Maryse Condé, a chronicler of the colonial experience and its aftermath, won the New Academy Prize in Literature Friday.
Ms. Condé was praised as “a grand storyteller” whose “authorship belongs to world literature,” according to the New Academy. The Stockholm-based nonprofit stepped in to honor a writer this year after the Swedish Academy postponed the Nobel Prize in literature.
Ann Pålsson, a Swedish publishing veteran who headed the New Academy’s four-person jury, announced the decision in the rotunda of the Stockholm Public Library.
In an interview Friday, the 81-year-old Ms. Condé said she was delighted, proud—even astonished—to have won the award. She expressed hope that the New Academy might continue its work, particularly because the organization involved librarians in choosing nominees.
In a video played during the announcement in Stockholm, Ms. Condé said she would share the honor with the people of her native Guadeloupe. The island in the Caribbean where she was born “is known for hurricanes and earthquakes,” she said, “and now we are so happy to have been recognized for something else, for this prize.”
Ms. Condé, who lives in France, said she likely will return to Guadeloupe for Christmas. She plans to attend the New Academy’s prize presentation in Stockholm on Dec. 9.
Ms. Condé identified colonialization as the theme that has run through all her fiction. Her intent, she said, was to tackle the questions “how to become oneself in spite of the myth elaborated through education and history” as well as “how do we erase the sequels of colonialism?”
On Friday, Ms. Condé’s French publisher, Éditions Lattès, hailed her achievement. “Her books are both literary classics and works of deep conviction. The destiny of her characters shines a light on the brightest and the darkest corners of human existence and the need to combat injustice in all its forms,” the publisher said.
In the mid-1980s, Ms. Condé sprang into prominence with “Segu,” a novel she describes as “an ode to the African past” that looks at a kingdom rocked by change. In the book, Ms. Condé writes: “What is a town? It isn’t a collection of mud or straw houses; markets where people sell rice, millet, gourds, fish and manufactured goods; mosques where people prostrate themselves; temples where they spill the blood of victims. It is a collection of private memories, different for every individual, so that no town is like any other or has any real identity.”
Although no longer writing because of poor health, Ms. Condé said she is collecting past articles and interviews for possible publication. Educated in France, Ms. Condé had a career as an academic alongside her literary endeavors and is a professor emerita at Columbia University, where she was a professor of French between 1995 and 2005.
In the spring, the Swedish Academy postponed this year’s Nobel in literature as it attempts to recover from a scandal over allegations of sexual assault. The academy said it would award two prizes next year. Dismayed by the news, Alexandra Pascalidou, a journalist in Sweden, mobilized writers, artists and other volunteers to launch the New Academy. The nonprofit asked Sweden’s librarians to nominate authors. The public then voted online, yielding a shortlist of Ms. Condé, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami and Kim Thúy. Mr. Murakami withdrew from consideration, saying he wanted to focus on his writing. A jury of Swedish scholars and publishing veterans, led by Ms. Pålsson, chose the winner.
The Nobel in literature comes with a prize of more than $1 million. The New Academy has been supported by volunteers, sponsors and crowdfunding. As of Friday, the group’s Kickstarter page reflected more than $20,000 in pledges toward a goal of roughly $27,500.
The New Academy will close after awarding the prize in December. “Our plan was just to fill the gap” in 2018, when there was no Nobel in literature, Ms. Pascalidou said. However, she added, New Academy supporters are insisting “you cannot stop this, you have to go on.” The New Academy had just a few months to spread the word, fundraise and handle the nominations and the award. If the organization were to continue, Ms. Pascalidou said, she would work to make it more diverse, seeking nominations from librarians across the world and not only Sweden.
The Nobel Foundation said alternative Nobel efforts appear from time to time. “If they are serious and rewarding good work, the Nobel Foundation encourages efforts like these,” it said.
Emily Ringborg, who works in the main public library in Stockholm, participated in the New Academy’s selection. In the initial round of voting, she proposed Caribbean-born author Jamaica Kincaid as well as Nnedi Okorafor, a science-fiction and fantasy writer whose parents emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. In the second round, Ms. Ringborg, who is 38 years old and has worked in libraries for 17 years, voted for Ms. Condé.
“I think anyone who is interested in books and cultural events knows about the New Academy’s prize,” Ms. Ringborg said.
Write to Brenda Cronin at email@example.com