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Remarks on So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

January 19, 2011
recent edition cover

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So Long a Letter is a very heartfelt story taking place in Senegal, Africa and with the translation from French to English published in 1981. It is written in the form of a long letter from a recent widow to her dear school friend.  Both of the women in this story, the narrator (Ramatoulaye) and her friend (Aissatou), have undergone hardships in their marital lives – in the nature of polygamy.

Though the story is told only from the perspective of Ramatoulaye, you understand how vastly different each woman reacted to this marital strife and the addition of another woman to their marriage.  One rejects it completely and one reluctantly embraces it.  Throughout the book Mariama Ba points out the difficulties that the Senegalese woman faces in a very male dominated world.  The widow talks about the stresses of being a working mother trying to support her household and twelve children, especially after her husband abandoned her for his second wife, her co-wife.

After the funeral of the husband is over, the letter to her friend turns to more current events, and those are the trials that come with being a mother.  Ramatoulaye speaks of advice from her grandmother and then how she handles situations that her children get into.

“Courageous grandmother, I draw from your teaching and example the courage that galvanizes one at the times when difficult choices have to be made.”

This is the first book that I recall reading from the African continent and I am thankful to have picked it up.  There are so many wonderful things to say about it.  The imagery was incredible, Ba had a way to describe the scenes so that you smell the ocean or hear the trees swaying in the wind.

“Coconut trees, with their interlacing leaves, gave protection from the sun.  Succulent sapodilla stood next to sweet-smelling pomegranates.  Heavy mangoes weighed down the branches.  Pawpaws resembling breasts of different shapes hung tempting and inaccessible from the tops of elongated trunks.”

The emotions in this were honest and the book was beautifully written.  This is a short book and if you have a few hours to spare, I would highly recommend reading it.

My favorite quote in this book happens to be about books, in regards to Assiatou’s independence and education:

“The power of books, this marvellous invention of astute human intelligence.  Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word.  Justaposition of words from which springs the idea.  Thought, History, Science, Life.  Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving.  Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress.”

I read this book as part of the Year of Feminist Classics Challenge.  So expect more posts to come as discussions get underway.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2011 2:55 pm

    I’m glad you pulled that quote about the power of books – I thought Bâ’s attitude toward book-learning was so interesting. It was undeniably a source of inspiration for Ramatoulaye and her peers, and a symbol and means of social progress, but at the same time she points out the social changes that mean anyone with any amount of book-learning doesn’t want to practice the traditional manual crafts anymore, which contributes to unemployment and poverty. A surprisingly complex little book.

    • January 24, 2011 3:21 pm

      Her attitude towards learning was indeed fascinating, the emphasis she put on Aissatou’s learning and eventual success in life was a stark contrast to Ramatoulaye. Perhaps a contrast in their reactions to their marital relationships as well. I think you read into the details in this much deeper on the social progress than I did, which is a good thing as I am learning much more from your perceptions.

      I agree about it being a complex little book and there is so much more I want to say about it … I may have to write another blog once I get my thoughts straight.

  2. January 27, 2011 5:49 pm

    Love your review, thank you so much for participating. I really love that last excerpt you shared as well! So much in this book to keep going back to isn’t there.

    • January 27, 2011 6:20 pm

      There really is so much to go back to with this book and it’s such a small one at that.

  3. famuyisan yejide permalink
    May 31, 2012 7:47 am

    I so much love this novel by mariama ba coz it reveals d fact that men and women should be treated equal that what a man can do,a woman can do it better.


  1. Discussion: So Long a Letter « A Year of Feminist Classics
  2. Wrap-up: So Long A Letter « A Year of Feminist Classics

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