With her controversial 1986 novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, one of the most respected of Guadeloupe’s several powerful writers, Maryse Condé 1934– ) has produced one of the African diaspora’s literary classics. I, Tituba explores the interwoven psychosocial, racial, and historical effects of the Atlantic slave trade and the sacrificial personal cost of rebellion against it. Winner of the 1986 Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme, the novel has been translated into English through a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.
In this work, Condé’s earlier efforts to envision a precolonial African past enrich her return to what she knows of the Caribbean and what she imagines about the African diaspora and colonization. As suggested in the first edition’s afterword by Ann Armstrong Scarborough, in I, Tituba, anglophone pan-Africanism finds itself queried by Condé’s negritude through an inspired vision of North American slavery’s comparative relationship to the maroon movement of the Caribbean.
In the Condé/Scarborough interview included in the book’s afterword, the author describes how, while in residence as a Fulbright scholar at Occidental College in Los Angeles and doing research in a UCLA library, she stumbled upon the story of the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials. Like many descendants of the Atlantic slave trade who discover that they are unaware of links between ports in the enslavement triangle, Condé realized that she had never heard of the enslaved Barbadian woman persecuted at the start of the Salem trials. After gathering what little historical information exists about Tituba, Condé went on to ask a feminist Jewish professor about Puritan New England and to visit Salem. There, Condé was struck by the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose The Scarlet Letter Condé professes to like and reread often. This outsider view of the early North American colonies inspired Condé’s masterpiece about what she perceives as the present tenacity of historical American narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and racism.
Condé’s Tituba is a Barbadian woman of mixed race; most members of the enslaved Pan-African community were of mixed race by the end of the 17th century. Tituba recounts the emotional and physical torments suffered by her grandmother and mother before her birth and her own rather idyllic childhood, growing up in the islands as a free person. However, love leads her into marriage with an enslaved man, the historically named John Indian, and she fatefully sets sail with him to the Puritan colonies of North America.
As Condé wrote the book, she dreamed of Tituba, conversed with her, and felt that Tituba checked her manuscript. The author seems to have approached Tituba as the embodiment of historical erasure that Condé believes plagues all peoples of the African continent and its forced dispersion. (Historical erasure is the discovery that one’s cultural or racial community has been so misrepresented or underrepresented by a dominating culture’s values and perception of events as to be effectively erased from history.) In her foreword to the English translation, African American social revolutionary Angela Y. Davis shares the author’s perception of rehistoricizing the African diaspora community through the revoicing of Tituba. However, despite her acknowledgment of the novel’s sobering overall themes, Condé insists that the reader keep in mind her heavy-handed employment of parody throughout the book, such as in the intrusive villagechorus advice offered by the spirits of Tituba’s deceased mother and grandmother, and in the 20th-century feminist enlightenment Tituba receives when she finds herself wrongfully imprisoned with the equally persecuted Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.
In the complexity of the book’s rendering of the “power/need” dynamics among women and men, the enslaved and their enslavers, Europeans, Africans, Caribs, and their mixed-race descendants, Condé’s noholds- barred exploration of colonial racism, gender bigotry, and disenfranchisement of the poor, and of an enslaved woman who survived all three, remains a definitive literary study of the personal impact of a colonial-era atrocity.
Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Barbour, Sarah, and Gerise Herndon, eds. Emerging Perspectives in Maryse Condé. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.
Condé, Maryse. Tales from the Heart: True Tales from my Childhood. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Soho Press, 2001.
Ouédraogo, Jean. Maryse Condé et Ahmadou Kourouma. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.
Pfaff, Francoise. Conversations with Maryse Condé. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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