Maryse Condé (1934-2024)

Maryse Condé (1934-2024)

Maryse Condé died in Apt, France, on April 2, 2024. She was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on February 11, 1934. She studied at Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle), where she took her doctorate in Comparative Literature (1975) written under the direction of René Etiemble. Her research was on Black stereotypes in Caribbean literature. For twelve years, she lived in West Africa: Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, where she taught French at various levels. She returned to France in 1973 to teach Francophone literature as a chargée de cours at Paris VII (Jussieu), Paris X (Nanterre), and Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle). After trying her hand as a playwright early in her career, she took to the novel in 1976 and published Heremakhonon inspired by events of her life in West Africa. Her third novel, published in 1984, Ségou ­ I, Les Murailles de Terre, II, La Terre en Miettes established her preeminent position among contemporary Caribbean writers. Her last novel, L'Évangile du nouveau monde, came out in 2021.

After several visiting professorships in the United States (UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and Harvard) she joined the Columbia faculty as a tenured professor in 1995. At Columbia, she chaired the Center for French and Francophone studies from its foundation in 1997 to 2002. She retired from teaching in 2005. From 2004 to 2008 she served as the first president of the National Committee for the Teaching and Memory of Slavery in France. Her writing and service were recognized twice by the French government: she was made a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in 2014 and a Grand Croix in the National Order of Merit in 2019. A high school in the French city of Sarcelles was named after her in 2023. She won the New Academy Prize in Literature (alternative prize when the Nobel was not awarded) in 2018.

Maryse Condé’s writing has been central to the transformation of French studies, once centered on metropolitan French literature, into a field of Francophone studies that explores writing in French from many countries and world regions. Her novels and essays have for the last two decades been fixtures of university syllabi and examination lists. Yet unlike many French language writers, Condé’s impact has not been limited to scholars and readers of French literature. Her work has been translated into many other languages, reflecting its appeal to a global readership. Condé’s translatability is in part a function of the fact that she has never fit into a national or regional box. Her life and career have been shaped by experiences of migration and diaspora that have also formed the arc of her novels. Works such as Une saison à Rihata, Ségou, and Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, depict displacement and relocation and the disorientation, nostalgia and sense of disillusion or of discovery that often accompany migration. Alongside the colonial and postcolonial routes of the Black Atlantic, her works map ‘South-South’ trajectories such as the linkage of Guadeloupe, Panama and San Francisco’s Chinatown in La vie scélérate or that of Guadeloupe, the United States and post-Apartheid South Africa in Histoire de la femme cannibale.

If Condé’s broad appeal has much to do with her global perspective it undoubtedly also lies in the aesthetic qualities of storytelling that is political without being programmatic or prescriptive. Condé is renowned for her unfailing sense of irony and critical relationship to movements such as Negritude, anticolonialism and feminism. Her concern with preserving a distance between imaginative literature and programmatic politics lies at the heart of her writing as a critic, which includes the volume Penser la créolité, coedited with Gisèle Pineau, and her influential 1993 essay in Yale French Studies, “Order, Disorder, Freedom and the West Indian Writer.” Condé challenges readers by treating episodes of historical trauma with irony and even humor, acknowledging the desires, agency and moral imperfections of the oppressed as well as those of the oppressors.

During her time at Columbia, Maryse Condé trained many students in Francophone literature, several of whom now hold distinguished positions in the field. She organized countless conferences, workshops and lectures at the Maison Française.

Maryse Condé’s former colleagues remember her as someone who was generous with her time in spite of her enormous activity as a writer and a scholar. She and her husband Richard Philcox entertained friends and colleagues regularly at their Claremont Avenue apartment. All are grateful to her for the central role she played in establishing the now-thriving field of Francophone literature.

See "Maryse Condé: the Un-Conformist: A Conversation Between Maboula Soumahoro and Pierre Force," Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination, October 26, 2023.

The New York Times (obituary)