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Nominating Maryse Conde for a Nobel Prize in Literature

February 15, 2010

Maryse Conde

Despite encroaching maturity, and more years in the journalism game than I care to tally, I find the ways of the world persistently opaque. Why, for example, is the great Caribbean novelist Maryse Conde not regularly touted for the Nobel Prize? I can think of no writer in the world with a more legitimate candidacy.

Who’s Maryse Conde? I’m so glad you asked. Born in Guadeloupe in 1934, she’s the author of 12 acclaimed novels, beginning with Heremakhonon in 1976 and including I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986), and perhaps her most famous, Segu (1987).

Despite a busy academic career — Conde retired from Columbia as professor emeritus of French in 2004 — she has remained steadily productive, with three novels published since the turn of the century.

Conde’s resume would seem to have everything the Mandarins in Stockholm hold dear: She’s a relatively obscure Third World novelist. She writes in French. Her characteristic themes are race, gender, oppression and the search for personal identity and social justice in the Pan-African diaspora.

Best of all, she’s not American! That, after all, seems to be the No. 1 criterion for the Swedes these days. Come on, Nobel Prize people! What’s not to like?

While I’m not one who thinks affirmative action has a place in deciding literary quality — John Updike should have had the Big Prize long before his death last year —  let me assure you Conde’s body of work deserves Nobel recognition entirely on literary merit.

I came late to Maryse Conde (who I’ve never met, by the way), and I’ve only read her last three novels. But no books in the past 10 years have impressed me more or given me more pleasure. I can but assume her earlier books are as good.

Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat? A Fantastic Tale (2004) is the story of a young black woman whose magical powers wreck havoc in Africa, Guadeloupe and Peru — on friend and foe alike — as she seeks to punish those responsible for a horrific crime. It was my introduction to Conde, and you can read the review I wrote for the Sun-Sentinel here.

In 2007, Conde returned with The Story of the Cannibal Woman, a very different kind of novel, though no less ambitious or accomplished. It opens with the seemingly random murder of an white English scholar and critic on the late-night streets of Cape Town, South Africa, leaving his black common-law wife Roselio without financial resources. She turns to soothsaying to support herself, steadfastly resisting mounting evidence her husband was not the paragon she though he was. I reviewed that novel for the Sun-Sentinel, too.

And now Conde has a new novel just out, Victoire, My Mother’s Mother, which I’ve reviewed for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper.  Once again, she’s turned her talents in a new direction, this time a semi-fictional reconstruction of the life of her grandmother, a poor, illiterate Antillean mulatto who is treated more generously by the rich white Creole family she works for than by her own kin.

Perhaps therein lies the reason Conde is ignored by the Nobel committee. Running through her fiction, no matter the locale or plot or superficial genre, is a profound humanizing impulse that can neither blithely ennoble the suffering dark-skinned peoples of the world, nor demonize the white oppressors. All are given their due as morally complex human beings.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s Conde’s long and happy second marriage is to a white scholar, Richard Philcox, who also translates her novels into English. Maybe it’s that most of her books, though not all, are historical novels.

What I do know is that Maryse Conde is one of the greatest novelists in the world today. If you haven’t read her, do yourself a favor. And if you like her as much as I do, then tell everyone. Maybe if enough of us fall under her spell, then even the operators of the Nobel sweepstakes will take notice.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice permalink
    February 15, 2010 2:15 pm

    Haven’t read her, Chauncey Mabe. But I will take your suggestion and do so very soon. Thanks.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 15, 2010 2:56 pm

    I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it. I suggest starting with Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat, but that may be because I read that one first. I’m certain you will enjoy any of her novels, whichever one comes first to hand.

  3. rachel permalink
    February 15, 2010 4:56 pm

    I haven’t read her either. But you keep talking about her, and I generally agree with your opinion, at least when it comes to books. So I should probably give her a try myself.

    Nobel sweepstakes. I’m amused.

    I like that picture of her. She just looks like she writes interesting books.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 15, 2010 8:49 pm

      I live to amuse. I’m also completely confident you will like Conde’s novels as much as I do.

  4. Candice permalink
    February 15, 2010 5:24 pm

    But you can’t judge a books by its cover, Rachel. Tee Hee.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 15, 2010 8:49 pm

      Nor the author photo. Some of the best books are written by people who manage to look both dull and geeky.

    • rachel permalink
      February 16, 2010 2:12 pm

      Except when you can!

  5. Candice permalink
    February 15, 2010 5:25 pm

    I mean book singular.

  6. John Karwacki permalink
    February 15, 2010 7:38 pm

    Thanks for the opinion, I will plant a Maryse Conde into my reading rotation soon as possible.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 15, 2010 8:50 pm

      You’ll be glad you did. Please write back and let me know what you think.

  7. Beverly permalink
    February 16, 2010 8:52 am

    I agree with you.
    I have been a fan of Maryse Conde works for many years and have had the pleasure of meeting her and hearing her read.

    I highly recommend you read her earlier works.
    At one time, I was considering learning French, so I could read her work in the orginal language in which she wrote as the language is her books is so wonderful.

    Her husband does an excellent job in translating her work.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2010 11:53 am

      It’s great to hear from someone who has a deeper familiarity with Conde’s corpus than I do. Thanks for the thumbs up on her earlier novels, but as I said, I can’t imagine they are anything less than complex, brilliant and satisfying. And I can think of no better reason to learn a foreign language than the yearning to read a beloved writer in the original.

      By the way, in case anyone’s wondering, I am not kidding about the Nobel. Conde’s name should be in the mix every time the subject comes up.

  8. Candice permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:50 am

    I’m going to the book store on Friday. I can’t wait!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 16, 2010 11:54 am

      I’ll be shocked if you are disappointed. Please write us back and let us know what you think.

  9. Phyllis permalink
    February 16, 2010 10:54 pm

    I’m also a fan of Maryse Conde and I only have a few more books to cover before I’ve completed reading her entire collection. I find her work spell-binding, informative, and a “must-have” for anyone interested in the African Diaspora and/or historical fiction. She’s brilliant.

    I, too, would love to see her and her work recognized with such a prestigious (and imo, loooong-overdue) award while she’s still with us — she’s definitely deserving of it.

  10. Timo Partanen permalink
    October 7, 2010 2:50 pm

    Maryse is to me simply the most fascinating writer today.

  11. Timo Partanen, Costa Rica permalink
    July 3, 2011 9:19 pm

    Thank you. I have posed the same question to myself and some others as well. For me she is easily the greatest writer of today, and I do not seem to be alone in this.

  12. July 30, 2012 7:55 am

    I’ve done a lot of research work on Maryse Conde’s novels. I still wonder why she’s not won the Nobel prize in literature up till now. I hope it comes someday.

  13. August 4, 2012 4:17 am

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  14. Graziella Luraghi permalink
    April 21, 2016 10:43 am

    …..YES, I agree, Maryse Condé it’s a GREAT WRITER and people should read her works….I did. All her works are good to read and style is brilliant, fascinating and you feel sorry when the story ends…….she helped me to understand a lot of Caribbean and African way of life. let’s give her a Nobel !!!!!



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