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Filtered Through Africa : SARAH'S PSALM. By Florence Ladd (Scribner: $22, 320 pp.)

August 25, 1996|Karen Grigsby Bates | Karen Grigsby Bates is a frequent contributor to The Times' Op-Ed page and has traveled throughout West Africa

Ever since she was a little girl, entranced by the tales of a sailor uncle who'd traveled the world, Sarah Stewart had dreamed of Africa. Specifically, she'd dreamed of Senegal, the lush country on West Africa's westernmost coast, where once, her Uncle George told her, he'd glimpsed a girl who could have been her identical twin. It was then that Sarah determined she would reach Senegal one day: "The idea of another self--an alter ego--in Senegal had stirred my curiosity about the country and the rest of Africa."

While her peers "cut out paper dolls, I clipped African scenes from Life and National Geographic. . . . In college, I attended lectures on African politics and scanned newspapers and magazines, libraries and bookstores for anything on Africa. I was entranced by African art. Percussive rhythms of magical African music drummed quietly in my mind."

When, as a graduate student in African literature at Harvard, Sarah marries Lincoln Thompson, a childhood friend from her firmly bourgeois Washington, D.C., social circle, both her parents and her husband assume she will dutifully pack away her African dreams. Instead, her longing for Senegal and her need to study a brilliant but obscure author-filmmaker, Ibrahim Mangane, grow stronger. "You're completely obsessed," Lincoln says.

Against the wishes of her family and husband, Sarah journeys to Senegal. Even as she flies toward her dream destination, surrounded by African travelers, Sarah realizes, as do many African Americans who visit West Africa for the first time, that there is much familiar in the country of our ancestors:

"It was then that I began to understand the emotional meaning of Negritude. Until that moment, [the idea] had been merely an intellectual exercise. I looked about me and felt the connection between the spirit of my African fellow travelers and the soul that animates African American culture. The bearing of the Africans and their mode of conversation had an element of familiarity. . . ."

In an initial exploration through Dakar's bustling central market, the American part of Sarah marvels at the exotic sights, sounds and unmistakable smell of West Africa, "a heavy blend of bougainvillea, overripe fruit, smoked fish and the sweat of human flesh," even as she smiles at the flashes of familiarity. "A pout, smirk or smile. A forehead or pair of eyes, the proud tilt of a chin, firm skin, rich brown coloring, folded arms, confident gait, reminded me of my grandmothers and great aunts." Ladd's descriptions of the landscape and people are highly evocative, enough so to strike a plangent chord of homesickness within people who have traveled to and love this part of the continent.

Sarah eventually meets her elusive doctoral subject; indeed, she's speedily absorbed into the wealthy, impeccably run Mangane household, thanks to the sisterly attention of Ibrahim's young wife, Mariama, who presciently decides that the jeune Americiane is exactly the person to bring her husband the broader global recognition all of Senegal is convinced he deserves.

In the course of the summer, Sarah, somewhat predictably, finds herself falling in love with the great man. Her attraction to Ibrahim seems directly related to the realization that her marriage to her "suitable" American husband is finished. After returning to America, she and Lincoln reluctantly decide that a divorce is best. Alone, Sarah despairs of ever hearing from Ibrahim. Then a tragedy takes her back to Senegal for good and starts her on her second life, the African life she has been moving toward.

I found myself liking Ladd's finely crafted story much more than I did her heroine. For much of the book, Sarah is too irritatingly self-absorbed for anyone to become attached to her. Although her intentions are good, she sails through life--her own and others--doing what she wants, heedless (or at any rate, not mindful enough) of the effect her actions have beyond herself. (Why marry if she was unsure she and her husband were compatible? Why have an affair with Ibrahim in the very household his wife has welcomed her into?)

Despite these reservations, this book is a valuable addition to the ever-widening world of African American letters. For one thing, Ladd gives a welcome--and far too infrequently seen--glimpse of privileged black life in both Washington and Dakar as viewed through the eyes of the members of that class rather than the eyes of a startled white observer. For another, Ladd's chronicle of Sarah's transit from bookish ingenue to Ibrahim's handmaiden-muse to outspoken advocate for women's and children's rights spans several decades and reflects, in part, the struggles evolving both in the United States and in some newly independent African nations. And she does quite well in relating the conflicting reception that so many African Americans experience when they eagerly embrace Africa and Africans to discover, ironically, the African belief that their American cousins are not quite "black" enough.

Ladd's readers might find themselves captivated enough by her description of Sarah's journeys to Senegal and to her own interior that they, too, are inspired to travel to Africa. "I understand the importance of finding the place where your soul wants to settle, living in a place where you can live with your true self," Sarah assures her youngest son. Would that we were all as lucky as she in discovering that place.

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