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Despite last year's ‘alternative’ win, Guadeloupe's Maryse Condé passed over for 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature

Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé. Photo by MEDEF via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At 1 p.m. Sweden time on October 10, 2019, both the 2018 and 2019 laureates for the Nobel Prize for Literature were announced. Following an embarrassing sexual misconduct scandal, the Swedish Academy decided to postpone 2018 award, which resulted in the creation of an alternative award that year. Dubbed the New Academy Prize in Literature, it was presented to Guadeloupean author of historical fiction Maryse Condé, best known for her novel Segu.

With a horse, so to speak, in this year's race, there was great anticipation in the Caribbean over who this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature would be, and Condé's odds of winning were pegged near the top, at 5-1:

But Nobel prize predictions often come with upsets, and today the honour was bestowed upon Austrian author Peter Handke. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk received the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature “for a narrative imagination that […] represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

The Caribbean region has had, thus far, two Nobel Laureates in Literature—St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott in 1992, and Trinidad and Tobago-born V.S. Naipaul in 2001—or three if you count the poet Saint-John Perse, who, like Condé, was born in Guadeloupe, but who—also like Condé—had French citizenship because of Guadeloupe's status as a French overseas territory. Perse won the Nobel in 1960. There was great hope this year that Condé would bring the world's most coveted literary prize to the region another time.

Condé's novels delve into the enduring issues of race, gender and culture that link Africa and its vast diaspora, all set in historical contexts like the Salem witch trials and the construction of the Panama Canal. Politics and feminism have always factored strongly into her narratives, though her later work veers towards autobiography.

Deciding to be a writer after reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a child, Condé eventually paid tribute to the book that inspired her by writing Windward Heights, a historical novel set in Guadeloupe, in which race and cultural differences act as powerful divisive forces — issues which many social media users felt were increasingly relevant today, and for which she should have been honoured:

Condé has numerous other awards under her belt, however. Apart from being the first ever recipient of the New Academy Prize, she has won Le Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme (1986), Le Prix de L’Académie Francaise (1988), and Le Prix Carbet de la Caraibe (1997). She was also presented with a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

For some fans of her work, though, those honours did not lessen the sting of Condé not being chosen at the 2019 Nobel Laureate in Literature. On Facebook, Arnel Asonto lamented:

So disappointing and what […] weak choices […]
I was expecting Maryse Condé of Guadeloupe to win the literature prize but somehow the award is still ‘Eurocentric’ and insular…
They promised some changes despite the scandalous fiasco last year…

A scholar of Francophone literature, Condé is currently Professor Emerita of French at Columbia University, which holds her literary archive.

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