What happens when you are 50, mother of 12 children, still coping with the humiliation of the second wife and then widowed? Mariana Bâ was writing in French, and her novel is set in Senegal in the 1970s. Published in 1979 it still speaks to us about the position of women, the legacy of colonialism and the subjection and exploitation of women allowed by an interpretation of Islam and cultural traditions.
Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation, usually works of fiction.So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a short novel, translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas.
A summary of So Long a Letter
The novel is framed as a letter, written by Ramatoulaye, who is 50 and has just been widowed. Like her creator, she lives in Senegal and is well educated. She writes her letter to her long-time friend Aissatou. The friend left Senegal to live as an independent woman in the US when her husband took a second wife.
The husband of Ramatoulaye had also taken a second wife, the friend of their oldest daughter. Like Aissatou, Ramatoulaye refuses to be cowed by these events although her husband abandons her and her twelve children. She had decided to stay in Senegal as his first wife. On his death, in the Islamic tradition, it is revealed that he spent his wealth on his new wife’s family. The letter begins as the widow tries to understand the events of her adulthood, including her marriage which took place against the wishes of her family. Some of the most delightful parts of this novel are the descriptions of happy times, with their husbands holidaying on the coast.
Ramatoulaye refuses the offers of marriage that come her way as a widow, instead waits for her 40 days of mourning and seclusion to be over, and to be able to meet with her old friend.
The novel ends on a note of optimism, implying that these two women will support each other from the effects of polygamy and the patriarchy of their society.
Feminism in So Long a Letter
Mariama Bâ(1929-1981) was born in Dakar, Senegal, and brought up by her grandparents after the early death of her mother. They planned to educate her only to primary school level. Her father persuaded them to let her continue her education. She trained as a teacher and was employed in the classroom from 1947 – 1959, after which she became a school inspector. She had nine children and divorced her husband, a Senegal politician and minister.
Mariama Bâ was a feminist activist in Senegal until her early death in 1981. Senegal achieved independence in April 1960 and the novel is full of the tensions between the old and new ways, African ways vs the European, traditional vs modern.
In So Long a Letter Ramatoulaye’s husband had worked as a lawyer for the trade union movement and she had been pleased to support his work, bear him 12 children, run his household and hold down her own job. But when he became older and obsessed with a younger woman he indulged himself by taking a second wife.
Whereas a woman draws from the passing years the force of her devotion, despite the ageing of her companion, a man, on the other hand, restricts his field of tenderness. His egoistic eye looks over his partner’s shoulder. He compares what he had with what he no longer has, what he has with what he could have. (41)
She reminds her friend Aissatou of the painful experience of being rejected for a younger wife. The pain is personal and no more bearable for being sanctioned under Islamic custom and the laws of Senegal. It is still legal in Senegal and in 57 other countries. Neither of these women accepted their situation, and one imagines that together they will represent a considerable force for change.
Mariama Bâ makes it clear that the new wife also looses a great deal in accepting her position, not least the pleasures of being young and in an equal partnership.
The women’s situations are not just problems of Africa or of Islam or of polygamy. Older women are often made to feel inadequate in the face of younger rivals in every culture – the toxic combination of ageism and sexism.
For Ramatoulaye being a mother is also important and when one of her own children finds herself in trouble she looses no time in deciding to support rather than reject her.
And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightening streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end. (82-83)
She does not need to spell out that her husband, the father of their 12 children, has not provided this unconditional and enduring love.
I found So Long a Letter was a quick and easy read. I learned a great deal about feminism and women in Senegal and West Africa. I was surprised and shocked to find that polygamy is still legal in the world. I was impressed by Mariama Bâ’s feminism, and saddened that her life was cut short. At least we have this and one other posthumous novel, Scarlet Song, which I have not yet read. Copies are easy to find so I recommend you read this short book, if you haven’t already.
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâwas published in French in 1979, and in English in 1980. Originally published as Une si longue lettre, it was translated by ModupéBodé-Thomas. I read the edition published by Virago in its New Fiction series in 1982. 90pp
First winner of the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.
Women in translation series
Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.
Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.
Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
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