Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2020

So Long A Letter, by Mariama Bâ, translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas

Finishing off another half-started book, this time it is a ‘handbag’ book that’s been stashed away for months — a gentle reminder that in this most remarkable year I have got out of the habit of needing a book to read while waiting for trains, health professionals, hairdressers and friends in coffee shops.  I haven’t even needed a handbag…

This classic of Senegalese literature is a perfect ‘handbag’ book because it’s a slim 96 pages, one of which is a glossary.  There is an Introduction too, by Kenneth Harrow of Michigan, who tells me that this is one of the first novels by a Senegalese woman in French and that it became a foundational text for Francophone women writers.  This is his summary of the novella:

Written as a semi-autobiographical account, its protagonist Ramatoulaye is a woman who came of age during the period of late colonialism, married a Senegalese nationalist and gave birth to twelve children as their country passed into independence.  She faced her husband’s rejection and then his death as the country experienced the passage from colony to modern nation. (p.i)

BEWARE: SPOILERS

So much for the big picture.  Written as a letter to her dearest friend Aissatou (who is confusingly addressed as ‘sister’), Ramatoulaye’s letter is a cry of anguish.  This husband who broke her heart by exercising a right to polygamy which is out of step in a modern nation, has just died, and though this should free her to make a new life for herself, she mourns him still.  During the mourning period of forty days, Ramatoulaye revisits the anguish of her marriage ending.  To add insult to injury, his choice was Binetou, the best friend of her daughter Daba, who was outraged by his decision and implored her mother to divorce him.  But she could not do it: she explains to Aissatou how she fears loneliness and rejection, how her ageing body is no longer attractive to suitors and how Aissatou herself has experienced being despised and relegated in status despite her post-divorce independence and stellar career.  But the real reason was and still is that she loves Modou.  She decided to accept the situation and endure the shame of polygamy… but he never visited her again.

The refrain ‘I survived’ is repeated again and again as she learned to bring up her children alone, to manage her household and finances, and even to learn to drive when Aissatou bought her a small Fiat:

And I learned to drive, stifling my fear.  The narrow space between the wheel and the seat was mine.  The flattened clutch glided in the gears.  The brake reduced the forward thrust and, to speed along, I had to step on the accelerator.  I did not trust the accelerator.  At the slightest pressure from my feet, the car lurched forward.  My feet learned to dance over the pedals.  Whenever I was discouraged, I would say: Why should Binetou sit behind a wheel and not I?  I would tell myself: Don’t disappoint Aissatou.  I won this battle of nerves and sang-froid.  I obtained my driving licence and told you about it. (p.57)

Her wretched husband, curious, had asked about the source of the car.  He never accepted the true story.  Hmpf!

As the mourning period draws to a close, potential suitors arrive.  On the fortieth day, Modou’s older brother Tamsir after going through the motions of piety, offers his proposal.

Tamsir speaks with great assurance; he touches, once again, on my years of marriage, then he concludes: ‘When you have “come out” (that is to say, of mourning), I shall marry you.  You suit me as a wife, and further, you will continue to live here, just as if Modou were not dead.  Usually it is the younger brother who inherits his elder brother’s wife.  In this case, it is the opposite.  You are my good luck.  I shall marry you.  I prefer you to the other one, too frivolous, too young.  I advised Modou against that marriage.’ (p.59-60)

What woman could resist such charm, eh? Well, Ramatoulaye gives him short thrift:

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 love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.’ (p.60)

After Tamsir comes an old flame, Daouda Dieng, but Ramatoulaye knows that he is married too, and she knows the pain inflicted by a second wife.  She offers friendship, but for him it is all or nothing.

The concluding lines of this letter note the irreversible currents of women’s liberation that are lashing the world.  She rejoices each time a woman emerges from the shadows although she knows that gains are unstable.  She recognises that social constraints and male egoism are blocks to progress, aided and abetted by religion and unjust legislation. 

And yet, the letter concludes with Ramatoulaye’s affirmation of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. 

Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings. (p.93)

It is love that helps her to negotiate the fallout from children’s flirtations with modernism.  As a widow on her own, she has decided not to be a powerless victim, but as a mother who makes her own choices in the best interests of those she loves.

Author: Mariama Bâ
Title: So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre)
Translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas
Publisher: African Writers Series, Heinemann, 2008, first published in French by Les Nouvells Editions Africaines, 1980 and in English in the African Writers Series 1981
ISBN: 9780435913526, pbk., 96 pages
Source: Personal library, recommended by Claire from Word by Word

 


Responses

  1. The English, too, began writing their novels as letters, or a series of letters. I wonder if that is the most natural form to make a beginning.

    Like

    • The Intro says the form was innovative in Senegal… but this is a one-way letter, though to someone who she knows so well, she can predict what she’s thinking.
      Best kind of friend to have, I reckon:)

      Like

  2. Such a sad tale but maybe hope at the end? Sounds like a big story in such a short book. I like the idea of it being a letter. 🐧🎁

    Like

    • You know, I think that with some cultural differences, the same tale persists in our society. True, men can’t take an extra wife, but they can and do have their so-called mid-life crises and they trade in the loyal devoted wife for a new trophy one.
      And that can and sometimes does leave behind a middle-aged woman who’s sacrificed career and an independent income to be supportive to him and the children, and who still loves him despite his flaws.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. LOL! No need for even a handbag!

    Liked by 1 person


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