Mariama Bâ; trans. Modupé Bodé-Thomas
Winner of the 1980 Noma Prize, So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas, is in the form of a long letter written by one middle-aged Senegalese woman to another. A recently widowed Ramatoulaye writes to her childhood friend, Aissatou. The two share a similar fate in that their respective spouses took on second wives. But their reactions differ. Aissatou divorces her husband, raises her children, and makes a life for herself outside of Senegal. Ramatoulaye opts to stay in her village and endure the public humiliation of her husband taking on a second wife, a woman young enough to be their daughter.
Ramatoulaye eloquently reveals intimate details of her life. She falls in love with her future husband and marries him in spite of her mother’s reservations. They are happily married for over two decades when her husband takes on a second wife. Ramatoulaye is not prone to histrionics and maintains a calm, external demeanor when hearing the news even though she is shocked at the revelation.
Abandoned physically and financially by her husband, she shows her resilience and strength as she struggles to maintain the semblance of normalcy for herself and for her children. She lists the challenges she faces in paying bills and putting food on the table since her husband showered all his financial support on his extravagant new wife and her family. And she describes the difficulties of raising her brood of twelve children. But she harbors no bitterness toward her deceased husband whom she still loves.
One of the most endearing qualities that comes to the forefront in this novella is the relationship between the two friends. Theirs is a wonderful sisterhood of support and respect for each other’s choices. When Aissatou learns of Ramatoulaye’s hardship in finding adequate transportation, she buys a car for her friend to help ease her burden. And for her part, Ramatoulaye never criticizes her friend for choosing the path she did. Although they chose different paths, Ramatoulaye recognizes the choice one woman makes may not work for another. She supports a woman’s inviolable right to choose her own path and understands the pivotal role education plays in empowering women to exercise voice and choice. The novella ends on a beautiful note with Ramatalouye eagerly awaiting her friend’s visit to Senegal on the following day.
Ramatoulaye emerges as a compassionate, sensitive, intelligent, resourceful woman who has finally come into her own. She values her independence, gains strength as the novel progresses, and shocks her community by her repeated rejection of suitors seeking her hand in marriage after her husband’s death. Strong, dignified, empowered, and stoic, Ramatoulaye serves as a beacon of light for all women suffering injustice and oppression at the hands of men who exploit culture, tradition, or religion to gratify their selfish desires and to justify their abuse of women.