“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ


This book by a Senegalese woman writer in French was widely acclaimed and translated into several languages. The English translation was published in 1981, the same year the author died following a tragic illness.

“To warp a soul is as much a sacrilege as murder.” The status of women in polygamous social structures is gracefully outlined in this teeny weeny semi-autobiographical novel that appears in the form of a long letter from a woman to her friend. Sensitive, without being sentimental, it recounts the tragic story of a woman’s life in the simplest of ways. As a woman born into a patriarchal conservative Islamic society with all its inherent contradictions, Ramatoulaye remains stoic through multiple childbirths, watches helplessly as her husband takes a younger second wife, and later battles the emotional storms of widowhood.

“My voice has known thirty years of silence, thirty years of harassment,” the epistle states in a matter-of-fact tone. “It bursts out, violent, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes contemptuous.” When her husband’s much-married brother proposes to wed her in accordance with the prevailing custom, Ramtoulaye reacts, “Did you ever have any affection for your brother? Already you want to build a new home for yourself, over a body that is still warm. While we are praying for Modou, you are thinking of future wedding festivities.” Not content with this admonition she goes on to question the social order with its unfair tradition of unearned male privilege: “What of your wives, Tamsir? Your income can meet neither their needs nor those of your numerous children. To help you out with your financial obligations, one of your wives dyes, another sells fruit, the third untiringly turns the handle of your sewing machine.”

When Daouda, a former suitor, now a distinguished member of the National Assembly, turns up at the funeral, Ramatoulaye brings up the subject of women’s representation in the august house. “Four women, Daouda, four out of a hundred deputies! What a ridiculous ratio! Not even one for each province.” Daouda’s response is as meaningful as it is amusing. “But you women, you are like mortar shells. You demolish. You destroy. Imagine a large number of women in the Assembly. Why, everything would explode, go up in flames.”

The oppressed woman’s yearning for freedom is subtly and powerfully expressed in crystal clear language: “Daouda Dieng was savouring the warmth of the inner dream he was spinning around me. As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and reveling in space.” Ramatoulaye’s letter delivered by a messenger to Daouda and his reply are both heart-breaking.

The novel is entertaining, thought-provoking and soul-stirring. It undoubtedly has feminist overtones as it highlights the imbalance between the sexes and the helplessness of women. Every woman will love it.

The translator, Modupe Bode-Thomas, deserves commendation for the professional touch that makes the book so very special.

Overall Assessment: Well worth a read –especially if you are a Muslim woman.

So Long a Letter
AUTHOR: Mariama Bâ
DATE OF PUBLICATION: French original in 1979, English translation in 1981.
PUBLISHER: Waveland Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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