Florence Ladd

Sarah’s Psalm

(Orig­i­nally published in Boston Maga­zine, June 1996)

Florence Ladd, director of the Bunting Insti­tute, Radcliffe College’s multi­dis­ci­pli­nary center for advanced study for women, has written a surpris­ingly romantic first novel. Sarah’s Psalm tells the story of Sarah, a woman who leaves behind her fami­ly’s aspi­ra­tions to a proper marriage and acad­emic success to follow her dream — to Senegal.

I had been thinking about women in my circum­stances,” says Ladd, a digni­fied, elegant, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, with pale brown skin and sparkling brown eyes. “Educated, priv­i­leged African-Amer­ican women — with a measure of priv­i­lege, that is — living produc­tive, well-supported lives.

At first I thought of doing a case study of some women I know. Then, on an acad­emic mission, I met a woman in Dakar, an Amer­ican woman in Africa, and my first sketch was a sketch of her. When I went back to Senegal, I wanted to inter­view her, but she didn’t wish to be inter­viewed. She told me that what I imag­ined about her life was more inter­esting than her life — that it was not her story, but my story. So she pushed me toward fiction, and she freed me to incor­po­rate some of myself.

Like Sarah, Ladd grew up in a well-educated, upper-middle-class family in Wash­ington, D.C., and pursued an acad­emic career. Ladd’s first husband was the inspi­ra­tion for Sarah’s first husband, a civil-rights activist. In the early sixties they lives in Istanbul, where James Baldwin, who also lived there, was a frequent visitor to their home. “But the book is fiction, fabri­cated and imag­ined,” says Ladd, who pursued a distin­guished acad­emic career — she was dean of students at Wellesley College before becoming director of the Bunting. In the novel, Sarah leaves that life behind when she falls in love with a great African poet, Ibrahim Mangane, and moves to Africa to share his life.

Ladd is a true story­teller, and Sarah’s story has the making of a modern myth. Sarah’s inde­pen­dent spirit and strong sense of herself is repeat­edly revealed in the book through color — the turquoise dresses she wears as a student, the coral color she paints the walls of her apart­ment in Boston, the bril­liant tones of the boubous that she sees and wears in Africa. Water is another recur­ring reflec­tion of Sarah’s inner life; her romance with Mangane begins by the sea.

The sea is a metaphor for trans­for­ma­tion, the possi­bility of crossing over, for becoming someone else, for change. Every time Sarah crosses the sea, it changes her. I believe in the uncon­scious and the way the uncon­scious enriches our inter­pre­ta­tions of life.”

Sarah’s Psalm has a cine­matic feel: Years flow by, backlit by real histor­ical events, height­ened by moments of intense emotion. “The story was there — the core of the story was some­thing I under­stood from the begin­ning. I had only my one month in the summer to work on it; it took six or seven Julys.” says Ladd, gesturing with her large, strong hands; the big opal ring on her right hand looks like pale green frag­ment of the sea.

I cried when I was writing the book — the power of some of those moments made me cry.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.