Friday, 3 February 2017

Book Review: So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ can be no doubt that relations between men and women are a favourite topic of writers. Literature offers everything from the vicissitudes of romantic love over the turmoils of an unstable marriage to the wars ending an unfortunate relationship. Love triangles are a rather common ingredient in many novels, but since we all tend to prefer books from our own culture – which is clearly Judeo-Christian in Europe – we seldom read about polygamous marriages except maybe in a historical novel set somewhere in the Orient. So we know little about how a woman feels who is one wife among others. The epistolary novel So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ from Senegal surrounds a Muslim widow mourning her husband to whom she has been happily married for twenty-five years until desire had the better of him and he took a teenage second wife. In a letter to a friend abroad she tells her story.

Mariama Bâ was born in Dakar, Senegal, in April 1929. After the early death of her mother she was raised by her maternal grandparents who were strongly rooted in the old African and Muslim traditions. Only thanks to the insistence of her far-sighted father working for the French colonial administration, she received higher education and even became a teacher in 1947. She got married three times and had nine children whom she raised as a single parent after her last divorce earning a living as a teacher and as from 1959 as educational inspector. When her children were more or less grown-up, she got involved in politics and began to write bringing out her first and most influential novel So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre) in 1979. Having fought against cancer for a while, Mariama Bâ died in Dakar, Senegal, in August 1981 and her only other novel, Scarlet Song (Le Chant écarlate), was published posthumously the same year.

Ramatoulaye sits down to write So Long a Letter when she is confined to her house in Dakar, Senegal, for the traditional period of four months and ten days to mourn her husband Modou who died unexpectedly from a heart attack. She addresses it to her good and much admired childhood friend Aïssatou who lives in the United States with her children. In her letter she takes stock of twenty-five years of marriage, above all of the time since the imam and her brother-in-law informed her early one morning that Modou just married a second wife the age of their daughter and left her dumbfounded because she hadn’t seen it coming. She remembers that before her Aïssatou had to face a similar situation, but her friend was less compliant with the Muslim tradition that allows a man to have more than one wife. In fact, Aïssatou divorced her husband at once, completed her education and started her own – successful – career. Ramatoulaye, on the other hand, didn’t have the courage to follow her example although friends and even her eldest children encouraged her to. She felt too old to start from zero and she didn’t want to either because she still loved Modou in spite of the pain he caused her. However, unable to compete with the charms of a teenage girl anxiously claiming the attention and presence of her husband, Ramatoulaye soon found herself in the role of abandoned wife. She had to struggle hard to make ends meet with only her salary and still several minors to provide for, but supported by friends and family she got along on her own. And now that she has learnt to stand on her own feet, she isn’t willing to give up her independence to remarry just for the sake of tradition.

As an epistolary novel So Long a Letter gives a very personal first-person and first-hand account of life, emotions and reflections of Ramatoulaye, a typical Senegalese woman who has to find her place – a room of her own – in the jumble of old traditions, be they Islamic or African, and modern Western lifestyle. The author made her an educated and working woman, and yet in her private life she accepted or even embraced the traditional role of wife and mother although out of love and not like many others because her family talked or forced her into the match they chose for her. Reading her letter made me feel that during most of her marriage Ramatoulaye wasn’t fully aware of her subordinate role in the strictly patriarchal society. This is understandable since she was content with her life as long as Modou treated her like his equal. Only when he took a second wife without as much as telling her to the face and again after his death when his family “invaded” her house to take away virtually everything they owned (as was their right), she realised that for most men she didn’t exist as a thinking and feeling person.

Even though So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a work of fiction, it felt like a real letter from a friend who struggles to come to terms with her fate and to find her balance between traditional values of her (Muslim) world and the wish for equal rights. Her tone is often resigned and bitter, but her lines show also much understanding, great strength and considerable staying power. In other words, at the end of the letter – and of the mourning confinement – there’s no need to worry about Ramatoulaye because however hard it may be she’ll make her way. I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel from the late 1970s. I think that it’s a timeless read that deserves my recommendation.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. It indeed is a timeless story and good lord we are still going through this as women.

    1. Yes, it isn't easy to shake off "old habits" and even less century-old ways of thinking. Social structures are rather resistant to change!

  2. I love discovering your reads and this is a book I now want to read myself soon. Last year I was impressed by The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, a Mozambican novel of Polygamy, so it would be interesting to get another perspective here.

    Stephanie Jane @ Literary Flits

    1. Thanks for the tip! I haven't heard of Paulina Chiziane's novel, but it certainly sounds interesting. I'll see if I can find the Portuguese original Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia although I'm not sure if my Portuguese is really good enough. However, I always prefer original versions and I'll give it a try if I can.

  3. Thank you for visiting my description of So Long a Letter. I am glad to see more people read it. I found it in a list "The non-western books that every student should read" and I totally agree with that. Such an insightful book. And, unfortunately, we can all draw some similarities to this still today and in our own culture.

    Always happy to "talk" to you. Have a great week,

    1. It's true that here in the West we pay too little attention to literature from other cultural spheres... Well, I reckon that So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is one of the better known novels from Africa.

      Thanks for drawing my attention to the Guardian list that you mentioned! I checked it and found that I reviewed another book from this list past year: On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe. And I reviewed a different novel from the pen of the only Nobel laureate featured on the list: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz.

      Thanks for your comment! Always nice to "hear" from you, Marianne!

    2. Hi Edith,
      sorry for the slow answer. I have "Black Sisters' Street" on my wishlist and am just reading the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz and have read Children of Gebelawi by him. Love him.

      I hope to return to posting on the Nobel page soon again, there were a few hiccups but I'm hopeful it's alright now.

      Marianne from
      Let's Read

  4. Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful article.
    Thanks for providing this info.


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