It would be easy for a book set during the Salem Witch Trials to disintegrate into yet another western racial pastiche where the character of Tituba remains a culturally unimportant shadow in the background of a privileged white morality play. Yet in the strong, capable hands of French (Guadoluopean) author Maryse Condé, Tituba at last has had her day.
In her short novel, I,Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986) Condé traces the life journey of the young, delightfully human Tituba. Tituba was conceived from rape (aboard a vessel ironically named Christ the King) and she takes us right up through the end of her life, breathing fresh life, memorable as apotheosis, into a character whose story was long overdue to be told.
Condé’s novels often raise racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales. She explores, for example, the 19th-century Bambara Empire of Mali in Segu (1980); and the 20th-century building of the Panama Canal and its influence on increasing the West Indian middle class in The Tree of Life (1992).¹
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, is equally captivating.
Tituba, who possesses the skill and visions of a healer, is biracial. Born on Barbados to a young African slave woman, Abena, and a loving gentle giant named Yao, Tituba eventually becomes a maroon, having no owner, but an outsider to society. She’s taken under the wing of an herbalist named Mama Yaya, learning about traditional healing methods; then falls in love and marries a slave, John Indian, willing to return to slavery on his behalf. Mortal unions with men are to become a weakness of Tituba’s, throughout the story.
Soon after, Tituba and John Indian are sold to Samuel Parris, the Puritan who takes Tituba and John Indian to Boston, then to Salem Village, where Tituba is accused of witchcraft and arrested. Tituba shares a prison cell with a pregnant Hester Prynne, the heroine from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (Prynne also receives a bit of a feminist makeover.)²
Tituba’s story also includes a relationship with a Jewish merchant, Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo, and raises issues of shared cultural disenfranchisement and the commonality of oppression.
Condé’s narrative employs elements of traditional storytelling to provide tales within tales, magical as double yolks within eggs, resulting in an extremely well-narrated depiction of Tituba as a larger-than-life yet supremely human protagonist; flawed and as likeable as anyone who has been marginalized and has had to fight to survive. The inclusion of a trinity of spiritual presences, namely Mama Yaya, Yao and Abena, her mother, serve as a sort of often-appearing chorus of the ego, advising and often chiding the very human Tituba as she navigates the racist and misogynist zeitgeist of the 1600’s.
Recently The Wonderlings, a Facebook Reading and Discussion Group voted to read I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.
Condé’s book is actually the longest work the group has ever read together, and they did a smashing job! A tight core group of readers explored many aspects of the work, including narrative, voice, character development, analysis of passages they felt were brilliant or needing form, as well as history, study of the atrocities of life on a sugar plantation, and waves of feminism which either did, or did not, apply to Tituba.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem was published in 1986. It would go on to receive the French Grand Prix award for women’s literature.
Although recovering from a fractured ankle, the author was quite gracious in answering several of our member’s questions about I, Tituba. Here are her responses, which were very kindly sent by the translator of the book, Richard Philcox.
Dear Celeste Schantz,
Life has got just a little bit complicated as I have fractured my ankle and my husband will type my answers to your questions.
We greatly appreciate how gracious the author was, to provide these responses.
A Wonderlings Interview with Maryse Condé . . .
TW: You received your PhD in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne in 1965, what is the title of your dissertation? (PS: Thank you, thank you for your generosity in taking part in our group!) –Rick Williams
MC: The title of my thesis at the Sorbonne in 1975 was “Stereotype of Black Characters in Caribbean Literature.”
TW: There is a vast chasm going back thousands of years between the culture and history of the African peoples and the white people from Western Europe that settled this country. Taking into consideration your personal experiences with racism, do you think there is any solution to the racist problem that presently exists in the US? – Jeri Harbers Thomson
MC: I am not a specialist of racism in the US but I do believe that in spite of the prevalent ideas, racism will die and humanity will become one. Maybe that is a dream, but it is mine.
TW: Within the book you use the heralding “crick, crack!” –the traditional opening used by a West Indian storyteller in front of an audience. It seems to say; “Now, listen! I’m about to tell you a fantastic tale!” Can you elaborate on the use of this device when writing/telling Tituba’s stories? As a proclamation that we as readers are about to hear something fantastic? I loved these passages; they were among the most excellent in the book, because they contain archetypes and dreams and folk tale elements, and the reader or audience member is wondering what is tangible and what is spiritual. I’d love for you to tell a bit about your use of that story opening, “crick, crack!” – Celeste Helene Schantz
MC: Every writer is jealous of the storyteller. There is in the spoken word a spontaneity that writing brings to an end. I wanted to remind my readers that I belong to a society where oral traditions are still alive, that my words convey a magical power and that my story can be seen as a wonderful filter for emotions and knowledge. I was trying to say that people belonging to my part of the world do not simply write, they retain the power to influence deeply the minds of their listeners.
Also check out this 52-minute documentary, Maryse Condé : Une voix singulière (with subtitles)
TW: What did use of the spirit world bring to your story? When in the trance of writing, how did the exchanges come out from the “other world?” Did you write these and let them stand or revise the exchanges? How has this book shaped your later views on other writings/life? –David Delaney
MC: A writer is a dreamer. A book is the fruit of her imagination, complex and full of diverse ideas. There is a magical relationship between Tituba and me; One day when I was searching for books at the UCLA library, Ann Petry’s book on Tituba fell into my hands. That is how I got to know the story of the Salem witch trials. That bond between Tituba and me has never been found again in my writing.
TW: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem was written in 1986, a time when women’s spirituality, particularly reclaiming witchcraft and goddess lore, was being articulated. Was Tituba’s spirituality, as well as being historically relevant, part of the parody of feminism, or more a depiction of a healthy relationship with spirit which we could emulate today? – Anna Schantz
MC: I Tituba as a book is a parody. I went to the extent of meeting with a real witch in Los Angeles who told me the secret of her art. For me there was a large part of humor in portraying Tituba who would not be taken too seriously. Her spirituality should not be taken as a model.
TW: We appreciated the fact that you refrained from idealizing Tituba, and portrayed her fully, flaws and all, especially her perverse tendency to embrace exploitative situations to her own detriment. What was it about Tituba’s character that affected you most deeply? -Shabnam Mirchandani
MC: In The Crucible by Arthur Miller Tituba has been portrayed as an unimportant, old Negress without any character, a shadow in the background. I wanted to give her a character of her own: young, attractive, fond of handsome men, not at all a role model. I suppose I was trying to make her human.
TW: Do you think that some of your meaning or references to feminism/ parody are lost in translation? How involved are you in the translation process? –Jeri Harbers Thomson
MC: For me translation is another work entirely. My husband is a translator and I never interfere with his work. I never read his translations. They belong to him. If you would like to know more on this topic read the conversation we had between author and translator published in the book Intimate Enemies (Liverpool University Press.)
TW: Are excellent writers born? Or are MFA programs in creative writing useful to hone our skills? Did you personally ever “study” creative writing or did you learn to write on your own through reading and learning from the craft of other authors? What is the most challenging aspect for you when writing a novel? What do you love? – Celeste Helene Schantz
MC: Creative writing programs are an invention of American universities. In the Francophone world we believe that the power to write is a gift which cannot be taught. My fondness for writing comes from my knowledge of literature from different parts of the world. It is by reading certain authors that I learned how to write and influence my readers. I have never studied otherwise. Reading for me is my master.
As for the writers I prefer, the list would be too long, but I make no difference between a Japanese writer, a French writer or an American: all of them can teach me their craft and bring me closer to what I want to achieve.
TW: Can you tell us about what you are working on now? (or at least give us a hint . . .?) –Susan Pigman
MC: I have just published a novel dealing with the major issue of terrorism. It’s called Le destin triste et fabuleux d’Ivan et Ivana, but it has not been translated yet into English. My autobiography of my years in Africa is about to be published by Seagull Press/University of Chicago as What is Africa to Me? True Fragments of an Autobiography. My husband is translating at the present time Of Morsels and Marvels, a travelogue of recipes and journeys throughout the world.
Best regards to all the Book Club members!
. . .A Bit About the Author . . .
Born as Maryse Boucolon at Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the author Maryse Conde’ was the youngest of eight children. After having graduated from high school, she would go on to attend the Sorbonne in Paris.
After graduating, she taught in Guinea, Ghana and Senegal. She returned to Paris, and in 1965 completed her PhD in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne.
In 1985 Condé was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in the US. She then became a professor of French and Francophone literature at Columbia University in New York City. In addition to her creative writing, Condé retired from Columbia University as Professor Emerita of French. She has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA, the Sorbonne, The University of Virginia, and the University of Nanterre. She and her husband (Richard Philcox, the English-language translator of most of her novels) split their time between New York City and Guadeloupe.
About Windward Heights
Her novel Windward Heights (2008) is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which she had first read at the age of 14. She had long wanted to create a work around it, as an act of “homage.” Her novel is set in Guadeloupe, and race and culture are featured as issues that divide people Reflecting on how she drew from her Caribbean background in writing this book, she said:
“To be part of so many worlds—part of the African world because of the African slaves, part of the European world because of the European education—is a kind of double entendre. You can use that in your own way and give sentences another meaning. I was so pleased when I was doing that work, because it was a game, a kind of perverse but joyful game.”³
About Crossing the Mangrove . . .
“Conde writes elegantly in a style that beautifully survives translation from the French…[she] gives readers a flavor of the French and Creole stew that is the Guadeloupan tongue. In so doing, Conde conveys the many subtle distinctions of color, class, and language that made up this society.”–Chicago Tribune
“In this beautifully crafted, Rashomon-like novel, Maryse Conde has written a gripping story imbued with all the nuances and traditions of Caribbean culture. Francis Sancher–a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others–is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe.
None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself. As the villagers come to pay their respects they each–either in a speech to the mourners, or in an internal monologue–reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death.
Like pieces of an elaborate puzzle, their memories interlock to create a rich and intriguing portrait of a man and a community. In the lush and vivid prose for which she has become famous, Conde has constructed a Guadeloupean wake for Francis Sancher. Retaining the full color and vibrance of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.”
Maryse Condé’s works go well beyond historical fiction.
Among her plays are: An tan revolisyon, published in 1991, first performed in Guadeloupe in 1989; Comedie d’Amour, first performed in Guadeloupe in 1993; Dieu nous l’a donné, published in 1972, first performed in Paris in 1973; La mort d’Oluwemi d’Ajumako, published in 1973, first performed in 1974 in Gabon; Le morne de Massabielle, first version staged in 1974 in Puteaux (France), later staged in English in New York as The Hills of Massabielle (1991); Pension les Alizes, published in 1988, first staged in Guadeloupe and subsequently staged in New York as Tropical Breeze Hotel (1995); Les sept voyages de Ti Noel (written in collaboration with José Jernidier), first performed in Guadeloupe in 1987.
Prolific, refreshingly honest, and an excellent writer who deserves great praise and place in any canon of world literature . . .Maryse Condé is all of these things.
³ Rebecca Wolff, Interview: “Maryse Condé”, Bomb Magazine, Vol. 68, Summer 1999, accessed 27 April 2016.
4. Quote on Crossing the Mangrove: Amazon
Featured image Sandro Michaeless, BOMB Magazine