Maryse Condé, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox
Forward by Angela Y. Davis, Afterword by Ann Armstrong Scarboro.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.
Charlottesville and London: Caraf Books, University Press of Virginia, 1992.
First edition, second printing. Hardback, 227 pp. Dust jacket unclipped, slightly worn at top of spine, otherwise in very good condition.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Tituba Indian—called elsewhere Tittubee, Titiba, Tattuba, Tittabe—was, along with her husband John Indian, a slave brought from Barbados to Salem Village in 1689 by the Reverend Samuel Parris. She was among the first women to be accused of witchcraft in the village beginning in 1692, and survived a mounting hysteria that resulted in the persecution of hundreds and the deaths of twenty five. In his exhaustive collection of historical documents, Richard B. Trask makes the point that if not for the Salem Witch Trials, Tituba would have been completely lost to the historical record (121). Very little survives of her: only a series of documents from one year in her life, 1692, recorded by white male interrogators while she was imprisoned. According to a manuscript written by the Reverend John Hale in 1697 and reproduced by Trask, there were four reasons why Tituba survived accusations of witchcraft. First and most importantly, her story never changed over the course of three examinations in March 1692, “and it was thought that if she had feigned her confession, she could not have remembered her answers so exactly. A lyar we say, had need of a good memory, but truth being always consistent with itself is the same to day as it was yesterday.” In addition to her constancy, Hale described that Tituba was penitent, began to suffer abuse at the hands of the witches she had named, and finally, that “her confession agreed exactly…with the accusations of the afflicted” (143). At the same time, this gives a repetitive nature to Tituba’s testimonies and means that there is even less of her point of view to extract from them.
Such a short—but truly hair-raising—story has made Tituba a fascinating case study for historians. Perhaps the silence is part of the allure: Kristen Block writes in Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, that “Ignoring the power of silence [in the historical record] only serves to replicate the unequal power dynamics of both past and present” (6)—a problem that Elaine Breslaw took up in Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem (1996). But history is not always the best way to go about altering power dynamics: fiction has an incredible power to make silences speak, as made only all too clear in this masterpiece of a novel by Condé. As Angela Davis writes in her foreword: “Tituba’s revenge consists in reminding us all that the doors to our suppressed cultural histories are still ajar” (xiii). The character Condé builds from the bare bones of the Salem interrogations allows readers an incredible and accurate view of the Atlantic world of the seventeenth century. She integrates Puritan brutality within a wider world of exchange between New England and places in the Caribbean that England had colonised beginning around the same time, and amidst the burgeoning trade in slave labour. It is not just a matter of plot, but a truly important historical argument that Condé makes in her book to avoid the sense that the witch trials of New England were an isolated incident—even if they were peculiar in their expression of violence.
What is perhaps most spectacular about this novel—first published in French and winner of of the 1986 Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme—is the way Condé relates her historical research to narrative form. Condé is careful to explore the possibilities of a narrator and “witch” like Tituba to the utmost. As a person on the margins, Tituba meets other persecuted people at the time, such as within the Jewish community, and Hester Prynne, hero of The Scarlet Letter, with whom she strikes up something much steamier than a friendship. Tituba’s spiritual life, and her training as a healer within Native and African diasporic traditions, shape the way she narrates her day to day life: her constant companions are dead ancestors, and other spirits specific to her travels, whom she is able to conjure up, speak to, and learn from. So not only is there power in making silences speak, but incredible literary scope for celebrating a non-Christian worldview, since it allows for a different kind of engagement with character, time, and place. It may be that Maryse Condé—who recently won the New Academy Prize in Literature—is so adept at facilitating conversation between characters living and dead because it reflects her own experience writing I, Tituba. In an interview included in the afterword, Condé describes her own relationship with Tituba: “I had the feeling that Tituba was involved in the writing…All along during my writing of the novel I felt that she was there—that I was addressing her” (200).
Kristen Block, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, an the Politics of Profit (London and Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).
Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Annalisa Quin, “Maryse Condé Wins an Alternative to the Literature Nobel in a Scandal-Plagued Year,” The New York Times, 12 October 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/books/maryse-conde-alternative-lobel-literature.html
Richard B. Trask, “The Devil hath been raised”: A Documentary History of the Salem Village Witchcraft Outbreak of March 1692. Together With a Collection of Newly Located and Gathered Witchcraft Documents (Danvers, MA: Yeoman Press, 1997).