In the wake of a rape and corruption scandal that’s toppled the Swedish Academy, no Nobel prize in literature was given out this year. In its place, a group of concerned Swedes has named their own 2018 global winner for literature: Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé.
The New Academy Prize in Literature, which has been popularly referred to as an “alternative” Nobel prize, was announced today (Oct. 12). Several hundred Swedish librarians sent in nominations for who should win, after which there was a public worldwide vote. Condé, Kim Thúy, and Neil Gaiman were named to the shortlist (along with Haruki Murakami, who asked to drop out so he could focus on work), and a panel of four expert judges selected a winner.
Condé was born in Pointe-à-Pitre in 1937 and writes in French. She’s best known for her novels, and has written more than ten, which are set against backdrops of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation. Two of the best known are I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1987) and Segu (1984). In I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, she writes a fictionalized account of the real-life black slave tried for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.
Wrote the New York Times in 1992:
What a fanatical sect Ms. Conde’s Puritans turn out to be: sadists and murderers, rabid misogynists and racists who hang and torture women, imprison tiny children, burn Jewish families out of their homes and regularly accuse black slaves of being in league with Satan. Tituba offers an ingenuous appraisal of their doctrine of eternal damnation: “Perhaps it’s because they have done so much harm to their fellow beings, to some because their skin is black, to others because their skin is red, that they have such a strong feeling of being damned?”
An underlying theme of Condé’s work is the quest to define one’s own identity.
That’s explicit in her 2006 book, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, a fictional personal history about Condé’s maternal grandmother. (The book was translated into English by Richard Philcox, Condé’s husband.) The white-skinned orphan Victoire died before Condé was born, and in this story she imagines the life behind a photograph she stole glances at as a child. Early in the book, Condé pictures her grandmother sitting in her bedroom:
“What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realize that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self. That’s the only thing that matters? What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?” she seemed to be telling me.
Indeed the real-life Condé has lived all over: in France, England, Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, and the US. She’ll receive a cash prize for her New Academy award, though the amount is based on donations that will be collected up until December. The New Academy had originally set a goal of 1 million Swedish kronor (about US $111,000) for the cash prize, but so far it has raised a little over $20,000 on Kickstarter and a small amount of additional funds.