So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba
So Long a Letter was the second January pick for the Year of Feminist Classics Project, and at just 95 pages of lovely prose, it was one I was very grateful for following my struggle with Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.
But don’t let that fool you: there is a lot of complicated material, emotion, and power to tease out of this slim novella.
Following the death of her husband, Ramatoulaye writes a letter to her friend Aissitou in which she tells her all about her husband’s decision years earlier to take a younger, second wife and her difficult decision, as a mother of twelve, to endure the imposition rather than break up her family. She is left with nothing of her own, and what happens to her is largely out of her control. Aissatou’s life has also been disrupted by her husband’s decision to take another wife but has, in contrast to Ramatoulaye, left her husband and taken her children to the U.S. where she has done very well on her own. Ba compares the two women’s experiences skillfully, so that neither seems “right” or “wrong” for reacting the way they have, which is one of the book’s major strengths. Through the meanderings of Ramatoulaye’s letter, Ba also expands her scope to encompass Senegalese politics and culture more broadly so that the reader is presented with a clearer picture of some of the reasons for, and results of, a system which leaves women vulnerable to this kind of expendability.
But, whereas the book tackles the unfortunate disadvantages for women within polygamist society, it is not without hope. What was most interesting to me was the contrast between what Ramatoulaye and Aissatou seemed to experience as an age-old problem with the excitement of Senegalese independence from France (1960) and what they imagine that does, or should, mean for women. Though women are sadly underrepresented in Senegal’s new government, they are not unaware of the momentous gains of women’s movements around the world. Of course, though Ramatoulaye desperately wants progress, the effects of modernization leave society “shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues” (p. 76). When she sees these effects take root in her own children, she finds that “progress” can be complicated to define, and more difficult to embrace than she had previously imagined.
I really was impressed with Ba’s ability to say so much with so few words. For example, the short bit about Ramatoulaye’s ventures to the movies by herself, and her hesitancy–then courage–in the face of disapproving or confused looks, says worlds, I think, about the everyday challenges she faces as a discarded wife (um, for lack of a better phrase?) while also reflecting her strength and development as a character.
As I’m sure is clear, I quite enjoyed this book and think it made a really great contribution to the Year of Feminist Classics project. I look forward to jumping into February’s read, The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (though you probably won’t see her credited many places for her contribution, Grr!) Feel free to join us at any time, for as long as you’d like, if you haven’t already