Authors: Maryse Conde
A Season in Rihata
Children of Segu
Land of Many Colors
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
Tree of Life
Crossing the Mangrove
The Last of the African Kings
Tales from the Heart
Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?
Story of the Cannibal Woman
My Mother’s Mother
Translated by Richard Philcox
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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This book is largely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are transpositions of the life of the author’s mother and grandmother.
Copyright © 2006 by Maryse Condé
English translation copyright © 2010 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Published by arrangement with Mercure de France.
Originally published in France in 2006 by Mercure de France as
Victoire, les saveurs et les mots.
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ISBN 978-1-4391-0058-5 (ebook)
For my three daughters
Those who have helped me in this reconstitution are too numerous
to mention. But I would like to thank personally Raymond Boutin,
Lucie Julia, Jean-Michel Renault, and, in particular,
What does it matter whether I remember or invent,
Whether I borrow or imagine.
Les anneaux du manège: écriture et littérature
She died long before I was born, a few years after my parents were married.
All I have of her is a sepia-colored photo signed by Cattan, the photographer in vogue at the time. Set on top of the piano where I practiced my scales, the photo depicted a woman wearing a dress with a wide lace collar that gave her the look of a schoolgirl. An impression heightened by her slight figure. On her tiny feet were a pair of patent leather button shoes like those of a first communicant. A gold chain necklace was clasped around her delicate neck. How old could she have been? Was she pretty? I couldn’t say. However, once she had captured your attention you couldn’t take your eyes off her.
The sight of her never failed to make me feel uneasy. My mother’s mother had that Australian whiteness for the color of her skin. Her soft-colored eyes like Rimbaud’s, set deep in their sockets, were reduced to two Asian slits. She was staring at the lens without the shadow of a smile and without any attempt to appear gracious. Her headtie knotted with two points signified an inferior station.
Kité mouchwa pou chapo
(Swap the headtie for a hat) was the expression of the time that paid homage to a woman’s social ascension. In short, she jarred with my world of women in Italian straw bonnets
and men necktied in three-piece linen suits, all of them a very black shade of black. She appeared to me doubly strange.
One day, I must have been seven or eight, I couldn’t keep it bottled up any longer.
“Maman, what was Grandmama’s name?”
“Victoire Elodie Quidal.”
The name filled me with admiration, especially as I lamented the sound of my own. I particularly loathed my first name, which I considered insipid. Maryse, little Mary? Her name resounded with the deep ring of a bronze medal. Resonant.
“What did she do in life?” I persisted.
I can remember dusk was falling and the sun was already an orange color in the sky that was veering to gray. We were in my mother’s bedroom. Me, sprawled on her bed, although it was strictly forbidden. She, sitting next to the wide-open window to take advantage of the last rays of sunlight. With her finger elegantly encased in a silver thimble, she was pushing a needle as she darned.
“She hired out her services,” she blurted.
“You mean she was a . . . servant?” I said, mortified in disbelief.
My mother turned to face me.
“Yes. She was a cook.”
“A cook!” I exclaimed.
I couldn’t believe it. My mother, the daughter of a cook! My mother, who had no palate and was notoriously incapable of boiling an egg. During our stays in Paris we would make do on weekdays scraping out cans of food, and on Sundays, we would scour the neighboring restaurants.
“A peerless cook,” my mother emphasized. “She had the touch of a genuine chef.”
Delighted, I hastened to add, “Me too, I’d like to be a cook.”
Going by my mother’s expression, I knew I was on the wrong track. She wasn’t bringing me up to be a cook, not even a chef. I quickly changed the subject and made a diversion.
“And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?”
She continued without answering the question.
“She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then . . . then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up till she died.”
“That’s where I grew up,” she added.
I went from amazement to stupefaction. Reality was stranger than fiction. To think that this woman, my mother, who was a black militant before her time, had grown up with a family of white Creoles! How could this be? I tried to clarify matters.
“She never got married, then? Who was her father?”
Such a conversation might surprise some people. At the time, to have a father, to be recognized by him, to share his daily existence or quite simply bear his name, was the prerogative of a rare privilege. It was no shock to me that my parents, like so many others, emerged out of a kind of fog. My father, an unrepentant chatterbox, claimed that his father had gone to dig for gold in Paramaribo, Dutch Guyana, abandoning his mother, who was breast-feeding her baby on the Morne à Cayes. Other times he claimed his father was a merchant seaman, shipwrecked off the coast of Sumatra. Where did the truth lie? I think he re-created it at will, taking pleasure in enunciating the syllables that made him dream: Paramaribo, Sumatra. Thanks to him, from a very early age I understood that you forge an identity.
My mother folded her darning.
“I don’t want to talk about all that just now. It’s too painful. Another time, perhaps. Go and do your homework.”
Petrified, I left the room.
Obviously, there never was “another time.” We never resumed that conversation. My mother never revealed to me who her father was or the circumstances of her birth. Yet I could never get that conversation out of my head. It was probably then that I made the resolution to research the life of Victoire Quidal. But my own life has been so chaotic. I let the years go by. Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different from what I had become.
“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.
Now I have the time to follow her footsteps.
Her picture is somewhat blurred and difficult to identify. For some, she was lovely. For others, pale and ugly. Yet others saw her as a downtrodden creature, illiterate and of no interest. And some as a real Machiavelli in a petticoat. When describing her, my mother would use those worn-out clichés of the Antilles that no longer mean anything.
“She could neither read nor write. Yet, she was the mainstay of the family, a formidable woman.”
Certainly not! Certainly not the mainstay of the family. However, with her meager resources she managed to force open the doors of the burgeoning black bourgeoisie for her daughter.
But was it really worth it in the end?
That is the real question I ask myself. That ample faculty my mother had for suffering and torturing herself, which she left to all of us—Victoire was the cause. Thinking she was acting for the best, she condemned my mother to live her childhood in solitude and ostracism, which had a considerable influence not only on her character and behavior but also on that of her descendants.
I often wonder what would have been my relation to myself, my vision of my island, the Antilles and the world in general, what my writing that expresses all this would have been, if I had been cradled in the lap of a buxom, jovial grandmother, full of the traditional tales: Tim, tim! Bois sec!
Is the audience asleep? No, the audience is not asleep!
A grandmother, former dancing star of the
and mazurka, whispering in my ear sweet myths of the past.
Such as it is, here is the portrait I have managed to trace, whose impartiality or even exactitude I cannot fully guarantee.