The Reverberations of Time: A Conversation with Nicole Simek




ON APRIL 28, the University of Virginia Press released the most recent addition to its series “CARAF: Caribbean and African Literature translated from French”: The Belle Créole. This novel (originally published in 2001) is one of the dozens of notable works published by celebrated French Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. Set at the dawn of the 21st century in the French Antilles, the story follows protagonist Dieudonné Sabrina — a black man accused of murdering his white lover — over the course of the 24 hours that follow his acquittal and subsequent release from prison. The artfully written narrative includes a series of flashbacks that successfully integrate political commentary on Antillean politics with observations about racial tensions and socioeconomic inequities in former slave-holding countries.

Condé’s work has become almost synonymous with Guadeloupean literature. In a career spanning over 30 years, she has produced a wide range of novels, stories, and plays that engage overlapping themes, including the historical legacies of slavery in the Caribbean, and across the African diaspora more broadly. Equal parts creative writer and teacher, Condé held appointments at various institutions, such as UCLA, Columbia, and the Sorbonne, before retiring from teaching in 2005. She has received various prestigious awards for her writing, including the Prix de L’Académie française and the New Academy Prize in Literature. For her intellectual contributions, the Africana Studies program at New York University awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award. Condé’s work has been translated into numerous languages.

The English-language version of The Belle Créole has benefited from the detailed attention of Nicole Simek, professor of French at Whitman College in Washington State, who has been a scholar of Condé’s work and legacy for some time. In her 2008 book Eating Well, Reading Well: Maryse Condé and the Ethics of Interpretation, which is devoted entirely to Condé’s influence, Simek writes:

What La Belle Créole calls for is arguably […] not just a recognition of the limitations of relying too heavily on the past as a tool for constructing the present and future, but a literary and critical practice that attempts to reconcile historicization with an attention to the often divergent experiences of history, to read literature for its ability to elaborate the ambiguous presence of the past in the present, but to read it with its explanatory limits in mind.

Through her 24-hour glimpse into Dieudonné’s life, Condé explores the passage of time and the protagonist’s (and, by extension, the reader’s) relationship to it, as well as the echoes of past and present that will continue to reverberate through our shared futures. Condé’s characters have depth, and the plot is incredibly engaging. If you haven’t been to the French Antilles, The Belle Créole provides the possibility of a literary voyage to a world that is at once recognizable and yet quite different from the one we inhabit in the Anglophone sphere.

I had the pleasure of meeting Simek in January and asking her a bit about her translation work and her interest in Condé.

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JOCELYN FRELIER: How is it that you came to study Condé’s work, and what have you found most rewarding about it?

NICOLE SIMEK: Condé is known for writing very open-ended novels that don’t teach lessons. She repeats this in a lot of her interviews — this idea that she’s not out to convey a message but that readers can take her writing however they want. That being said, I find that her novels do have a critical dimension to them. She’s not shy about critiquing particular modes of action and I am fascinated by that tension — the ethical impulse in her work to comment on social or political issues, combined with this postmodern open-endedness.

How would you describe the critical focus of Condé’s writing? 

She’s very critical of the human tendency to settle on fixed identities and of stereotypes about historical violence and how this violence determines our present. But she also remains very aware of both of these things. For example, The Belle Créole plays with stereotypes of master-slave relationships and how they are visible in the contemporary period. Condé is very concerned with how the legacies of slavery continue to affect power dynamics in the present, but I think she’s also wary of reductive narratives that would claim that the present is the same as the past. She engages the idea that people who have very rigid notions of identity allow those notions to affect the way they interact with others in the world.

All of this is visible in her attention to literary form — she discards the structures people expect from Caribbean writers, or from black writers more generally. With her characters, she pokes at readers’ expectations and resists “exemplary models” of women or of members of the black diaspora. Her characters are very human, and they exhibit strengths and weaknesses. They serve to show us how very specific people interact in broader historical frameworks and how that interaction creates unexpected results.

How do you see Condé’s novel engaging with the theme of time? Is this theme one of the author’s characteristic obsessions?

I think The Belle Créole engages a bit the idea that nighttime is the space of storytelling in traditional culture. Even dating back to plantation times, nighttime would have been the only space you had to tell tales and pass on cultural heritage. I see the question of time more related to that cultural history than a deliberate attempt to thwart linear or Western measurements of time. I do think, however, that Condé is very concerned with engaging how people who live in a space like Dieudonné’s experience time and think about history.

What made you decide to translate this particular book?

I’ve taught the novel in French in my literature classes, but I also teach race and ethnic studies courses, as well as gender studies courses, in English, so I’ve always been interested in having an English-language version of the text for those courses. I think that the themes the novel deals with — race-based violence, how the past affects the present, whether or not the legacies of slavery are still alive — are very present in the minds of American students. This text provides an opportunity to take a set of questions that can be very close to home and distance ourselves or depart from that a bit. Students can look at the same questions in a very different context — it’s Guadeloupe, it’s not the US. These relationships and questions are playing out in a different political and cultural environment. It’s a vehicle for thinking about American categories of race and seeing how they converge or diverge with other places and spaces.

Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a translation project like this one?

You have to think about the endpoint in order to make some very basic decisions about translation strategy. It’s important to make decisions not only about what you want to translate but why. What audiences do you want to reach and then what outlet should you pursue in order to bring a work to that audience? I specifically pursued the path I did because I wanted to bring the book to both academic and popular audiences.

Also, you should know that there is no one perfect solution to translation issues — even the question of which English to use. I’m an American raised in a specific context, and my idiom is American. If I use my English, am I recolonizing the text? Should this text have been translated into a Caribbean form of English? But then, that English is not my idiom, so I wouldn’t want to falsely project or appropriate that idiom.

My translation was also highly motivated by the idea of helping capture Condé’s voice in the English language and bringing her messages to a wider readership.

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Jocelyn Frelier is an assistant professor of French in the Department of World Languages & Cultures at Sam Houston State University.

 

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