Academic journal article French Literature Series

Fatou Diome's le Ventre De l'Atlantique: From Island Girl to Atlantic Woman

Academic journal article French Literature Series

Fatou Diome's le Ventre De l'Atlantique: From Island Girl to Atlantic Woman

Article excerpt

The novel's protagonist, Salie, is born out of wedlock into the rigidly traditional society of Niodior, a small Senegalese island. Salie experiences limitations based on her social status and, especially, her gender. These limitations, in turn, guide her need to define her identity and her role and purpose as a migrant to France. The protagonist's story marks an important contribution to immigration/exile discourses in that it exposes how gender, in general, and girlhood, in particular, can be powerful motivators leading to migration in addition to more frequently discussed causes such as finding (better) employment or pursuing educational opportunities.

Fatou Diome's first novel, Le ventre de l'Atlantique (The Belly of the Atlantic) was published in France in 2003 and became an instant success.1 The author, born in 1968 on the small Senegalese island Niodior, was raised by her grandmother, moved to the city of M'Bour to attend high school at age thirteen, and eventually began studies in Dakar. She migrated to France when, as a twenty-two-year-old, she married a French man. After her marriage ended, she relocated to Strasbourg where she studied to receive a doctorate in literature. Her first publication, La préférence nationale (The National Preference) is a collection of short stories that appeared in 2001. She still resides in Strasbourg and hosted a monthly cultural TV show (Sleepless Night) from fall 2004 to fall 2006.

It is tempting to see and emphasize the many parallels between the author's biography and events narrated in The Belly of the Atlantic and thus to treat it as an autobiographical novel.2 My emphasis here, however, is on the fictional work, and on exploring how the narrator's story - a girl's story - informs our thinking about emigration or migration from Senegal to France, about relations between the two countries, and about the challenges that the traditional society on Niodior faces in the twenty-first century. On the surface, Diome's novel emerges as a text that appears to be mostly about soccer.3 Indeed, soccer anchors the narrative in time and with reference to actual events: between June 29th, 2000 - the day Italy and Holland play to compete for the European Cup - and June 18th, 2002, when South Korea plays Italy in the World Cup. The performance of then soccer idols like Platini (French) and Maldini (Italian) are constant topics in the phone conversations between the narrator and her younger brother. While soccer is an important element for both the structure and the content of the narrative, it is not its only dimension. A central concern within the novel highlights how traditions and practices of gendering affect children and their respective individual male and female futures and roles in society, as well as their roles as Senegalese emigrants to France.

Diome's narrator exemplifies and confirms some ideas of girlhood as they are currently held by scholars in this emergent field of inquiry. Mary Celeste Kearney, for instance, describes girlhood "as a fluid discursive construct which female youth variously negotiate" that - importantly - casts doubts on ideas about girlhood (or boyhood, for that matter) "as a fixed identity that is biologically determined" (19). If girlhood is not a rigid category, then there is a multitude of ways in which girlhood is lived and performed. In Kearney's words, the various forms of girlhood "depend on not only the material bodies performing girlhood, but also the specific social and historical contexts in which those bodies are located" (19). Showing how this "performance" plays out for Diome's island girl is the subject of this article.

Salie, the novel's protagonist, comes into the world three times. The first instance occurs early and hints at Salie's "irregular" status: "Madické and I have the same mother. People who only love by halves will tell you he's my half-brother, but to me he's my little brother and that's that" (6). As becomes clear later, Salie is an illegitimate child. …

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