I have wanted to read Mariama Ba’s debut novella, So Long a Letter, for such a long time. It was a title which appeared in my first to-read notebook, which I began around 2006; needless to say, it has taken me an awfully long time to track down a copy and sit down to read it. Set in Senegal, where the author was from, So Long a Letter was first published in French in 1980, and in English translation by Marlupé Bodé-Thomas in 1981. It has long been considered a modern classic.
Ba chose to write her novella due to ‘her commitment for eradicating inequalities between men and women in Africa’. Filling only 90 pages of narrative, So Long a Letter is a ‘sequence of reminiscences, some wistful, some bitter, recounted by Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye, who has recently been widowed.’ It is written as a letter to her oldest friend, Aissatou, and gives a ‘record of her emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife. Although sanctioned by Islam, his action is a calculated betrayal of her trust and a brutal rejection of their life together.’
Ramatoulaye’s husband, Madou, dies following a heart attack. When she sees his body, she remarks: ‘I listen to the words that create around me a new atmosphere in which I move, a stranger and tormented. Death, the tenuous passage between two opposite worlds, one tumultuous, the other still.’ Culturally, this element of the novella, in which Ramatoulaye sets out the burial customs of Islam, is fascinating.
The couple had been married for thirty years, and had twelve children. The decision of Madou’s to take a second wife is all the more heartbreaking in this respect, and neither Ramatoulaye or her children can believe or support his decision. Following Madou’s death, she reflects: ‘The presence of my co-wife beside me irritates me. She has been installed in my house for the funeral, in accordance with tradition.’ The relationship between the two is never explored in as much detail as I would have expected; rather, it is mentioned from time to time, but the finer details are glossed over.
I found the prose of So Long a Letter textured and rich; there is a sensual quality to it. At the outset, Ramatoulaye writes: ‘I conjure you up. The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the wood fires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-coloured face as she emerges from the kitchen, the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.’
The society in which Ramatoulaye lived as a young woman is reflected and commented upon. She writes: ‘Because, being the first pioneers of the promotion of African women, there were very few of us. Men would call us scatter-brained. Others labelled us devils. But many wanted to possess us. How many dreams did we nourish hopelessly that could have been fulfilled on lasting happiness and that we abandoned to embrace others, those that have burst miserably like soap bubbles, leaving us empty handed?’ In this manner, Ramatoulaye’s history is intertwined with the social and political climate of the entire nation of Senegal. One of the real strengths of the book for me was the way in which Ramatoulaye writes about the experiences of women in a suppressed society, and the way in which she has lived through ‘the birth of a republic, the birth of an anthem and the implementation of a flag.’
Whilst there are certainly some positive and admirable elements to So Long a Letter, I did not feel as though the quality of its prose was sustained throughout. It soon became quite repetitive, and I did not feel as engaged with the story after around the first quarter had passed. Something about the prose felt detached; perhaps this is a consequence of its translation, but there was definitely a stilted quality to it, which became more apparent as the story went on.
At first, it seemed to me that the narrator’s voice had such a presence, but this somehow waned after a while; it became more formal, and I felt less connected to it. I was pulled in at the outset, but found myself becoming increasingly indifferent to the rather stubborn narrator. It felt as though she was being both open and secretive about elements of her life. I admire the agency which she gave herself, but for me this was not realised strongly enough, or early enough, to make a difference in my feelings for the protagonist. Whilst I loved the use of cultural details within So Long a Letter, I must admit that it was not as absorbing as I had expected it would be. Although I was interested in the wider story, I felt that Ba’s characters could have been more realistically drawn, and this would have made for a far more memorable story.