So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba
First sentence: “Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.”
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Content: It’s pretty serious and deals with issues of infidelity and polygamy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But there’s no swearing, sex, or violence. It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Recently widowed, Ramatoulaye sits down to write a long letter to her best friend about all the events that led up to Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. It was a happy story:  for 25 years, they were happily married. Ramatoulaye spent her life in devotion to her husband, bearing 12 children. Then one of his daughter’s friends caught his eye, and he woos her, and takes her as a second wife (as is permitted in Islam). That simple act wrecks Ramatoulaye, but she manages to survive as a single mother.

It’s a slim novel, and an interesting one. I didn’t particularly like the format –why, if she’s writing to her best friend, would Ramatoulaye need to recount her friends’ history (which was much like her own; her husband took a second wife. The difference is that Aissatou left her husband)? It didn’t make sense to me, logically, some of the things Ramatoulaye included in her letter. That said, if when I was able to get past that, I found the story was simultaneously enlightening and disheartening.

Enlightening, because that’s an area of the world I know very little about. And through Ramatoulaye, Ba brings to life the ordinary lives of Senegalese women. And disheartening because they have so few rights, as we have come to think of them. I read this book in the middle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and this is a prime example why I need to read more books like this. In my privileged home in my privileged country, it’s easy for me not to think about Senegalese women and their lives. But books like these help me. It helps that Ba is a good writer (aside from the format, of course), and was able to draw me into Rmatoulaye’s life.

And that’s what makes this book worthwhile.

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