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Having A Conversation With Loss And Grief In 'Waiting For The Waters To Rise'

<em>Waiting for the Waters to Rise</em>, by Maryse Condé.
World Editions
Waiting for the Waters to Rise, by Maryse Condé.

There's a difference between authors who set out to write a novel and authors who set out to tell a story. I don't have the space to explain that difference here, but I know some of you nodded as soon as you read that. Maryse Condé is the type of author who sets out to tell a story — and writes superb novels in the process. Waiting for the Waters to Rise, her latest novel, is a perfect example. At once touching and devastating, the book explores the effects of loss and grief on a personal, communal, and national level, but does so with a personal voice that feels more like a having a conversation than reading a book.

Babakar Traoré is an obstetrician living alone in Guadeloupe but surrounded — and haunted — by the memories of his childhood in Mali with his mother and the loves and friendships he's lost. Babakar's mother, who was called a witch because she was a Black woman with blue eyes, regularly visits him in his dreams and helps guide his life, but that does little for his loneliness. When Babakar is called to a house to attend a birth, he gets there too late; the mother, an undocumented Haitian immigrant, is dead and the newborn girl is alone. Babakar adopts the girl on the spot and names her Anaïs.

Babakar has lost a child already; his pregnant wife died while he was in prison for political reasons. This new baby, Anaïs, shatters his solitude. He wants to give her a future close to her family, so he flies to Haiti to find them. And what he finds is a strange, beautiful place where the living and the dead mingle and poverty, corruption, and violence reign. Along with two friends, the Haitian Movar and the Palestinian Fouad, Babakar tries to understand Haiti, Africa, migration, and his own life — all while looking for Anaïs's family.

Three narratives in a single novel might sound like too much, but each feels like sitting across someone while having coffee and listening to them tell their story.

Waiting for the Waters to Rise is the story of Babakar, but also of Movar and Fouad. Together, their tales offer a kaleidoscopic look at migration and political upheaval in different countries. Three narratives in a single novel might sound like too much, but each feels like sitting across someone while having coffee and listening to them tell their story. Condé's prose is easy to read, funny and packed with entertaining turns of phrase, but also brilliantly observant: "A man in an obstetrician's surgery is like a gunshot in a concert of violas da gamba; unless accompanying his wife, his sister, or his mistress — a rare event in our macho lands."

While Movar and Fouad tale moving stories, Babakar is the novel's heart. He is a bizarre, lonely man who might or might not be bisexual, and who seems to float above his own life, only realizing how oblivious he is to things once others point them out. He suffers many losses and remains kind through it all, but the places and people he interacts with aren't as kind and he suffers a lot as a result. The two biggest losses are his best friend Hassan, who got involved in politics, and his wife Azélia, who died while he was in prison. Both haunt Babakar as much as the memory of his mother and the child he never met.

Waiting for the Waters to Rise is a celebration of diversity, and its language and characters reflect that. People migrate to and from places like Africa, the Caribbean, and Palestine and different kinds of Creole season its pages. Added to the various religions and political movements mentioned, the novel makes "world literature" mean something more than "literature from another place." Also, the mix of cultural, religious, geographical, and language elements make almost everything sound poetic, which also says a lot about Richard Philcox's outstanding translation from the French:

Thécla did not stay long at the Caravansérail. Less than a month after she arrived at Tiguiri, she moved in with Babakar Traoré. Two months later the imam slipped into his boubou made of rich bazin fabric and celebrated their marriage.

Waiting for the Waters to Rise is a story of migrations, exoduses, and exiles for the sake of survival. It's also a novel that looks at the harsh realities of Africa and Haiti. The former is "far from being this Generous Mother-for-all and Maternal Breast that people boast about" and the latter is a place where "the blood of the innocent, the blood of the guilty, the blood of the victims, and the blood of the torturers, as well as that of the innocent turned guilty, the victims turned torturers" has reddened the soil. Lastly, it is a novel that cements Condé as a literary giant who beautifully chronicles the humanity found in some of the most violent places in the world.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.