“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.
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.
As an artist, Alessandro De Francesco seeks to redefine our approach to life. His poems both illuminate and obscure. What emerges from this is an unrestricted multidimensional art that imitates life itself, rejecting interpretation while pulling the viewer into an intense swirling dance, each step affording insight that underscores the fullness of the dance. To engage with De Francesco’s work is to discard our clumsy pedestrian need to understand and embrace instead, the experience of the dance and the infinite spaces it leads us.
ABR: Most people view poetry through a purely literary lens, reading, listening and attempting to understand or make a text poem relevant to the self. What inspired you to expand that vision? And what inspired your unique approach to poetry?
De Francesco: Yes, I don’t think that poetry is a matter of understanding or communicating, nor is it a direct expression of the self. In my opinion poetry is a matter of experience. As you know, poïein in ancient Greek means “to do,” and Dichtung, the German word for poetry, belongs to the semantical field of “density.” So my approach to poetry comes from the making, the density of the experience, and the –sometimes-painful though always joyful – opening to the real. Why can’t all this be called an expression of the self? Because this experience multiplies the identity and deconstructs the fictional unity of the subject, that is to say its psychological, social, racial, ideological (etc.) rigidity. Poetry performs a multiplication of the subject towards what the Italian poet Antonio Porta called a “field of tensions”. The self is no more a reflexive unity, but an infinite field of tensions in the flux of experience.
ABR: So poetry and the process of making poetry helps destabilize the notion that each person is one single identity who fits into various social constructs e.g. An Algerian woman, a short man, etc.?
De Francesco: Poetry, or at least good poetry, invites a certain collectivity to make a real and perceptual experience of language. That is why it is not a question of understanding: we have to get rid of this rigid hermeneutical cliché according to which poetry, and especially modern poetry, is obscure. It is not obscure if, as Stéphane Mallarmé stated, we don’t read a poem as we read the newspaper, but rather read to change the reading perspective. Maybe this is what really distinguishes poetry from fiction. For the same reason, poetry is not a matter of communication, because in order to communicate we have to suppose the existence of a codified language. This codified language can be stupid, like in advertising and mass-media politics, or very important, like in the verbal communication between lovers, friends, patient and therapist, you and me in this interview, etc. But whether bad or good, communication doesn’t have a particular relation to poetry. Poetry makes something different, it radically and permanently disrupts the codes in order to produce what I call an alter-legibility and an alter-sayability of language. To sum up what I am trying to say: what inspired my approach to poetry, and I would even say my choice to try to be a poet, is a parallelcognitive and political anxiety against formatted linguistic codes and narratives.
ABR: How would you describe the goals of Augmented writing? What are you trying to achieve with such works?
De Francesco: With Augmented Writing I try to create a new language art device, where what I called the alter-legibility and the alter-sayability of the experience of thinking, writing and reading are in a way revealed in their primary matter and chaotic, layered form. Augmented Writing has several sections and purposes but all its different articulations converge towards creating a sort of new literary genre that is able to recreate, redefine and criticize the amount of perceptual data and thoughts we are immersed in everyday… video games, smartphones, 3D cinema, google-glasses, Facebook, but also, mass-media information. All these aim to produce a codified, normalized and pre-defined image of reality on one hand and of our identity on the other hand.
ABR: So things like Facebook, movies, news sources and so on present us with a single ‘normal’ way to view the world and ourselves?
De Francesco: Mass-media information, for example, gives a codified representation of a series of events, selecting information and reorienting a fictional “post-experience” as close as possible to when the event occurred. And it’s strangely easy to forget that this representation is often shaped by a certain ideology and/or by the pressures exerted by this or that form of power.
Augmented Writing is itself modified, perturbed and reshaped by such technologies and narratives, so that this device aims to give a poetical form to the vulnerable status of language in the era of representation.
I used the term language art. In that sense a major purpose of Augmented Writing is also to massively bring text and language again into contemporary art and, by the same token, to make a contemporary art audience aware of the possibilities of language and poetry as powerful artistic devices to question the realm of image and representation. Continue reading “Redefining Poetry: An Interview With Alessandro De Francesco.”→