Beware of Cliché

The New Academy Prize for Literature, an honour founded ‘as a reminder that literature should be associated with democracy, openness, empathy and respect’, will only ever be awarded to one writer. That writer is Maryse Condé, a Francophone novelist whose career spanning five decades has created new ways of seeing and discussing the diasporic experience of African identity. In 2018, for the first time since 1949, the Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded after members of its academy and their inner circle became mired in a public scandal that ultimately led to a conviction for rape. In response, an eclectic group of Swedish intellectuals took over the most prestigious prize in literature and redefined its secretive selection process. As a result, Condé has been awarded the New Academy Prize, a one-time-only alternative to the Nobel Prize in Literature, which its founders hope will come to represent literature as the ‘counterforce to oppression and a code of silence’. I spoke to Condé in late January, a month after the prize-giving, from her house in South-West France, on her return from one of her regular trips to her native Guadeloupe, where she spent Christmas. How did a community of Swedish librarians, a sexual assault charge and a radical manifesto for transparency in the literary world lead to an 81-year-old Guadeloupian becoming an emblem of representation and democracy over patriarchal elitism?

 

The New Academy Prize’s stand for fairness, transparency and democracy in recognising major literary talent is both epoch-defining and, strangely, transitory. The cancellation of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature came after a swathe of resignations from the Swedish Academy, the organisation that awards it every year. In November 2017, in the thick of the #metoo movement, a Swedish newspaper published allegations of sexual assault against Jean-Claude Arnault, a photographer and major cultural figure in Sweden, by 18 women, in incidents over a period of 20 years. It was even reported in the Swedish press that he had tried to grope the Swedish Crown Princess, Victoria, the first in line to the throne. Arnault’s wife was Katarina Frostenson, a poet and member of the Swedish Academy, with whom he ran the Stockholm art venue Forum. Forum had regularly received funding from the Academy, prompting further allegations of corruption. Resignations of three Academy members followed when the then-Permanent Secretary, Sara Danius, refused to expel Frostenson, who protested that she should not be punished for the crimes of her husband. Eventually, Danius was forced to step down and Frostenson agreed to withdraw from the Academy, which was left with only 10 active members.

 

Arnaut was ultimately convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in prison in October 2018. Meanwhile, in a move widely welcomed across the literary world, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature was cancelled, in view of ‘reduced public confidence in the Academy’. With a new Permanent Secretary and a plan in progress to change the culture of the literary world’s most prestigious and secretive organisation, two prizes will be awarded in 2019.

 

In the meantime, however, the New Academy Prize promised to fill the gap. Condé was chosen as the winner after a tripartite process aiming to strike a balance between democracy and expert judgment. First, the founders invited librarians across Sweden to nominate an initial selection of authors. While almost 90% of Nobel Prizes in Literature have been awarded to men, 72% to Europeans, and only one ever to a black African, of the 47-person New Academy longlist, 30 were female, 8 were women of colour and 17 were male, including 5 men of colour. The public was invited to pare the list down to just four finalists, which the Academy stipulated had to include equal numbers of men and women. More than 32,000 people across the world voted on the final four, which also included novelists Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami (who pulled out at the last minute, citing a desire to focus on work) and Vietnamese-born Canadian novelist Kim Thúy. Finally, an expert jury comprising an academic, two editors and a library director chose the winner.

 

However, Condé herself wasn’t aware of the full backstory of the New Academy Prize until later. Given that most big literary prizes in France, such as the Prix Goncourt, are awarded to a few, well-known authors represented by major publishing houses, and most of Condé’s novels have been published by smaller presses, it came as a surprise. ‘It came somewhat out of the blue for me,’ she said. ‘It was an award I was not at all expecting.’ While her work has been recognised by the French literary establishment before, with the Grand prix littéraire de la Femme and the Prix de L’Académie française in 1986 and 1988, respectively, she only realised later on that this prize was different: it was the result not only of a jury decision, but also of a popular vote.

 

Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1937, Condé speaks a distinctive, gravelly French, accented and slightly slurring, peppered with unexpected emphases and long, ruminative pauses. She started writing from a young age but only published her first novel, Heremakhonon, at the age of 39. Condé has lived in Guinea, Ghana, Senegal and Paris, where she gained a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Caribbean literature in 1975. She also lived for many years in New York, where she taught at Columbia University, retiring in 2004 as a Professor Emerita. Her twelve novels, with their trenchant focus on female experiences of race and class struggle, reflect a life lived across continents, including teaching in West Africa, but always retain something of the small, island community where she started out. There is a certain ambivalence, however, to her portrayal of her home country. Works such as Crossing the Mangrove, in which the death of an outsider in a small community is narrated and examined by the plurality of different voices that attend his wake, show an impatience with the bigotry and gossip of small-town life. Her novels demonstrate the risks she is willing to take through her narratives: Windward Heights (2008), for example, reimagines Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a Caribbean setting at the turn of the century. Through repainting historical narratives, such as the story of Tituba, the maid also featured in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, she shows how history has shaped the lives of women and people of colour across the world.

 

Condé feels the decision to cancel the Nobel Prize for Literature was a bit unfair, when only one man was guilty, ‘but the others were honest… not everyone in the Nobel community was implicated.’ The real problem for her is the committee’s lack of representation. ‘What you can reproach the Nobel committee for, is being controlled for the most part by men, white people. So it’s not at all a community where the majority of the world – women, people of colour – win.’

 

History agrees with Condé on this point. Of the 196 members of the Nobel Academy for Literature since its inception in 1786, only 11 have ever been female. The first was novelist, playwright and short story writer, Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), who was granted membership in 1914, after winning the prize five years before. The first minority ethnic member of the Academy, Iranian-born exile Jila Mossaed, was inducted in December 2018, in the wake of the scandal. Of those 11 women, four stepped down over the 2018 sexual assault scandal, not including Sara Danius, the president at the time, who has now stepped back from her duties. This leaves only two women, out of 18 members, active in the Academy.

 

The irony of Condé winning the New Academy Prize is that despute her willingness to confront topics of race and gender inequality in the press and her novels, Condé refuses to align herself with any so-called ‘movement’. The prize-giving committee described Condé’s work as ‘a world where gender, race and class are constantly turned over in new constellations’: a vision that seems to chime perfectly with their own movement in favour of transparency and representation. Yet when it comes to her writing, Condé’s refusal to join movements is unshakeable. ‘I think I am generally sceptical. I don’t believe you can ever be at ease, be yourself: you’re disowned unless you agree…’

 

One prominent example is Condé’s public scepticism of ‘négritude’, a school of thought of the Francophone African diaspora which pushes for the importance of Pan-African identity in confronting colonialism. She has spoken recently of the difficult realisation, when first living in Africa, that she had little in common with the people around her. She realised that the central tenet of négritude, of a shared racial identity for black people across the world, was ‘just a beautiful dream and that colour meant nothing.’ ‘Negritude,’ she tells me, ‘that community, it would have prevented me from being the individual writer I wanted to be.’ This desire for freedom extends to the fraught question of literary influence. She says she hasn’t been influenced by any particular writers or thinkers. [I want to be] free to say and write what I think how I think it. I have never sought to please a section of society, and that has left me fairly free… I wanted to say what I saw without compromise.’

 

This uncompromising, often irreverent take on fraught subjects has been central to Condé’s work from the start. It is clear from the irony and cliché in her first novel, Heremakhonon (1976), which draws on her experience of living in West Africa, how an idealistic fight for shared black identity would have limited what she had to say: she takes as her focus the differences in lived experience of those who feel they share a common African identity. In the novel, a comparatively privileged Parisian woman of African origin embarks on a return to an unnamed African nation in search of her ‘true’ identity. Her response to the ‘homeland’ she seeks is crass: she is ignorant, even incurious, about the delicate and troubling political climate of a country that is trying to find its way through the violence and existential crisis of its post-colonial reality. ‘Africa is very much the thing to do lately,’ she tells us in the opening paragraph. ‘Arts and crafts centers are opening all over the Left Bank.’ Her actions when there inadvertently cause more violence. She ends up sleeping with Ibrahim Sory, the Minister of Defense, a man directly responsible for the brutality around her. Throughout, clichés of black African identity are never far from her lips: ironised, but nonetheless persistent, cliché is a lens through which she confronts the injustices around her and her own journey. Encountering a young man on arrival in West Africa she describes how: ‘He has a lovely smile, rounded teeth, very white. Careful! Beware of clichés: the n***** with flashing white teeth. All the same his teeth are very white.’  Such techniques remind the reader how far we are all subject to the restrictive limitations of cliché. What it does not give us is one simple story about how to overcome it: like any confrontation, exposing and doing battle with cliché is complex and messy.

 

When I ask Condé if she set out to ‘break the rules’, she is emphatic. ‘Yes! But what I was trying to do is understand things, the reason why, deep down, things happen in the world. Most of the time people don’t register the cause of events. I tried to understand, and to do that, you absolutely need to rid yourself of received ideas.’ The example she gives is her native Guadeloupe, a group of Caribbean islands that have remained a French dependency, despite a 2003 referendum on independence. For years advertised to holidaymakers as an island ‘paradise’, this view of Guadeloupe is now ‘a brand we must escape’. ‘This is one example of how I have tried to escape cliché,’ she told me. ‘For me literature is a pursuit of truth, a quest for the truth, telling it like it is, something which, alas, is not always easy.’

 

I suggest to Condé that her novels operate on both a local and a global level, at once historical and, at times, autobiographical. ‘I think all writers sometimes write from their own lives. Events in their lives which seem important end up in their books.’ Her novels, she says, contain ‘two elements overlaid’: one personal, and one ‘a sort of reflection on the symbolic sense [of the personal story] on a global level’. In the New Academy Prize, the personal, for Maryse Condé, has taken on just such a symbolic sense, proof that her meditations on racial, gender and class equality across continents and ages have reached a global audience. Her unease around joining movements notwithstanding, Condé now finds herself associated with a radical rejection of patriarchal literary elitism: one whose long-term implication is yet to become clear.

 

With a slew of vacancies and inactive memberships across the 18 seats of the Swedish Academy, only two active female members remaining, and two prizes to award this year, it remains to be seen whether the New Academy Prize’s symbolic moment will have a lasting impact on how and whom we read, and how we conceive literary success. Can, and should, the Nobel Prize for Literature continue to hold its place as, in Condé’s words, the ‘supreme literary accomplishment’ after this year’s scandal? ‘We will see!’ she laughs. ‘We will see!’