Maryse Condé Wins an Alternative to the Literature Nobel in a Scandal-Plagued Year
By Annalisa Quinn
Oct. 12, 2018
The Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé won The New Academy Prize in Literature, a new prize established by a group of over 100 Swedish cultural figures as a substitute for this year’s Nobel in Literature, which was not awarded for the first time since 1949 because of a sexual misconduct scandal.
The New Academy Prize is accompanied by one million kronor, or around $112,000. The Nobel prizewinner would have received nine million kronor from the Swedish Academy, which intends to award the prize next year.
Ms. Condé is the author of “I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem,” a historical novel about a black woman condemned during the Salem witch trials; “Segu,” set in 18th-century West Africa; “Windward Heights,” a Caribbean reimagining of “Wuthering Heights”; and other emotionally complex novels that reach across history and cultures.
“It is impossible to read her novels and not come away from them with both a sadder and more exhilarating understanding of the human heart, in all its secret intricacies, its contradictions and marvels,” Howard Frank Mosher wrote in his review of “I, Tituba” for The New York Times in 1992.
Born the last of eight children in 1937 in Pointe-à-Pitre, Ms. Condé wanted to be a writer since encountering Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” as a child.
“I decided that one day I would write a book as powerful and beautiful,” she said in an email. Nonetheless, she did not publish her first novel until she was nearly 40, she said, because, “I didn’t have confidence in myself and did not dare present my writing to the outside world.”
This prize, she wrote, will be “good for my morale.”
The two other finalists were the British fantasy and comic book author Neil Gaiman, and the Vietnamese-Canadian novelist Kim Thuy Ly Thanh, who publishes as Kim Thuy.
The New Academy Prize in Literature differs from the Nobel in several ways: Instead of the Nobel’s cloistered deliberations, the New Academy prize was selected by a mix of librarians, readers and judges. Swedish librarians nominated the first round of contenders, a public poll the next, and the ultimate winner was selected from three finalists by a panel of judges led by the editor Ann Palsson.
A fourth finalist was Haruki Murakami, the only one of the four considered a regular Nobel contender (according to betting websites, at least — official nominations are kept secret for 50 years). Mr. Murakami dropped out, according to the prize’s web page, because he wished “to concentrate on his writing, far from media attention.”
Perhaps in response to the Nobel’s sexual misconduct crisis, a measure of gender equality was built into the process: The top two male writers and top two female authors from the public vote were named finalists.
“This prize to me is so precious because it comes from the movement of citizens,” Ms. Ly Thanh said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, “It’s not a structure, an organization, something that is established. It’s a reaction from the population.” Ms. Ly Thanh said she doubted she would have been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
The New Academy Prize is also distinctive for including popular genre authors: for instance, fantasy novelists such as J.K. Rowling, nominated by librarians in the first round, and Mr. Gaiman are unlikely to ever win the Nobel, which tends toward authors of literary fiction or serious-minded nonfiction.
Mr. Gaiman praised the prize for its “willingness to look at who are the writers who are being read, who are doing quality work, and who, in whatever department they’re in, are changing the world and making people’s lives better.”
He added that Ms. Rowling “has had more impact on more lives, I would suspect, over the last two decades, than pretty much any writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature ever.”
The New Academy Prize has received some criticism in Sweden for a perceived lack of seriousness (“The only thing really worse than the old Academy is the new one, consisting of 117 Instagram celebrities with more or less vague connections to the cultural world,” wrote one Swedish columnist.) But the prize’s founder, the journalist Alexandra Pascalidou, told The New York Times in July that she was not hoping to replace the Nobel but push it to be more “contemporary, open to the world, inclusive, transparent.”
Guadeloupe is an administrative department of France, and Ms. Condé’s novels are written in French.
“I belong to a small island with no say on international issues,” Ms. Condé said. “Guadeloupe is mentioned only when there is a hurricane, but I have always been convinced we have a wonderful culture fabricated from various influences: Europeans, Africans, Indians, Chinese. Winning this prize would mean that our voice, the voice of the Guadeloupeans, is starting to be heard. It would be the beginning of a true Guadeloupean identity.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C3 of the New York edition with the headline: Maryse Condé Wins New Academy Prize.