Maryse Condé, luminary of African-Caribbean literature dies aged 90

Author of novels drawing on African and Caribbean history enjoyed international acclaim, including the New Academy prize, which stood in for the Nobel in 2018

Maryse Condé, celebrated for works such as Segu and Hérémakhonon, stands tall as a luminary of the West Indies. Through her bold narratives as both a novelist and essayist, she fearlessly delves into themes of colonialism, sexuality, and the black diaspora, offering readers worldwide a profound glimpse into the rich tapestry of African and Caribbean history.

Maryse Condé

In her epic masterpiece Segu, hailed as “unputdownable and unforgettable,” Condé captivates audiences with her extraordinary storytelling prowess. Renowned Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo lauds her as a masterful storyteller, while author Justin Torres praises her for defying ideological constraints, presenting narratives that engage readers deeply in moral reflection.

Alain Mabanckou, the acclaimed Congolese writer, reveres Condé as the “Grande Dame of World Letters,” lauding her body of work as a testament to the quest for a humanism rooted in the complexities of identity and historical fractures.

Born Maryse Boucolon in Guadeloupe in 1934, Condé’s upbringing shielded her from the harsh realities of slavery, with her parents fostering a belief in France as the pinnacle of civilization. However, her journey to Paris at 16 shattered these illusions, as she confronted prejudice and discrimination based on her race. Determined to prove her worth beyond skin color, Condé embarked on a quest for knowledge, immersing herself in African history and aligning with the Communist movement.

Her life took a tumultuous turn with an unexpected pregnancy from an affair with Haitian activist Jean Dominique. A marriage to Guinean actor Mamadou Condé followed, though it was marked by strain, prompting Maryse’s departure to Africa. Across various African nations, she encountered a myriad of influential figures and ideologies but struggled to find her footing amidst cultural dissonance.

Eventually settling in France, Condé pursued academia, earning advanced degrees in comparative literature. Her literary debut, Hérémakhonon, emerged in 1976, marking the beginning of her illustrious career as a novelist. With themes of identity and belonging, the novel reflects Condé’s own journey of self-discovery.

In 1981, Condé embarked on a new chapter, divorcing her husband and marrying Richard Philcox, one of her English-language translators. The publication of Segu in 1984 catapulted her to international acclaim, offering a poignant portrayal of African life amidst the encroachment of colonialism and slavery.

Over the ensuing years, Condé continued to enrich literary landscapes with a diverse array of works, from children’s books to essays. Her contributions earned her prestigious accolades, including France’s Legion of Honour and recognition on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize.

In her twilight years, Condé’s creativity remained undimmed, though challenged by failing eyesight. Yet, she persisted, dictating her final novels with unwavering determination. Her last masterpiece, The Gospel According to the New World, echoes her lifelong exploration of spirituality and human existence.

As Condé herself reflects, writing has been both a source of immense joy and an enigmatic compulsion—an enduring legacy that transcends borders and generations. Through her words, she leaves an indelible mark on the literary world, inspiring readers to confront the complexities of history and identity with courage and empathy.