Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood


"Honest, exquisitely measured . . . inspiring in its reminder of the human spirit’s capacity to endure."—The New York Times Book Review

"[An] astute study of family and place."—Washington Post Book World

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Maryse Condé vividly evokes the relationships and events that gave her childhood meaning: discovering her parents’ feelings of alienation; her first crush; a ...

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"Honest, exquisitely measured . . . inspiring in its reminder of the human spirit’s capacity to endure."—The New York Times Book Review

"[An] astute study of family and place."—Washington Post Book World

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Maryse Condé vividly evokes the relationships and events that gave her childhood meaning: discovering her parents’ feelings of alienation; her first crush; a falling out with her best friend; the death of her beloved grandmother; her first encounter with racism.

These gemlike vignettes capture the spirit of Condé’s fiction: haunting, powerful, poignant, and leavened with a streak of humor.

Maryse Condé’s previous work includes the novels Windward Heights and Desirada, both available from Soho Press.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Tales from the Heart

"Honest, exquisitely measured... inspiring in its reminder of the human spirit’s capacity to endure."
The New York Times Book Review

"[An] astute study of family and place."
Washington Post Book World

Publishers Weekly
Caribbean novelist Cond? (Windward Heights) discloses her complex childhood in her native Guadaloupe and in Paris, and celebrates imagination and youthful defiance in this short, heartfelt memoir. A surprise pregnancy and the youngest of eight children, Cond? was fearful that she "had not been desired." The young girl underwent a startling transformation from a shy, polite youngster to a problem child as she watched her Francophile parents turn their backs on all things non-Western and adopt a superior attitude toward neighbors. With a vivid memory for mood and details, Cond? recalls the moral decline of her older brother, Sandrino, her torturous days in grade school and painful incidents stemming from her parents' insensitivity, such as firing the faithful family servant, Madonne, when she took a day off to care for her gravely ill daughter, who later died. Cond?'s other losses include the departure of Gilbert, her first love; the souring of her closest friendship; and the death of Mabo Julie, her family's beloved maid. She recollects a childhood boyfriend whose love letter, copied from a novel, rhapsodized inaccurately about her "blue eyes." While her astute portrait of her paranoid, class-conscious parents is unsparing, Cond? waxes poetic and nostalgic about her native country, offering an exciting travelogue that rivals anything in the glossies. Upon reaching the final page and the start of Cond?'s journey to adulthood, readers will regret that this brief, colorful and lively remembrance has ended, although a second volume is promised and eagerly awaited. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cond 's first nonfiction book, translated from French by her husband, is a delight and the winner of the 2001 Prix Yourcenar. Best known for her fiction, including Segu and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Cond (French and Caribbean literature, Columbia) spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and Paris and now lives in New York. This book of childhood memoirs shows her sensitivity to the world around her, as she brings her stories to life with sensual detail. Her mother's pride at becoming a celebrated schoolteacher, despite being the illegitimate child of an illiterate woman, is brought forth in her tale "Happy Birthday, Mummy." Here Cond relays her attempt to please her mother by writing an essay that uses the monsters and goddesses of Greek mythology to describe her. The essay does not have the effect that Maryse wanted, and after reading the essay to a disappointed mother, she realizes, "You must never tell the truth to those you love. Never. Never." In this story, as in others, Cond gives us an appealing and understated portrayal of her life lessons, while also maintaining dramatic tension and suspense. Recommended for all libraries. Barbara O'Hara, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In 17 brief chapters, Conde describes growing up in Guadeloupe as the youngest child of a proud, black, well-to-do "pair of alienated individuals." She introduces the people who left the strongest impressions on her, such as her first boyfriend; her beloved nanny; and her irreverent, streetwise brother. The author recounts how she first copes with, then rebels bitterly against, her parents' rejection of the popular black culture that surrounded them to embrace and emulate everything French. The family spent every summer vacation in Paris, and Conde soon noticed how she was allowed to play unsupervised in the streets with the children there, but was forbidden to do the same back home for fear that she would develop a love for the music and culture of her native land. Her eventual troublemaking in school and her constant bickering with her parents prompted her many siblings to label her as spoiled. As a teen, she was sent to study in Paris, and her experiences there made her wish that she knew more about her own heritage. The irony and humor in this memoir will appeal to most teens. Also, those who are studying French will enjoy the liberal sprinkling of French terms throughout.-Joyce Fay Fletcher, Rippon Middle School, Prince William County, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569473474
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/1/2004
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 830,291
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.31 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If someone had asked my parents what they thought about the Second World War, they would have no doubt replied it was the darkest period they had ever known. Not because France was cut in two or because of the camps in Drancy or Auschwitz, or the extermination of six million Jews and all those crimes against humanity that are still being paid for, but because for seven long years they were deprived of what meant the most to them: their trips to France. Since my father was a former civil servant and my mother was still working as a teacher, they were regularly entitled to a paid vacation from their home in Guadeloupe to the métropole with their children. For them France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It was truly the Mother Country and Paris, the City of Light that lit up their lives. My mother would cram our heads with descriptions of the marvels of the Carreau du Temple and the Saint-Pierre market, throwing in as a bonus the Sainte-Chapelle and Versailles. My father preferred the Louvre and the Cigale dance hall, where as a bachelor he had gone to get his juices flowing. So we were only halfway through 1946 before they set sail again in sheer delight on the steamship that was to carry them to Le Havre, the first stop on their way back to their country of adoption.

    I was the very youngest. One of the family's mythical stories was the circumstances of my birth. My father was still going strong at sixty-three. My mother had just celebrated her forty-third birthday. When she missed her period she thought it was the first sign of menopause and rushed over to her gynecologist, Dr. Mélas, who had delivered her seven times. After examining her, he burst out laughing.

    "I was so ashamed," my mother would tell her friends, "that during the first few months I walked around like an unmarried mother and tried to cover myself up."

    However much she showered me with kisses, saying that her little "latecomer" had become her walking stick in her old age, I had the same feeling every time I heard this story: I had not been desired.

    Today, I can imagine the somewhat unusual sight we must have made, sitting in the sidewalk cafés of the Latin Quarter in a gloomy postwar Paris: my father, a former Don Juan, still looking good for his age, my mother decked out with lavish Creole jewelry, their eight children, my sisters, eyes lowered, rigged out like shrines, my teenage brothers, one of them already in his first year at medical school, and me, a spoiled, precocious little brat. Their trays balanced on their hips, the garçons de café would hover around us admiringly like honey bees. Setting down the diabolos menthe, they never failed to come out with: "You speak excellent French, you know!"

    My parents bore the compliment without turning a hair or smiling, merely a nod of the head. Once the garçon had gone, they turned to us as witnesses: "Yet, we're as much French as they are," my father sighed.

    "Even more so," my mother continued vehemently, adding by way of explanation, "We're more educated. We have better manners. We read more. Some of them have never left Paris, whereas we have visited Mont Saint-Michel, the Riviera, and the Basque coast."

    There was something pathetic in this conversation which, though I was very young, upset me. They were complaining of a serious injustice. For no reason, the roles were reversed. The white-aproned, black-vested garçons scrambling for tips considered themselves superior to their generous customers. They were endowed with this French identity which was denied my parents, refused them despite their good appearances. As for me, I could not understand why such people, so proud and pleased with themselves, part of the Establishment back home, were competing with some garçon de café who was serving them.

    One day I decided to get things straight. Whenever I was in a quandary I would turn to my brother Alexandre, who had renamed himself Sandrino "to sound more American." At the top of his class, his pockets stuffed with love letters from his girlfriends, Sandrino was the sunshine of my life. He was a protective, loving brother. But I would have liked to have been more than just his little sister—forgotten as soon as a bit of skirt flashed past or a soccer match began. Could he explain my parents' behavior? Why were they so envious of people who, in their very own words, couldn't hold a candle to them?

    We lived in a ground-floor apartment on a quiet street in the Seventh Arrondissement. It wasn't like in La Pointe, in Guadeloupe, where we were kept locked up at home. In Paris our parents allowed us to go out as much as we liked and even play with other children. At the time I was amazed by their attitude. Later I understood that in France our parents had no reason to fear we would speak Creole or take a liking to the gwoka drums like the ragamuffins in La Pointe. I can remember it was the day we were playing tag with the blondhaired children on the second floor and sharing their tea of dried fruit in a Paris still plagued with food shortages. Darkness began to transform the sky into a starry sieve. We were getting ready to go home before one of my sisters put her head out the window and cried: "Children! Papa and Maman say it's time to come in!"

    Before giving me an answer, Sandrino leaned back against a carriage entrance. A dark shadow fell over his jovial face, still bearing the chubby cheeks of childhood. His voice turned serious. "Don't worry your head about it," he blurted out. "Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals."

    Alienated? What did that mean? I didn't dare ask. It wasn't the first time I'd heard Sandrino poke fun at my parents. My mother had pinned a photo she'd cut out of Ebony over her bed. An African-American family with eight children like ours stood for all to admire. All doctors, lawyers, engineers, and architects. In short, the pride of their parents. This photo sent Sandrino into fits of mockery, convinced he would become a famous writer and little knowing that he would die before life had barely laid hands on him. He never showed me the first pages of his novel, but he would recite his poems that left me puzzled, which, according to him, was what poetry should do. I spent the following night tossing and turning in my bed at the risk of waking my sister, Thérèse, who slept in the top bunk bed over my head. I worshiped my father and mother, I reasoned to myself. It was true I was none too pleased with their graying hair and wrinkles. I would have preferred them to be younger. For my mother to be mistaken for my older sister like my best friend Yvelise's mother when she took her to catechism. It was true I was in agony when my father peppered his conversation with Latin phrases which, I discovered later, could be found in the Petit Larousse Illustré. Verba volent. Scripta manent. Carpe diem. Pater familias. Deus ex machina. I especially suffered from the stockings two tones too light for her dark skin that my mother wore in the heat. But I knew the fondness at the bottom of their hearts and I knew they were endeavoring to prepare us for what they believed to be a wonderful life.

    At the same time I had too much faith in my brother to doubt his judgment. From his expression and tone of voice I sensed that the mysterious word alienated designated a type of shameful ailment like gonorrhea, perhaps even fatal, like the typhoid fever last year that carried off so many folk in La Pointe. At midnight, after piecing all the clues together, I came up with a vague theory. An alienated person is someone who is trying to be what he can't be because he does not like what he is. At two in the morning, just as I was dropping off, I swore in a confused sort of way never to become alienated.

    As a result, I woke up a completely changed little girl. From a model child, I became a child who answered back and argued. Since I did not quite know what I was aiming for, I merely contested everything my parents suggested: An evening at the opera to listen to the trumpets in Aïda or the bells in Lakmé; a visit to the Orangerie to admire Monet's Nymphéas; or quite simply a dress, a pair of shoes, or ribbons for my hair. My mother, whose virtue was not patience, did not skimp on the number of cuffs she dealt out. Twenty times a day she would exclaim: "Good Lord! What has gotten into the child?"

    A picture taken at the end of that particular visit to France shows us in the Luxembourg Gardens. My brothers and sisters all in a row. My father, sporting a mustache, dressed in an overcoat with a fur collar. My mother smiling with all her pearly-white teeth, her almond-shaped eyes squinting under her shiny, rabbit-skin fedora. Standing between her legs, skinny me, disfigured by that sulky, exasperated expression I was to cultivate until the end of my adolescence, until the hand of fate, that always comes down too hard on ungrateful children, made me an orphan at the early age of twenty.

    Ever since, I have had plenty of time to understand the word alienated and especially to wonder whether Sandrino was right. Were my parents alienated? To be sure, they took no pride in their African ancestry. They knew nothing about it. That's a fact! During their visits to France my father never set foot in the Rue des Ecoles, where the journal Présence Africaine was the brainchild of Alioune Diop. Like my mother, he was convinced that only Western culture was worthy of existence and was ever grateful to France for allowing them to obtain it. At the same time, neither one of them felt the slightest inferiority complex because of their color. They believed they were the most brilliant and the most intelligent people alive, positive proof of the progress achieved by the Black Race.

    Was that the meaning of "alienated"?

Excerpted from Tales from the Heart by Maryse Condé. Copyright © 1998 by Maryse Condé. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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