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So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

So Long a Letter (1979)

by Mariama Bâ

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The novel takes the form of a long letter written by Ramatoulaye to her old friend Aissatou, just after the death of Ramatoulaye's husband Modou, looking back over their respective marriages; both women, having invested heavily in their marriages and both truly loving their husbands, were abandoned in favour of a younger wife. The women took different ways out, Aissatou leaving, Ramatoulaye staying - but staying in name only, as her husband deserted her and her children. Yes, I know this happens in other societies too, in the form of adultery and divorce, but what is chilling here is that it is part of the fabric of society, sanctioned by society.

Mariama Ba (1929-1981) was an outspoken critic of the way certain African traditions deprived women of their rights, and this, her first novel, is an expression of her frustration with the condition of women in Africa. Ba gives Ramatoulaye such an eloquent, powerful voice in her letter...and yet in society she is virtually mute. Her dignity in the face of what society expects her to bear is breath-taking.

A beautifully written, quiet but thought-provoking novel. ( )
  rachbxl | Feb 10, 2014 |
[So Long a Letter] by [[Mariama Ba]] is a short epistalory novel written in French by a Sengalese author. It is written from a recent widow to a dear friend and gives a review of their lives. Both women are struggling with the issues of polygamy in this Muslim country, as both husbands had taken a younger wife.
This was very hard on the narrator and her friend, and also on the younger women, who are then stuck with older husbands. In both cases, the younger women’s families pushed the marriages for economic reasons.
The book is well written and interesting, though didactic at times. The women in the novel are educated, and economically independent, and so pretty easy to identify with.
In thinking about the book, I wondered whether it’s worse for a wife to be usurped by a younger woman in a polygamous society, versus what frequently happens in our own culture where men may take a younger wife or mistress. I am not sure. ( )
1 vote banjo123 | Aug 3, 2013 |
"Fate grasps whom it wants, when it wants. When it moves in the direction of your desires, it brings you plenitude. But more often it unsettles, crosses you. Then one has to endure." A woman's struggle and endurance against fate and unfairness is the theme of this short novel in the form of a single, long letter. The writer of the letter is a Senegalese woman of fifty named Ramatoulaye. She is writing to her former classmate and lifelong best friend Aissatou. The occasion is the recent death of Ramatoulaye's husband, Modou.

Ramatoulaye describes briefly the funeral rites, but when she addresses her own feelings she is led immediately to the great resentment in her life: that Modou had recently taken a second wife. She recaps how this came about, and weaves into the story Aissatou's own personal history. Aissatou's husband, Mawdo, has also taken a second and younger wife. But Ramatoulaye is quick to point out that Mawdo did this only under pressure from his own family, whereas Modou's second marriage was a personal caprice. Modou fell in love with his own teenage daughter's best friend, and showered gifts upon the girl's mother so that she would be forced against her will to marry a man at least thirty years her senior. After thirty years of marriage to Modou, and having borne him twelve children, Ramatoulaye feels betrayed, not just by her husband, but by the male sex in general and the society it has built.

Mariama Bâ's novel is a statement of personal loss, grief, and perseverance, but it is also a manifesto for the cause of women's rights in Africa and elsewhere. She takes on the issues directly, saying "Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country?" And later: "Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed." The key issue is polygamy in Islamic states, but she also addresses arranged marriages, equality of education, political freedoms, inheritance laws and customs, and recognition for the economic value of homemaking services.

Aside from its feminist message, So Long a Letter offers an interesting look at how ancient traditions and modern values clash in today's Africa, even among the most highly educated and empowered classes. The characters in the novel are all university-educated professionals living in relative comfort, so the injustices of which Bâ writes are not to be overcome by money or education. I can't help but wonder, though, what Modou's side of the story would have been had the author allowed him to tell it. ( )
2 vote StevenTX | Jul 31, 2013 |
This is a small, poignant novel from Senegal, in the form of a letter from one woman to another, an old friend. It roams through love, marriage, family life, and the particular problems of a polygamous society. The writer is restrained and dignified, but her feelings emerge clearly. ( )
  astrologerjenny | Apr 24, 2013 |

I don’t know where to even start with this book. I highlighted passages on almost every page. So Long a Letter is an insightful look at one woman’s pain and anguish when her husband takes another (much younger) wife. The book actually begins with Ramatoulaye’s widowhood. Her husband has just died and she is writing a letter to a friend about her feelings on her marriage, her husband’s taking of another wife (allowed in Islam), and her husband’s death.

Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese teacher, has 12 children, and her husband has run off (without telling her) and married her oldest daughter’s best friend. Sort of makes for a bad day. This is what her husband’s friends tell her, and her thoughts about it:

‘You can’t resist the imperious laws that demand food and clothing for man. These same laws compel the “male” in other respects. I say “male” to emphasie the bestiality of instincts… You understand….A wife must understand, once and for all, and must forgive; she must not worry herself about “betrayals of the flesh.” The important thing is what there is in the heart; that’s what unites two beings inside.’ (He struck his chest, at the point where the heart lies.)

‘Driven to the limits of my resistance, I satisfy myself with what is within reach. It’s a terrible thing to say. Truth is ugly when one analyses it.’

Thus, to justify himself, he reduced young Nabou to a ‘plate of food.’ Thus, for the sake of ‘variety,’ men are unfaithful to their wives.

I was irritated. He was asking me to understand. But to understand what? The supremacy of instinct? The right to betray? The justification of the desire for variety? I couldn’t be an ally to polygamic instincts. What, then was I to understand?

Another strong passage:

I had never known the sordid side of marriage. Don’t get to know! Run from it! When one begins to forgive, there is an avalanche of faults that comes crashing down, and the only thing that remains is to forgive again, to keep on forgiving. Leave, escape from betrayal!

Ramatoulaye doesn’t ‘leave’ her husband; they do not divorce, a fact which surprises her husband and, it is implied, irritates him. He never goes back to her, even though they are still married. As Ramatoulaye adjusts to her new life, she appreciates even more the value of friendship:

Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unknown to love.

Ramatoulaye also must raise her children alone (even before her husband’s death), with all the trials and tribulations that entails. But, she is obviously grateful for her children. On motherhood, Ramatoulaye states:

And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end.

I highly recommend this book to all, but especially those interested in women’s issues or in African fiction.

Note: This book is one of the new additions to the 1001 list.

1979 (French), 1981 for the English translation
90 pp. ( )
  1morechapter | May 25, 2012 |
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To Abibatou Niang, pure and constant, lucid and thorough, who shares my feelings.
To Annette d'Erneville of the warm heart and level head.
To all women and to men of good will.
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Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0435905554, Paperback)

This novel is a perceptive testimony to the plight of articulate women who live in social milieux dominated by attitudes and values that deny them their proper place. It is a sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by a recently widowed Senegalese school teacher. The letter, addressed to an old friend, is a record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband's abrupt decision to take a second wife. Although his action is sanctioned by Islam, it is a calculated betrayal of his wife's trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:58 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A Senegalese school teacher recounts her thoughts and feelings after her husband decides to take a second wife.

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