This semester, I have the pleasure and honor of teaching a French Women Writers class. I’ve taught this class before, but this time I had two complications: first, I was gone to France for the first month of the class, and second, most of the students in the class are first-year students, who have little experience with a) literature, b) French literature, c) French literature not-in-translation, d) feminism. This meant that I had to think very carefully about which works to include. I wanted each book to be rich in theme and content, interesting to young students, but not daunting. My first choice was Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre).
Bâ is a Senegalese writer, and she writes in French because Senegal is a former French colony. So Long a Letter is (as you might guess from the title) an epistolary novel, one long letter from the sender, Ramatoulaye, to the recipient, her old friend Aissatou. At the beginning of the letter, we discover that Ramatoulaye’s husband of over thirty years, Modou, has died of a heart attack. She describes the traditional Muslim rituals of grief: the gatherings at the wife’s home, the offerings, the feeding of the poor, the division of the belongings. And then, at last, her co-wife, Binetou goes home with her parents. What a relief!
Ah. Her co-wife. And then the complications begin (or end, in a sense.) Ramatoulaye’s narration reaches back into the past, to Modou’s courtship, at the beginning of Senegal’s struggle for independance. She remembers their marriage, their twelve children, their close friendship with Aissatou and her husband Mawdo. And then the blow to Aissatou’s marriage: Mawdo, succumbing to the nagging of his mother, takes a second wife. He swears he still loves Aissatou best, and will only see his new wife out of “duty,” but Aissatou, unwilling to divide her physical and emotional life, refuses this compromise and insists on divorce. When the same fate befalls Ramatoulaye a few years later, her decision is completely different, but equally brave.
This novel is a brief, delicate, perfectly balanced piece of literature. Ramatoulaye is writing to an old friend, so she shares her own, authentic voice: her fears about growing old, her thoughts about her daughter’s pregnancy out of wedlock. But it is never so coded that we as readers are excluded from understanding customs that may be new to us. Ramatoulaye winds through past and present, connecting the two in just the way our minds really do when we are thinking aloud.
The politics of Senegal imbue every page, and not just the struggle for independence of a country, but the way that independence depends on the progress of individuals, especially women. So Long a Letter is partly autobiographical — Bâ did grow up in Senegal, did marry and participate in the struggle for independence, did have nine children, did divorce — but Ramatoulaye gives one fictional woman her own beautiful voice, her own place to stand. Again and again she loops back to what she finds important: her own choices. Whether these choices will be different for other women in the future she cannot say. It will be up to them, to write for themselves such a long letter.