I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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Even before Stephen died Rosélie was living a certain life of solitude. In fact even when she was small she never had any friends, having been cosseted by her jealous and possessive mother and mixing with the family only because she had to. The conversations of her teenage cousins obsessed with their first kiss or cousins grown into womanhood obsessed with the performance or alas nonperformance of their husbands and lovers bored her. Ever since Simone Bazin des Roseraies had followed her husband and consul to Somalia, she had no one else but Dido to keep her company, and despite everything, she treasured the fact. It’s only normal. The popular saying goes that a woman needs another woman to talk to. Men are from Mars, women from Venus, and I didn’t invent the expression. But enough of that.
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. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Mathieu Kassovitz were doing their best. But how could you rival Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who could be seen strutting on every movie screen in Cape Town?
One evening Rosélie found herself sitting not far from the lovely, golden-skinned Simone, who positively glowed, during a showing of Euzhan Palcy’s film Sugar Cane Alley. She had seen the film again and again in Paris, N’Dossou and New York. She never missed a showing, not merely for the movie’s merits but because Euzhan Palcy’s miserere each time empowered her with the reality she did not possess. For an hour and a half she could stand up and shout to the disbelievers:
“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.”
Question: How do you recognize a compatriot? The Caribbean people have an instinct, like any other endangered species. That evening Simone was sitting with her children. As soon as the sepia-colored opening sequences began to roll, the children started bombarding her with questions. She answered them in a whisper so as not to disturb the other spectators, pathetically trying to authenticate this far-off land they had never actually seen.
Kod yanm ka mawé yanm. Friendship binds those who are far from their shores.
From that day on, Rosélie and Simone became inseparable. Yet you couldn’t have invented two personalities of such a different nature. Simone was firmly attached to traditions: Christmas carols; mandarin pips and polka-dot dresses on New Year’s; coconut sorbet at four in the afternoon; codfish fritters; crab matoutou; red snapper stew for lunch. She went for miles to buy blood and pig’s intestines to make her black pudding. But above all, unlike Rosélie, she had an opinion on politics and just about everything: underdevelopment, dictatorship, Kofi Annan, Muslim fundamentalism, homosexuality, terrorism and the India-Pakistan conflict. Belonging to the same people as Aimé Césaire, the inspiration of Caribbean consciousness, she naturally had the right to teach everyone a thing or two. She had a very negative opinion of South Africa, even of Nelson Mandela the untouchable, the exemplary hero. She believed his influence had not allowed his people to purge their frustration and start again under the sun in a baptism of blood. See Fanon, On Violence.
“One day, all hell’s going to break loose,” she liked to say, rubbing her hands as if she was overjoyed by the prospect. “It’ll explode like at St. Pierre.”
For those who might not understand, she was alluding to the eruption of the Montagne Pelée and the destruction of the town of St. Pierre in Martinique. Apparently only one person escaped—a prisoner by the name of Cyparis … oh, I’m sorry, that’s another story.
What upset Simone the most as a devoted mother of five was the government’s disregard for children. Didn’t they know they were the future of the nation? In her opinion, kindergartens and nursery schools should be under government control. They shouldn’t be left to private individuals who were only intent on making a profit. Having visited several of these places, she had seen for herself how these innocent children were left to macerate in filth, urine and fecal matter. No intellectual stimulation. The lucky ones had a few cuddly toys, coloring crayons and modeling clay. So at the end of December she begged Rosélie to play Santa Claus with her and accompany her on a toy distribution mission. Rosélie, who had the regrettable habit of being intimidated by anyone whose willpower was stronger than hers, gave in. One afternoon they set off in the embassy’s Peugeot to empty their sack of toys at strategic points. The way they were received at Bambinos as well as Sweet Mickey’s as well as Tiny Tots Palace filled Rosélie with dismay. Worse than intruders, veritable undesirables! The directors didn’t take the trouble to come out in person. Their assistants grabbed the cumbersome packages in such an offhand way it was feared they would end up in the garbage.
Why, for goodness’ sake?
Simone hadn’t always been a housewife. She had been a brilliant student at the school for political science and had read all the classics of decolonization. So the explanation she provided was inspired by her readings of years gone by, a pinch of philosophy, a pinch of politics, a bit of Sartre, a bit of Fanon (once again):
“We’re not white women. We are black. The whites, however, have brainwashed them to such an extent that they not only loathe themselves but everything of the same color. Moreover, it’s the class struggle. Here we are in a luxury car. We don’t live in the townships. We’re bourgeois. They hate us for not living like them.”
Bourgeois? Speak for yourself. I live like a parasite. I don’t have a career. I don’t have any money. Or property. I have neither a present nor a future.
Simone had a short memory; she hadn’t always been a bourgeois. She was born in one of the most destitute villages of Martinique. Her father was a cane worker who was a regular customer at the company rum store. There was never any meat on the table. The family was lucky when the fig bananas were accompanied by a slice of codfish or a little olive oil. At the age of ten, though she had never worn anything else but sandals, her godmother, a bourgeois mulatto from Précheur, gave her a pair of shiny pumps that her third daughter had not quite worn out. At boarding school she washed and ironed the only two dresses she had, one for weekdays and the nice one for Sunday mass. Right up to graduation she “massacred” the French language, which made her classmates die laughing. When she met Antoine Bazin des Roseraies, a minor aristocrat, nothing more, an egghead and first in his class, she had not been impressed. He had won her over only after a persistent courtship. Then, like in Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding, after a marriage of convenience, the buds of love had blossomed.
At the present time, Simone would have been perfectly happy with a loving husband and a successful family, if her public life had not been a calvary. On the many occasions when she represented France at her husband’s side she was systematically ignored and excluded. Under her own roof, at her own receptions, the guests never spoke to her. At other evenings she was relegated to the bottom of the table. Nobody would believe she had studied at the school for political science in Paris. At her children’s school they took her for the maid. Unlike Rosélie, she was feisty. With the help of her husband, albeit discreetly because of his function, she 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 Négresses, 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. The DNA had a large membership, wives of diplomats and international civil servants, teachers, traders, owners of beauty shops, visiting nurses, the director of a travel agency and a school for models, one of whom had been voted runner-up in the election of Miss Black Maracas. The association was known for including French, English and Portuguese speakers, irrespective of class and nationality. Simone had no trouble inviting an impressive list of personalities; for on this planet there is no black woman who one day or another has not been doubly humiliated because of her sex and color. Simone had the good idea of making the young poet Bebe Sephuma honorary president. Bebe Sephuma enjoyed a reputation throughout the country as dazzling as that of Léopold Sedar Senghor in Senegal, Derek Walcott in St. Lucia, or Max Rippon in Guadeloupe. There is no equivalent in a Western country where poets are generally ignored. Yet she had only written three flimsy collections, one of which was dedicated to the woman who brought her into this world before being carried off by AIDS when Bebe was three months old. She had been blessed with good fortune when, on the death of her mother, to be exact, an English couple adopted her and saved her from the Bantustan, where she would have surely wasted away with the rest of her family. They had taken her to London, where she was sent to the best schools before being accepted at Oxford. Nevertheless, she had never forgotten the hell she had escaped from. As soon as she could, she returned to settle down in Cape Town and became the uncontested leader of arts and letters. She wrote a cultural column in the prestigious Manchester and Guardian and appeared regularly on television. Since she sponsored a string of art galleries it was Simone’s idea to drag her to Rosélie’s studio. Her dream was that Bebe would love her work and offer her an exhibition in a select gallery.
“She could give you the chance you’ve been waiting for!”
Rosélie and Bebe had often met. But obviously Rosélie did not interest Bebe, who would hurriedly greet her with a superficial smile. As for Rosélie, she had to admit that Bebe scared her. Too young. Too pretty. Too witty. A wicked smile revealing sharp, carnassial teeth made for biting life and tearing into it, betraying her formidable desire to succeed.
In our countries, however, nobody ever gets a unanimous vote. Bebe Sephuma was not lacking in detractors. “Is she a true African? What does she know about our traditions?” whispered some of the disgruntled, who recalled that she had spent her childhood and adolescence in Highgate before reading philosophy at Oxford. As a result, she could not speak any of the languages of South Africa. Not even Afrikaans.
Simone managed to introduce Rosélie to the intimate circle of friends who were celebrating Bebe’s 27th birthday. Duly coached, Rosélie slipped on a black silk sheath dress and brought out her gold bead choker, the one she kept at all costs for she had inherited it from her mother, and carefully applied her makeup. It’s incredible what a little eyeliner and a good lipstick can do! Under her arms she soaked herself with “Jaipur” by Boucheron. But she had a great deal of trouble trying to convince Stephen, usually so worldly and infatuated with high society, to accompany her. He considered Bebe’s poetry atrocious, and what’s more, she spoke English with a pretentious accent.
Bebe lived in a villa decorated in a Futurist style by a Brazilian decorator who was the darling of the rich South Africans. He had designed the houses of a number of pop singers and artists living in Johannesburg. The villa was situated in Constantia. This neighborhood, one of the smartest residential districts of Cape Town, was gradually being taken over by the ambassadors, businessmen and specialists from sub-Saharan Africa, as the good old Black Africa was now called. Not only were blacks seen as uniformed chauffeurs, their white-gloved hands holding the wheel, but sacrilege of all sacrileges, they were sprawling in the back, their heads resting on the leather cushions of their Mercedes 380Ls. Children with the same skin color were pedaling their expensive bicycles along drives lined with pine trees and centuries-old oaks.
But what struck Rosélie was not the environment, the interior design, the walls decorated with brightly colored azuleros and glass insets, the white marble flagstones, the monochrome leather furnishing, the eclecticism of the decorations, a No mask next to a mobile by Calder, a Fang mask rubbing shoulders with a tapestry from Ethiopia. Not even the sumptuousness of the dinner table, where nothing was lacking, from pink champagne and caviar to Scottish salmon. What struck Rosélie was that the dinner guests were made up solely of mixed couples, white men and black women, as if they constituted a humanity all their own that under no pretext should be mixed with any other. The most self-assured was Antoine, Simone’s husband, on whom the nature of his job and the assurance of future promotion conferred an immense authority. When he spoke, his words had the power of a private bill being presented to the National Assembly.
The handsomest was without doubt Bebe’s partner, Piotr. This Swede, who would not have been out of place in a film by Ingmar Bergman (the early Bergman), shared and supported her enthusiasm. Like her, he knew art should be brought to the people, and not the reverse. Like her, he had a different notion of art from that found in school manuals: art is everywhere—in the street, in everyday objects. To explain his point Piotr had recently succeeded in pulling off a major accomplishment. With the help of a photographer he had plastered on the buses in Cape Town giant pictures of the market in Cocody before it went up in flames, a London double-decker filled with turbaned Sikhs, the junks and floating restaurants of Hong Kong, the mosque at Djenné and a caravan of camels crossing the desert on their way to the salt mines of Taoudénit.
The most romantic was Peter, an Australian, a telecommunications engineer who had had to flee Sokoto, where he had eloped with Latifah, the only daughter of the sultan. Latifah spoke only Hausa, a language he knew nothing about. The couple had three children. But Peter had still not learned a word of Hausa, and Latifah not a word of English, which goes to prove that passion forges its own idiom.
The most captivating was Stephen, with his intellectual charisma, his somewhat obscure language and his references to works of fiction that nobody had ever heard of but made you want to read. Once he was at Bebe’s, as Rosélie had predicted, he seemed to forget his reservations and was determined to charm anyone who approached him.
The most average was an American teacher from Boston who claimed to be a WASP, on his honeymoon in Cape Town with his Congolese wife from Brazzaville who taught at the same school. Together they had written in French a 700-page novel, extremely boring, Les derniers gestes d’Anténor Biblos, published by Gallimard.
But it was Patrick, a somewhat common-faced 50-year-old, escorting his wife, a Congolese this time from Kinshasa, who stole the evening. Patrick was a former deep-sea diver. For years he had lived on offshore oil rigs from Indonesia to Gabon and escaped every two weeks to blow his phenomenal wages (plus danger money) in the brothels. At the age of 50, when the hour of retirement had sounded, he had decided to settle down in Cape Town, where the climate suited his arthritis of the knees, which he had contracted in the ocean depths. During the meal he held his audience captive, telling them quite simply how he used to dive down over a thousand feet, brushing against the fish and the coral amid the silence and darkness of the ocean deep. But at dessert he ran out of things to say, and the conversation got bogged down in the inevitable terrain. Life as a mixed couple. In the ensuing brouhaha everyone had a story of prejudice, rejection and exclusion to tell, and one never knew whether to laugh or cry or both. In fact, no society is prepared to accept the freedom to love.
The most spectacular tale was that of Peter and Latifah. In order to prevent this union, which he considered unnatural, the sultan Rachid al-Hassan had his daughter locked up in one of the wings of the Palace of the Wind. Here she was watched over night and day by four ferocious hounds and six old hags who fed her exclusively with curds in order to incapacitate her. She had escaped with the help of a guard who had poisoned the hounds with meatballs and stuffed the old hags with sleeping pills. Up to that very day the radio in Sokoto still broadcast the description of Peter as a wanted person and public enemy of the sultanate. The sultan has never given up hope of jailing him after having first castrated him with a fine blade inset with ivory dating from the 18th century.
Stephen was the only one who refused to give in to the general gloom. He began by cheering up his audience with his parody of erudition. The mixed couple is a very old institution. Ca da’Mosto and Valentin Fernandes can testify to it. It dates back to 1510, when a group of Portuguese from Lisbon, including criminals fleeing the Crown, settled at the mouth of the Senegal River and, adopting African customs, took up with black women. Although they were held in contempt by their compatriots, they were adored by the Africans and christened lançados em tierra, those who are thrown onto the shore, or tango-mâos, the tattooed traders. In the same humorous vein he asked, Why do we only take into account the biological element? Isn’t the union between a Spaniard and a Belgian a mixed marriage? Between a German and an Italian? A Czech and a Romanian? An American and a French woman? And after all aren’t all couples mixed? Although they belong to the same society the spouses themselves come from different family and social origins. Even if a brother married his sister it would be another case of a mixed marriage. No individual is identical to another.
He brought out a sense of pride in the guests, convincing them that one day the whole world would follow their example. Yes, the mixed couple would conquer all! The great thinkers of our time are saying that the world is in a state of hybridization. You only need two eyes to realize it. New York, London: cities of hybrids. Hybridized cities.
Piotr and Bebe in their enthusiasm proposed creating an association. They would like to pursue and repeat the operation “Art for the People.” Could he select lines from poems or, quite simply, meaning- ful quotes by writers? They would be blown up into giant posters and displayed in the markets, the bus stations, railroad stations and bus shelters, everywhere crowds gather. Stephen was only too pleased to accept. He believed the poets who are reputed to be the most difficult are in fact the most accessible.
Simone looked at Rosélie angrily, betraying what she thought. Incorrigible Stephen! Once again he had managed to make himself the center of attention. Me, me, me! Antoine and Simone were among those who were resolutely hostile to Stephen. For Antoine, Stephen remained a son of perfidious Albion, despite his French upbringing. He had not learned “Frère Jacques” at nursery school. He preferred Alice in Wonderland to General Dourakine and had never caught himself humming a song by Edith Piaf in the shower. As for Simone, she kept quiet about her real reservations. At the most, she would stoop to accusing him of being a show-off, an actor who always wanted to be center stage.
Rosélie received the criticism leniently. A little like a mother allowing for her son’s failings. Hadn’t Stephen always dreamed of being an actor? He had never achieved his ambition. Instead of sending a thrill through an audience, facing the applause, bowing at the standing ovation and receiving the bouquets of flowers from an enthusiastic crowd, he had to be content with his drawing-room successes.
The evening at Bebe’s ended in disaster.
Around 2:00 in the morning Arthur, the half-German, half-English photographer (a hybrid!), who had participated in Piotr’s artistic campaign, turned up perfectly drunk accompanied by an ebony-skinned whore with hair dyed red, wearing a low-cut dress open to her navel; he had picked up her at the Green Dolphin, where such creatures guarantee bliss for a few Rand. His slurred opinion on the sexuality of black women made everyone feel uncomfortable. While caressing his trophy, Arthur claimed he was incapable of getting a hard-on with a white woman.
“White women,” he shouted, “are like a meal without salt or spices. A dish without condiments! I never touch them! “
Everyone looked at each other in embarrassment. Wasn’t it precisely these sorts of clichés they were fighting against? The love of a white man for a black woman is not simply a quest for exoticism or the intense desire for an orgasm. Let us replace the words “erection,” “fellatio” and “orgasm” with “tenderness,” “communication” and “respect.”
Inevitably the operation “Art for the People” was shelved. The morning after Bebe’s reception, Stephen, now sober, recalled the mediocrity of her poems and exclaimed that he had no intention of working with her. As a regular visitor to the Green Dolphin, Arthur contracted the clap and went straight home to London for a cure. Worse, Piotr broke up with Bebe for a model from Eritrea who had been on the cover of Vogue magazine. But Bebe soon dried her tears. Piotr had barely emptied his closets when she moved in the personal belongings of an Australian tennis player, seeded 30th internationally but who, in the opinion of his coach, had a promising future.
This repeat performance of a mixed couple so enraged her detractors that they dared to write in a literary journal for the first time that her poetry was a load of crap.
Translated from the French by Richard Philcox.
Richard Philcox has translated most of Maryse Condé’s novels into English, including I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Crossing the Mangrove, Windward Heights, and Desirada and has just completed a new translation of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, to be published by Grove Press. He is a recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts for his translations of Condé.
Maryse Condé was born in Pointe-A-Pitre, Guadeloupe. After spending a decade teaching in West Africa, she returned to France, where she received a doctorate in comparative literature from the Sorbonne. She began her literary career as a dramatist and has since published numerous scholarly articles, short stories and novels, including Windward Heights (Soho Press, 1999), The Last of the African Kings (University of Nebraska Press, 1997) and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Ballantine Books, 1994). Since the mid-1980s she has taught extensively in the US, at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, and is currently professor of French and francophone literature at Columbia University in New York. The Story of the Cannibal Woman will be published in French as Histoire de la Femme Cannibale by Les Editions Mercure de France, Paris, in spring 2003.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.