Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Victoire includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Maryse Conde. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In her new novel, Victoire, Maryse Conde, acclaimed author of Segu, examines the relationship between her mother, a black militant, and her grandmother, a light-skinned cook who spent her life working as the servant of a white family. Victoire Quidal did her best to turn her own unfortunate circumstances into a better life for her daughter – a life of choice rather than one of silent compliance. But as Jeanne takes advantage of the opportunities that her mother worked so hard to provide, including receiving one of the best educations available to a female at the time, the two women slowly become emotionally estranged.
An intoxicating blend of fact and fiction set in the exotic and sensual swelter of Guadeloupe, Maryse Conde combines her meticulous genealogical research with imagined renderings of significant family events. The result provides the reader with a fascinating account of the tenuous but ultimately unbreakable bond shared between a mother and her daughter, as well as the universal ties that link all parents with their children. Conde succinctly conveys the emotions and long-simmering disputes that simultaneously hold a family together and pull it apart.
Questions for Discussion
(1) How does this book differ from other stories you’ve read about mother/daughter relationships? Which aspects of the book affirmed the mother-daughter bond and which aspects highlighted the circumstances that pull mothers and their children apart? How did this novel compare to your own experiences as a child? As a parent?
(2) Victoire and Jeanne are depicted as outsiders throughout the novel. They are ostracized from the mainstream black community because of their lighter skin and they’re also discriminated against because of their gender. How does the author focus on and expand upon this sense of not being “normal”?
(3) Discuss the ways in which both Victoire and Jeanne overcome their feelings of loneliness and separation from others. What roles do music, cooking, and education play?
(4) What did you think of Victoire’s relationship with the Walbergs? Do you believe that Victoire only engaged in extra-marital relations with Boniface and not with Anne-Marie?
(5) In reference to Victoire’s relationship with Anne-Marie Walberg the author writes, “As for imagining an intimate relationship between Anne-Marie and Victoire, I refuse to believe it” (p.61). Conde also mentions how she “re-creates” (p.11) information and stories that she does not have. How does this knowledge affect your reading of the book? Did you read Victoire as fiction or a memoir?
(6) Early on in the story, Caldonia cautions against relations with men, warning of their “irrepressible treachery, their fundamental irresponsibility.” Discuss the major male characters in the book (Oraison, Dernier, Boniface, and Auguste) in light of this statement.
(7) Much of the book focuses on the differences that drive Victoire and Jeanne apart; however, Conde writes, “outwardly so different, Victoire and Jeanne were identical. Like mother, like daughter. Both tormented souls scared stiff by their surroundings” (p. 136). If mother and daughter are so similar, how do you think they ended up leading such different lives?
(8)Throughout the novel a lyric from the opera Carmen is quoted, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” or, “Love is a rebellious bird”. Why do you think the author repeats this lyric? What significance does it have within the larger context of the story?
(9) When Victoire left Marie-Galante, she did so suddenly and without warning. Conde writes, “That’s why, I’m pretty sure, she never knew a single day of happiness. You can’t have a wicked heart and be happy” (p. 55). Later in the book Jeanne, in the company of her educated friends, walks past her mother without acknowledging her and the author believes that this memory, “probably tortured her up to her death” (p.129). Do you think that the decisions we make in life, no matter how big, stick with us? Does making bad choices mean we don’t deserve to be happy?
(10) What is a Grand-Negre? Why do you think this notion is continually mentioned throughout the novel? What importance does it hold for the women in the story?
(11) There are many moments in the novel that depict scenes of sex and sexuality to a somewhat graphic extent. Did you find that these scenes helped add to the overall atmosphere of the novel or did they distract from it? Was it awkward for you to consider that the author was writing these scenes about her own family members?
(12) How did you feel about the way Jeanne treated Victoire once she left for school and, eventually, married Auguste? Do you think she denied her mother happiness with Boniface and forced her to work as a glorified maid? What did you think of the author’s justification that, “Victoire absolved Jeanne almost entirely…torn as Jeanne was between her filial love, her ambition, her pride, her narcissism.”
(13) Although Victoire and Jeanne may have been very different people, they both struggled with many of the same issues. Discuss some themes that you believe span the generations included in this novel. How do circumstances change over time, and how do they stay the same?
(14) Why do you think Jeanne chose to marry Auguste when she could have had her pick of men much closer to her own age? Do you think she was trying to rebel against her mother when she chose her husband?
Enhance Your Discussion
(1) Research the history of Guadeloupe and the West Indies. Using your findings, discuss the novel in the context of the historical climate in which the Victoire and Jeanne led their lives.
(2) Attempt to re-create some of the dishes that Victoire became so famous for. Although no measurements are listed in the book, strike out on your own and find some authentic Creole recipes. Websites like guadeloupe-guide.info/food/ are a good place to start.
(3) Music plays an important role in the novel. Artists like Bach, Mozart and Brahms are mentioned alongside less well-known composers like Offenbach. Seek out some or all of these composers and see what you think. Do you find them as moving as Victoire and Anne-Marie Walberg did?
(4) This is a novel about relationships between women. Make up a list of other novels with female-centric plots, serious or silly, and compare and contrast. How do they stack up against one another? Which are your favorites?
A Conversation with Maryse Conde
(1) You chose to title your novel, “Victoire: My Mother’s Mother” rather than, simply, “Victoire: My Grandmother”. Why did you choose to make that differentiation?
I chose this title as a way of telling the reader that I wanted to involve my mother as well as my grandmother. The lives of these two women are inextricably linked and you cannot understand my mother unless you know her complex relationship with her mother. I am the result of the tensions and great love which existed between them. The education I received from my mother cannot be understood unless you know her origins and the life she led while she was a young girl.
(2) What was the impetus to start delving into your family’s history? Did you always plan to turn your findings into a book or was your novel just a happy accident?
I always wanted to turn my family’s history into a book. The transformation of Guadeloupean society, the rise of a black bourgeoisie and the difficulty of living in a colonial society seemed to me very important since the history of my family epitomizes all of that. I had already talked about my childhood in “Tales from the Heart” but I wanted to go further and deeper.
(3) Was there anything you came across in your research that surprised you? Any familial secrets that you weren’t prepared for?
No. My mother, when she was alive, had suggested to me all the preliminaries of my future research. As a child I did not pay enough attention to what she was telling me and the problem was at a later stage to reconstruct her thoughts and ideas.
(4) People often say that history repeats itself. Do you see any similarities between yourself and the female characters (your relatives) that populate the pages of your novel? With whom do you identify most?
That is a very intricate question. As a writer I put myself in all the characters of my books. They have my feelings, my dreams and often experience my failures. In a word they express the complexity and difficulty of life as I see it. If I were to find a character who is very close to me I would choose Veronica in my first novel “Heremakhonon”. She is acting very differently but all her moods and impressions are mine.
(5) At times you come down pretty harshly on your mother, Jeanne. For instance, you wager that, “…it was perhaps as a result of this distress [your mother’s move to La Pointe], tension, and anguish that he [Boniface] contracted the illness…which was to carry him off so quickly” (p. 131). Do you mean to blame your mother for Boniface’s death? How do you think your family will receive this novel? Do you predict any animosity?
You seem to confuse my mother and my grandmother, Victoire. In a way Victoire was certainly partly responsible for Boniface’s death. But many years have passed. Neither Victoire, my grandmother, nor Jeanne, my mother, my brothers and sisters are still alive to react to my novel. I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I was trying to look for the truth, however unpleasant it might be, even for me.
(6) As a lighter-skinned woman, Victoire was shunned from both white and black society. Do you see any relics of this kind of treatment in our society today? What historical progress (or lack thereof) do you think has been made in terms of social acceptance for people of mixed-race backgrounds? How much of the progress that’s been made do you think is owed to women like your mother and grandmother?
In the Caribbean skin color still plays a major role. People claim that the contempt for black skin is something of the past. But in reality a fair skinned woman is always preferred to a darker one. Although we have plenty of black Miss Worlds and Miss Universes, the canon of beauty implies lightness of the skin. In the case of Victoire, if she was shunned by both black and white society, it was due to her condition of her birth (an illegitimate child), to the fact she was illiterate and spoke only Creole. The Blacks despised her while the Whites had no consideration for a woman who was their servant. What I want to say is that it was not the color of her skin that was the problem but her lack of education, the meanness of her social standing and the many frustrations she could never overcome. Superficially, things have evolved, but the problems still remain. I don’t think my mother or my grandmother played a role in the transformation of Caribbean society.
(7) How did writing this story differ from your other, completely fictional works? Were there parts of the writing process that were easier? Parts that were harder?
I started this book years ago. It was a way of understanding myself and coming to terms with my inner contradictions. It was more difficult to write “Victoire” than an ordinary novel because so much truth is involved in it. Truth is a very complex matter for a writer. The temptation is to embellish it. To stick to it requires a lot of effort that is not easy to sustain. I shall say that on the whole “Victoire” was more difficult to write than my other books.
(8) How would you classify this book? Is it a memoir even though parts of it are admittedly made-up? Is it a novel, or some kind of newly created hybrid?
I believe that it is a kind of newly-created hybrid: not entirely true but not entirely fictional.
(9) Why did you choose to imagine the parts of your story that you weren’t able to corroborate through research? Why not tell a story that was completely based in fact or a story that was completely fictional? Were you making a statement about the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in life, as well as in literature?
This is the crux of the matter. A writer is always dealing with works of imagination. But imagination is based on real life. A fiction is just an embellishment or a perversion of reality. Literature stands between reality and fiction.
(10) Since this is your first foray into memoir and autobiography, did you look to other writers for guidance? Were there any writers that you found particularly inspiring?
This is not my first foray into memoir and autobiography. I have already mentioned “Tales from the Heart” which is my childhood memoir. Almost all my books use autobiographical material. For example, my first novel “Heremakhonon” is based on a student revolt in Guinea. For that particular book or any other I did not look for any other writer for guidance.
(11) Do you have any plans to write more non-fiction or do you think you’ll be returning to your fictional roots?
I have already returned to my fictional roots since after “Victoire” I have written two more novels in French.
(12) Your works are written in French and then translated into English by your husband and translator Richard Philcox. Without causing a marital rift, can you tell us if you ever worry that some of your thoughts or unique writing style will get lost in translation?
All translation is a loss and a distortion. But I have enough confidence in Richard to know that the distortion will be minimal and that he will always try to convey my original thoughts and feelings. He will never betray my personality.