(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