“You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.” – Pg 58
So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel written in the voice of Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese school teacher. Addressed to her best friend Aissatou, the letters chronicle Ramatoulaye’s emotional journey after her husband’s second marriage and his unexpected death. Written in a refreshingly forthright manner, the novel avoids usual narrative arcs (a beginning, climax and end) from the onset, the reader is aware of what has occurred to fuel Ramatoulaye’s letters.
In her first letter, Ramatoulaye writes to Aissatou, “Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow.” The novel occupies the gap between these two sentences, as Bâ explores topics from African feminism to the intertwined relationship of tradition and religion and its implications for women such as Ramatoulaye, caught between a ‘new’ post-colonial Senegal and an allegiance to the patriarchal values that nourished her upbringing. Ramatoulaye’s thoughts reveal her to be a strong woman persevering under an oppressive patriarchy, shaped to some extent by societal, marital and religious traditions.
She writes “Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? …. I had lost my slim figure. My stomach protruded from the wrapper…. Suckling had robbed my breasts of their round firmness. I could not delude myself: youth was deserting my body.”
These depictions of her female body as a vessel for bearing children are conflated with knowledge of the limitations placed on women by society. While conversing with a male friend who works at the National Assembly, she fiercely rebuts a passive sexist remark:
Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of our women, their disinterested commitment, have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power… When will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?
Though Ramatoulaye seems to dwell in virtual isolation, suspended between different ideologies and isolated by the practical realities of raising young children while mourning a dead husband and failed relationship, the reader never feels alone. Indeed, it often feels like Ramatoulaye is addressing not Aissatou but the reader. Her sufferings are not over, as her daughter points out, but she has not finished living either. In fact, it rather feels that Ramatoulaye is entering a new, promising epoch by the end of the novel.
Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter is a cornerstone of African feminisms, written brilliantly with calm and passionate intelligence, and it should be read by anyone tired of MFA poetry or empty fiction. Bâ was relevant yesterday and is relevant today.
Translated to English by Modupe Bode-Thomas
Jade Yeung was born and raised in Brooklyn. She received her BA in English at Hunter College. She reads literary fiction, poetry published before the 1980’s, and compelling non-fiction. When she’s not working one of several jobs in publishing and food, she likes to cook and listen to podcasts.