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An Interview with Maryse Conde
I interviewed Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Conde, for the first time near the end of 1991, several days after her play, The Hills of Massabielle, opened at UBU Repertory in New York. Conde's play was the final and the most delightful as well as insightful offering in UBU's Fall 1991 festival of three French West Indian plays which also included Aime Cesaire's The Tempest and Ina Cesaire's Island Memories.
The Hills of Massabielle, directed by Cynthia Belgrave, was riotously alive with character and emotion. Briefly, the story contrasts a prominent island family and a rebellious young man who hates the idea that his people have almost no other livelihood except white tourism. His rebellion, however, is misguided; and he ends up failing the future, symbolized by the woman who is carrying his child. What impressed me most about Conde's play was the way she gave dignity to all the characters, the young and the old, the men and the women, those with and without money. It was obvious that she had written her play with love and a concerned, deep knowledge of the people. Watching The Hills of Massabielle, which I reviewed for the New York Amsterdam News, made me think of a vibrant painting bursting forth from its tacks and stays, no longer willing to be contained inside its imprisoning canvas.
I met and talked with Conde on a brisk Saturday afternoon in the lobby of her New York hotel just before Thanksgiving. To prepare for that interview, I translated the first pages of the play, Pension les Alizes, and of the novel, La Vie Scelerate, recently published by Ballantine Books as Tree of Life, translation by Victoria Reiter. Almost a year after that first meeting, in the beginning of October, 1992, I accompanied Maryse Conde to Vassar where she gave a talk sponsored by the French Department. We traveled upstate along the Hudson by train, and en route I asked her some questions about her two-character play, Hotel les Alizes, which in the interim I had finished translating. I've integrated the answers she gave me at that time into the text of the first interview.
LEWIS: Can you tell me something about your history as a writer?
CONDE: I started writing when I was a child. I used to write short stories and plays for my family, my brothers and sisters. I wrote my first play for my mother. Later, I wrote critical reviews about books and articles for a Caribbean magazine in Paris, but I started my first novel, Heremakhonon, after I was living in Guinea for about ten years. I saw so many things: people rioting, being killed, being sent into exile, being deported and so on. The years I spent in Africa were so tragic. I had to write about them.
LEWIS: What years were you in Africa?
CONDE: From 1960 to 1972.
LEWIS: One of the things that I noticed when I was translating your play, Hotel les Alizes, was that you pay homage to black American history. Your female character is compared to Josephine Baker. I was curious about that. America seems to function very much the way Rome did at a much earlier point in the world's history. Everyone seems to look up to this country. How has America affected Caribbean culture and is it an ongoing process?
CONDE: In the Caribbean we see the attention …