So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ

So Long A Letter - Mariama BâSo Long A Letter – Mariama Bâ
Virago, 1982
NB: The edition I read has another cover than the one displayed here, but I have been unable to find it online.
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I had not expected it beforehand, but this is a good book to read alongside A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. There are a lot of themes that were introduced in A Vindication, that can be found in this book as well. Thoughts formulated in another context, reworked, not exactly the same, of course. But to put these books side by side is interesting nonetheless. Now, I know that there have been many posts on this book already, since I am a little late in posting my thoughts for A Year of Feminist Classics. But, I’ll give you a short rundown of my thoughts anyway.

So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel in which Ramatoulaye writes her thoughts to her friend Aissatou after her husband died. It is clear from the start that Ramatoulaye feels conflicted about her husband’s death. She loved him, but she also had an extremely difficult time after her husband decided to take a second wife. This story portrays these conflicted feelings, the struggles of Ramatoulaye and how they contrast to those of her friend Aissatou, who’s husband also took a second wife.

I cannot express my thoughts well, without quoting from the book extensively. I apologize beforehand, but I truly feel that this book has a lot to offer because it raises questions, it makes you think. It does not really give you an answer to any of those questions, it does not spell anything out for you. That is exactly why this short novella, 89 pages long, made such an impression on me.

Similarities to A Vindication? Mariama Bâ also believes in the power of education:

The power of books, this marvellous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted: examinations sat and passed took you also to France. The School of Interpreters, from which you graduated, led you to your appointment into the Senegalese Embassy in the United States. You make a very good living. You are developing in peace, as your letters tell me, your back resolutely turned on those seeking light enjoyment and easy relationships.

and the need for women to be seen as more than just objects, or properties:

‘Ah, yes! Your strategy is to get in before any other suitor, to get in before Mawdo, the faithful friend, who has more qualities than you and who also, according to custom, can inherit the wife. You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.’ (I emphasized the word ‘chosen’)

But there are differences too. Mariama Bâ acknowledges differences of class and ethnicity more explicitly, without stating that one person is better than the other. She also points out that Ramatoulaye’s answers aren’t everybody’s answers. In her comparison of Ramatoulaye’s situation to Aissatou’s situation, she doesn’t favour one decision over the other. Neither is any of the women portrayed as perfect. For example, at the end of the book, Ramatoulaye remarks on her daughter’s pregnancy and you can see that on the one hand she fully supports the idea of women’s liberation, but at the same time she finds it difficult to let go of the ideas on a woman’s chastity that she has been raised with.

What made this book such a strong read, in my opinion, is that it sketches the life stories of two women, and the issues they had to deal with, but at the same time raises questions about women issues in general, outside of the specific context: the objectification of women, the strong hold circumstances and political- and cultural-  contexts often have on us, etcetera.

If you ever want a quick read that will stay with you for quite some time, I highly recomment So Long A Letter.

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13 responses to “So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ

  1. This is a book I need to read. It’s been on my list of books to be read for a long time. It is such a classic having been voted into the top 100 African books of the twentieth century

  2. Great review, I liked a lot of the same things as you did. And I definitely think the book deserves it’s place as one of the top 100 Nana!

  3. I do want to read this. Thank you. I already feel behind on the Fem Classics challenge but am so g;ad I can refer back to all these great insightful reviews.

  4. Wonderful comparisons between this and a Vindication. You wrote a really lovely review.

  5. In many ways, I think the young, unabashedly progressive Ramatoulaye of the early 60s, would have written a book much more like Vindication; and similarly, if Wollstonecraft had lived to the age Ramatoulaye is when she’s writing her letter, she might have written a book closer to Une si longue lettre. The hindsight and complexity of age is something I really appreciated in this little book – Ramatoulaye was once the kind passionate, all-or-nothing revolutionary we glimpse in Vindication, but she’s since garnered a lot of complicated life experience. I like that she doesn’t disavow her former beliefs, just modifies them as time goes by.

  6. Another one for my list! Great review.

  7. This sounds really great, and I hadn’t even heard of it before it turned up on blogs recently! This definitely goes on my tbr!

    And I enjoyed your comparison to Vindication, I’ve yet to read that one, but I might go ahead and read them together :)

  8. I like the idea of looking at issues similar to Wollstonecraft from the perspective of another culture. This sounds like a very interesting book.

  9. I happened to stumble across a copy of this at my library’s used book sale, so I grabbed it. Seeing all these reviews for it makes my hands all twitchy to read it. Soon!

  10. I agree, this is a book that stays with you. I read it months ago and I still remember it fondly. I really want a copy so I can reread it often. I think what I love is how the author really doesn’t judge the characters. We are left to see the results and decide what we think for ourselves. And everyone will see it in their own personal light.

  11. Pingback: Orange Reading: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin | Iris on Books

  12. As a young boy writing for my ‘O’ AND ‘A’ LEVL, I read So Long a Letter with an air of indifference. As a grown up man, I reread and realised how tradition at times destroys Family. In Ramatoulaye and Assiatou I saw two
    ‘Liberated African women’ who are caught in the web of traditionalism versus modernism. Ramatoulaye, more of a traditionalist, had to ‘allow’ the events surrounding her husband for the sake of love and she suffered, Assiatou on the other hand was blunt with her husband, well one wonders if she ‘loves’ her husband. Love as described and practised by Ramatoulaye. On the whole this made such an impression on me, to the extent that I became a woman’s right campaigner.

  13. This is a challenging novel to every woman right there who is still under the notion the men are created more important than women

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