“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.
The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.
ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?
ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.
ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)
ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.
ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?
ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.
Who: Deola Bello
What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.
Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.
Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.
Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97
A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations. A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.
We were fortunate enough to get an interview with the author of our first review (A Long Way Gone), Ishmael Beah. We had a great conversation, not only was Beah gracious in accommodating our probing questions into the intense emotionality behind the book, but also astute in discussing Sierra Leone today, his hopes for his country, and efforts to make it a place that matches those hopes.
ARB: While reading A LONG WAY GONE, we were both moved and intrigued by the way you wove past and present to provide a fuller narrative. How was the process of going back and sorting through your memories to put the book together?
BEAH: It was very difficult to relive the memories of the war during the writing of the book. It was also the first time that I had allowed myself to delve back fully into what had happened as I needed to relive it again to be able to write it with the same emotions, feelings of the boy I had been in the war.
I wanted the reader come along the journey, to see hear, smell, and be close to what it felt like.
Of course this brought about nightmares and flashbacks again. I am happy that I did though; it is a small price, remembering, however difficult it was during writing, to pay so that people can know the story.
I survived and that comes with a responsibility.
So I wrote all I could remember and double checked the memories. The ones I doubted, I threw out and of course I also decided to leave out some things so that the book didn’t become a celebration of violence but rather showing what violence does to the human spirit.