Maryse Condé Speaks: The Death of Negritude and Other Life Lessons

June 2018

Françoise Pfaff, Nouveaux entretiens avec Maryse Condé, écrivain et témoin de son temps (Paris: Karthala, 2016); 206 pages; ISBN 978-2811117078 (paperback)

In this volume of interviews, Françoise Pfaff offers a sequel to her Entretiens avec Maryse Condé.1 Like its predecessor, this new collection of transcribed conversations brings the reader into the mind of this world-famous Guadeloupean writer, with emphasis on the last two decades of her long career. Divided into five chapters that are loosely organized around particular themes, the interviews, which were conducted in 2015 at the artist’s home in Gordes, France, are sprawling and typically move quickly from one topic to another. Recurring themes include Condé’s thoughts on her prolific career; her views on global affairs, especially race relations and geopolitics of the third world; her reactions to critics; some personal joys and regrets; and, perhaps most intriguingly for the reader, the unvarnished voice of a writer known for her fearless frankness. Pfaff takes care to discuss not only the biggest moments of Condé’s trajectory as a novelist but also the lesser-known parts of her work, such as her memoirs and forays into theater and children’s literature. An updated bibliography of Condé’s oeuvre, meant to complement the bibliography in the original Entretiens, closes the book.

Full of laughter—whether self-deprecating, provocative, or in moments of shared mirth between interviewer and interviewee—the conversations are animated by Condé’s and Pfaff’s long friendship. Yet rather than veering far into the realm of the intimate, these interviews remain fiercely intellectual. Indeed, the questions and answers sometimes read like a sparring match, with Pfaff prodding relentlessly for open-ended answers while Condé bobs and weaves, measuring her words, making Pfaff work hard for the illumination she seeks. The amusing exchange on the last page typifies many moments in the volume:

F.P.—Qu’est-ce que tu es fière d’avoir fait?
F.P.—Quelles sont tes qualités?
F.P.—Que recherches-tu chez les autres?
M.C.—Au moins la franchise! (192)

(F.P.—What are you proud of having accomplished?
F.P.—What are your qualities?
M.C.—I do not know.
F.P.—What do you look for in others?
M.C.—If nothing else, frankness!)

Pfaff has not edited out the many moments like this in which Condé refuses to answer, or even defies, the meticulously documented questions. This can make for a frustrating reading experience. The reader is forced, with Pfaff, to work through this writer’s tough guard.

But the reward does come to the persistent: insights into Condé’s evolution over the years and her contributions to the world literary scene abound, popping up somewhat unpredictably as one makes one’s way through the conversations. Condé’s reflections on identity are especially poignant. We get a very touching sense of the feelings of rejection that have influenced her famous independence as a critic of both Negritude and créolité: “On m’a rejetée [en France] parce que j’étais différente, et il fallait assumer cette différence, ce que j’ai essayé de faire tout le temps et ce qui m’a conduite en Afrique d’abord et ensuite aux Antilles à la recherche d’un mythe que je n’ai jamais rencontré” (“I was rejected [in France] because I was different, and I had to shoulder the burden of that difference, which I tried to do all the time and which led me first to Africa, then to the Caribbean, in search of a myth that I never found”) (96).

Condé’s disillusionments with France, Africa, and the Caribbean—as well as with religion and Marxism—have made her into an artist resolutely committed to interpreting the world outside of the twentieth century’s great myths and metanarratives. Her assertion that “il faut une lecture du monde qui passe par autre chose que par la couleur” (“we need a reading of the world that depends on something other than color”) sets the tone of her recent work (24). She reveals how En attendant la montée des eaux (2010) imagines that the Caribbean will one day be swallowed up by the rising sea waters of climate change: “Un jour, il n’y aura rien: pas de cases, pas d’arbres, juste l’eau. C’est magnifique! En attendant cette belle image de paix, je dis: voilà comment on vit aux Antilles et on y vit mal” (“One day, there will be nothing: no huts, no trees, just water. It’s magnificent! While waiting for that beautiful image of peace, I say: here is how people live in the Caribbean, and they live badly”) (30). Her newest novel, Le fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana (2017), was inspired by what she has elsewhere called the death of Negritude made apparent in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, during which a Martinican policewoman was caught in the fire of a terrorist of Malian origin (22). For Condé, this overlooked detail of the Parisian massacre renders hollow the old-guard calls to Pan-black solidarity: the Caribbean-African encounter today is fraught not so much with hope as with misunderstanding and violence. Her latest novel’s heroes are twins from Guadeloupe whose love-hate relationship and encounter with radical Islam in Mali lead them to tragic ends. Other interesting tidbits from Pfaff’s interviews include Condé’s discussion of her friendships with Guy Tirolien and Ahmadou Kourouma (53–57), the artistic inspiration that she draws from cooking (73–78), her quarrels with feminist critics (141–42), a discussion of homosexuality via the 2007 play Comme deux frères (173–76), Condé’s relationship with Jean Dominique (177–78), and her (ironic?) statement that she vainly but ardently desires the Nobel Prize (192).

Overall, this book of interviews is a useful contribution to readers who wish to know this important writer more deeply. It serves as a roadmap to Condé’s career since 1993, as well as to her current perspectives on her work as a whole. While one could have imagined a presentation style in which the conversations would have been more tightly reorganized by theme, or purged of Condé’s repeated expressions of reticence, Pfaff has chosen to make the reader experience them as they happened, preserving the authenticity of her and her interlocutor’s voices. Readers of Maryse Condé know well that with more than thirty books to her name, keeping track of everything she has written is a daunting task. Françoise Pfaff has made this task approachable.


Jonathon Repinecz is an assistant professor of French at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He specializes in francophone literatures of West Africa, with a secondary interest in Caribbean writing. Repinecz’s work has appeared in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, the Journal of African Cinemas, and Critical Multilingualism Studies. At GMU he offers courses on African literature, francophone literature, and French language.


1 Françoise Pfaff, Entretiens avec Maryse Condé (Paris: Karthala, 1993); translated by Françoise Pfaff as Conversations with Maryse Condé (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).