‘An extraordinary role model’: Maryse Condé remembered by Leïla Slimani

Life is sometimes like a mediocre novel: full of coincidences. 2 April 2024 marked 20 years since my father died, and on that same day I learned that Maryse Condé had died, too.

Condé wasn’t exactly family, and yet I felt closer to her than to many people who have crossed my path. Before even meeting her – a dream I was able to fulfil a few years ago – I felt I knew her intimately. It is the fate of writers to be known by their readers almost in spite of themselves. I have lived with Condé and with her characters for many long, solitary hours and at different ages of my life. I have read so much by her that her language has become as familiar to me as my mother’s and her obsessions so blurred with mine that I have adopted the Caribbean landscape and discovered and loved the scent of flowers I’ve never seen.

Condé’s language, sensual and ironic, heartbreakingly beautiful, is a part of me. Her characters Tituba the witch, Célanire or the Louis family in Tree of Life have become companions, even friends to me. I read Condé’s work and I encountered a sister and at the same time a mentor, a woman of incredible honesty in her portrayal of motherhood, the experience of being mixed race, the petty bourgeoisie and all forms of racism. She was an artist who was sure of her vocation and nothing could divert from her desire to write.

Condé has been an extraordinary role model for me. She did not like to belong to any kind of clan or to be given a label. As a woman from Guadeloupe, she would say that she did not fully understand her native island and did not feel understood there. In What Is Africa to Me?, her autobiography, she recounts how the African continent, where she lived for so long and to which she dedicated her epic novel Segu, was a little like a great unrequited love, a passion not entirely reciprocated. This double culture, this life always balanced like a joyful or melancholic tango, is something we had in common. It is perhaps this I liked most about Condé and what our era really needs: she was a woman capable of displeasing and disappointing, because no doubt she understood that it was the only way to be free and to be a great writer.

A few years ago, my dream came true when I dined with Condé and her family. We spoke of all our connections: our childhoods in petit bourgeois families, our early passions for writing, the fact we both moved to Paris at age 17 and our interest in the African continent. And then, of course, our shared love of cooking – I regret that I was not able to return the invitation and cook Condé one of my specialities. It’s not always advisable to meet your heroes, but in my case it was the beginning of a friendship.

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Condé showed me a generosity and a tenderness that continue to sustain me. I want to thank her for the doors that she opened, for the courage she showed. I know that other young female writers will continue to find in her works and in her journey an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

The last time I saw Condé was in London in 2023, when she was a finalist for the international Booker prize and I had the pleasure of chairing the judging panel. I had tears in my eyes that day, thinking of my teenage self who dreamed of meeting her idol.

Farewell, Maryse, and thank you for the intelligence and the light you brought into my life and for the books I cherish and share with those I love. Rest in peace.

The Guardian