A Conversation with Maryse Conde, author of Victoire
(1) You chose to title your novel, “Victoire: My Mother’s Mother” rather than, simply, “Victoire: My Grandmother”. Why did you choose to make that differentiation?
I chose this title as a way of telling the reader that I wanted to involve my mother as well as my grandmother. The lives of these two women are inextricably linked and you cannot understand my mother unless you know her complex relationship with her mother. I am the result of the tensions and great love which existed between them. The education I received from my mother cannot be understood unless you know her origins and the life she led while she was a young girl.
(2) What was the impetus to start delving into your family’s history? Did you always plan to turn your findings into a book or was your novel just a happy accident?
I always wanted to turn my family’s history into a book. The transformation of Guadeloupean society, the rise of a black bourgeoisie and the difficulty of living in a colonial society seemed to me very important since the history of my family epitomizes all of that. I had already talked about my childhood in “Tales from the Heart” but I wanted to go further and deeper.
(3) Was there anything you came across in your research that surprised you? Any familial secrets that you weren’t prepared for?
No. My mother, when she was alive, had suggested to me all the preliminaries of my future research. As a child I did not pay enough attention to what she was telling me and the problem was at a later stage to reconstruct her thoughts and ideas.
(4) People often say that history repeats itself. Do you see any similarities between yourself and the female characters (your relatives) that populate the pages of your novel? With whom do you identify most?
That is a very intricate question. As a writer I put myself in all the characters of my books. They have my feelings, my dreams and often experience my failures. In a word they express the complexity and difficulty of life as I see it. If I were to find a character who is very close to me I would choose Veronica in my first novel “Heremakhonon”. She is acting very differently but all her moods and impressions are mine.
(5) At times you come down pretty harshly on your grandmother. For instance, you wager that, “…it was perhaps as a result of this distress [Victoire’s move to La Pointe], tension, and anguish that he [Boniface] contracted the illness…which was to carry him off so quickly” (p. 131). Do you mean to blame your grandmother for Boniface’s death? How do you think your family will receive this novel? Do you predict any animosity?
You seem to confuse my mother and my grandmother, Victoire. In a way Victoire was certainly partly responsible for Boniface’s death. But many years have passed. Neither Victoire, my grandmother, nor Jeanne, my mother, my brothers and sisters are still alive to react to my novel. I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I was trying to look for the truth, however unpleasant it might be, even for me.
(6) As a lighter-skinned woman, Victoire was shunned from both white and black society. Do you see any relics of this kind of treatment in our society today? What historical progress (or lack thereof) do you think has been made in terms of social acceptance for people of mixed-race backgrounds? How much of the progress that’s been made do you think is owed to women like your mother and grandmother?
In the Caribbean skin color still plays a major role. People claim that the contempt for black skin is something of the past. But in reality a fair skinned woman is always preferred to a darker one. Although we have plenty of black Miss Worlds and Miss Universes, the canon of beauty implies lightness of the skin. In the case of Victoire, if she was shunned by both black and white society, it was due to her condition of her birth (an illegitimate child), to the fact she was illiterate and spoke only Creole. The Blacks despised her while the Whites had no consideration for a woman who was their servant. What I want to say is that it was not the color of her skin that was the problem but her lack of education, the meanness of her social standing and the many frustrations she could never overcome. Superficially, things have evolved, but the problems still remain. I don’t think my mother or my grandmother played a role in the transformation of Caribbean society.
(7) How did writing this story differ from your other, completely fictional works? Were there parts of the writing process that were easier? Parts that were harder?
I started this book years ago. It was a way of understanding myself and coming to terms with my inner contradictions. It was more difficult to write “Victoire” than an ordinary novel because so much truth is involved in it. Truth is a very complex matter for a writer. The temptation is to embellish it. To stick to it requires a lot of effort that is not easy to sustain. I shall say that on the whole “Victoire” was more difficult to write than my other books.
(8) How would you classify this book? Is it a memoir even though parts of it are admittedly made-up? Is it a novel, or some kind of newly created hybrid?
I believe that it is a kind of newly-created hybrid: not entirely true but not entirely fictional.
(9) Why did you choose to imagine the parts of your story that you weren’t able to corroborate through research? Why not tell a story that was completely based in fact or a story that was completely fictional? Were you making a statement about the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in life, as well as in literature?
This is the crux of the matter. A writer is always dealing with works of imagination. But imagination is based on real life. A fiction is just an embellishment or a perversion of reality. Literature stands between reality and fiction.
(10) Do you have any plans to write more non-fiction or do you think you’ll be returning to your fictional roots?
I have already returned to my fictional roots since after “Victoire” I have written two more novels in French.
(11) Your works are written in French and then translated into English by your husband and translator Richard Philcox. Without causing a marital rift, can you tell us if you ever worry that some of your thoughts or unique writing style will get lost in translation?
All translation is a loss and a distortion. But I have enough confidence in Richard to know that the distortion will be minimal and that he will always try to convey my original thoughts and feelings. He will never betray my personality.