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So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba.

December 19, 2013

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba.  Modupe Bode-Thomas (Translator), Kenneth W. Harrow (Introduction). Heinemann (2008), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 96 pages



 A moving account, in the form of a letter, of joys and tribulations of a Senegalese woman and her determination to deal with the personal and social changes.

This is a classic book by an African writer, one that I had often seen recommended.  I had been slow to read it; however, because I had the impression it would be nothing but the self-pity of a victim.  I was wrong.  The book does relate problems with which African women must often contend, but Ramatoulaye, the book’s narrator, is not passive.  She has an independence and strength that allow her to rely on herself as she raises her twelve children alone.  I found her a beautiful and exemplary woman.

The form of the novel is a long letter which Ramatoulaye, a school teacher, writes to her long-time friend, a woman whose life had been similar to Ramatoulaye.  The two women had attended school together, married similar men, and had to deal with their husband’s taking second wives.  Ramatoulaye’s husband has died and as a new widow she reminisces and grieves at the same time she expresses her anger at her husband’s unfair treatment of her.  After a period of happiness together, he took a second wife ignoring her and leaving her responsible for their children.    After his funeral, Ramatoulaye faces down her husband’s brother who assumes that she will marry him. She also refuses to become a second wife to a kind, attractive, successful man, in part because she doesn’t love him as she had her husband and in part because she sees polygamy itself as harmful.  When her daughters face problems, she stands by them and looks to the future with hope.

Mariama Ba is a powerful writer.  The sheer beauty of her words kept me tied to the book.   She herself lived a life rather like that of Ramatoulaye, and takes readers inside the mind of her character.  Instead of abstract problems, we see Ramatoulaye dealing with the people who would control and limit her.  We accompany her as she goes through the religious rituals surrounding her husband’s funeral.  We understand how firmly she relies on her religion but refuses to let it limit her need to be true to herself and her children.

This book was part of the Heinemann African Writer series and contained an introduction by a professor of African literature. Knowing little about Senegal and development of African literature, I found this context helpful.  The scholar pointed out that other writers had presented the problems of African women, but they had presented them chiefly as victims.  Ba expanded her character into a woman determining her own path.  At a time when African writers were denouncing colonization, Ba and her character affirm the joy and power the French school provided her.  She refuges to accept that Africans must choose between European and traditional ways and seeks to value both.

Is Ba a feminist?  She herself has certainly worked hard for women’s issues in her own life and her book offers a critique of African men’s behavior.  Yet her character’s twelve children and her need for a man to complete her happiness can seem strange to western feminists.  I always hesitate to label as feminist or not because so much depends on a person’s definition of feminism.  For me, this book is feminist in its claim that a women’s perspective is important, in its revelations of how traditional practices hurt women, and in its presentation of a woman determined to shape her own life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2013 12:46 pm

    A powerful review, Marilyn.

    I believe these issues expressed in the novel do apply even today. My country has her fare share of women in similar situations who struggle daily to keep the family together after the men have died or left. They do not pity themselves, but laugh at themselves and make the best of the situation, raising their children all alone. Books that celebrate women are my favourite and I salute such authors everyday! 🙂

  2. December 22, 2013 11:28 am

    Thank you. It was certainly a powerful book. For me part of its importance is that women in many countries share this story. I love how the author brings our attention to them, celebrates them all, and helps people everywhere to empathize and respect them.


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