Jan 27, 2011

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

So Long a Letter

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.


nishitak said...

This is such a lovely review...I had to comment. You have sold me on this book with your very thoughtful review.

Vivienne said...

Did I read epistolary? I am there. The storyline reminds me a little of Aminatta Forna's storyline in Ancestor Stones. Definitely one I would read.

litlove said...

Wonderful review, Nymeth. This is a fantastic book and I hope more people will read it now, thanks to the feminist classics group.

Oh and do hope you are feeling much better now!

Debi said...

Oh my, there are so many things in your review that made me fall in love with this book before even having picked it up.

And I am again reminded how much I need to go read all the discussion at the Year of Feminist Classics.

winstonsdad said...

I enjoyed this book it tackles a tricky subject in africa for a lot of women and loved the letter format for it ,all the best stu

Jenny said...

I want to read more African women authors this year, and I am determined I'm going to do it. I've got a book by Tsitsi Dangarembga out of the library at the moment -- unfortunately it's the second of a two-book sequence, but I'm hoping I don't need to have read the first one to understand. :/

Zibilee said...

I read Amy's review of this a few weeks ago, and coupled with yours, I think this is something I need to read. The plight of the women in the story is intriguing to me, and I am curious as to how they both deal with the issue of the bigamy that encroaches on their lives. This was a great review, Ana, and I am going to be adding this to my list! Thanks for making me think.

dragonflyy419 said...

You really nailed Ba's non-judgmental attitude towards the two women, though as you said you can see where her sympathies lie. I didn't really think of it in that way at first, but you are so right about the fact that Ba handles the two characters in an amazingly respectful fashion.

Nymeth said...

Nishitak: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy the book.

Vivienne: That's a magic word for me as well :P I haven't read Ancestor Stones but it does sound interesting!

litlove: Thank you! I'm feeling considerably better now :) I'm very thankful that Amy picked this for the reading group, as it's bringing it to the attention of so many readers who might have missed it otherwise (myself included).

Debi: I think you'd enjoy this book a lot. And you should considering joining us one of these months :P

Stu: I loved the better format too! But then I always do.

Jenny: I hope it does make sense on its own!

Zibilee: Their different reactions were written with such respect - Bâ did a great job making them both fully human. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book!

Dragonfly419: That's what really made the book for me.

Emily Jane said...

I agree: both characters really are treated respectfully despite their very different ways of dealing, which is one of the book's major strengths. I like your discussion about the need to be wary of buying into any sort of singular feminist mould, if you will--so important! I think Ba illustrated this, and so much more, so well.

Emily said...

I really agree with you on the strength of Bâ’s politics, Ana - in particular, as you point out, her attention to the small, individual-level ways in which women can choose either to contribute to or resist the oppression of women collectively. Also loved the connections she drew between oppression by foreign power and oppression of a certain group of people within a country.

Given the short length of the novella and its emphasis on politics, I was maybe slightly less impressed by the actual character development...what did other people think? Ramatoulaye had a good, consistent narrative voice, but none of the characters ever seemed quite fully rounded to me. Still, it presented a lot to think about!

Kailana said...

This does sound really good, but I am not sure when I will get around to it. I had it in mind when I saw it for the January selection, but then didn't get a copy! Great review, though, Ana!

Amy said...

Great review! I, too, really liked how each woman reacted differently, thus showing that we need to respect others.

Mystica said...

What a lovely review and a book which will definitely be on the TBR

Violet said...

wow, this sounds like a great book, definitely going on my Wishlist.

Nymeth said...

Emily Jane: I think she did too! I wonder how much more of these same issues we'll be seeing throughout the project. It'll be interesting to see how different authors tackle the same ideas.

Emily: I think you're right about the secondary characters not feeling quite as real as Ramatoulaye herself does. I wonder if this is a consequence of the epistolary format, but then again I've read epistolary novels in which this wasn't the case.

Kelly: It's too bad you couldn't read it this month, but I hope you'll still join us sometime later this year!

Amy: Thanks again for bringing this book to my attention :)

Mystica: Thank you! And enjoy.

Violet: Hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

Trish said...

Sounds like a really beautiful and poignant novella, Ana. I appreciate that you touch upon the author's keen sense of the complexities of life and circumstances--while perhaps she was more sympathetic to one of the women also realizd that no human experience is the same. I havne't heard of this one before but if I see it around I'll grab it up!

Nymeth said...

Trish: Yes, exactly! I appreciated that so much. I hope you manage to find the book, and I hope you enjoy it if you do :)

Kate said...

I only read half the review since the spoilers (thanks for the warning!) but the first paragraph had me checking my local library's website to see about requesting it. They have one copy which was *lost* in late 2010. Geez.

Erin said...

I think I first read about this book on Rebecca Reads, and it's been on my TBR list since then. Every review of it I read makes me more sure I'd like to get to it at some point!

Aths said...

I really want to read this book, but my library doesn't have it. Sigh.. I'm going to look for it somewhere else. Great review!

Kathleen said...

Another thoughtful review that has me wanting to read the book. I'm off to Goodreads to add this to my list.

Nymeth said...

Kate: Oh no! Hopefully it will be found or replaced. Fingers crossed!

Erin and Kathleen: I hope you'll enjoy it when you do get to it :)

Aths: Aw, sorry to hear it! I hope you'll manage to find a copy sometime.

Jodie said...

'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.' oh that's such a good way to look at it. I think bing a Western feminist its easy to get enmeshed in debates about how other cultures are devoid of feminism when what is really meant that they haven't gone straight to the version of female rights we have now. Easy to ignore that feminism in places like the UK and the US was a process of small developments and changes and didn't emerge in the same state as it is today.

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