- Historical Fiction and Maryse Condé's I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
I don't see how people could read I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem with any seriousness in the first place and make Tituba into something she's not.—Maryse Condé, Conversations with Maryse Condé
Maryse Condé in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem plays a reluctant (albeit playful) historian, who suggestively reinterprets the historical Tituba, but who also illustrates significant problems in such appropriations of history for particular political or artistic aims. According to Condé, race, gender, and Tituba's native spirituality contributed to her being one of the first formally accused witches of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Condé also very perceptively pulls together some of the most salient issues and ironies of this time in her novel through a Tituba to whom we have little access historically. In legal documents from the time, we can find traces of the Tituba that Condé would have us recognize. Still, Condé's imagined Tituba exceeds the limits of historical plausibility and remains generally one of Condé's own making. As we read the historical record alongside fictional depictions of Tituba, what soon becomes clear are the ways in which fiction and history have in this case shaped each other. Defining Tituba illustrates what New Historians have contended for decades—that textuality, whether historical or literary, functions through sometimes analogous dynamics. But also like a certain strain of New Historicism, Condé does not remain within a space of historical indeterminacy. I, Tituba does proclaim historical truths, if not about the woman called Tituba, then about Puritanism and seventeenth-century New England. That is, Condé regards her depiction of Tituba as a fantasy, but takes quite seriously her depiction of the Puritans that makes a reclamation of Tituba an urgent artistic and political choice.
In a 1992 interview conducted by Ann Armstrong Scarboro, Maryse Condé clarifies her understanding of Tituba as primarily a creation of her own imagination who speaks more to contemporary readers and contexts than to historical ones.
For me Tituba is not a historical novel. Tituba is just the opposite of a historical novel. I was not interested at all in what her real life could have been. I had a few precise documents: her deposition testimony. It forms the only historical part of the novel, and I was not interested in getting anything more than that. I really invented Tituba. I gave her a childhood, an adolescence, and old age. At the same time I wanted to turn Tituba into a sort of female hero, and epic heroine, like the legendary "Nanny of the maroons." I hesitated between irony and a desire to be serious. The result is that she is a sort of mock-epic character.(Scarboro 200-01)
Elsewhere, Condé has reacted more adamantly against charges of anachronism and has insisted on the novel's fanciful engagement with the historical record:
What some critics did not understand is that the book is ironic. It is also a pastiche of the feminine heroic novel, a parody containing a lot of clichés about the grandmother, the sacrosanct grandmother, and about women in their relationship to the occult. I split my sides laughing while writing the book.(qtd. in Pfaff 60)
Condé's characterizations of her approach say much about her understanding of authorship, fiction, and history. On the one hand, Condé sees her relationship to the novel as playful and inventive; she is here the postmodern bricoleur, forming [End Page 413] new narratives from remnants found within the dominant historical narrative, and a trickster whose sides split at inappropriate depictions and assemblages of personages and time periods. In this light, Tituba is the opposite of history, because the fictional elements far outweigh the historically verifiable, or at times plausible ones. Furthermore, while Condé redefines Tituba as a heroine, Tituba is not a figure who is wholly convincing or admirable, indicative of the postmodern impulses to tear down heroes and to challenge master-narratives.
Condé does have serious political and artistic intentions in the novel, however, and relies, if not on the content of standard historical discourse, then at least on the...