So Long a Letter (re-read)

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.

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10 Responses to So Long a Letter (re-read)

  1. litlove says:

    This is a wonderful book and so few people know about it. Hopefully your beautiful review will spread the word a bit further!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, Litlove! It’s in a pretty good translation, so it should be fairly accessible to English speakers, and it is such a lovely book.

  2. Pingback: West African Authors « Diversify Your Reading

  3. rebeccareid says:

    I JUST added this to my list of books to read, thanks to the Orbis Terrarum challenge and my desire to read African literature. I definitely need to read this. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    • Jenny says:

      Rebecca, I think you’ll enjoy it, and it’s short, so it’s not hard to get into and finish. Let me know what you think.

  4. litlove – My understanding is that this is the best-selling novel in West African history! So that “few people” needs a qualifier – few people outside of West Africa.

  5. Pingback: Black African Authors « Diversify Your Reading

  6. sanchiad says:

    Thank you for a wonderful review — this sounds like a truly great novel. Does it ever feel like TOO long a letter, though? Are there chapters or sections? Am racking my brains trying to think of epistolary novels read and can’t think of any that weren’t in the form of series of letters. Silly question, but am curious!

  7. nakkie says:

    what of chapter three analysis…thanks

  8. Aasif Moiz says:

    cest bon et unique!!!!!

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