Cindy Marie-Nelly has recently published Les Âmes Engagées, a novel that makes full use of Caribbean folklore. This is not Cindy’s first novel – Peaux Echappées, published in 2016, had already surprised and delighted avid readers. Together we look back at her passion for literature, her experience as an author and the importance of being one with her strangeness.
When Cindy Marie-Nelly published Peaux Echappées in 2016, it was almost against her will. Although Cindy loves to tell stories, she had no interest in becoming a published author.
“I started writing fun short stories just for me. It was my husband who did all the work at the time. He’s a dreamer. He took the manuscript, put it in envelopes and sent it to publishers. I was just happy to send it to my mother for Christmas!”
But taking Peaux Echappées as a starting point is like starting a story in media res. Cindy Marie-Nelly is first and foremost a passionate lover of literature and an avid consumer of books of all kinds.
“I specialised in French literature, and I did my master’s degree in African, Caribbean and North African literature. But apart from that, I’ve always enjoyed very light reading. Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Marc Levy or Webber… I don’t discriminate as long as it entertains me.”
A fact that she was slow to admit. As a student at the Sorbonne, it is important to be serious – or at least to appear to be serious. Airport novels, fantasy and science fiction are persona non grata in the classrooms of one of the oldest universities in the Western world.
“My favourite literary genre is fantasy. It took me a long time to take it on because it doesn’t seem very serious when you’re studying literature at the Sorbonne. It’s not cool not to like Houellebecq or Amélie Nothomb, but she scares me! Fantasy is my escape – whether I’m on holiday, ill or depressed… I need fantasy or science fiction, and I’m immediately better”.
Cindy’s analysis of Caribbean literature is also extremely dark and serious. Indeed, our islands are full of talent with a sharp, methodical, devastating pen, recognised throughout the world for words that resonate with accuracy yesterday and today still. And yet…
“I love them, Condé, Confiant and all the others. When I read Chamoiseau, who is my favourite author, it is because I want to be overwhelmed, subjugated by his words. It is nevertheless true that these are not the readings I turn to when I want something light! Négritude, for example, was really a desire to level up. It was a movement born at a time when literature was very serious. You had to write in perfect, sustained French. But it must be said that we were born into a culture that was simply not funny. We suffered a lot, it’s not easy to be who we are. We had to expose ourselves, to show very deep things. I think it was necessary, but is that all there is to it? No.”
From magical realism to fantasy, there is room for our stories
Peaux Echappées, a novel in the vein of magical realism – a genre popularised by authors such as Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez – will attract the attention of two publishing houses with rave reviews. This is all the proof Cindy needed that there was a space in demand for her ideas that others could identify with her story regardless of their background or social class.
“Neil Gaiman inspires me a lot. He has this ability to take myths and legends from many cultures and make a modern yet classic interpretation of them. At home, Timalo does it very well with Dyablès. Black Panther took my breath away. I thought that our stories also deserved to be told on such entertaining platforms as comics and cinema. If people like Wakanda, they can like Pointe-à-Pitre!”
With a passion for fantasy since childhood, Cindy writes what she knows best: the Caribbean family. While Peaux Echappees focuses on the omnipresent figure of the potomitan woman, her new novel Les Âmes Engagées explores the dynamics of the Caribbean family in the broadest sense of the word – secrets, hardships and the unspoken. This time she jumps into the fantastic, offering a modern rereading of the tales and legends that have been passed down from generation to generation and continue to haunt our nightmares.
“When I was young, my mother bought me a compilation of tales and legends from the Caribbean that both terrified and fascinated me. Les Âmes Engagées is a story that has been in my head for a long time. It deals with themes that are very close to my heart, including the way we treat mental health back home, between religion and superstition. Above all, it is my interpretation of our folklore, a rewriting of our fantasy, even if I am not reinventing the wheel. More than anything else, these legends helped me build my Creole identity, even though I grew up miles away from Guadeloupe.
Cindy writes for people who look like us. She writes to allow our people to expand their horizons, to imagine and to imagine themselves beyond the walls of a daily life that can sometimes seem very limited and restrictive.
“I write books that I wish I had read. I read a lot, but I always have to make an effort to identify with the characters. I’m not blond, I don’t live in San Francisco, and no one is going to come and get me from my cupboard under the stairs to take me to Hogwarts… I want to be able to identify myself and that my friends and family are able to identify with me. The best feedback I got when I did the le Salon du Livre was when people said Peaux Echappées is about my mother, my aunt, my cousin, it’s my family’s story”.
Because it is the world around her that inspires her the most, Cindy likes to imagine the lives of strangers or gorge herself on those gleaned here and there at family reunions – a wealth of information that allows her to create characters that are truer than life.
“We come from a rather voluble culture, so you just have to listen a little bit to hear incredible stories.”
Does the author have a favourite character? By her own admission, Raphael, Xavier’s best friend, the hero of Les Âmes Engagées and loosely based on one of his brothers, steals the spotlight from the main character.
“From Game of Thrones to Harry Potter, my favourite character is never the hero. I love my hero, I really like him… he’s brought to the forefront for a reason, but my favourite character is a secondary character, his best friend, my personal Ron Weasley.”
Cindy is constantly in draft mode. Her characters follow her wherever she goes, maturing in a corner of her imagination until she is ready to get rowdy. Then they come to life, almost with a will of their own. Cindy clears her mind, launches herself and lets the magic happen. The words flow. As she hammers away at her keyboard, she lets herself be carried along by the waves of the world she is creating.
“It sounds a bit like a possessed artist, but words come to me. When I heard authors talking about it, I was sceptical, and yet it’s so true! Sometimes my characters go off on their own. They do their thing, and by the end of the chapter, I’m like, ‘wow! Some chapters are more difficult than others because, in a multi-voice novel, some are harder to convey. These are sounds and images that I have to translate and if I want to do something beautiful, it will take me longer. But yes, my characters do whatever they want!”
For the love of literature: transmission and writing as a radical act of self-care
Literature is a real passion for Cindy, who will be returning to school, but this time in front of students. As a French teacher in London, she is committed to passing on her love for books to a generation of students for whom entertainment is a commodity available at leisure. In a world where capitalism reigns undeniably, it is a daily challenge to put a price tag on a story for students who are already ready to give in to the sirens of the City.
“I am a teacher by passion. I love teaching, awakening text, revealing a meaning, a life behind something that might otherwise seem static. Passing on the passion for literature is a lifelong struggle. The generations that are coming up have access to so many other media than text, whereas I come from a generation where if you missed your cartoon slot on TV, you looked for entertainment elsewhere. With millions of options that are far more dynamic than books, it’s hard to ignite passions but not impossible. My approach is to try and convince them that text is alive, and every year I manage to divert one or two from taking Science or Economics.”
Here again, nothing is easy. Anglo-Saxon children’s literature is incomparably dynamic, leaving French kids behind. According to Cindy, there is a market to be developed where, of course, Caribbean literature would have its place. In the meantime, she does her best to make up for the lack of representation and being a published author herself sometimes works in her favour.
“Google exists, so I’m very careful with my social media. I have a disclaimer on – if you see negative reviews, it’s a student who hasn’t done their homework. I forbid them to read because it’s too embarrassing and not necessarily age-appropriate, but they do it anyway. Their parents especially. So I end up signing books for their mums and aunties. They know it, they are proud of it and I even have the impression that it gives me a little legitimacy in their eyes. They believe that I perhaps know what I’m talking about when I try to convince them that Victor Hugo really did repeat all those ‘m’s on purpose to give musicality to his verse.”
Beyond the challenges of teaching, being in the world of education also has its advantages. With enough time off-site to organise herself as she sees fit, Cindy is very careful to schedule time entirely dedicated to writing. More than a job or a passion, writing is a time that the artist reclaims for her own well-being.
“I’m a mother, I work, I’m married, I have very little time for myself. It’s almost self-care. I’m a very organised person. I have my little bullet journal, I reserve moments for when I really want to write. Do I manage to stick to it all the time? No, but I try. Having children and then simply getting older has made me realise that I really need to take this time; otherwise, I go crazy, and I get depressed. For example, I know that I shouldn’t be doing my laundry right now, that I absolutely must finish this chapter. And I’m doing it for myself because it makes me happy.”
Yet writing is perhaps the easiest part of a writer’s journey. Finding and convincing a publishing house is an arduous path, even more so when one does not fit into the mould of the quintessential French book industry. Wooed by two publishing houses – one based in continental France and the other one, Caribbean – Cindy chose Ibis Rouge, which has since been bought by Orphie Editions.
“I was completely terrified that people I didn’t know read my manuscript, liked it and wanted to publish me. My experience was good because I was not an author and suddenly I was given a platform. I was published, I was invited to le Salon du Livre and so on. It gave me confidence, and as a result, I’m self-publishing my second novel. It’s a lot of work, but I don’t need to run after information. Either way, it’s hard.”
For a young author, recognition from a publishing house is almost a holy grail. Being published gave Cindy the confidence to continue an adventure she didn’t think she was cut out for. However, driven by a need for transparency and editorial freedom, she chose to self-publish her new novel, Les Âmes Engagées, giving her more control over her royalties – the crux of the problem for many authors.
“The problem with publishing, as with everything, is money. You don’t get much for your work, even though you’ve worked hard to write your book. What you get back on 15 euros is not enough to say you’ve made it. Writing, to me, is really a passion project.”
S’il ne fallait retenir qu’une chose : être étrange est une force motrice
With Les Âmes Engagées, Cindy is a proven author, sure of what she wants or doesn’t want anymore. Corrections? From now on, she will be the one to do them.
“I speak English, I often think in English, I consume a lot of Anglo-Saxon fiction, I read a lot in English, so I’ve been forcing myself to listen to French audiobooks for a few years just to remind myself of the musicality of the language and try to speak less frenglish. I have sentence structures that I constantly have to correct because I know I thought them up in English. I’ve corrected a lot of them in the book, but there must be some left. Language is a living thing, so it’s no big deal.”
“One of my greatest frustrations is that I was never able to get Peaux Échappées translated, although an English publisher was interested in it. I intend to have Les Âmes Engagées translated. We don’t realise it, but the English-speaking world wants to hear our stories too!
But perhaps the greatest lesson is that the impostor syndrome she fights so hard against is a deceptive Geryon that is not impossible to kill; the joy of the journey is ineffable if it means leaving a trail beyond time.
“There is something that has always fascinated me and that is perhaps because I studied the great men and women of literature… but, wow! the legacy that it creates! Did Victor Hugo think that one day a little Guadeloupean girl would enjoy reading Les Châtiments? So the little Guadeloupean girl who enjoyed Les Châtiments can also leave a legacy. We are under the impression that we are not attractive, that we don’t carry much weight on a global scale, but that is completely false. There are kilos, there are grammes, but you can leave a mark, no matter how small.”
In the process of trying to fit into a mould, it is not uncommon to forget what makes us unique; that special something that sometimes earns us mockery and ridicule. But there is real strength in embracing all the aspects of the self that we hide. It is a source of creativity that young writers and other aspiring artists must explore without fear if they are to live up to their talent.
“What I wish someone had told me earlier is that your hobbies, your sources of interest… everything is linked. You’re not just a Guadeloupean on one hand and an anime fan, a comic book fan or a niche literary genre fan on the other. You can mix the two. My passion for fantasy dates back to childhood, but maybe it’s because I studied literature that I felt so intimidated.”
Cindy makes a point. Our stories are universal. For the author, there is no need to limit her ambitions – non-traditional formats, opening up to the world, and aiming for the international stage are all adventures that we must allow ourselves to experience.
“I see video games in creole, cartoons, manga – it’s starting to happen. We’re mixing our culture with media that we wouldn’t have thought of 15 years ago. But sometimes, we limit ourselves to a local audience and I think we have to look beyond that. No one is a prophet in his own country. When you work on a project, it’s good to aim for the international market straight away. It is possible to push your boundaries without selling yourself. If there is one piece of advice I can give to future generations, it is to mix all the aspects of their personality. It is this blend that allows you to find your tribe wherever you are. We think wrongly that we are weird, that our passions make us loners, but no. Many of us are weird. We’re full of weirdness, so let’s be weird together!”
Where to find Cindy Marie-Nelly online
- Ig: @cindy_marienelly
- Twitter: @CindyMARIENELLY
- Facebook: Cindy Marie-Nelly
- Site: https://cindy.marie-nelly.com/
Where to get Les Âmes Engagées
- A Brief History Of Seven Killings, by Marlon James which looks back at the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and 80% of which is written in Jamaican dialect, which didn’t stop it from winning the Man Booker Prize in 2015. That was the moment when I thought, ‘There’s room for us!’.
- From the same author, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. It’s fantasy like Lord of the Rings but in Africa. More than ever, there is room for our stories, our myths and our legends.
- Dyablès, by Timalo. It took some effort on my part but it’s an exercise we need to get on with.
- The saga An Ocean Of Poppies by Amitav Gosh. Simply beautiful. I’d love to write a choral novel with lots of characters like that. I’m slowly getting there with Les Âmes Engagées which I’ve conceived as a trilogy.
- Péyi An Nou by Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau. A great comic book that teaches us a lot about the history of the Caribbean, including the Bumidom, etc.
- All of Zadie Smith!
- All of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is a good place to start as it is the easiest to read.
Her playlist of the moment
- The Lyrical Teworist mixtape which reminds me of a time that people under the age of 20 will never know. A little nugget! If you listen carefully, you realise that there is a real narrative. You listen to it like a novel with lots of characters. It’s a roman-fleuve where each one adds their own touch. They share an experience, but they all have a different view on this experience. A roman-fleuve, I insist.
- The Black Panther soundtrack. One of the few soundtracks (along with the original Space Jam) that you can listen to from start to finish. All the tunes are excellent.
- Burna Boy