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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