Posts Tagged ‘scarlet song’

Lost Books – Scarlet Song

August 12, 2021

I first read Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter in the 1980s, not long, therefore, after it was originally published in French in 1979. It seemed clear even then that it was an important work of African literature, and therefore surprising that little else of Ba’s work was visible. (This was a time when finding information on any writer, never mind an African writer, was far from straight forward). Almost forty years later, having failed to take advantage of the proliferation of the internet in the meantime to investigate this further, I was both surprised and excited to encounter a second novel by Ba casually slanted on a second-hand bookshop shelf: Scarlet Song. Of course, now I know that this was both Ba’s second and final novel, published in 1981, the same year that she died at the age of fifty-two.

Scarlet Song (translated by Dorothy S Blair in 1985) does not adopt the epistolary format of So Long a Letter, nor does it initially seem concerned with the lives of women, focusing instead on Ousmane, the son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family, who has the opportunity to escape poverty through a university education. Ousmane has worked hard to reach this point, rejecting other temptations such as falling in love, especially after an early rebuff:

“Whenever he felt himself beginning to fancy any girl, after the Ouleymatou experience, the memory of her mocking indifference and his own disillusionment had made him fiercely determined to nip any emotional attachment in the bud.”

This begins to change when he befriends Mireille, the daughter of a French diplomat, in his final year of high school. Though it is nothing more than a friendship, when the final exams are over, he finds himself thinking about her more and more frequently until “never a day now passed without his dreaming of her, her quivering lips became the focal point of his desire.” He allows himself this fantasy in the belief that they are unlikely to see each other again but when he arrives at university, he discovers that Mireille has declined the chance to continue her education in France and now, finally, he allows himself to fall in love

“Ousmane Gueye, who had mistrusted all women, threw himself at the mercy of a woman, and a white woman at that.”

Their relationship blossoms but Ousmane can’t help but wonder if they are compatible:

“Was he a possible partner for Mireille? Could he assume such a mutation?”

Both keep the relationship secret from their families. Ousmane tells his mother that the photograph of Mireille in his room is that of a film star; but when Mireille’s father discovers a photograph of Ousmane in his daughter’s possession, inscribed to her with love, he takes the drastic step of sending her back to France. Mireille’s father’s attitude may seem typical of the time, but Ousmane’s mother’s opposition, which becomes clear when Ousmane and Mireille marry when he finishes university, is for equally selfish reasons:

“A Toubab can’t be a proper daughter-in-law. She’ll only have eyes for her man. We’ll mean nothing to her.”

Ba’s novel is not so much about racism as it is about the clash of the two cultures. We have some warning of this when Ousmane is discussing Negritude with his friends; “I’m for returning to your roots and keeping the way open.” Once married, Ousmane wants to live as a Senegalese husband, eating in every room in the house, using a spoon rather than a fork, inviting his friends over and expecting Mireille to be at their beck and call. The change in their relationship is dramatic:

“We saw everything through the same eyes before we were married… But now we seem to be divided over everything.”

That Ousmane’s mother is constantly visiting, throwing her toothpicks on the floor, and making her displeasure at Mireille evident does not help. In the novel’s final section, Ousmane returns to his first love, Ouleymatou, and there is a growing sense that the two relationships cannot continue to exist concurrently for long.

Scarlet Song is a novel of its time, but the tensions created when individuals from different cultural backgrounds marry is not something that has been ‘solved’ in the last forty years. As in So Long a Letter, Ba’s real anger is directed at the way women are treated, which she emphasises by inflicting the traditional role of a Senegalese wife on a white woman, demonstrating how ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ can reinforce both privilege and subservience. This, she demonstrates, is perpetuated by both men and women. Discovering this novel, one can’t help but wonder how Ba’s work would have progressed had she lived to continue writing.