Date re-Read: 2011 & (re-read) April 22nd 2021
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books
Written by award-winning African novelist Mariama Ba and translated from the original French, So Long a Letter has been recognized as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The brief narrative, written as an extended letter, is a sequence of reminiscences—some wistful, some bitter—recounted by recently widowed Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye Fall. Addressed to a lifelong friend, Aissatou, it is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband betrayed their marriage by taking a second wife. This semi-autobiographical account is a perceptive testimony to the plight of educated and articulate Muslim women. Angered by the traditions that allow polygyny, they inhabit a social milieu dominated by attitudes and values that deny them status equal to men. Ramatoulaye hopes for a world where the best of old customs and new freedom can be combined.
Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Everybody and their grandma has read So Long A Letter. The first time I read this classic, it was assigned reading for an Anthropology class I took when I was a junior in college, back in 2011. I recently re-read this classic 10 years later and I still give the book the same rating this time around, because of the poignant writing.
Senegalese patriarchy, Islam, the male ego, mid-life crisis, greed, loneliness, mother-daughter relationships, feminism, sisterhood, courage vs cowardice, poverty, modernity vs tradition, colonialism, death, misogyny and family customs, all take center stage in So Long a Letter.
I looooved how Ramatoulaye’s mother judged her daughter’s suitors by their teeth! According to Ramatoulaye’s mother, the wide gap between Modou’s [who she ended up marrying] upper incisors was a sign of ‘the primacy of sensuality in the individual’; Closely set teeth (of Daouda, one of Ramatoulaye’s suitors) won her mother’s confidence. As a Dentist, these peculiarities in teeth alignment being equivalent to promiscuity and character of potential suitors was hilarious and fascinating to me!
After re-reading this classic, I’ve been over-thinking the friendship Ramatoulaye and Aissatou shared. They were best friends/basically sisters. They shared the same plight, but each dealt with the fragmenting of their family units differently – Ramatoulaye stayed and endured, while Aissatou moved towards complete independence and advanced in her career. I really wish Bâ gave Aissatou more of a voice in the novel – besides her brilliant, fierce break-up letter to Mawdo, her ex-husband. I wanted to know if Aissatou was okay with Ramatoulaye recounting her (Aissatou’s) difficult situation with her ex-husband, Mawdo – I personally hate when friends rehash my plight when they complain about their own; I wanted to know if Aissatou was actually not bothered with Ramatoulaye still having a relationship with Mawdo – Aissatou’s ex-husband, as he was still Ramatoulaye’s family doctor and he was still a part of her family’s life; I wanted to know if Aissatou felt frustrated and/or disappointed at Ramatoulaye’s decision to stay with Modou, who turned out to be scum of the Earth once he stepped out of his marriage. I can’t help but wonder all these things because I often feel frustrated and disappointed when a friend complains to me about a man who treats her badly and she chooses to endure nonsense. While I know Ramatoulaye wrote the long letter to Aissatou while in isolation when she was mourning her late husband, I just wish Aissatou’s voice was heard with regards to everything Ramatoulaye divulged in the letter.
The only issue I had with this classic was Ramatoulaye’s slight misogynistic views on women’s sexuality and pleasure. I wasn’t super surprised with her conservative views, especially given this character’s overall way of life and the setting/timing of the story, but I couldn’t help but feel that those sentiments were Bâ’s as well. Some of the conservative views on women’s sexuality had me wondering why So Long A Letter has been hailed a beacon in African feminist text… However, I now understand that the conservative stances Ramatoulaye wrestled with really portrayed how women during that time were grappling with the challenges modernity brought – and this is especially evident in contrasting Ramatoulaye and Daba’s (her eldest daughter) realities, with respect to marriage and gender roles.
There’s so much more that can be said about So Long A Letter! This classic is best enjoyed if you’re reading it for a class or book club, as there is so much that can be dissected and discussed. I had the privilege of re-reading it for a virtual book club discussion with The Harare Book Club, last month.
★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!
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