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from the October 2007 issue

Fatou Diome’s “The Belly of the Atlantic”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

"How each of us manages to make more evident his own resistance. For that is the way a man comes to core. By way of, the discovery of, his own resistance. (It is also, mark you, the way a poet – at least – makes himself of USE to society." – Charles Olson.

The third-world native must leave home if he is not only to succeed but also triumph. If he does so, he can never be at home again. Salie, the Senegalese native, who narrates The Belly of the Atlantic, says on a visit to Niodior, the Senegalese island where she was born, that, "I go home as a tourist in my own country, for I have become the other for the people I continue to call my family." When she checks into a hotel on the mainland, the clerk thinks she is a prostitute and asks when her client will arrive to pay for the room. No Senegalese woman can afford a room of her own.

To leave in the first place is to succeed and it denies any possibility of failure. "Leaving means having the courage necessary to go and give birth to one's self," Salie notes. He becomes the beacon for those who follow and assumes responsibility to ease their passage. "The collective memory," Salie notes, "keeps trotting out the old adage: what belongs to each, belongs to all." To fail is to fail the village. It is their defeat as much if not more than his own. "In leaving the village, he chooses it as his own," John Berger writes. Not until the native leaves does he know where he has come from. He may not see his uncle again.

Salie had to leave. "The traditional community is of course a great comfort," Salie thinks, "but it drags you down and smothers you....They'll beat the whitey individualist out of you and marginalise you." Only in France will she have the freedom to live the life she wants, but she knows that, "In Europe, you're black first, citizens incidentally, outsiders permanently." From now on she will be white to those on the island but will always remain black in France.

She becomes a successful writer in France, a moderate feminist she calls herself, "who wants to be Madame Curie in high heels," and has been seen on television in Niodior. Her step-brother, Madicke, in particular, looks to her to help him get to France so that he can try out for the French national football team. Football is his life and his ticket off the island as education had been hers.

Knowing the difficulties of success, she repeats the cautionary tale Ndetiare, her teacher, tells his students to discourage them from thinking football is an escape, citing the example of Moussa, a footballer from the island who failed to make French teams. Moussa had an unscrupulous agent and finds himself with a debt he can never erase, which he must chip away the rest of his life with backbreaking labor. In leaving Niodior he had triumphed, but he will never return having conquered France and cannot let his family know he has failed. Madicke calls her selfish and accuses her of having become a European, "an individualist."

Although Salie understands his need to seek possibility and freedom he cannot have at home, she sees her choice to be different from his. He may succeed as a footballer, but he will always be used and used up by the colonial country. She sees this most clearly in the French reaction to Senegal's defeat of France in the World Cup, which refuses to acknowledge any ability of the victors. As a writer, Salie may succeed in the marketplace of ideas and keep her independence in France. She sends Madicke money to open a store.

"I don't have a magic wand to part the waters," she thinks. "I have only a pen that tries to forge a path that he can't take." One that has taken her away from home irrevocably, even though she cannot leave home, in fact, cannot. "I carry an invisible theatre inside me," she writes, "teeming with ghosts. Only memory offers me its stage," which includes her grandmother who supported her to continue in school, "the beacon rising up from the belly of the Atlantic that sets my solitary navigation on course"; her teacher, Ndetiare (an exile from France), who gave her the necessary tools to be a writer; her family and land. She understands that the freedom she enjoys in France is nothing unless it includes those she left behind.

"I seek my country on a white page," she comments, "a notebook that can fit into my travel bag." Departure, she adds, is the only horizon left. For Salie, the country she seeks must, of necessity, include the one she has left (the scar every exile rubs); confrontation of the colonial country which has denied her own life; a dream of utopia ("where they appreciate people with complex identities"). "For the man who no longer has a homeland," Theodor Adorno writes, "writing becomes a place to live." In her criticism of a France which continues to exploit Senegal and her search for a better society, writing is also, as Olson argues, how Diome becomes of use. "As if every second spent in front of the computer was an act of resistance."

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.

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