📖 🇸🇳 #63: An epistolary novel from Senegal
Mariama Bâ's West African classic
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Mariama Bâ’s semi-autobiographical So Long a Letter is set in post-1960 independent Senegal and written from the perspective of a teacher called Ramatoulaye. Taking the form of an extended letter addressed to Ramatoulaye’s best friend Aissatou, So Long a Letter explores the role of women in post-colonial West Africa. Originally published in French in 1979, it won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa the following year and is widely considered a feminist classic.
We meet Ramatoulaye shortly after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, Moudou. She begins her letter to Aissatou during iddah, the forty-day mourning process observed by Muslim Senegalese widows. Ramatoulaye begins by detailing the circumstances of Moudou’s death and goes on to reflect on their marriage. It’s not long before she gets onto the subject of polygamy, revealing that after thirty years of marriage Moudou married their daughter’s school best friend in secret.
And to think I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In addition to loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
Like Ramatoulaye, Aissatou was hurt when her husband took a second wife. Unlike Ramatoulaye, Aissatou divorced her husband and moved to the US to become an ambassador. Though Ramatoulaye respects her friend’s position, she could never bring herself to leave Moudou and remained unhappily married to him until his death. “Even though I understand your stand,” she writes to Aissatou, “even though I respect the choice of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage.”
At just 95-pages long, So Long A Letter offers a nuanced critique of polygamy and a deft exploration of the challenges faced by women in post-colonial Senegal. Ramatoulaye, who was educated through a Westernised school system, finds herself grappling with whole host of issues the women who came before her simply didn’t face. I especially loved her voice: though Ramatoulaye is bitter about her situation and angry at her husband, her delivery is wonderfully dry. For example, when a man approaches her with a declaration of his love in the wake of Moudou’s death, she simply quips, “A woman can always predict a declaration of this kind.”
I loved So Long a Letter. I found it smart and thought-provoking and it has inspired me to seek out more stories written during times of transition. I’m also thrilled to have discovered Bâ, a women’s rights activist who believed that books and reading were the key to women’s liberation. If you’re interested in learning more, this profile in the Paris Review is great.
So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated by Modupe Bode-Thomas (Heinemann, 1981 / Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines du Sénégal, 1979)
More books by Senegalese authors:
Scarlet Song by Mariama Bâ, tr. Dorothy S. Blair
Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris, tr. Vera Wulfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop
The Abandoned Baobab by Ken Bugul, tr. Marjolijn De Jager
The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome, tr. Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz
The Beggars' Strike by Aminata Sow Fall, tr. Dorothy S. Blair
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, tr. Katherine Woods
Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, tr. Alexia Trigo
Xala by Ousmane Sembène, tr. Clive Wake
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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