This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable.Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter is an epistolary novella dealing with issues surrounding women’s rights in Senegal, and it’s the second January selection for the Year of Feminist Classics project. The novel is written in the form of a long better from a recently widowed woman, Ramatoulaye, to her best friend, Aîssatou. The two women have had to deal with similar situations in their marriages. I don’t want to give the whole story away, so suffice to say that they have reacted very differently to the tradition of men acquiring a second wife. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that the way they experienced these events intellectually and emotionally was all that different at all.
So Long a Letter is an insightful and subtle novella, and it packs a lot in just under a hundred pages. It moves beyond Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou’s individual stories to analyse the wider social, cultural, political and religious climate that encourages women to be thought of as disposable. I’m sure I would have gotten a lot more out of this aspect of the book if I had more context when it comes to Senegalese culture and political history, but that’s of course my failing rather than Bâ’s.
What spoke to me the most, then, was the way Mariama Bâ subtly compares and contrasts the stories of Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou’s lives. It probably goes without saying that I love feminism, and that I feel nothing but complete gratitude and appreciation for the ongoing work of giving women full human status, not merely in words but also in deeds. And yet there’s sometimes the danger that some person or other’s definition of feminism will become a new mould into which women are expected to fit – which is the last thing we want to happen. It was with relief, then, that I noticed that So Long a Letter did a wonderful job of avoiding this trap by having two characters react to their husbands’ bigamy differently and casting no judgement or accusations on either one of them.
Yes, life goes better for one of these women, and it’s not difficult to venture a guess as to where Mariama Bâ’s sympathies mainly lie. Yet I felt that she was saying, “There’s this, and there’s also this”. The solution isn’t one course of action or the other: life is far too complex for that. Instead, both choices are presented as valid possibilities and taken seriously accordingly. Some women will be able to take previously inconceivable revolutionary steps, while others will follow convention while suffering in silence inside. But both deserve our respect, and we can’t really dismiss the latter as unwilling or unable to contribute to social change.
This is also connected with Bâ’s unflinching exploration of the role women themselves play in perpetuating the social climate in which misogyny thrives. I imagine that it’s very difficult to do this without coming across as believing that women “bring it onto themselves” or any other such silly notion, but again, I think Bâ manages splendidly. As the passage I shared at the beginning of this post says, their behaviour is conditioned, and this is not an easy cycle to break away from.
And yet (spoilers ahead) I absolutely loved that Ramatoulaye did break the cycle in her own way. Her reaction to her daughter’s pregnancy is a first step in this direction. Yes, she still cares about the convention that demands that women be chaste and modest and pay close attention to their reputations, but she’s able to give her child the love and support she needs instead of shaming her. This might not be the kind of action that is usually perceived as a contribution to social change, but it’s certainly no small start.
They read it too: Winstondad’a Weblog, Evening All Afternoon, Amy Reads, Dragonfly419, Rat’s Reading, Rebecca Reads, Baffled Books
And don’t forget to check the Year of Feminist Classics blog for more thoughts and perspectives.