Contrasting Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s ‘In Dependence’ and Mariama Ba’s ‘Scarlet Song’
I read these books at around the same time and though published at different times, 2010 and 1981 respectively, they are both set around the same time period and have quite a number of similarities especially in themes and yet still quite different in their delivery which is fascinating for me.
In Dependence tells the story of a multiracial couple – Taiyo, from a poor Nigerian family, newly arrived at Oxford on scholarship, and Vanessa, from a wealthy British family and the daughter of a former colonial officer. They meet at University in the 1960s and quickly fall in love. They however have to negotiate their relationship against a background of race, racism and a tumultuous political environments. Vanessa’s father openly objects to the relationship and cautions them from pursuing ‘anything serious’. Circumstances force them apart for years until fate brings them back together.
Scarlet Song also tells the story of a multiracial couple – Ousmane, from a poor Senegalese family and Mireille, the daughter of a wealthy French diplomat serving in Senegal in the 1960s. Ousmane and Mireille also quickly fall in love and find themselves having to negotiate similar racial hurdles. When Mireilles father discovers this relationship, he ships Mireille back to France and they are forced apart for years. When they turn 18, they find their way back to each other and get married against their families’ opposition. But will it be a happy ending for them?
Both these books focus on interracial relationships with the Protagonists as African males from relatively poor backgrounds and wealthier European women. These characters try to navigate their love under very strenuous circumstances. Both books both cover issues of gender, race, polygamy, chauvinism, cultural identity, tradition vs. modernity and post-colonial African identity (negritude) and whilst I felt Manyika in ‘In Dependence’ was sensitive and sympathetic to Taiyo and Vanessa’s love, Ba in ‘Scarlet Song’ was brutal in her juxtaposition of Ousmane and Mireille’s Love and how they navigate their racially charged world.
Ba wrote Scarlet Song in her last days as she was battling illness and I could deduce from the harshness of the characters that she was frustrated. Frustrated at a world that was for her, coming to an end and yet still seemed so resistant and rigid, and this was reflected in her characters. Ousmane and Mireille were both rigid and uncompromising in their relationship – none was willing to compromise for the sake of the other or for their relationship. Mireille was stuck in her European ways and was unwilling to embrace the new culture she married into in Senegal. She expected Ousmane to conform and adopt the ‘French ways’- from folding of clothes to using a laundry basket to dine using a knife and fork. Ousmane on the other hand was stuck in his notion of blackness and what a black man should be and was hell bent on affirming his ‘Africanness’ which made him quite intolerable and inconsiderate.
It was not lost on me that this book was set in a time period at a time where the clamour for Independence was at its peak (Senegal having gained Independence from France in 1960), and this could have very well been an intimation of the kind of terse, uncompromising relationship between these two countries. Notably, France adopted the Assimilation Ideology in its colonisation of African states where they expected their colonial subjects to adopt the French language and culture, quite similar to what Mireille expected of Ousmane. West African countries strongly resisted this assimilation attempt which saw a rise in prominence of the Negritude movement. Quite reflective of Ousmane’s resistance to Mireille’s attempts.
Though most African countries adopted collaborative as opposed to antagonist relations with their former colonial imperialists, these relationships were heavy laden with mistrust and suspicion. In Scarlet Song, Ba was trying to interrogate these post-Independence relationships. Was it possible to see beyond colour and race? Beyond cultural differences? Beyond pre-conceived notions of each other and come together to build truly genuine relationships? The conclusion in Scarlet Song drew a very grim picture.
In contrast, Sarah Ladipo Manyika in In Dependence, writes from a place of hope which is equally reflective in her characters. Taiyo and Vanessa have a hopeful love. The kind of love you wish to have. Also set on the backdrop of Nigeria’s Independence and the subsequent political turmoil that soon followed, with multiple coups and counter coups that destabilized livelihoods, families and relationships. Taiyo and Vanessa are pulled apart in similar ways. While it is not politics that sets them apart in the first instance, it is politics and the ensuing instability that contributes to their continued separation and degradation of their relationship. But unlike Ousmane and Mireille, Taiyo and Vanessa remain hopeful. They remain in deep regard for each other even as the years roll on by and they move on with their lives. When they eventually find their way back to each other much later in life, there is hope there. Hope that love wins. That it is possible, in our differences to find spaces for each other.
What was striking for me in reading these two books was how glaringly these two authors are influenced by their personal circumstances to write very similar yet so very different books. Manyika is bi-racial; her father is Nigerian and her mother British. Her parents met and married in Britain in the 1960s, very similar to Taiyo and Vanessa, the protagonists in her book. And whilst In Dependence is not the story of her parents, it is evident that her hopeful stance in the book and the trajectory taken by the protagonists in navigating their love was heavily influenced by this relationship. How can one condescend to the very thing that explains your existence?
I’m grateful to both these women for writing these books that completely challenged my world view and in particular how I view inter-racial relationships. For these new lenses that I now wear, and the sensibilities and sensitivities that I adopt in navigate our multiracial, multicultural world.