So Long a Letter, by Mariama Bâ

Another quick note on a book that I don’t want to leave uncommented on before going away for a week! This time it’s Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, the third title in my African Summer reading project. It’s very short—90 pages in paperback, although I read it online through ProQuest. Bâ was a Senegalese author known for her feminist politics and writing, and that really shows through in So Long a Letter, which is presented as exactly that: a long letter to Aissatou, the childhood best friend of our protagonist Ramatoulaye. Ramatoulaye’s husband, Modou Fall, has just died, and through her letter to Aissatou, the struggles of both women with their husbands’ decisions to take second wives are contrasted. So are their responses, as Ramatoulaye recalls how Aissatou left her husband rather than be humiliated, while she herself remained married to Modou (though living separately) and caring for the twelve children they had together.

Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are educated women, and the final two dozen pages of the novel or so become increasingly more explicit in their political content. Ramatoulaye advocates for more respect and liberality towards women from Senegalese society. I’ve seen this cited by some readers as being insufficiently integrated into plot and character, but I found an obvious reflection of this political stance in Ramatoulaye’s rejection of two marriage proposals after widowhood—one from her former brother-in-law and one from an old lover—and her refusal to condemn her daughter (also named Aissatou) when she becomes pregnant near the novel’s end. Her acerbic internal monologue during Modou’s funeral and wake is a particular pleasure; she bitingly comments on the hypocrisy and mercenary nature of traditional philanthropic gestures expected from and directed towards widows. Her suffering over Modou’s death is complex: she did at one point truly love him, but the pain of having to share his death with the second wife, Binetou—whom we later learn was a schoolmate of her daughter’s, whose own mother pushed her into an illicit relationship and then marriage for financial gain—accounts for a considerable amount of her distress. It is unabashedly a question of pride, and Bâ puts the reader so thoroughly in Ramatoulaye’s shoes, and mind, that her pride appears thoroughly justified. Her habit of tallying herself against Binetou (she notes that they both receive the same amount of money, although she has given Modou thirty years and twelve children, while Binetou has given him only five and three, respectively) is not generous, but then, why should she be generous?

There are a few good men in the novel—Ramatoulaye’s early love, Daouda, and her daughter Aissatou’s boyfriend Ibrahim are both decent, kind people—but the failure of men to accord women basic respect, even in a society where educated women aren’t unheard of, is the heart of the novel’s sadness, I think. When Daouda says that women are allowed to be parliamentarians now, Ramatoulaye reminds him that of over a hundred seats, women hold only four. By contrast, love, community and friendship among women is the answer to the pain and alienation that men cause: as the novel closes, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are about to meet again after a long separation, and Ramatoulaye looks forward with joy to teasing her beloved friend. Overall, a novel whose slender size belies its emotional impact; I’m really glad to have read it.

5 thoughts on “So Long a Letter, by Mariama Bâ

  1. When is the novel set? I wonder if it is still like that. (Mind you, I come from a supposedly progressive but still very macho and misogynistic society).

    1. Published in 1989, and doesn’t seem to be set noticeably further back than that. It does strike me also as an interesting portrait of a society emerging from colonialism and trying to figure out what it should like after that, with all the implications for treatment of women.

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