This year, there was no Nobel Prize for Literature in the aftermath of the scandal that rocked the Academy. What came up in its place was an exciting crowd-sourced prize called the New Academy Prize 2018 (Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature) and the voting for the winner in this prize was open to the public. In contention were very popular authors like Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami (who eventually withdrew from the shortlist), Vietnamese author Kim Thúy and Caribbean writer Maryse Condé. The voting process had hundreds of Swedish librarians send in their nominations followed by a worldwide public vote, a process very different from the closed-door deliberations of the Nobel Prize. Maryse Condé was declared the winner, smashing boundaries of gender and race in the process.

Born at Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1937, Maryse spent most of her life in West Africa (Guinea, Ghana and Senegal), France and the US, where she taught at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA and Columbia. She is now based in Paris. The publication of her bestselling third novel, Segu (1984), established her pre-eminent position among Caribbean writers. Her earlier awards included Le Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986 as well as Le Prix de L’Académie Française in 1988 and she had been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015. The New Academy Prize: Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature win announcement described her as a ‘grand storyteller who belongs to world literature’.

When the prize was announced, Condé  was quoted as saying, “We are such a small country, only mentioned when there are hurricanes or earthquakes and things like that. Now we are so happy to be recognised for something else.” SheThePeople.TV’s Ideas Editor Kiran Manral asked her about her writing, her influences and what this win has meant for her.

Books are a way for a writer to express her inner fears and share them with others in order to gain strength and motivation.

There were so many barriers that you broke with this prize, those of race, gender, language. How did the announcement that you won the Alternative Nobel affect you?

I was very surprised for the reasons that you mentioned. I always believed that a black woman born on a small unimportant island had little chance of winning an international prize. Then I immediately felt proud. I had the feeling of overcoming a triple challenge: black, female and belonging to a small island in the Caribbean. But nevertheless I had always dreamed of becoming a famous writer, so the surprise was mixed with the feeling of triumph.

I always believed that a black woman born on a small unimportant island had little chance of winning an international prize.

What is interesting about the New Academy Prize is that it is crowd sourced in votes. As a writer, what did you think about this format for choosing a winner?

The usual Nobel prize is decided by a small committee composed largely of men. It could be termed elitist. But with the impact of a popular vote this new Prize became closer to the ordinary reader. It became more of a people’s choice.

Maryse Conde
Maryse Conde, Photo © Louis Monier

You are one of the most respected authors from the Caribbean with more than 30 books to your credit, of these over 20 are novels. How does this acknowledgement of your writing raise interest in not only your writing but also that of others from your region?

In my region, however poor it is, we have some celebrated writers such as Saint-John Perse in Guadeloupe, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Edouard Glissant in Martinique and Derek Walcott in Saint Lucia. The talent of these writers was never linked to the size of their islands. A poet like Aimé Césaire is known throughout the world. We notice, however, that unfortunately there are few women writers who have gained the same international recognition. I am very proud to be one of the first women to achieve this status.

You were nominated alongside popular favourites like Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and Kim Thuy. At any point, since this is a crowd voting format, did you feel that their popularity would be a factor in the voting?

I was somewhat afraid of Murakami because I had read some of his novels and liked them a lot. I must say it was a relief when he resigned from the Prize.

Your work encompasses the colonial and post colonial experience, with a focus on the Caribbean identity. You have studied in France, and lived in Africa and the US. How does this distance from the Caribbean physically, impact how you see the region and how it has grappled with colonialism, and developed its post colonial identity?

It is very difficult to explain. Although I have not lived all my life in the Caribbean, the region never left me. One of my main concerns was to find my own voice regardless of the ideology imposed by my education. It took me many years to understand who I really was and discover my place in the world. I shall refer you to a theory which helped me a lot: it was initiated by a Brazilian writer Oswaldo de Andrade who advocated what he called intellectual cannibalism.

One of my main concerns was to find my own voice regardless of the ideology imposed by my education.

In What Is Africa To Me, you write about your experience as a woman with African ancestry seeking your own identity on the continent. How much did your stint in Africa inform your exploration of negritude and the post-colonial identity?

Negritude is a very complex theory. One of its aspects is the unity of people with the same colour. Black people from the Caribbean should feel they are brothers with those in Africa because they have the same origin. After two years in Guinea I discovered this was a myth. There is no unity among people simply because their skin has the same colour. You need to share the same ideas and values. Sékou Touré, the president of Guinea at that time, could oppress his people; he was not concerned with their welfare, and this is true for many other countries.

After two years in Guinea I discovered this was a myth. There is no unity among people simply because their skin has the same colour.

Who are the writers who have influenced you, and which specific works of theirs have had the most impact?

No writer has influenced me, but when I was a child I discovered a book written by an English woman, daughter of a clergyman, living on the moors in the north of England. It had nothing in common with me but I was totally transported. The book was called Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I did not want to imitate her but write a book as powerful and magical. Later on when I was a mature writer I wrote my own version with the title La migration des coeurs which was translated as Windward Heights.

The concept of Negritude has been important in your writing. Has your idea of negritude evolved over the years with your travel and stay in countries other than your own?

As I said before Negritude died for me while I was living in Guinea.

In Moi, Tituba, your writing explored the life of the woman who was the forerunner of the infamous Salem Witch Hunts. Why was it important for you to give these women, who have been long forgotten by history, a voice?

I would advise you to read Angela Davis’s preface to the American version. She described my intentions better than I could do. Precisely because Tituba, a black woman and a slave, has been lost in history, I wanted to rehabilitate her. I wanted to find out who she was, why she was living in Salem and what contacts she had with the other women accused of witchcraft. In fact, I was trying to give an identity with somebody who has been unjustly forgotten. Nobody knows what happened to Tituba when she left the jail where she spent two years. Who bought her and where did she live and die? I gave her a life of her own, imagining she returned to Barbados and became a rebel leader.

Nobody knows what happened to Tituba when she left the jail where she spent two years. Who bought her and where did she live and die? I gave her a life of her own, imagining she returned to Barbados and became a rebel leader.

Windward Heights is a work that looks at Wuthering Heights through the prism of colonialism and race. How essential do you think it is for us to keep re-examining works of fiction through various gazes?

I believe literature is a way of understanding the world. By reading novels you increase your ability to understand complex stories and situations. Essays and philosophical treatises are not as rich as works of fiction.

Your books have been translated into multiple languages across the world, how important is it for the dedicated reader to read translations and what is the fine balance that an author must walk when he or she sends out a work to be translated into an unfamiliar language? Do you face any anxieties when this happens?

A book in translation does not entirely belong to me. I feel I am slightly dispossessed. The magic and music of the language is lost, replaced by the charm of another language. Remember André Breton’s quotation “Words make love with each other”. When I was teaching in the US, I seldom taught my own books in translation. There is a distance between the translator and the writer which can never be filled. I explain my feelings on translation in an article called ‘Intimate Enemies’ published in “Journey of a Caribbean Writer” by Seagull Books.

There is a distance between the translator and the writer which can never be filled.

And finally, I read a quote from you that says you write to put your thoughts in order, as a form of therapy. In a world that is rapidly being distracted by the online world, how important is it to ensure that people continue reading, continue writing and how must we do this?

When I was young we believed that the world was getting better. Now, on the contrary, it has become a riddle and an enigma. So writing has become increasingly necessary to express these concerns and feelings that we do not control anything. If books were to disappear, it would be difficult to express this anxiety. Books are a way for a writer to express her inner fears and share them with others in order to gain strength and motivation. I cannot imagine a world without writing. But I accept the idea that the traditional idea of writing will evolve and we shall achieve another form for expressing ourselves.

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