Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow. (page 1)
So begins So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (first published 1980, translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas), the personal (fictional) diary of the Senegalese woman Ramatoulaye, written as an extended letter to her best friend Aissatou, who has long lived in the United States.
Mariama Ba writes of the conflicts these women face in their modern (1970s and 1980s) world with detail, passion, understanding, and sensitivity. In an expert way, she doesn’t judge the choices her fictional characters make. Nevertheless, the outcomes, both negative and positive, are evident in the women’s realistic responses to their situations.
Obviously, I have never been a woman in Senegal forced to live in a polygamous situation. I have never had to face the difficult questions of parenting and motherhood that Ramatoulaye faces. I have never been betrayed by my husband or felt direly alone in the world. Yet, I related to Ramatoulaye’s pain, her quandary, and her desire for something better. In some ways, Ramatoulaye is every woman. I loved reading her story. I feel I know her, even after 90 pages.
Ramatoulaye’s passionate outpourings seem to beg Aissatou to try to understand her decisions, even while she tries to come to terms with them herself.
My [wound] continues to bleed. (page 55)
Ramatoulaye’s wound is not related her husband’s recent death, but rather the pain that comes from his rejection of her in the form of taking a second wife after twenty-five years of marriage. Aissatou’s own husband also took a second wife after years of marriage; unlike Ramatoulaye, she left her husband and created her own life.
We don’t learn a lot about Aissatou: the story is mostly Ramatoulaye’s, for she is the one who stayed with her husband, dealing with the pain of repeated rejection. Aissatou’s husband took for a second wife a young woman that they both knew, a distant relative that his mother had raised. Ramatoulaye’s husband took for a second wife a teenage girl, the best friend of their oldest daughter. Although both are betrayals of the intimacy in the marriage, it seems to me that Ramatoulaye’s husband betrayed her far more, for his second wife was taken purely for selfish motives. (It could be argued that Aissatou’s husband could have refused to marry the relative, and so he was selfish too.)
She is not ignorant of the difficulties that are in marriage. Their marriage was not easy before the second wife entered the picture.
Marriage is never smooth. It reflects differences in character and capacity for feeling. (page 55)
Yet, it seemed the option of polygamy was a horrible betrayal of the first marriage. Ramatoulaye’s husband didn’t tell her he was marrying again: he left one morning, saying “I’ll be back late.” He hadn’t even admitted that he was attracted to his daughter’s friend, that he was “courting” her. His new wife was jealous, so he stopped visiting his other children (of which he had twelve). He spent lavish amounts of money spoiling his young new wife (and her tricky mother). It was interesting for me, with my western background, to see the depiction of his affair. In his culture, it was not only acceptable to have a secret affair outside of marriage, but he was legally able to marry the mistress, without consulting or divorcing the first wife! To me, it seemed the ultimate betrayal.
I also loved Ramatoulaye’s insights into motherhood. She had twelve children and, since her husband’s betrayal, she was solely responsible for them. She had to love and teach and forgive.
One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end. (page 83)
Ramatoulaye doesn’t outwardly condemn polygamy, but her pain and her disapproval is evident. Her conflicted reactions are so realistic, I loved it. Despite Mariama Ba’s brevity, she captured the many facets that women in Senegal must deal with. I haven’t discussed education, but this was also a major issue. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou were both trained, while Ramatoulaye’s co-wife had not yet finished school; her life after becoming a widow would be rather rough. But also, had the women left their husbands, they would have had to deal with the emotional and economic results of being lone women: Aissatou was able to make the break, but Ramatoulaye didn’t want to be alone. I wonder, had she known her husband would continue to reject her (ignoring her large family), would she have made the break?
In the end, I loved the celebration of family, and the importance of strong families.
The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family. (page 89)
As I mentioned, nothing is outwardly condemned, but Ramatoulaye does ache in her frustration: she wants her children to have the strength of being a part of a united family. The second wife divided their family, and Ramatoulaye does worry about her children’s future, and the future of the nation. So Long a Letter is a celebration of what should be: strong mothers and united families, kept together by the trust of marriage.
I had intended this post to be full of “fan girl gushing” about how wonderful this book is. (I apparently cannot do a post like that!) I instead tried to show just why it’s so great. I hope you can find a copy of it, because it is wonderful.