A Year of Feminist Classics also had Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter as a January read as well as Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
So Long a Letter is a letter from Ramatoulaye to her expatriate best friend Aissatou, the wife of her husband’s best friend. Both are first wives of men who suddenly took second wives. In the cases of the second marriages, neither of the first wives were consulted. Aissatou divorces her husband, learns a skill, and moves overseas to work in the country’s American embassy. Ramatoulaye remains married but lives separately and raises the couple’s 12 children alone. The start of the letter informs Aissatou that Ramatoulaye’s husband Modou Fall is dead. The rest of the letter relates her reaction to her widowhood and rehashes the history of her marriage to explain how she feels now.
The introduction to the book claims it to be one of the first books that presents African women not as victims. Perhaps that suggestion influenced how I viewed the book, as the practicality of Ramatoulaye shows through, as well as her resilience in the face of adversity. You can almost hear the Gloria Gaynor song fading in during the soundtrack to the movie version.
The two main women come across as flawed but sincere women who have strength and integrity. Both are educated. One second wife is portrayed as a conniving gold-digger, the other as a clueless dupe. Both of the husbands are weak, not able to face down their first wives or families. Not all men get that treatment. One of Ramatoulaye’s suitors is very dashing, intelligent, and thoughtful of Ramatoulaye’s needs without neglecting his own. I’m not sure how I feel about these portrayals. It feels just a tad manipulative, but for all I know, that’s exactly how most men who take second wives in Senegal act.
Ramatoulaye is interested in Senegal’s politics. She reminds her suitor, a member of parliament, that only 4 of the deputies are women, less than one per province. But it’s also clear that with the division of labor, women can’t participate very well. Ramatoulaye has 12 children under her care. Even before her husband abandoned her, she had little help from him in the day to day care of them. It’s not coincidence that women started gaining political power in the U.S. when they started having access to birth control (as ineffective as it was around the turn of the century) and could start reducing their family sizes. Which is one of the reasons why I think some the U.S. most effective aid is that which goes toward family planning.
One thing to note is that the polygamy portrayed here is not the polygamy most in the U.S. are familiar with, that of the fundamentalist Mormons. Although the women are young, they are not coerced or kept powerless. The harms caused are different than the ones we’re used to seeing. Abandonment and an inability to support families is what comes up in the book. Abuse is the problem we see in the states.
No links again this time. Check A Year of Feminist Classics for roundup posts and more discussion.
Title: So Long a Letter (originally Une si longue lettre)
Author: Mariama Bâ
Cover creator: Tony Richardson (designer) / John Montgomer (art)
Series: African Writers Series
Imprint / publisher: Heinemann / Pearson
Length: 96 p.
Publication date: September 2008 (originally 1979)