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Translating the Postcolonial in Multilingual Contexts

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Srilata Ravi

Translators’ Africa

Maryse Condé’s Translations Translated: On the British-Guadeloupian South Africa of Story of the Cannibal Woman

Jan Steyn


As a Guadeloupian, i. e. post-colonial but non-South-African writer, belonging to no South African cultural or linguistic group, Maryse Condé is in some ways better equipped than local writers to figure post-apartheid South Africa and its place in the world. While Condé throughout her oeuvre gives a scathing critique of the touristic gaze, Histoire de la femme cannibale (2003)—her novel set in South Africa featuring a Guadeloupian woman dealing with the death of her British husband—itself has at times a rather touristic feel. The 2015 Man-Booker International Award shortlist, featuring Condé as one of the ten finalists, was announced at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on the same campus where, and at the same time when, the RhodesMustFall movement was protesting the university’s continuing colonial legacy. In this 2015 political moment, Condé’s Histoire de la femme cannibale, together with her first work, also set in Africa, Hérémakhonon (1976), resonate particularly well—better perhaps than it might have done had it delivered a more ‘faithful’ rendering of 2003 Cape Town. The meaning of the post-colonial and the post-apartheid is often conflated by Condé, but in ways conducive to and echoed by contemporary South African politics, especially at a youth and student level.

Texte intégral

The word ’translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ’bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.
Salman Rushdie, ‘Imaginary Homelands’

Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations. (...) It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit.
n+1, ‘World Lite’

1The cover of the 2005 Folio edition of Maryse Condé’s Histoire de la femme cannibale contains an image of a black woman’s face surrounded by a body of water; the rest of her head is submerged in the dark liquid, only her ears visible below the surface. The woman is wearing make-up and lipstick. Her skin’s sheen is matched by the water’s glimmer. Her eyes are closed. It’s a disturbing image. Upon first glance, and without reading the book, one cannot help but think this is the cannibal woman of the title: exoticized, eroticized and utterly opaque. The Washington Square Press Reader’s Club English-language version, entitled The Story of the Cannibal Woman, instead goes for the most cliché post-card image of Cape Town, South Africa, where the greater part of the novel’s action takes place: a shot of Table Mountain on a clear day, taken from across False Bay. There is also an accompanying image, spreading from the left-most inch of the front cover, over the spine and to the back cover, of a black woman’s face in profile, cropped just below the eyes and going down to just below the shoulders. She is wearing a dress of magnificent green fabric and a large, crenelated, golden loop earing. For the English-language cover, location is privileged over the feminine figure, whose outfit and jewelry also emphasize the African setting. I am here interested in the possibilities for its reception in 2015 from exactly that setting: the University of Cape Town campus looking back at the photographer across False Bay from the foot of Table Mountain, the same place where the Man-Booker International Award shortlist, featuring Maryse Condé as one of the 10 finalists, was, for the first time in the prize’s history, announced on the African continent. This article will be somewhat unusual in that it will eschew close reading or an overarching account of the primary text, even though Condé’s novel provides fertile grounds for such approaches; instead it will be part translation analysis, part reception study, part first-person report (on the 2015 Man-Booker International events in Cape Town) and part theorization. It is my belief that this methodological hybridity is called for by the radical perspectival multiplicity of works of world literature such as Condé’s. I will first consider the respective statuses of the French- and English-language versions of Condé’s book in terms of world literature, ‘born-translated’ literature, and travel literature, before re-evaluating the translational work done in both versions in the light of the occasion and location of the 2015 Man-Booker International Award shortlist announcement. Finally, I will conclude with a reflection on the implications that a (non-) coincidence of setting and audience has for ‘post-colonial’ translations.

2The standard paradigm for world literature is a work transcending its local or national audience, usually by means of linguistic translation. According to this model, Histoire de la femme cannibale would be the ‘local’ or ‘national’ version, while The Story of the Cannibal Woman, translated into English by Condé’s husband, Richard Philcox, would elevate it to the status of world literature. But Condé hails from Guadeloupe, an overseas departement of France, a non-metropolitan part of the republic, while her novel is set largely in post-apartheid South Africa and also contains scenes taking place in Tokyo, New York and a fictional city in Francophone Africa called ‘N’Dossou’. Reflecting histories of diasporic movement and transnational attachments, this novel, like so many Caribbean works and post-colonial works more generally, is worldly in its ambit before it undergoes translation. It is, in Rebecca Walkowitz’s phrase, ‘born-translated’, conforming to a category of works where

translation functions as a thematic, structural, conceptual, and sometimes even typographical device. These are works written for translation, in the hope of being translated, but they are also often written as translations, pretending to take place in a language other than the one in which they have, in fact, been composed. (Walkowitz 2015: 4)

3Maryse Condé is married to her English-language translator and consequently kept thoroughly aware that her works will be translated. This is not quite the same as saying that her work is ‘written for translation’, however. The celebrated French critic and translator, Claude Mouchard, has described the relationship between writer and translator as ‘conjugal’, a state where one partner ‘forgives the other nothing’ (cited in Roubaud 2010: 19). The Condé/Philcox conjugal relationship seems to be a deeply forgiving one however, with Condé in particular overlooking her partner’s regular trespasses and betrayals, which range from the banal and accidental to the motivated and committed. On the one hand, the English version seems at first glance to be riddled with small errors and word-for-word infidelities. On the other hand, Philcox is clearly aware of and often quite adept at his particularly strenuous task in turning Condé’s prose about a place into a language of that place without losing the sense that this place is foreign to Rosélie, the book’s protagonist and main focalizer. For example, Condé’s place-, culture-and gender-specific racial vocabulary of ‘métisse’ (14), and ‘mulâtre’ (16), become Philcox’s ‘the coloured woman’ (3), and ‘what you’d call mulatto’ (5), thereby transforming a Guadeloupian racial term for a South-African subject into a not-exactly-equivalent but recognizable South-African one, and responding to the need for an Anglophone audience to have the Guadeloupian local-ness of terms like ‘mulatto’ reinforced for them. Despite her husband-translator, there is little evidence Condé is driven by a market-based need to write ‘for translation’: her prose remains idiomatic throughout; she doesn’t hesitate to use creole phrases; she seems more concerned with teasing out the complexities of national, regional, cultural and gender identities than with standardizing them for easy international consumption; and even though Histoire de la femme cannibale makes use of the international roman policier genre, it is not an easy read, often deliberately frustrating generic expectations and avoiding the gratifications of, for example, witty repartee and neat solutions to clearly signposted mysteries.

4Sticking to Walkowitz’s category, one is far more likely to say that Condé’s novel is ‘born-translated’ because it is ‘written as’ a translation. Firstly, it is a novel populated with migrant characters. This is, of course, true to the South-African setting. But it is also true to the life of the author. In addition to the kinds of travel that provides the research for Histoire de la femme cannibale, Maryse Condé, who has lived on three continents, divides her time between France, New York and her native Guadeloupe. In this sense, like the British Indian writers that Salman Rushdie writes about in his landmark essay on diaspora literature, ‘Imaginary Homelands’, Condé, ‘ [h] aving been borne across the world’, allowing for Rushdie’s gender bias, can also be counted among the ‘translated men’ (Rushdie 1991: 17). To write migrant experience is to write ‘as translation’. Secondly, written in French, a dominant vehicular language, with only a few phrases of Guadeloupian creole mixed in, published by Mercure de France, an imprint of the French mega-press, Gallimard, and subsequently re-issued in Gallimard’s prestigious Folio collection, Histoire de la femme cannibale was never going to be read only in Guadeloupe, or even only in France. It is a fact of post-colonial writing, and especially writing in languages originally geographically diffused through acts of colonization, that a large part of a post-colonial writer’s audience resides in the former colonial powers. Though this need not necessarily be the case, Condé clearly does address herself to this public, often taking the time to explain a local phrase or custom (which leads the reader to believe that when she chooses not to do so, the disorienting effect is deliberate).

5Sometimes it seems that Philcox is too faithful to the letter of Condé’s text, giving calques rather than interpretations. Condé’s ‘Jérôme Bosch’ does not become ‘Hieronymus Bosch’ in the English (19); instead Philcox gives us ‘Jerome Bosch’ (7). The newspaper that Condé renders as the ‘Tribune du Cap’ does not go back to being the actually existing Cape Times or Cape Argus but rather becomes the ‘Cape Tribune’ (6). And in the opening sentence, setting the scene, Condé tells us: ‘Le Cap dormait toujours de la meme façon, couché en chien de fusil’ (11). Philcox avoids obvious idiomatic translations such as ‘curled up in a ball’ or ‘in the fetal position’ and instead gives us a literal gloss: ‘Cape Town always slept in the same position, curled up in the muzzle of a gun’ (1). Of course it is important at moments such as this, especially given that it is the first sentence of the book, to note that what could all too easily be seen as a ‘mistake’ is more likely to be a deliberate interpretive choice. It may be important to Philcox’s interpretation that the newspaper, which plays a large role as the story progresses, be fictitious, just like the city of ‘N’Dossou’. And, in the case of the first sentence, it would seem that Philcox chose to forego Condé’s ease and elegance in order to retain the image of a gun, perhaps in order to emphasize the codes of the detective genre that Condé playfully evokes and frustrates. He opts for familiarity rather than ominousness, interpreting ‘toujours’ as ‘always’ rather than ‘still’. Yet given that English is one of the languages of Cape Town, his translation has the effect of introducing a foreign element absent from (or perhaps merely invisible in) the original. In English translation (some of) the subjects of the novel now become its potential readers, and these readers, unlike the readers of the French original, are excluded from the community familiar with the idiom employed at the book’s opening.

6What Philcox translates is already a translation. While Condé’s book is not a typical example of world literature moving from a local to an international audience through translation, it does have a lot in common with ethnography or its older cousin, travel writing. The book in fact begins by citing Henri Michaux’s 1933 travelogue, Un barbare en Asie: ‘Supposez trente Anglais en tout et pour tout, de par le monde. Qui les remarquerait?’ (cited in Condé 2005: 11). Of course, Condé’s engagement with this potentially fetishizing genre and its foreignizing gaze is mordant and highly ironic. Valérie Loichot argues convincingly that the trope of cannibalism in the novel—a trope itself based on an historical error when Christopher Columbus misheard the screams of Carib Amerindians, ‘Caríba!’, as ‘Caníbal’, therefore mistaking them for the ‘the dog-headed anthropophagous ape of Greek and Roman mythology or cynocephalus’ (Loichot 2013: vii)—points exactly to Condé’s commitment to pastiche and counters what Loichot calls ‘literary colonialism’: ‘the practice of European or colonial writers (...) of subjugating landscape, flora, fauna, humans and texts to an imperial gaze and desire’ (141). Condé gets past the impasse of merely opposing ‘literary colonialism’ by exaggerating and emphasizing the elements of cannibalism (which, given its hallucinatory history—see the Columbus story above—for Loichot is a trope for textual incorporation distinct from plagiarism and assimilation rather than simply a concrete reference to the eating of flesh) such that the cannibal is simultaneously ‘everywhere and nowhere’ making the novel into a ‘farce of cannibalism’ (168). Despite all this ironic distance, hyperbole and hyper-citationality, however, it remains far from clear whether Condé, writing about a distant and exotic location, successfully avoids repeating the literary colonialism she sets out to undo. And if her original does manage to fall on the side of satire rather than gaffe, this does not guarantee the same fate for the English-language version, as the book’s para-textual apparatus makes clear.

7In addition to the touristic cover photo, the book contains a back section for book-club readers where the following suggestions may be found:

  1. Give everyone in your book club a copy of Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. Compare its macabre elements (cannibalism, blood, murder) to The Story of the Cannibal Woman. (...)

  2. Get your discussion started by serving South African or French wine. (...)

  3. Research the current race relations in post-apartheid South Africa. Does the novel accurately portray South African society? (314)

8While a comparison between The Story of the Cannibal Woman and the Agamemnon certainly makes for a rich discussion, it has the added bonus of implicitly linking what the back cover calls an ‘award-winning and internationally renowned author’ to the Western canon (an effective selling-point if somewhat in conflict with the blurb describing the book as a ‘smart, gripping thriller’). Suggesting national wine pairings confirms nations and locales as essences to be consumed through commodities such as books or wine standing for them by synecdoche. The third suggestion, however has some unexpected results, especially in 2015.

  • 1 I was teaching a course entitled ‘Coming of Age in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ on campus at the ti (...)

9The announcement of the 2015 Man-Booker International Prize shortlist was made at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, the same campus where, and at the same time when, a student protest movement calling itself ‘RhodesMustFall’ was decrying and opposing the university’s ongoing colonial legacy. The main event of the Man-Booker International tour was a public discussion in the university’s largest and most prestigious venue—Jameson Hall, named for Leander Starr Jameson, Cecil John Rhodes’s friend and colonialist accomplice— located right above the controversial statue of Rhodes himself, which the student movement was ultimately successful in removing. The advertised topic was ‘World Literature from the Perspective of the Global South’. On the night of the big event, academic discussion was overshadowed by a power outage (South Africa’s national power utility having had to resort to regular brown outs, or ‘load shedding’ as it is euphemistically called) and a disruptive student protest. The judges were visibly uncomfortable on stage and the audience was left feeling that while the ‘global south’ may have been tabled for discussion, the judges perhaps did not expect it to actually enter the hall. The RhodesMustFall protesters were, by and large, steeped in a transnational, Fanonian, de- rather than post-colonial rhetoric, even studying Les Damnés de la terre and Peau noire, masques blancs as common texts for teach-ins in the occupied university administration buildings, newly dubbed by the protesters as ‘Azania House’.1 Judging from the reactions of the UCT students I was teaching, during this 2015 political moment, Maryse Condé’s Histoire de la femme cannibale resonated particularly well—better perhaps than it might have done had it delivered a more ‘faithful’ rendering of 2003 Cape Town.

10One of the things RhodesMustFall was protesting was the inappropriateness of exclusively Western syllabi for an African university; in literary departments this comes down to debating the canon. For contemporary world literature, literary prizes are perhaps the single most important factor in canon formation. It is true that university teachers construct their syllabi using the texts most pertinent to their course topics or most suitable for their pedagogic purposes and that literary scholars choose to work on texts that speak to their special fields. And sometimes these texts can be relatively obscure, hidden gems, all the more valued for their meager circulation. One could, of course, like Franco Moretti, choose to study world literature on the aggregate, tracking the geographical travels and fortunes of specific literary elements or genres. Or one could take a sociological tack and study the market as such, leaving individual works completely out of it. Or one could, like Édouard Glissant, choose to propose a counter-canon, or even an anti-canonical canon. Though for those studying or teaching the contemporary period in the burgeoning field of world literature, there is no getting around the mechanisms of circulation and the institutions of valuation. Books that win prizes tend to sell better and get taught more often. (The front cover of The Story of the Cannibal Woman proudly announces it to be the winner of the 2005 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction). Writers who win significant international prizes tend to have their works translated into the world’s literary vehicular languages. But while it is clear that literary prizes consign value to literary works and that this value is effective in securing the further transmission of these works, it is far from clear what the aesthetic criteria for an international literary prize are or should be.

11A particularly knotty problem for an international, as opposed to local or national, literary prize, is that of position. How does a prize pretend to be global in its ambit and yet forward one set of literary values? What are the grounds for comparison? How does it aim at assessing world literature when the judges, invariably and inevitably, speak only a limited number of languages? How does a prize for world literature deal with the fact that the world contains diverse and opposing views of what counts as literary to begin with? How does such a prize bolster or counter the premises and aesthetic values of existing world literature canons? How does the local value of a text relate to its global value? How do the judges account for translation? These questions are not easy to solve at a practical level, but they are, one would hope, questions that the judges of any international literary prize should at least have considered. They are equally, though in slightly altered forms, the questions that drive at least part of the academic debate on world literature, eager as we in the academy may sometimes be to dismiss questions of canon and the assignation of literary value to our fusty Leavisite past or to the domain of internet fanzines.

  • 2 ‘Background’, The Man Booker Prizes, accessed 27 March 2015, www.

12Today’s literary judges are a savvy lot; far from imagining themselves operating in a sphere removed from worldly concerns, they tend to be perfectly aware of their role in the literary marketplace. Their interventions often come across as considered and tactical, aimed at making the difference that is possible rather than ideal. The judges of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, a bi-annual award for ‘one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage’,2 were, in this regard, not exceptional. The chairperson of the 2015 prize, Dame Marina Warner, a novelist and academic with broad and comparative literary interests, convened a panel whose members equally approach literature from a plurality of perspectives: Nadeem Aslam, a British/Pakistani novelist; Elleke Boehmer, a Dutch/South-African/British novelist and Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford; Edwin Frank, an American literary historian, poet, and editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series; Wen-chin Ouyang, a Chinese/Libyan/British critic, editor and Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London.

  • 3 These included a press release, a panel discussion on ‘Arabian Nights and Indian Ocean World Litera (...)
  • 4 For a more complex perspective on the global south see Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory f (...)
  • 5 One can also note here productive comparisons between the south in the United States and the global (...)

13On this evening, these judges used a significant proportion of their time, as they had at earlier public events on campus and in Cape Town,3 to define and trouble the two key collocations they were tasked with discussing: ‘world literature’ and the ‘global south’. The conversation about the global south was occasioned by the venue for the event; this was the first time that the prize had decided to partner with an institution on the African continent. The judges were quick to point out that while the phrase ‘global south’ may be oxymoronic—how could something be universal, or ‘global’, and partial, ‘south’, at the same time?—it remains a useful reframing of position, allowing us to capture dynamics pertinent to (largely Asian and Eastern European) parts of the globe normally excluded by the older ‘post-colonial’ studies.4 They were at pains to stress that the south is a relative concept, with Marina Warner citing Carlo Levi’s celebrated novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli as an Italian version of southern-ness that has a lot in common with the larger ‘global’ version of the theme: the south as economically poor, culturally rich, underdeveloped, primitive, a paradise lost, etc.5

  • 6 Tim Parks, ‘The Dull New Global Novel’, The New York Review of Books Blog, February 9, 2010, www.ny (...)

14If they were somewhat reluctant, and at times nonplussed by the ‘global south’ part of their assignment, the panelists were far more enthusiastic about ‘world literature’. The embattled Vice Chancellor of the university, Max Price, who had just been targeted as the ‘liberal enemy’ of the RhodesMustFall student movement promoting the symbolic, intellectual and material decolonization of the university in particular and South-African society at large, opened the proceedings by latching onto the ‘world’ in the event’s title, employing an odd mix of humanistic and neoliberal language, speaking of the ‘world-class university’, of social transformation’s reliance on the arts to ‘imagine a different world’, and, bringing it back home, about how ‘South Africans can change the world’. The then-Head of the UCT English department, Meg Samuelson, introduced the panel, praising them for departing from Anglo-centric versions of world literature in selecting the ‘most truly international rather than Anglo-global list yet’. Edwin Frank echoed Tim Park’s concern that the dominance of English will lead to a homogenizing or exoticizing trend as writers begin to write in order to be translated into English,6 before going on to link the kind of world literature he would like to promote—as judge and as editor of a prestigious ‘classics’ series—to the ‘long and robust’ humanistic tradition of novels imagining other places and cultural difference, where the ‘self acts as mirror of the other place and the other place as mirror of our hearts and minds’. Perhaps sensing the unease provoked by this statement for this audience, which, conversant in post-colonial theory, seemed deeply suspicious of the kind of cultural transparency and translatability that Frank was assuming, Elleke Boehmer later returned to the point, doubling down on Frank’s humanism, making the familiar argument that while of course we should be sensitive to the ethical question of whether the other is available to us, ‘literature and the arts are unique in their capacity for evoking sympathy’, which is not necessarily an appropriating or possessive gesture. In her own gloss on world literature, Boehmer explained that in their deliberations, the judges were looking for literature that can either reshape the ‘familiar world’ or introduce ‘distant locales’ into ‘our’ lives. This literature would be worldly by actively remaking the world, furnishing it with ‘new centers’, and linking to ancient literary traditions.

  • 7 Ouyang is certainly not the only one to identify the recent spate of world literature theorization (...)

15The most sophisticated presentation, or at least the intervention most responsive to current academic debates on world literature, came from Wen-chin Ouyang, who, here and in an earlier panel discussion on the Arabian nights, directly took to task the three theorists that have become synonymous with the new world literature movement, for her a kind of unholy trinity: Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch and Franco Moretti.7 The problem with these theorists, different as they are, according to Ouyang, is that they each assume a piece of world literature is a canonical work in its national (or local) tradition that has traveled to a metropolitan center through translation. Casanova does so explicitly, with Paris as the place of literary consecration par excellence and translation as the mechanism by which merely national literature can gain membership to the World Republic of Letters. Moretti is more concerned with the travels from the center outward, of devices, genres, or other literary elements, but the center-periphery relation and mechanism of translation go unquestioned. Even Damrosch, at least according to Ouyang, despite his most capacious sense of what world literature might be—‘writing that gains in translation’ (Damrosch 2003: 281)—tends to assume the existence of literary centers and a process of transmission purely by translation. To these conceptions Ouyang would oppose a world literature that has multiple centers and for which translation is but one means of transmission.

16When the panelist presentations gave way to questions from the public, the question of translation and translatability was immediately and repeatedly raised. Audience members wanted to know whether the panelists could really judge literature in translation without reading the originals, how the panelists felt about the vast swathes of literature excluded from consideration for lack of an English translation, whether there was a bias in translated literature for narratives that flatten out or universalize the local, and whether they were troubled by instances of contextual cultural expressions irreducible to semantic communication—a physical gesture, the location of a statue, the voice of a praise singer—being excluded from the category of world literature even though they remain integral to local senses of what the literary can or should entail. Other questions were more blunt. Why did the judges decide to announce the list at what a section of the student body feels to be a colonial institution? Does the prize address or simply reflect white privilege? Is literature still relevant today? And, bizarrely, what do panelists make of the work of the late David Foster Wallace?

17It was easy enough for the judges to dispense with the David Foster Wallace question (if he were still alive, of course he would have been considered), the relevance question (yes, literature is still relevant) and the institutional question (they were simply unaware of the current conflict on campus but preferred an educational setting to letting the ‘creatures of the balance sheet’ that run literary festivals take charge). But their responses to the problems of translation and location, cogent and rehearsed as they were, were less than satisfying. These were, after all, questions with which writers, translators, editors, publishers, critics, students and academics alike continue to struggle—questions that the judges themselves had raised in their prepared responses to the topic of the day, ‘World Literature from the Perspective of the Global South’—and so it might have been unreasonable to expect definitive answers. And yet I could not help but feel that the judges missed an opportunity to address these pertinent and persistent problems around translation and location with reference to the authors they had chosen. There are few texts more suitable for addressing the discomfort around translation, the untranslated and the untranslatable; location, globalism, centers and peripheries; as well as universalism and humanism that is prompted in general, and certainly was provoked that night at UCT, by the category of world literature; than Maryse Condé’s The Story of the Cannibal Woman.

18Post-apartheid South African literature—in as far as it deals with a linguistically and culturally hybrid situation, where the writer’s task is to figure, and so establish, confirm or contest, the state of inter-cultural relations and ruptures—is an inherently worldly literature. Cultural belonging is reflexive. A person who belongs to a culture can claim that culture as his culture, a culture belonging to him. In post-apartheid South Africa the way in which this bi-directional sense of belonging interacts with questions of material belonging are particularly marked. The question is not simply who but what belongs to each culture. No South African writer belongs to all of South Africa’s linguistic and cultural communities. Since none of these communities exists in isolation, in figuring their relations, writers, by necessity, risk mistranslation and misrepresentation. Each such characterization of the country’s cultures, their relative solidity or permeability, and the relations between them, unavoidably makes claims about the ownership of resources, the distribution of power, and the history that created this state of affairs. Though it is particularly prominent in the South African case, it is equally true for world literature in general: the shape of the world depends on where it is imagined from and who is doing the imagining. One of the reasons that ‘post-colonialism’ as a term continues to be useful, even in the current ‘global’ age and with the resurgence of ‘world literature’, is that it serves as a reminder of the histories behind present material inequalities. As a Guadeloupian, i. e. post-colonial but non-South-African writer, belonging to no South African cultural or linguistic group, Maryse Condé is in some ways better equipped than local writers to figure post-apartheid South Africa and its place in the world. While Condé throughout her oeuvre gives a scathing critique of the touristic gaze, this novel set in South Africa featuring a Guadeloupian woman dealing with the death of her British husband itself has at times a rather touristic feel. She occasionally commits errors of fact—often exacerbated in the English version by her husband’s sometimes-lackluster translation of the work—though these are for the most part trivial: minor points of geography, the spelling of local business names, etc. Far more interesting are her touristic ‘errors’ of emphasis, which have the effect of putting a fresh shine on South-African tropes.

19Condé’s commitment to worldliness over accuracy is signaled by the Guadeloupian protagonist’s imagined inner dialog with a South African ‘cannibal’ woman called Fiela. It is no coincidence that the protagonist, Rosélie, learns about Fiela by reading the newspaper— the fictional/non-fictional ‘Tribune du Cap’. As Benedict Anderson famously argues in Imagined Communities, the newspaper is a privileged place for the formation of national communities, whereby each reader can imagine a host of other readers receiving the same news at the same time (33). It is equally, I would add, a privileged place for the imagining of transnational communities and even the contested object called ‘the world’. Rosélie, an artist and creator, departs from the communal image South African readers have of Fiela, a local woman accused of cannibalism, and begins to hold imaginary conversations with her. For a reader with a background in Romance languages, the word ‘Fiela’ is bound to evoke ‘fidelity’. For a South African reader, however, it is an Afrikaans name most famously associated with the protagonist of Dalene Matthee’s 1985 best-selling novel, Fiela se Kind [Fiela’s Child]: a Coloured woman who adopts and raises a white boy in the ‘Cape Colony’ of the 19th century. As it turns out, it is imagination and compassion rather than fidelity that allows Rosélie to translate the woman on the pages of the newspapers into the filled-out personage that becomes her constant if spectral companion, and ultimately, in the book’s final passage, as her own face merges with the face of the cannibal woman on the canvas she is painting, to translate her into herself (Condé 2007: 311).

20In her first novel, Heremakhonon (1976), and in Une Saison à Rihata (1981), Maryse Condé also told the tale of female Guadeloupian protagonists in Africa. Natalie Melas points out that this early work coincided with the period just after most African liberation struggles when, all over the African continent, the ideals of decolonization were giving way to the disappointments of the postcolonial state, something which Condé got to experience first-hand as a young teacher in Senegal:

Le roman Heremakhonon, paralèllement aux postcolonial studies, situe sa proper condition postcoloniale après la décolonisation, plus précisement dans l’échec ou le désabusement des promesses de la décolonisation. (122)

21South Africa, with the end of apartheid in 1994 is of course the last of Africa’s nations to attain formal democracy. The story Condé tells of post-apartheid South Africa is remarkably similar to the stories she told of other post-de-colonizing African countries. In 2003, while Nelson Mandela’s narrative of the ‘rainbow nation’ was still felt to have purchase, while Thabo Mbeki was still in his first term in office, hopefully declaring the ‘African renaissance’, only a few years after the governing African National Congress had publically censured J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace for painting too bleak a picture of the country, Maryse Condé wrote The Story of the Cannibal Woman, a novel taking a decidedly bleak (and retrospectively accurate) outlook on the prospects of South Africa and particularly its large and ever-growing foreign immigrant population. In this work, possible ‘mistranslations’ or bold equivalences such as ‘métisse’ for ‘Coloured’, foster solidarity and allow for a broader frame of reference similar to the way in which RhodesMustFall drew inspiration from, repeated and extended the originally US-located BlackLivesMatter movement. The meaning of the post-colonial and the post-apartheid is often conflated by Condé, but in ways conducive to and echoed by contemporary South African politics, especially at a youth and student level. In her autobiography detailing her African years and artistic development up until she met Richard Philcox and became a published author, La Vie sans fards (2012), Condé talks about her personal invention of Africa in Héremakhonon: ‘L’Afrique enfin domptée se métamorphoserait et se coulerait, soumise, dans les replis de mon imaginaire. Elle ne serait plus que la matière de nombreuses fictions’ (Condé 2012: 334). While the 2003 Cape Town that she manages to tame in The Story of the Cannibal Woman may be no less fictional or distorted, no less unfaithful, and far too forgiving for ‘conjugal’ comfort, it is nevertheless one that resonated in the Cape Town of 2015.


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006.

Condé, Maryse. Histoire de la femme cannibale. Paris: Folio, 2005.

Condé, Maryse. The Story of the Cannibal Woman. New York: Washington Square Press, 2008.

Condé, Maryse. La Vie sans fards. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattès, 2012.

Damrosch, David. What is World Literature? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003.

Loichot, Valérie. The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Melas, Natalie. ‘Témoignage de la femme somnambule: L’Ironie du postcolonial au féminin’, in Genre et Poscolonialismes, Anne Emmanuelle Berger and Eleni Varikas, éd. Paris: Éditions des Archives Contemporaines, 2011.

Roubaud, Alix Cléo. Alix’s Journal, trans. Jan Steyn. London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta Books, 1991.

Walkowitz, Rebecca. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 2015.


1 I was teaching a course entitled ‘Coming of Age in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ on campus at the time and asked my students to relate the novels they were studying to the events unfolding on campus. In their final papers, most of them cited Fanon’s texts in Richard Philcox’s translations.

2 ‘Background’, The Man Booker Prizes, accessed 27 March 2015, www.

3 These included a press release, a panel discussion on ‘Arabian Nights and Indian Ocean World Literatures’, an event at a local bookstore discussing the nominees, a school tour and an interview on South African public radio.

4 For a more complex perspective on the global south see Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory from the Global South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa. Boulder CO: Paradigm, 2011.

5 One can also note here productive comparisons between the south in the United States and the global south, explored, for example, in recent editions of the literary journal, The Chattahoochee Review.

6 Tim Parks, ‘The Dull New Global Novel’, The New York Review of Books Blog, February 9, 2010,

7 Ouyang is certainly not the only one to identify the recent spate of world literature theorization with these three figures; in fact, while articles about world literature would until about ten years ago most frequently begin with a reference to Goethe and Marx’s respective uses of the term, it has now become something of a new orthodoxy among scholars in the field to begin with Casanova, Damrosch and Moretti’s definitions and argue against those.


Cornell University
Is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, a literary translator, and a critic who works on modern and contemporary texts written in Afrikaans, Dutch, English and French. His literary translations include Newspaper, Works, and Suicide by Édouard Levé; Orphans by Hadrien Laroche; and Alix’s Journal by Alix Cléo-Roubaud. His reviews and interviews have appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, The White Review, and Music & Literature. He is currently at work on a book about versions of contemporaneity enabled by literary appropriations of non-fictional forms in recent world literature, tentatively entitled, Timely Classics and Timeless Reports: Literary Approaches to the Global Contemporary.

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