And actually, I’d be ashamed. I’d be ashamed of doing that.

RW Do you think that’s some kind of relic? A left-over feeling—

MC Of political commitment? Yes.

RW Once you’re committed, you’re always committed.

MC After all, the people who taught me how to write, who gave me the desire to become a writer, were politically motivated. They were saying something in the defense of our people, or to enlighten our people, to raise their consciousness, to make people in the world know how unhappy and oppressed they are. The legacies and the lesson—you cannot forget about that.

African diaspora
French language
Interracial marriage
Caribbean literature
Summer 1999
The cover of BOMB 68