So Long a Letter (originally published in French as Une si longue lettre) is a semi-autobiographical novel by Mariama Bâ. It presents the story of an ageing, Muslim woman in Senegal, who mourns the loss of her husband, and reflects on her marriage, in the form of a letter written to a friend.
The novel reminds me of Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes in the way it covers marriage and friendship, and its discussion of the mistreatment of women in traditional African societies, is reminiscent of Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.
Warning, there are spoilers ahead!
Friendship is an important theme in this novel. After all, the novel is a letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. Ramatoulaye has just lost her husband, Mawdo, when she writes Aissatou to express her feelings about the situation. Before his death, Mawdo had abandoned her for a younger woman, Binetou (her daughter’s friend). As she reminisces on their past lives, it is clear that Ramatoulaye adores her friend. She is very open about her pain over her husband’s neglect, and appreciative of Aissatou’s support over the years. The novel ends on a jovial note as Ramatoulaye anticipates her friend’s arrival for her daughter’s wedding.
On the other end of the friendship spectrum, is the relationship between Binetou and Daba, Ramatoulaye’s daughter. Daba feels betrayed by her friend, when she discovers that the ‘sugar daddy’ that Binetou had been telling her about, was actually Daba’s father, Modou. Binetou and Modou’s marriage, brings an end to her friendship with Daba. Frankly, I don’t blame Daba for making that decision. I wouldn’t want to remain friends with anyone who has an affair with one of my parents, while they are still married, and then has the gall to tell me all about it!
Bâ heavily explores the theme of romantic love in this novel. First with the nostalgia of Ramatoulaye and Modou’s relationship as young lovers, and later on with the resurfacing of an old flame after Modou’s death. One of the quotes about love, that spoke to me, appears when Aissatou discovers that Mawdo, her husband, has taken a second wife to ‘fulfil a duty’. Aissatou responded with this:
“I cannot accept what you are offering me today in place of the happiness we once had. You want to draw a line between heartfelt love and physical love. I say that there can be no union of bodies without the heart’s acceptance, however little that may be.”
I am glad that Aissatou did not let society pressure her into remaining in a marriage that no longer suited her, and I appreciate the author’s discussion of the couple’s separation. With the separation, Bâ raises a question about the possibility of loving someone, and still intentionally causing them pain or heartbreak. It made me consider whether Modou really loved Binetou, if he married her when it was clear that she would be unhappy in the marriage.
The novel also discusses a lot of feminist ideas. Including the lack of representation of women in politics. It is disappointing, but not surprising that even so many years after the book was first published, in the 1980s, African women still deal with some of the problems that were raised.
This novel was enjoyable to read, I empathised with Ramatoulaye’s pain, and admired her friendship with Aissatou. I mentioned this novel earlier, in my post about 10 African Classics I am Yet to Read. It’s the first Senegalese book that I’ve read. So Long a Letter made me appreciative of the work of translators, who make diverse works accessible to readers of different languages. Module Bode-Thomas is responsible for the English translation, as the novel was originally published in French. I’m appreciative of her work, and intrigued to find out what stylistic choices she made, to make the book more accessible to English readers.
Thank you for reading my thoughts! Have you read this novel? Let me know what you think of this post, in the comments.