Professor Louise Hardwick with Maryse Condé in 2010
Professor Louise Hardwick (left) with Maryse Condé (right) in 2010 at the University of Birmingham.

This week the Guardian has published my obituary of the French Caribbean author and academic Maryse Condé, who was born in 1934 in Guadeloupe. In 2018, Maryse was awarded the New Academy Prize in Literature, popularly known as the ‘Alternative Nobel’, which deservedly brought her to new levels of global attention.

Writing the obituary was an opportunity to emphasise her literary brilliance while describing her life and international career between her native Caribbean and Europe, west Africa and the United States. It also led me to reflect on the two decades I’ve spent working on her literature, her visit to the University of Birmingham in 2010, as well as the role she played in my own personal career development.

A phenomenal author and mentor to younger academics

I first met Maryse in 2005, when I was a young graduate student attending a conference at the University of Western Australia in Perth. She was the guest of honour, and after presenting my paper on her childhood memoir Le Cœur à rire et à pleurer (1999, Tales from the Heart), I plucked up the courage to speak with her. From that day on, we remained in contact.

By then, she was firmly established as the ‘grande dame’ of Caribbean literature. On a personal level, as the first member of my family to remain in full-time education after the age of 16, and then to attend University, I was frankly astonished that someone of her status would take the time to email me! Maryse was, in addition to being a phenomenal author, a firm supporter and mentor to a younger generation of academics.

In late 2009, when I was appointed to my first permanent Lectureship here at the University of Birmingham, she emailed her congratulations. She added that, as she’d be in the UK in the autumn of 2010, perhaps it was time for her to make her first visit to Birmingham – and I whole-heartedly agreed!

It turned into a wonderful visit, and on 30 September 2010, Maryse delivered the G. V. Banks Memorial Lecture, ‘Itinerary of a Caribbean Author’ (in French) to a packed-out Muirhead Tower main lecture theatre. She spoke about the expectations often placed on Caribbean authors, and of the circumstances that had led her to forge her own distinctive voice – eschewing labels such as French, Caribbean or Creole. As she so often stated: “I write in Maryse Condé”. Her husband and literary translator, Richard Philcox, also gave a fantastic seminar on translating postcolonial literature. In the city centre, we collaborated with the old Birmingham Central Library to create a display of Maryse’s works, to coincide with the visit.

Generous, admired and committed to promoting Black literature

Prior to that, in January 2010 when the Haitian Earthquake struck, I emailed her to see whether she might have a few words for Action for Haiti, a student-led fundraising booklet being co-ordinated by Undergraduates in Modern Languages. With her characteristic generosity, Maryse supported us not just with a few words, but with a whole article, a deeply personal piece reflecting on the impacts of the earthquake. I still hold fond memories of the students planning the final layout, rough drafts spread out across my office floor.

My first monograph, Childhood, Autobiography and the Francophone Caribbean (2013) devotes a chapter to Maryse’s childhood memoir Tales from the Heart. For anyone looking to learn more about her literature, this is a great place to begin, and our University of Birmingham Library holds multiple copies of her works in French and English. When preparing my second monograph, Joseph Zobel: Negritude and the Novel (2018), I was excited to discover a radio programme which she had prepared on Zobel in the late 1970s – a reminder of her commitment to promoting little-known Black literature.

I kept her updated on my activities here, including my 2022 meeting with the former French international footballer, Lilian Thuram, who was in Birmingham to speak about his Thuram Foundation, set up to promote racial equality. Together we discussed our shared admiration of Maryse.

Opportunities to study Condé at University of Birmingham

Since I arrived at Birmingham in 2010, I’ve enjoyed creating new opportunities for our students to study Francophone culture – particularly through authors such as Maryse Condé. French Undergraduates can study her for their Dissertations or through my module on Francophone Caribbean Literature, and a current student comments:

It has been such a privilege to have the opportunity to study Condé’s work here at Birmingham. Her writing has been instrumental in deepening my understanding of the cultural complexities and richness of the French Caribbean and fostered my admiration for literature from the region. I feel extremely lucky to have studied an author as gifted as Condé.

Lydia Brindley, final year French undergraduate

At MA level, students have the option of researching Condé’s work in French or via her husband Richard Philcox’s English translations, particularly on our MA in Comparative Literature and Critical Theories, for which I’m currently Programme Director.

I am also currently lead supervisor of three fantastic PhD students working on different aspects of Condé’s literature, including via our PhD in Translation Practice-based route (which comprises a thesis and practical translation component). A fourth student, who produced a comparative study of Condé, successfully received her doctorate last year.

This summer, I’m invited by colleagues at the University of the Antilles to speak at a conference in honour of Maryse Condé in Guadeloupe. As I remember her life and grieve her passing, I also anticipate many future encounters with Maryse’s challenging, thought-provoking and brilliant work.