I began classes today, and while I won’t be really busy for a couple weeks when the first sets of papers come in, I’m still feeling a bit in shock — there’s a lot of new stuff to take in, new colleagues, new students, a new campus, a new daily and weekly pattern to life. It’s hard for me to settle down and read in these circumstances. And the thing is, I remember clearly writing this exact same stuff last fall, when I started my last new job. I’m ready for some quiet, some peace, some regularity — I’m ready for my life to be boring!
Anyway, I finished Mariama Ba’s novel So Long a Letter last weekend. I don’t feel like I gave this book a fair reading; in other circumstances I might have liked it more, but as it was, I never quite settled into a groove with it. You know how that is, when you orient yourself to a book and get absorbed and find yourself thinking about it throughout the day when you’re doing other things? My reading wasn’t like that — it was halting and distracted, and impatient at times.
But about the book itself — it’s about a woman in Senegal whose husband has just died, and she tells the story of their marriage, including the pain she experienced when her husband took a second wife. It’s a novel about how harsh marriage can be toward women in a polygamous culture, but also about how women are beginning to find independence and freedom and to assert their own desires, difficult and painful as the process may be.
The novel is made up of letters the main character Ramatoulaye writes to a friend, and it’s her voice that is the most memorable. She writes to try to make sense of her life, and as she does so her voice is alternately angry and at peace, accusatory and accepting, uncertain and full of conviction. It’s when I realized that Ramatoulaye is struggling to make sense of rapid cultural changes — that she doesn’t always know how to respond to women’s new-found sexual freedom, for example — that the novel began to come together a bit more for me. She’s not meant to be an infallible guide, an authoritative voice to tell people what to think; rather, she’s bewildered at times. Alongside her powerful voice speaking to the pain of being a forsaken wife is another voice that wonders what all the changes mean.
Here is Ramatoulaye thinking about ways she may have, in her own estimation, failed her husband:
I am trying to pinpoint any weakness in the way I conducted myself. My social life may have been stormy and perhaps injured Modou’s trade union career. Can a man, deceived and flouted by his family, impose himself on others? Can a man whose wife does not do her job well honestly demand a fair reward for labour? Aggression and condescension in a woman arouse contempt and hatred for her husband. If she is gracious, even without appealing to any ideology, she can summon support for any action. In a word, a man’s success depends on feminine support.
This sounds very old-fashioned and traditional — a wife’s role is to further her husband’s career and be his support. But two pages later, recounting a conversation with an unwanted suitor who shows up after her husband’s death, she says this:
“…You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chose and who has chosen you.” ( I emphasized the word “chosen”.)
“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 hand of her sewing machine. You, the revered lord, you take it easy, obeyed at the crook of a finger. I shall never be the one to complete your collection. My house shall never be for you the coveted oasis; no extra burden; my “turn” every day, clealiness and luxury, abundance and calm! No, Tamsir!”
I wish I could have done this novel more justice, but I am glad I read it (my first book in the Reading Across Borders challenge), and it’s the contradictions and struggles shown in those two quotations that I most liked about this book.