So Long A Letter
By Mariama Ba
Pearson Education Ltd, 2008 (first published 1980)
First African novel to win the Noma Award 1980
General reading value: 3/5
Armchair travel value: 4/5
Fly-by summary: Recently widowed mother of six writes to her recently divorced friend meditating on what it means to live in the “New Africa” and an independent Senegal; as well as life, marriage, politics, religion, culture…
Why this book? I read a review of this book in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die and thought that it sounded interesting, particularly as it is semi-autobiographical.
Take the full tour: You might be wondering why I chose the title “So long a tweet” for this post. Let me make it clear from the outset that I am not being facetious about the very important issues that are raised in this novel. Instead, what is intended is a musing on the future prospects of epistolary novels such as So Long A Letter in a day and age when letter writing is so seriously in decline as a result of the advent of email, texting and twittering that the entire practice of penning one’s thoughts to pals is at risk of being rendered obselete.
There are suggestions that epistolary novels will be replaced with books composed of emails instead and I can already see that trend emerging in my own reading. The book (Ilustrado) I have selected for my next country – the Philippines – uses segments of email and phone texts cut up between other forms of prose in a sort of communication collage (more on that in my next post). But it is sad to think what might be lost without the more extended forms of prose that letters enable.
And I don’t know if it is just me but there is something sort of informal or light about emails and tweets that does not seem appropriate to support the burden of serious and weighty issues that many of the most famous epistolary novels address. Can you imagine replacing Celie’s long and heartfelt letters to God in The Color Purple with emails? It seems almost sacreligious! Would Les Liaisons Dangereuses work if Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil sent each other tweets? Maybe it would. Maybe the epistolary novel as defined by letters worked for a certain period of time and now it would be more appropriate and relevant to have the characters using more modern forms of correspondence. Certainly the success of popular flms that have modernised classic works such as Emma (Clueless) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Cruel Intentions) and graphic novels that have translated works by Shakespeare and Fitzgerald into versions suitable for our highly visual younger generations suggests that as long as you have a good story the medium through which it is communicated can be adapted to the audience. I hope that novels composed of letters continue, however, and am somewhat appeased by the fact that only recently there was a very popular epistolary novel produced in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It will be interesting to see whether up and coming writers continue to embrace the form…
It would actualy be incorrect to say that So Long A Letter is composed of letters when, in fact, it is just one long 95-page letter (hence the title) written by Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou on the eve of Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou became friends at school and went on to train as teachers relishing their opportunity to be “the first pioneers of the promotion of African women” following Senegal’s independence.
The pair bonded even more closely when both their husbands took second wives, a trauma so significant for Aissatou that she deicded to divorce her husband and move to America. Ramatoulaye persisted with her marriage but is now left with the burden of single parenthood to six children while also the indignity of seeing most of her husband’s assets shared equally between herself and his much younger second bride – a requirement under Islamic law.
Much of the first third of the novel is concerned with meticulously detailing the social and religious obligations that need to be carried out following Modou’s (Ramatoulaye’s husband) death. I found this extremely fascinating and educational, learning for example that the Koran mandates the practice of “mirasse” must be observed in which the deceased is stripped off his or her most intimate secrets by those who know of them: “exposures” which Ramatoulaye describes as “crudely explaining a man’s life”.
The rest of the book is preoccupied with Ramatoulaye looking both backwards and forwards, musing on the difficulties of being a Muslim woman at a time of such transition not only in Senegal itself but in Africa as a whole. These musings paint Ramatoulaye as a complex person who is struggling to reconcile her enjoyment of the freedom and independence she, in contrast to her forbears, is allowed while still remaining steadfast to her faith. As she puts it: “now our society is shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attractions of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues”.
At times, I found Ramatoulaye’s letter exhausting as so many issues, ranging from women’s rights to the plight of working mothers to even the lack of playing areas for children are covered in so short a narrative (despite the title!). This comes at the expense of fully developing some of the characters and storylines which, at least for me, reduces the ability to feel compassion and empathy for the characters’ respective plights. Instead, I felt that apart from Ramatoualye, the other characters were quite one-dimensional although I suppose the epistolary nature of the novel mandates that the reader is expected to assume the familiarity that Aissatou would have had, as the recipient of the letter, with the characters and events described. However, while I felt somewhat disengaged with the story itself, I relished the learning experience this novel provides in its descriptions of the Senegalese culture and of Africa as a nation. Although there are many passages I could include in this post as indicative of this experience, I particularly enjoyed the following description Ramatoulaye makes of her continent: “Africa is diverse, divided. The same country can change its character and outlook several times over, from north to south or from east to west”.
As an interesting point to end this post on, I discovered that a boarding school was named after Mariama Ba, the author of So Long A Letter. It is located on the island of Goree which is about 2km from Dakar.
Until next time, when we will be heading to the Philippines!
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Senegal…
Area: 116,723 km2
Delay your stay: Scarlet Song by Mariama Ba; God’s Bit of Wood by Ousmane Sembene; A Dakar Childhood by Natiassatou Diallo; Sarah’s Psalm by Florence Ladd