Nominating Maryse Conde for a Nobel Prize in Literature
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.