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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

What is Africa to Me ?

Maryse Condé

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To purchase What is Africa to Me ?

Title: What is Africa to Me ?
Author: Maryse Condé
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 290 pages
Original in: French
Availability: What is Africa to Me ? - US
What is Africa to Me ? - UK
What is Africa to Me ? - Canada
La Vie sans fards - Canada
La Vie sans fards - France
  • Fragments of a True-to-Life Autobiography
  • French title: La Vie sans fards
  • Translated by Richard Philcox

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Our Assessment:

B : frank memoir; interesting life and circumstances

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 3/12/2012 Marianne Payot
Le Figaro . 14/11/2012 Françoise Dargent
TLS . 5/10/2018 Noo Saro-Wiwa

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le statut de la femme d'avant la pilule, celui de l'Afrique d'après l'indépendance, la culpabilité d'une mère, le décryptage de l'oeuvre à venir à travers sa vie de femme... Tout est là. Avec franchise et intelligence." - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "Son récit est émaillé de nombreuses références à l'histoire chaotique de ces pays africains et à leurs écrivains qu'elle a ensuite enseignés à l'université de Columbia. Elle se retourne avec une clairvoyance qui force le respect sur ces années qui l'ont forgée en tant que femme et l'ont vu naître en tant qu'écrivain. Sans fards mais non sans force." - Françoise Dargent, Le Figaro

  • "(A)n entertaining and occasionally humorous account of the twelve years the author spent in Africa during the late 1950s and 60s. (...) In many ways hers is the story of the Sixties woman buffeted by social restrictions yet exercising a new-found agency. Concerns about her children’s unstable upbringing arise regularly in spasms of self-admonishment. Condé can’t decide whether she is the agent of her own chaos or the victim of circumstance. Perhaps the politics of 1960s Africa was never more than a backdrop to her own dramas." - Noo Saro-Wiwa, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presented as What is Africa to Me ? in English, the original title of Maryse Condé's memoir was La Vie sans fards -- 'Life without makeup', or perhaps: 'An unadorned life'. The book is certainly frank -- and it does focus on her years in Africa and does explain, to a certain extent, what her experiences with the continent have meant to her and how they have shaped her, as a person and then a writer. In the late 1950s -- the period this account begins with -- she: "considered Africa, its past and present, my sole preoccupation", and she would soon immerse herself in it.
       Born in Guadeloupe to parents who: "belonged to the embryo of a middle class", she was a promising student sent to study in Paris. An affair with Haitian journalist Jean Dominique -- famously portrayed in the film The Agronomist -- left her at age nineteen, "when I should have been preparing for the competitive exam for the École normale supérieure", giving birth to her first child -- alone, because Dominique abandoned her, flying back to Haiti ("and never even sent me a postcard"). In 1958 she married Mamadou Condé -- separating less than three months later, but continuing a tenuous relationship with him for many years after. Her academic dreams dashed in France: "I believed that if I could reach the continent sung by my favourite poet, I could be reborn" -- and by 1960, and again pregnant, she finally was able to take her first step there.
       Her first stop was the Ivory Coast but, while she: "could have curled up and enjoyed a peaceful existence in Bingerville's reassuring cocoon" she soon moved on to much poorer Guinea -- Conakry then, finally, "my real port of entry into Africa". Life there -- especially with her husband, who joined her but found himself: "vegetating in mediocrity" -- and the terrible conditions wore her down and eventually, in 1963 she left, with yet another baby, and went to Ghana. There she got a position at the Winneba Ideological Institute (the Kwame Nkrumah Institute of Economics and Political Science) -- a very active center at the time (Malcolm X speaking there one week, Che Guevara the next ...), but one she didn't feel comfortable in either. She immediately realized:

In this Africa, there was no place for me, this was the Africa of the powerful and those who aspired to become powerful. The students didn't bother to attend my classes: What was the point, with a subject as futile as French ? My colleagues, too busy courting the visiting VIPs, paid scant attention to me.
       She left soon enough for another position -- but eventually found herself arrested in the wake of the 1966 coup, and while quickly released was immediately deported. After a year in England, she was able -- and willing -- to return to Ghana; when the man she loved decided to marry another she moved on yet again, this time to Senegal. Here she eventually wound up in Kaolack, posted to teach at a school there. People discouraged her from going -- "According to them, Kaolack was a horrible hole, riddled with flies and disease, the hottest point in Sénégal. The temperature averaged 45 degrees Celsius" --, though one Irish girl was jealous, because her boyfriend was there. This man -- Richard Philcox -- would go on to become an important figure in Maryse Condé's life, "the one who was going to change my life" -- and, eventually, her husband (and the translator of some of her books, including this one).
       For most of these years, Condé is trying to find some hold. Men figure prominently and decisively in her life, repeatedly determining where she decides to go (or stay, or return to), as well as her employment: ending an affair with one man also means losing her position; the marriage of another pushes her to move yet again. To a certain extent, Condé is often dependent on the men in her life -- yet she also shows a remarkable independence, where necessary: "Marysé doesn't do things like everyone else", one acquaintance observes, and that's true. She doesn't make it easy for herself, but she does makes her way, one way or another. Over the course of more than a decade described in the book, from the birth of her first child, she is repeatedly disappointed by the men in her life - while also not bending to what those that could offer a stronger hold demand (staying in a specific place, for example, or abandoning her children) --; only in its conclusion can she look towards a brighter future: it's not the place of this book to describe those times, but at least she leaves readers knowing that things get better ahead.
       Her children -- she had four over this period, before she (reluctantly) had her tubes tied -- are important to her, but also a burden. Her continuing relationship with Mamadou Condé was based in part on her concern that their father be part of their lives, while her relationship with a man she deeply loved was shattered by his unwillingness to accept them (and some pretty bad treatment of them). She struggles at times to be the kind of mother she'd like, but the necessity of earning a living limited her ability to spend time with the children, something she feels guilty about -- while always also carving space for herself that she needed, whether the brief get-away from the kids or, later, turning to writing.
       Her insider-outsider status is repeatedly an issue -- as it was already in France. A Caribbean black, she shares a French colonial heritage in some of these countries, but remains an outsider. Yet she also sees feels no connection with the Americans who come to Africa. And her specific background -- also as the youngest of a large, dispersed family -- weighs on her in other ways as well:
One can never shake off one's origins. I couldn't forget that I came from a family of arrogant petty bourgeois. And perhaps I was not as intelligent as my friends thought. Otherwise, how could I explain such a chaotic life ?
       Condé writes appealingly frankly and directly, and admits to her own weaknesses and faults -- "I took no interest whatsoever in my students whom I considered lifeless and stupid" she admits of one early teaching experience, for example. One job she had was as a translator -- but:
I have already said I have no interest in translation. I began therefore quarreling with the corrector, a fussy old Frenchman tired of rewriting my texts. Furthermore, my colleagues complained of my constant lateness, my absences and of what they called, rightly or wrongly, my impoliteness and superior airs. In short, my three-month trial contract was not renewed. I did not suffer unduly since I wouldn't let one more humiliation stop me.
       She admirably presses on, regardless, even with all the frustrations and hurdles she faces. Africa, and what she seeks from it, remain central:
I knew that Africa would never accept me as I was. And yet I didn't blame Africa for my problems, all of which were the consequences of personal decisions. Rather, what tortured me was that I couldn't figure Africa out. Too many contradictory images stacked up one after another.
       Language remains an interesting barrier too, as she struggles with the local languages: "I quickly realized that if I wanted to decode African societies, I would have to converse with the people", but her inability to speak any local language limited who she could understand; she's torn, in part, by which language to learn -- "'Learn Malinké ! said a Malinké. 'Learn Fulani !' said a Peul. 'Learn Soussou !' said a Soussou" -- and doesn't seem to make great inroads with any.
       What is Africa to Me ? can seem like a rushed jumble of experience -- all those contradictory images stacked up one after another -- but that's part of the point: here is, in messiest form, the foundation of her work, her writing. There's little of it here: only well into the 1960s does she begin to try more determinedly to write and publish, and her success comes only after the period recounted here. But she does repeatedly allude to later works, and shows the bits of influence (acknowledging a weakness for the Brontë sisters and other nineteenth century English authors, she notes: "all my novels swarm with references to English literature"); it's among the most interesting and valuable aspects of the memoir, not only for the specific way experience translated into her fiction but also her assessment of much of it, and her interpretations. So, for example, she notes about I Tituba: Black Witch of Salem:
     In the United States, the deliberately provocative intention of the novel's parody and mockery was somewhat obscured by Angela Davis' fine introduction, a little too serious and solemn for my liking, emphasizing the silencing and exclusion from history of certain peoples and individuals.
       What is Africa to Me ? is presented in three parts, each covering one of these stages in her life in Africa (along with the occasional stay in Europe). The chapter-titles are taken from book and song titles, short quotes, and sayings -- 'The Visit Friedrich Dürrenmatt', for example, and: 'In Pain Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children Genesis' and 'The Way to Paradise Mario Vargas Llosa' -- and offer an additional revealing layer of influence.
       What is Africa to Me ? is a very forthright memoir, of an influential and formative period in the writer's life. It ends at the point of what appears to be her blossoming, finding personal and then professional satisfaction after a long, hard slog, but even before this bright ending her resilience and willingness to embrace change make for an always positive forward-looking personal journey. Condé admirably does not wallow in the hardships along the way, much less in much self-pity, even as she acknowledges the periods of great hurt and frustration.
       Her memoir is also a fascinating quick glimpse of an Africa in these times, with contrasts such as a grim Soviet-oriented Guinea and a bustling Ghana that nevertheless also falls victim to political upheaval. While the focus is intensely personal, the rich and varied African (and, briefly, French and English) background make What is Africa to Me ? an interesting account of place, conditions, and the times as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2018

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What is Africa to Me ?: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1937.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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