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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 973-982

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fromTales from the Heart

Maryse Condé

School Days

I must have been thirteen. Yet another stay in the métropole. The third or fourth since the end of the war. I was less and less convinced that Paris was the capital of the universe. I led a life as regular as clockwork, but in spite of that I missed La Pointe and the blue of the harbor and the sky. I missed Yvelise, my classmates, and our rambles under the sandbox trees on the Place de la Victoire until six in the evening, the only distraction we were allowed at home. Six was the hour when darkness fell and when, according to my parents, anything could happen. Looming up from the other side of the Vatable Canal, males hungry for sex might solicit us virgins from respectable families and taunt us with obscene words and gestures. In Paris I also missed the love letters that the boys managed to slip me, despite all the precautions taken to protect me.

Paris for me was a sunless city, a prison of dry stones and a maze of Métros and buses where people remarked on my person with a complete lack of consideration: "Isn't she adorable, the little Negro girl!"

It wasn't the words "Negro girl" that hurt. In those days it was a common expression. It was the tone. One of surprise. I was a surprise. The exception in a race whom the whites obstinately considered repulsive and barbaric.

That year my brothers and sisters entered university and I was left to play the only daughter, a role that I had difficulty accepting as it meant even more motherly interference. I was a student at the Lycée Fénelon, two steps from the Rue Dauphine, where my parents had rented an apartment. As usual, my insolence had turned all the teachers in this prestigious but grim establishment against me. Among my classmates, however, and for the same reason, I had won the status as ringleader and made quite a few friends. We hung out together as a group within a square bordered by the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Boulevard Saint-Michel, the murky waters of the Seine, and the art galleries on the rue Bonaparte. We would dawdle in front of the Tabou Club, where the memories of Juliette Greco still lingered. We would browse the books in La Hune bookstore. We would peer at Richard Wright, as monumental as a bonze, sitting on the terrace of the Café de Tournon. We hadn't read any of his books. But Sandrino had told me about his political engagement and his novels, Black Boy, Native Son, and Fishbelly. The school year finally came to an end and the date for returning [End Page 973] to Guadeloupe was fast approaching. My mother had bought everything that could be possibly bought. My father was methodically filling metal trunks painted green. At the Lycée Fénelon there was no tradition of taking it easy or letting off steam at the end of term. But now that the curriculum had been wrapped up there was a feeling of lightheartedness, even high spirits in the classrooms. One day the French teacher had an idea. "Maryse, give us a presentation of a book from your island."

Mademoiselle Lemarchand was the only teacher I got on with. More than once she had given me to understand that her classes on the eighteenth-century philosophers were intended especially for me. She was a Communist whose front-page photo in L'Humanité we circulated among ourselves. We did not know exactly what the much bandied Communist ideology entailed. But we guessed it was a complete contradiction of the bourgeois values embodied, as we saw it, by the Lycée Fénelon. For us, Communism and its daily L'Humanité smacked of heresy. I believe Mademoiselle Lemarchand thought she could understand the reasons for my behavior and was giving me the chance to analyze them. By inviting me to talk about my island, she...


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