2. So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ

My reading adventures continued today with a book that most people do not come across at their local bookstore or on the list of top 100 books to read before you die. Nonetheless, “So Long a Letter” by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ is deserving of recognition. It is in fact one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century and the winner of the Noma Award.

“So Long a Letter” resembles an autobiographical novel and is kind of like the title suggests a long letter. It’s translated from French and done so very well. Despite not being in the original language it was written in, this novel resembles an epic poem and the author has a very special way of crafting images out of words. In fact, for most of the book I felt like I was bombarded with images of African culture. The theme is the condition of women in Western African society and the transition from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country. If you are at all interested in post-colonial African literature this is a must read. I do want to give a head up though. This novel will be a challenge if you are not familiar with contemporary African women’s literature or post-colonial literature. Most books in this genre are strongly rooted in culture and one gets the most out of these books if they know a little background information.

The novel starts of with Ramatoulaye Fall writing a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ.  We learn from the very start that the reason she is writing this letter is because her husband has passed away recently.  As she is telling her friend about her husband’s death she describes the major events in their lives. You really get a good picture of the friendship the two women share. At the same time we learn of the struggles Ramatoulaye has had to endure during her life time. She is an educated and articulate woman who has worked as a teacher her whole life. She has given birth to twelve children but despite this her husband takes on a second wife and she feels betrayed and does not agree with the polygyny that is allowed in her tradition.  In her letters to Aissatou she expresses her hope that the old traditions and new freedoms can one day be combined to form a healthy balance. Aissatou is very much in agreement with her because we know she immigrated to the United States and pursued a feminist, monogamist relationship.  Ramatoulaye also writes about many other aspects of her life that are affected by her tradition and religion and truly opens the door to her world for the reader to grasp.

“So Long a Letter” is not the easiest book to read but it is most definitely worth the effort. It offers an insight into a culture we often don’t read much about.  In case you do pick up this book and are looking for others that are similar I highly recommend  The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta.

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