Claire's Reviews > I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé
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When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there is a quote from the author Maryse Condé that reads:
Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, to know that Condé was doing here, what she does in her novel (though she calls it a work of non fiction) Victoire: My Mother's Mother, when the grandmother she had never met, would awaken her from her dreams and talk to her from the corner of the room, chastising her.
Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book won't be published until 20 years after Condé is having conversations with Tituba.

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that she'd declared she would never write about Africa again.
Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, though there were shelves of books about the Salem witch trials, there is very little factual information about her, about who she was, or who freed her, or her life after release from prison.
I felt this eclipse of Tituba's life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn't there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations.

On a ship sailing for Barbados, Christ the King, young Abena was raped by an English sailor. Tituba was born from this act of aggression. Sold to a planter along with two male slaves, she was employed in the household until her pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of one the male slaves Yao.

A short reprieve, they would find comfort in each other's company and Tituba would be named and loved by a man, more father to her than any other. But that joy in Yao that lightened and lit Abena's life, was seen by the master, who desired it for himself, she struck back, was hung for it and for his concubine's crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by an old woman, Mama Yaya, still grieving for her two sons, who had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.
People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya teaches her everything she knows, all her herbal remedies and after meeting her own mother in a dream:
Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

And so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian, who belonged to Goodwife Susanna Endicott in Carlisle Bay, who we encounter in the opening scene of Ann Petry's Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John has lived most of his life, things deteriorate and in an act of revenge the mistress sells them to Samuel Parris, even though Tituba is no slave, but for her husband, whom she could not leave.

In Boston, with the mistress unwell and in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble for her, trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.
I also recognized Abigail and Betsey's companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody's attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls are given credence, turning into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom and return full circle.

If the first part is written from compassion and revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found this part difficult to understand, the reader isn't given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading further into the essay and interview, I find myself confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

I found that reading the book and then the few days of thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was no doubt heightened by having read Ann Petry's sympathetic youth version first, Condé hadn't written a story to give hope or courage to today's youth, she was reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry's version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last, if one wished to end on that note, despite the fact that her novel is as much fantasy, as Condé's is parody.

Like Condé, who knew and knows nothing of witchcraft, (she uses lots of literary inventions in the glossary at the end), I have decided to read a contemporary book next, one published in 2020, to see what's going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.
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Reading Progress

November 3, 2020 – Shelved
November 3, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world-2020
November 3, 2020 – Shelved as: fiction
November 3, 2020 – Shelved as: women-in-translation
November 3, 2020 – Shelved as: translated
November 3, 2020 – Shelved as: to-read
November 26, 2020 – Started Reading
November 26, 2020 – Shelved as: around-the-world
November 26, 2020 – Shelved as: guadeloupean-literature
November 27, 2020 –
page 50
November 29, 2020 –
page 140
61.67% "Tituba is a different character in the imagination of Condé, it's not easy to let go of who she is in my mind, having already read Perty's version. John her husband too. Here, Tituba has more of the ways of ritual sacrifice and speaking with the dead.
More of a told narrative than Petry's strong story through characterisation.
Part 2 a whole new chapter in her life. No weaver."
November 30, 2020 –
page 193
85.02% "Condé's Tituba very much connected to her island roots and ways, her female lineage and abilities, seen in their own context, they are valued, but colonialist language labels such rituals and talents as something to fear, superstitious, connected to satan."
December 1, 2020 – Finished Reading

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