Cut-Throat or Mocking-Bird: Of Conde's Renewals
Makward, Christiane, The Romanic Review
A few years ago Maryse Conde declared tongue-in-cheek: "I think I've somewhat lost the power to displease. It's something I miss." (1) Pleasing or displeasing at her own leisure, her work is by now unsurpassed in scope as a fiction monument originating in the Francophone Caribbean. In the past fifteen years, her work has taken a distinct turn towards playful irony and exuberant narration. Conde has underscored on several occasions that she has been misread when taken too seriously, referring specifically to her most popular novel on US campuses, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. She confided having had a lot of fun inventing Tituba's adventures, despite the powerful indictment of slavery and racism and sexism this novel constitutes. Indeed, to make Tituba meet a very pregnant Hester Prynne in jail and to suggest passionate feelings between them, to show Tituba in the sunset telling a tale to Hester's unborn child, then to "suicide" this feminist Hester by hanging, in order to protect her child from a sexist puritanical world--thus crediting Hester with the despair and determination of an infanticidal slave--, these narrative components illustrate the dominant mood of Conde's later novels. Conde commented on Tituba for Francoise Pfaff, a Tituba who gets herself impregnated by an adolescent before hanging from a tope, and who, "naturally," survives in ghost form: "since I am not one to create models, I eagerly made sure to destroy anything that might be found exemplary in Tituba's story, and in the end I showed her rather naive, and at times ludicrous." (2)
Of Conde's transgressive mode of story-spinning, a recent novel is most exemplary. Celanire cou-coupe ("Cut-throat Celanire") can and should be taken seriously at various levels, but here Conde has made sure she would not again be misread. She told another interviewer: "the only means for us, as a black nation--although I have said on several occasions this word does not mean all that much is to distance ourselves from our history, to be able to laugh about our history and to acknowledge the components of it that we can attribute to our personal or collective responsibility. I don't think one should see the world in black and white." (3) Several critics have already shown the novelist's strategies of distancing used in various ways in earlier works. Leah Hewitt underlined how Conde, in The Last of the African Kings, resists the temptation to reassure or seduce distinct constituencies of readers: Africans, Creoles, African-American women, and other repressed, marginalized groups. (4)
In her very first novel, Heremakhonon (1976), Conde was already "mistreating" the dominant narrative scheme of the quest for roots and the return to Africa; already baring the teeth of a gnashing irony that purports to debunk received ideas. She was already using female sexuality to question the conventions of novelistic discourse where sexuality was traditionally inexplicit. There were always already forms of transgression in Conde's discourse: Veronica's hyper-sexuality and that of her "sister in joyful bitchery" ("soeur en putainerie"), Adama, were risky stereotypes in the context of an Afrocentric identity quest. Nor was it a simple indiscretion to put in the mouth of her protagonist the following remark about African political figures: "To possess the white man's riches (the colonized is envious, Fanon said so) and their blonde women. The blonde woman is the black man's dream, everybody knows that." (5) This sort of sally at the expense of her "heroes" will be cultivated by other scandal-prone women writers; not the least among them, Calixthe Beyala takes pride in her "bad genre/gender" ("mauvais genre").
Not all of Conde's novels push the reader around to the same extent as do the characters of Tituba the witch or Celanire the "cut-throat cut-throat." Not all of her protagonists charm us into first-degree, comfortable, and erroneous interpretations. Some narratives are seriously dominated by the somber or tragic mode along with in-depth reflection on socio-political questions. …