Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (original French, Une Si Longue Lettre), 1980, is short, 89 pages: as advertised, it is a letter from Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese schoolteacher living outside of Dakar, to her friend Aissatou, who has gone on as a translator to a life in Europe and the United States. These are not impoverished people, they are professionals with houses, cars, and children in schools, but the reality of extended families, crowded communities and precarious good fortune insures that financially desperate characters are always in the mix.
The real issue here, though, is marriage. This book is a narrative of injustice based on Islam's acceptance of polygamy, something Arab evangelists of Islam had in common with African populations during the spread of Islam across that continent. Ramatoulaye is herself a Muslim with a strong spiritual practice, and her faith gives her the strength to come out into the light of forgiveness, firmness and integrity during her struggles. Ba does not inhabit a simple world. All of the characters are respected, there are some who have progressive ideas, others who are good-hearted, and this compassion extends to the older men and younger women who can make life such a hell for older women in a society where polygamy is accepted.
Aissatou's vengeful mother-in-law orchestrated a second marriage for her husband, the orphaned daughter of his uncle who his mother has raised explicitly for this purpose. Ramatoulaye, years later, essentially loses her husband when he marries one of her daughter's friends after twenty-five years of marriage, and quickly drifts away from the first wife who has had twelve pregnancies, and has nine children, by him. Both women are galvanized by the experience to develop their own lives and characters. The letter is written on the occasion of the death of Ramatoulaye's husband and the revelation that one of her daughters has become pregnant, which perhaps helps to explain the atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion that suffuses the book, although hard-won spiritual strength is clearly driving this narrative.
There is an interesting connection between writing quality and the quality of passion that a writer has. Many African novels that I read are engaging for place, for custom, and for history, but Ba's book stands out as particularly well-written, and one can't help but feel that the precision of the sentences is reflecting the author's passion to communicate the power of the injustice that she has seen and experienced. The heterogeneity of attitudes, opinions, and styles expressed by the various characters defy easy stereotypes. It is a great loss that Ba passed away after writing only two books. This one reveals talent to spare.