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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Fatou Diome – The Belly of the Atlantic

Annie Gagiano - 2009-08-26

Title: The Belly of the Atlantic
Author: Fatou Diome
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Translator: Lulu Norman
ISBN: 9781852429034
Publication date: September 2007
Pages: 185
Original language: French

Click here to order your copy of The Belly of the Atlantic from kalahari.net.

The quality of the narrative voice is central to this (first) novel by its Senegalese author. The Belly of the Atlantic was first published in French, in 2003, and the English translation (by Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz) by Serpent’s Tail in 2006. Fatou Diome has also had a short story collection published.

Fatou Diome resides (like her narrator) in Strasbourg. While one might classify her as one of the growing body of diasporic African writers, the whole concentration of the text is on its evocative, sometimes tender and often acerbic, evocations of social life in the past and in the present on the tiny island of Niodior, where both the author and the narrator grew up. The Niominkas (as the inhabitants are known) are not ethnically, culturally or religiously different from the Senegalese of the mainland, but of course their insularity has had an influence in entrenching particular cultural and social practices and power hierarchies. Niodior is in the Fatick region of Senegal, a considerable distance south of Dakar and Gorée island, hence the emphasis on the Atlantic ocean as a major force in the islanders’ lives.

Diome’s authorial introduction of this setting follows the five opening paragraphs in which the narrator first brings us into her Strasbourg flat, where she is glued to the TV screen to watch a major football game:

It’s 29 June 2000 and I’m watching the European Cup. It’s Italyvs Holland in

the semi-final. My eyes are staring at the TV, but my heart’s contemplating other horizons.

Over there, people have been clinging to a scrap of land, the island of Niodior, for centuries. Stuck to the gum of the Atlantic like bits of left-over food, they wait resignedly for the next big wave that will either carry them off or leave them their lives. This thought hits me every time I retrace my path and my memory glimpses the minaret of the mosque, rigid in its certainties, and the coconut palms, shaking their hair in a nonchalant pagan dance whose origin is forgotten. (2)

Some aspects of the narrator’s wryly unillusioned though not cynical (and unflinchingly sharp) observation, softened with slight nostalgia, must be clear from the above citation. A slightly later part of the narrative gives us a sense of gender practices on Niodior and of the narrator’s robust, complex and amusing response to them. In it, she first evokes her beloved and only sibling, Madické – her half-brother by the same mother:

He’s been taught to say "Ow!", to grit his teeth, not to cry when he’s hurt or afraid.

As a reward for the courage he had to show in all circumstances, a throne had been built for him high above the female sex. A male, then, and proud of it, this true guelwaar [knight] has enjoyed a princely dominance since childhood: beneficiary of his father’s rare smiles, the biggest bits of fish, the best of his mother’s doughnuts and the last word when women are present.

I replace the receiver. I’m only a moderate feminist but, really, that’s going too far. I could get depressed. I stretch out on the sofa and start up a conversation with my hormones. They’re not always helpful: not only do they make me suffer at that time of the month, but it’s their fault that I’m silenced. Without my say-so, they’ve been named "submission"; I don’t like that word, with its three s’s, those conspiratorial constrictives that suppress love and admit only the breath of authoritarianism. I don’t like sub-missions; I prefer real missions. And I love high heels, too. Will Marie Curie be wearing them at the gatherings of the great and the good? (24)

What might not be suspected from an isolated reading of the above passage, is that the narrator (we learn only late in the text that her name is Salie) actually dotes on this brother of hers, that with little resentment she meets or attempts to meet almost all his requests (for expensive return phone calls; information about football games; soccer gear). But this is done freely if wryly; there is not much about this spirited young woman that any outsider would consider submissive!

Salie never knew her father, although she knows that he was not from Niodior and that he was a man of good, perhaps even aristocratic family. Even her mother, who appears to be a far more submissive person than Salie, insisted (to the chagrin of her stepfather) on allowing Salie to retain her real father’s surname. Salie was brought up by her beloved grandmother, while her relative ostracism on the island brought her a second major ally in the schoolteacher, the only other bearer of a "foreign" – ie non-Niominka) surname on the island and another outsider figure in this insular society. This schoolteacher’s history to an extent parallels Salie’s: considered politically troublesome in his youth (he was a committed Marxist), he was exiled to and forbidden to leave Niodior by the state, yet never allowed to integrate fully into the local society. He offers nothing that impresses the locals, neither wealth nor political clout, while his principled commitment to the education of the island’s children and his insistence (to the Niodior youngsters’ football team, which he coaches) that the dream of soccer fame in France most often turns into a nightmare, do not endear him to anyone except Salie – who fully shares his views. A further parallel between Salie and the schoolteacher (who is referred to as Monsieur Ndétare) derives from his tragic history. He and one of the island’s young beauties, Sankèle, had fallen in love. Her father, an old fisherman of good family intending to improve his family’s fortunes by marrying off his lovely daughter (according to island custom) to a relatively wealthy local man of his own choice, put a spoke in the wheel of the young couple’s plans. Determined to resist this forced and unwanted match, Sankèle deliberately though secretly continued and fulfilled her love relationship with Ndétare, the teacher. When her father discovered the inevitable ensuing pregnancy, he incarcerated Sankèle at home. When the baby was born, the ruthless fisherman seized it and threw it into the ocean to drown. His justification: to avoid a family scandal! Her mother never spoke again after this awful incident. In response to her father’s brutal intervention, Sankèle secretly and immediately left the island – inevitably also leaving her lover, the schoolteacher, a lonely man, since he is politically forbidden from ever leaving Niodior.

Salie’s liking and respect for the schoolteacher also stems from the fact that he (at first only grudgingly) recognised and encouraged her intellectual potential. As an inquisitive little girl she had stolen away from her grandmother’s care to sit in on the schoolteacher’s classes. Even while she was a child Salie’s role model had been entirely different from her fellow scholars'; she had declared her desire to grow up to be “a woman with the right to speak” (133) like the gracious television reporter Sokhna Dieng.

Salie’s thirst for knowledge is one of the things that sets her off from her younger brother, who in childhood (like most of his contemporaries) attended only the Koranic school, and that only up to a point, after which he became besotted with football. And it was only through his international sporting star ambitions that Madické decided that he needed to learn French from the schoolteacher. This happens when Salie is already settled in France. About a decade earlier she had married a Frenchman, but the marriage had succumbed to family pressures and prejudices on the French side. Tired of their disdain, Salie had divorced her husband. We learn almost incidentally that she has become a moderately recognised writer in France. We learn very little about her life in France, beyond the fact that money is tight enough for her to flinch at her brother’s constant demands for telephone conversations centring on soccer and his own prospects. There are no descriptions of Strasbourg or the surrounding landscape; the imaginative and emotional setting of the narrative remains Niodior, even though we hear mention of Salie’s friends in France.

Of the island we learn that despite the endurance of traditional practices among the older generation, it is a typically neocolonial society – in Salie’s words, a “relentlessly Francophile universe” (33), as well as a social space in which “football fever had taken hold of all the kids in the village” (32). This intensifies hugely with the introduction of the first television set to the island, made freely accessible to all comers by the richest local inhabitant – who has political ambitions of his own. Salie dreads her brother’s consuming ambition to become a soccer star in France, or at least to go there, sure that he will succeed. Like the schoolteacher, Salie knows that “African and Asian players [are] the seasonal workers of the football world” and that in the “sieve-society” of France, migrant workers “are the lumps”.

She knows that in her chosen country of residence she will never be fully accepted, even though she manages to live moderately comfortably, keeping her head down and carefully obeying all bureaucratic rules. The vast majority of African foreigners in France receive no “gratitude” for their contributions, let alone “citizenship”; the best they can expect is “tolerance” (175, 172). Senegalese (like other Africans) are constantly teased by the dream of success in Europe – a probably futile hope and for many a dangerous illusion dishonestly propped up by the few who have returned with moderate takings and then proceed to misrepresent the likely miseries of an immigrant existence. Especially dangerous, of course, is the notion that one can make it there even as an illegal immigrant.

Ndétare the schoolteacher tells his soccer players the long, sad story of Moussa the would-be soccer star – an islander whose outstanding skills on the football pitch brought him to the attention of a French soccer talent scout. The man took him to France and enrolled him in a good club there, but the competitive jealousy and the racism of other club members curtailed his opportunities to such an extent that, after less than a year, he was given up as a bad job by the scout. Bluntly, the man told him that he’d be enrolled as a sailor to work on a local vessel – still without proper papers! There, he had to work to pay off his passage (which the Frenchman had paid for), hoping that after the years this might take he would be able to return to Niodior as not too shameful a failure. But on his first-ever sight-seeing stroll through the streets of a French city ( Marseilles), his skin colour and his wondering demeanour immediately mark him out as an immigrant. The police pick him up, the ship owner denies knowing him, and he is ignominiously incarcerated before being deported. He is ostracised as a failure on his return; the one consoling friendship he has (with Ndétare) attracts whispers of an "unnatural" relationship (Niodior being relentlessly heterosexual in its mores), despite the emptiness of the accusation. Increasingly isolated, he eventually drowns himself in the Atlantic.

The legend to which the title of the novel refers is echoed in poor Moussa’s story: it concerns an islander who was exposed as impotent and sought the only escape from heartless gossip available to him by walking into the sea. He was turned into a dolphin and joined in turn by his distraught wife, who also then became a dolphin. The narrator employs the reference to the belly of the Atlantic as a symbol for the harshness of the island’s social life as well as the all too often overlooked, terrifying gulf between life on the Senegalese island, hard as it is, and an immigrant African’s existence in France. She does make clear that, for most Niominkas, life on the island, limited and hard as it is, is by far the better option. For herself, however, the island held no prospects. Aside from the circumstances of her infant life, when her stepfather would have preferred her dead and her maternal grandmother had to rescue her from her mother’s household, one of the numerous anecdotes of social life on Niodior that enrich the narrative has her recalling the household in which she had been sent to live when she was attending high school on the mainland. This was the home of one of her grandmother’s relatives, a woman called Coumba, whose divorced daughter Gnarelle had been lucky enough to contract a second marriage (as a second, but initially favourite wife) to a wealthy local man. After a while, this husband lost interest in her. The cause turned out to be the attractions of a girl of sixteen "given" to the man by one of his poorest debtors. He made this girl his third wife. Quite desperate to regain her husband’s interest, Gnarelle (with the aid of her mother, the aforementioned Coumba) employed one of the highly rated Peul marabouts (supposedly a Muslim hermit or saint, but here evidently a charlatan magician cum psychiatrist cum marriage counsellor) to re-establish herself in her husband’s affections and appetites. During the obviously bogus rituals (described by Salie), she was summoned by her landlady to assist in the final rite. The job of masturbating the marabout in order to arouse him sufficiently to "insert" the final "medicine" into Gnarelle was forced upon the high school girl, despite her disgust. Nine months later, Gnarelle gave birth to a child – obviously fathered by the lighter-skinned Peul rather than by her husband. Not displeased by gaining an additional child, the latter took it into his household along with the now publicly disgraced Gnarelle. Something of the ruthless marital, familial, gender and sexual politics on the island is conveyed to the reader in Salie’s both sympathetic and scornful rendition of these anecdotes.

The island saying most often repeated in the narrative is “Every scrap of life must serve to win dignity!” (18, 63, 65, 70, 77, 80, 86, 125). It seems an admirably aspirational code, but Salie conveys how terribly humiliating its echo becomes in the lives of those who do not make it, while in the mouths of the old it can be used as a relentless whip to drive the younger men on. The fisherman whom we encounter as an old man had fathered a child out of wedlock; a boy whom he had disowned because he was at that time a famous itinerant wrestler (the favoured sport of an earlier time) who thought he could do better while riding the wave of his success. The mother managed to find another man on the mainland willing to marry her and take on the child, who in adulthood became (you’ve guessed it) an international footballer playing for a French club. Having denied paternity, the old fisherman could only secretly follow his son’s fortunes. It is he, too, who had murdered his daughter Sankéle’s illegitimate child by the schoolteacher by drowning it in the Atlantic. This old man thus becomes a representative of the cruelty of ancient custom and codes of honour towards those who step out of line. A fisherman, he is associated also with the ocean’s power over human life.

Explaining how the old fisherman’s secret slipped out, the narrator observes: “On the island, nothing is really said; news is drawn with water from the well, and the whole village drinks from the same spring. Family stories, even the most ancient, float in the women’s pots, and they serve them up with their own sauce later on (34). Niominka society remains utterly set in its old ways. Paternal opinions and authority are paramount and girls want nothing more than to grow up to be good, submissive wives like their mothers. Despite the dreadfully high incidence of childbed mortality, the women’s creed is that “A woman’s honour is in her milk” (37-8). The narrator asks rhetorically, “What mouth would have dared mention the pill in front of them, at the risk of being cursed for life?” (38). Salie calls them “menhirs of tradition, untouched by the whirlwind of cultural intermixing that made me waver” and she declares that she and they have nothing to say to one another, since she is “searching for [her path] in the opposite direction” to the one followed by the village women. They diagnose the cause of her divorce as “sterility” and distance themselves from her; nevertheless they have no qualms about requiring her to make endless contributions (as a supposedly rich and successful migrant) in cash and kind to their various undertakings (38).

From these somewhat disgruntled descriptions of Niominka women one needs to distinguish Salie’s evocations of her loyally loved and tenderly respected grandmother:

"Those with a good guide don’t get lost in the jungle" she’d told me one day, and ever since I’d wanted only her as a companion. I wanted to tread in her footsteps. She had opened the door to the world for me and hummed my first lullaby. (46)

Her grandmother had even breastfed Salie to save her life and heal her after the near-fatal neglect she had endured in her stepfather’s home. Salie declares: “My grandmother never ceased spinning the thread that bound me to life” and calls her “that female guelwaar [noble warrior] whose almond eyes opened a path for me through the shadows of tradition" (49).

Evidently, it is her grandmother even more than her brother who links Salie to the island. She muses that if freedom is or becomes a condition that leaves one disconnected from others, it is empty. She calls her grandmother her “ultimate anchor” and (in another maritime image) declares that “after every storm, she is the beacon rising up from the belly of the Atlantic that sets my solitary navigation back on course” (134). Towards the end of the text Salie describes a “meager parcel” rich with love and generosity sent to her by her grandmother: “a little hand-sewn cotton bag inside which were squeezed three plastic bags, each containing a local product; a few groundnuts, some peanut butter and a handful of millet flour” (179). This charming and thoughtful gift feeds and strengthens her spirit.

Salie knows that her departure from the island is irreversible. Nevertheless, the urge to return is irresistible, for it’s reassuring to think that life is easier to grasp in the place where it puts down its roots. And yet, for me, returning is the same as leaving. I go home as a tourist in my own country, for I have become other to the people I continue to call my family. I no longer know how to interpret the excitement caused by my arrival. Are these people who crowd around me coming to celebrate someone from their community, to squeeze some money out of me, to find out about foreign parts that fascinate them, or are they simply here to inspect and judge the curious creature I’ve perhaps become in their eyes? (116)

She knows and abides by the social rule of sharing that is fundamental to Niominka morality, but resents its abuse – when it merely “benefits the lazy while maintaining them in a state of chronic dependence” (116). For herself she has now accepted a condition of being “always in exile, with roots everywhere”; she is “at home”, she says, “where Africa and Europe put aside their pride and are content to join together: in my writing, which is rich with the fusion they’ve bequeathed me” (127). It is hard not to believe that the narrative voice here expresses an authorial opinion, but it does so validly and gracefully.

Salie has always been uncomfortably aware of how unconvincing her discouragement of her brother’s hopes of making good in Europe seemed to him, given that she herself clearly has no intention of a permanent return to the island.

He had only one thought in his head: to leave, go far away, flying over the black land to touch down in the white land that burns with a thousand lights. To leave, and not look back. You don’t look back when you’re walking on the tightrope of a dream. (115)

But as she warns him and his friends (who all resent her advice), “In Europe, my brothers, you’re black first, citizens incidentally, outsiders permanently, and that’s certainly not written in the constitution, but some can read it on your skin” (124).

Adamant that she will not sponsor a journey to France for her brother and constantly insisting on the awfulness of life in France for an illegal immigrant, Salie nevertheless wants to show her brother love and care. By dint of scrimping and stinting herself, she manages to save him a nest egg. On an occasion when he is especially despondent about the defeat of his favourite (actually, Italian) team and the loss of face for the player in it whom he particularly idolises, Salie tells him that she is sending him this modest sum. When he exclaims that it would cover the cost of a flight to France, she insists that it is intended to help him set up a small grocery store on the island. Subsequently, months go by without her hearing anything from him; eventually it turns out that he did set up the little shop and moreover that it is doing well. Madické even begins to insist that his sister should herself return to Niodior! This prompts the final, musing passages in which the narrator articulates her complex reasons for remaining in Europe – a social space she neither idolises nor denigrates, but wryly appreciates.

As I wrote at the outset of this piece, Diome’s deployment of Salie’s narrative voice is the major accomplishment of this text. The novel is enriched by her acute observations, resonant phrasing and vivid, memorable images. Its main focus is on the ironies and ambivalence of exile, while its moral thrust works to counter the tempting falsehood that sets up life in the West as easier and especially more lucrative for indigent immigrants. She acknowledges that for some, like the narrator Salie, life in Europe is the better alternative, but for them, the inevitable price to pay is the melancholy of nostalgia and the loss of connection with the motherland and the family (and society) left behind. At dusk, Salie says, her “memory … project[s] films shot elsewhere, under different skies, stories buried deep down inside [her] like ancient mosaics in a city’s subterranean tunnels” (159). She is mordantly aware of the ruthlessness of Europe towards Africa, to which she refers as “the fabric of modern apartheid” (154). Of the West’s response to poverty, famine and AIDS deaths in formerly colonised societies, she declares harshly that “on the scales of globalisation, the head of a third-world child weighs less than a hamburger” (130). Sadie is equally scathing about Westerners touring Africa, declaring:

As well as bringing a flood of pathetic elderly tourists prepared to pay for a spouse, the tourist industry also attracts hordes of sickos with a penchant for fresh meat. The treasures that draw this type back again and again aren’t listed in any catalogue. They’re chrysalises that haven’t been given time to unfold their wings, flowers crushed before blooming. The Atlantic may wash our beaches, but never the stain left by the tourist tide. (142)

Diome balances denunciation of Europe’s cruelties of exploitation with those practised by African and particularly Niominka bosses. Of one of these, a man who owns a fishing fleet, Salie remarks that “one might say that the death of one of his employees had affected him less than the loss of a net” (81).

Patriarchally enshrined sexist practices on the island are evidently especially repugnant to the sardonic Sadie. She knows from experience that “in this corner of the earth, a man’s hand is placed over every woman’s mouth" (89). If this observation indicates her empathy, she is nevertheless not blind to the cruel exclusions and sanctions practised by the island women themselves (excluding her exceptional grandmother). She comments on their “smug sarcasm”, describing how “their fluttering eyelashes crack like a whip, banishing you from their good graces” (120). Her book learning has forever divided her from them; unlike her grandmother, they cannot breach this divide with love. Salie prefers her brother and the other boys’ company to these women’s stifling of her spirit. She knows she is doomed to a “double self[hood] (160), but also how indelible her African instincts and memories are. Even after long absence, she says, the “sound of the tom-tom … seeps into you, like shea butter in a bowl of hot rice, and makes you quiver inside” (137).

But Sadie had to leave Niodior for her own spiritual survival, to get away from social circumstances where her very birth was “a never-forgiven offence” (161). Even though “to leave is to die of absence”, a “geographical suicide”, she was (we see) driven towards a life elsewhere. Now, her “memory is [her] identity” (162, 161). Her resource and fulfilment is her writing. Sadie declares, “writing’s my witch’s cauldron; at night I brew up dreams too tough to cook” (3). She embraces her “hybrid” identity and refuses to relinquish either Africa or Europe – “writing is the hot wax I pour between the furrows dug by those who erect partitions on both sides” (182), she tells us.

Diome’s is a memorable novel and an important, even profound reflection on and analysis of exile – as of the mirages of the migrant’s dreams.