So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ: 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. Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.
A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta: Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They live in a beautiful house, with a caring family, and attend an exclusive missionary school. They’re completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, things are less perfect than they appear.
Maru by Bessie Head: A moving and magical tale of an orphaned girl, Margaret Cadmore, who goes to teach in a remote village in Botswana where her own people are kept as slaves. Her presence polarizes a community that does not see her people as human, and condemns her to the lonely life of an outcast. In the love story and intrigue that follows Head brilliantly combines a portrait of loneliness with a rich affirmation of the mystery and spirituality of life.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: This stunning first novel, set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, centers on the coming of age of a teenage girl, Tambu, and her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu, who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village, especially the predetermined lives of women, thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price.
July’s People by Nadine Godimer: Set against a fictional civil war during the aparatheid in South Africa, Godimer’s second novel covers a middle-class family of white liberals in South Africa fleeing the horrors of a large scale revolution started by blacks who then find safety in their black servant’s village.
The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Amy Lukau, a poet of Angolan descent whose poem touched on love, loss, and resolving the tensions that come with both.
ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?
LUKAU: What inspires me to write poetry is the injustice prevalent in our world. Similarly, the beautiful moments found in life.
To be present in the world is a reactionary endeavor
This fact alone is the sole impetus of my inspiration for poetry. Everything inspires my work, from cooking, global news, civil unrest, a conversation between strangers on the bus when I’m on my way to work or school, you name it. Taking a seemingly banal subject such as cooking or cleaning (although to some it may be enjoyable) and giving it new meaning- a nuanced purpose- are some of the things I live for in my creative work. I always attempt to push my writing beyond the boundaries of what most people would think possible via form and content.
LUKAU: “Thoughts of Isaac” is a deeply personal poem. The inspiration for the piece was the passing of a friend who was a potential ‘lover,’ for lack of a better term. He was killed in an auto accident four years ago. This poem was homage to him and what could have been if he were still alive. The religious overtones are my way of coping—I believe there is power of allusion.
Being able to speak of oneself and close encounters without giving too much away. This is one of the many reasons why I write: I can used codified language to articulate personal experiences. A novel take on confessional poetry? Maybe…
ABR: As a poet of Angolan descent, how has Angola influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Angola is? What ideally would you like it to be?
LUKAU: Being a poet of Angolan descent has had a definite impact on my work. My father immigrated to the United States to escape the communist government in Angola. Similarly, my mother’s family immigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire and before that the Belgian Congo). I consider myself in a lot of respects a bi-product of the transnational border scene.
Identity becomes complicated to those not intimately familiar of where I am coming from. I grew up in Arizona, a state in Southwestern United States where Spanish is spoken as much as English is. Saying this I do not know what the future of Angolan poetry is, I do know it has been one of resistance. Resisting colonial rule from the Portuguese to declaring independence in the 70s to espousing communism.
I would like all poetry in Angola and elsewhere to be a space where people can express themselves freely without fear of prosecution from governments. I believe poets play a salient role in society, to steal a quote from Salman Rushidie, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”
ABR: Do you have any favorite African books? Any that have particularlyinfluenced you or that you love for some reason?
LUKAU: I do! I love the book “So Long A Letter” by Mariama Ba. It’s relatively short but so powerful and beautifully written. Ba addresses a lot of societal issues in the book while remaining witty— it’s a wonderful read. This book influenced me because I read it about six years ago for a course I was taking on women in Islamic Africa. It shows and explicates how sometimes religion and culture become indefinable.
Books that I have also read lately include “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “We Need New Names” by Noviolet Bulawayo. I also love the poem “Immigration RSVP” by Lemn Sissay. I loved his anthology which I read about seven months ago “The Fire People: Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets.” This is not an exhaustive list but some of the work I’ve been reading by African authors as of late.
ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?
LUKAU: Some things that I am working on involve a lot of translational elements. An attempt to blur the ‘lines’ between collective memory and reality. It’s a concept that continually appears in my work and I am attempting to put together cohesive work on the topic. Other than that, poet plays which have been a lot of fun.
Amy Lukau was born in Tucson, Arizona to Angolan parents. She graduated from Arizona State University with a BS in Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology & a BA in Religious Studies with certificates in Islamic Studies and Religion & Conflict. She is the Executive Director of Girls Education International, a non-profit organization based in Colorado that supports educational opportunities for underserved females in remote and underdeveloped regions of the world. Amy is currently an MFA candidate in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
“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.