Translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas
So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel (rare in African literature) and seminal African feminist work that laments injustices in the female experience in Senegal. The book was published in French in 1979, and first appeared in English in 1981. It has been judged to be one of the top 12 African books of the 20 century. The book won the inaugural Noma Award for Publishing in Africa in 1980. The text is generally regarded as semi-autobiographical.
Teacher Ramatoulaye is a Muslim woman and recent widow who relays news of the death of her husband Modou to her close friend Aissatou, and reflects on the unfolding of her marriage to Modou, during the course of which she bore him 12 children. In keeping with an intimate letter between friends, the book is deeply personal. We learn that, like Aissatou’s husband, and despite having married for love, Modou in later years took a second, very young bride – in his case, the best friend of one of his daughters.
As the novel proceeds, Ramatoulaye asserts an increasing sense of agency and power in her own actions, throwing off her compliance with certain patriarchal traditions – such as the assumption by Modou’s brother that she will now become his wife.
Unusually for a post-colonial African novel, Ramatoulaye is not always critical of the European influence on her country. She writes of the educational opportunities she and her peers were given in gaining access to a French colonial school:
“…to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word ‘love’ had a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.”
Although the book is short (at less than 100 pages), I found it heavy going at times. However the narrative, while sometimes stilted, can be beautifully evocative:
“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.”
It is difficult to be fair to this book as it is very much not something I would usually read. It’s certainly not a light or even a particularly enjoyable read. But it does give interesting insights into the issues experienced by post-colonial West African women in the late 20th century, and poses questions about how best to live as a modern woman in that place and at that time. These issues parallel concurrent debates about whether the Senegal of the late 1970s should plot a traditional or more modern course.
The book is considered hugely important in the field of African studies, and at the time of publication in English So Long a Letter was described by literary academic Abiola Irele as “the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction“.