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So Long a Letter
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Group Reads > February 2020: So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

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Agnese | 55 comments This is the discussion thread for So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas), our group selection for February.

Happy reading!


message 2: by Antonomasia (last edited Jan 09, 2020 08:09AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Antonomasia | 10 comments Is it okay to start already?

This is a book I've been meaning to read for a while, and I was going to read it anyway this Jan/Feb.

I just read a GR review mentioning there is quite a lot of exposition, explaining info about the narrator's life and local customs which her friend, the recipient of the letters, would already know. The second paragraph of the book talks of how their grandmothers and mothers were neighbours. But is applying a standard of "exposition = clumsy" to impose European/North American norms (and norms for certain types of realist storytelling predicated on verisimilitude) when this is coming from a different place with different foundations? Some people here have read a good deal more classic West African lit and maybe know the context better.


Antonomasia | 10 comments re. what I said in my last post about exposition (having now read about half) - it has a frame of reference rather like a speech at a party: it's at least as much telling a larger audience about the friend, the writer and their families as it is addressed to the friend.

Misleading covers of classics have become a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine over the last year - but this yet is another example. It seems to imply it's about people leading traditional rural lifestyles, and doesn't indicate that the narrator is a fiftysomething teacher whose husband was a civil servant from a prestigious family, that her best friend is an interpreter in an embassy, who was married to a doctor - and that it is about the mixture of traditional practices (e.g. polygamy) and Europeanised systems and values that were the legacy of colonialism. (I know people might still wear those garments and fabrics shown in these jobs & circumstances - it's the backdrop of what looks like desert and the apparent stoicism/passiveness of the kneeling woman.)

It is more universal (for what that term is worth) a story than some might assume or than the cover implies. It is easy to imagine a woman in a western country having a similar experience (and posting about it online!), either when separated but not yet divorced, or having tolerated an affair - she discovers, OMG he remortgaged our house to pay for flats for his girlfriend and her mum, and now he has died and we're broke.

Its ethos really connects with 1960s-70s Anglophone feminist writing (tho I daresay in 70s Senegal there were probably more copies of de Beauvoir around). There are a lot of similar complaints about women having to do everything at home as well as going to work, men haven't really changed in their expectations of home life. The narrator and her friend are from the first generation of (upper/middle class educated) women widely able to have careers and the narrator is regretting some of her earlier decisions in that context.

She is overtly discussing the cultural/political situation, and it is interesting to contrast with recent material online where activists from formerly colonised countries talk about what has been lost of older, indigenous ways of being, knowing, and organising society. (Though most of this I've seen has been from First Nations people from North America or Australia, which may make a difference.)
In So Long a Letter the narrator is positive about implicitly European/Westernised systems and the equality and education they represent for her. Traditional ways are associated with polygamy and with older women who enforce patriarchal customs and benefit from them (financially and in exercising power over younger female relatives). I will probably need to look for study guides and essays to find stuff that gives more context.


message 4: by Antonomasia (last edited Feb 10, 2020 03:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Antonomasia | 10 comments review

Sorry for monopolising the thread early, hope can talk about the book with other people soon.


Sanne (sanneennas) | 28 comments my copy has arrived and I hope to be able to get to reading it soon! really looking forward to it.


Agnese | 55 comments Antonomasia wrote: "review

Sorry for monopolising the thread early, hope can talk about the book with other people soon."


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Antonomasia!
I've only just started the book and look forward to joining the discussion soon.


Ella (ellamc) | 37 comments My thinking on exposition about some places differ from my thoughts on others. It irks me when someone from the US explains the US in detail, but would it irk me if I was a reader from, say, China? Dunno.

Not sure if it applies to this work, especially given the epistolary form, but on a super-basic level, different places in Africa are as different as they could be. Even within certain countries, it matters - especially given tribal natures, civil wars, colonization of course, etc. From my reading it seems Mariama Bâ was beyond frustrated w/ very traditional treatment of women. I don't know enough to know if this was something that was so common that it wouldn't require at least "setting it up" - for a reader of a letter/book, for both other characters and readers. I read this a while ago, though, and I was unable to locate my copy. So I had to order another and haven't finished rereading yet.


Ella (ellamc) | 37 comments PS: Not sure if it would make a great contribution to this discussion, but I have a PDF from years ago where Taiye Selasi says "African literature doesn't exist." It was from a talk she gave in Germany, I believe. If interested, I can search further. It's a great read in general.


Agnese | 55 comments I totally agree with Antonomasia on the misleading cover choice for this book. There's a frustrating dissonance between the story that deals with quite modern issues and the impression that is conveyed by the cover. I hope this gets re-released sometime soon with a cover that does the book justice!

I really enjoyed the book and I didn't get the feeling that there was too much exposition, but perhaps, for someone who is well versed in the customs, it might be too much.
My thoughts on exposition vary, depending on the book, but I usually get annoyed only when it is so noticeable that it pulls me out of the story.

Also, I believe that, while the letter was supposedly addressed to a specific person, I agree that it feels more like a speech or diary entry (or, to put it in a modern context, something like a blog post), which is simultaneously written for a specific and a broader audience.


Antonomasia | 10 comments The essay Ella mentioned, "African literature doesn't exist" by Taiye Selasi, is online here: (15 pages)

https://www.literaturfestival.com/med...

Even within certain countries, it matters - especially given tribal natures, civil wars, colonization of course, etc.

Sorry, yes, even though I was trying not to do the "Africa as a country" thing by specifying "West Africa" (and with a lot of the African literary fiction published in the UK and US being from West Africa esp Nigeria), I just didn't know enough about different regions and cross-border tribal groups for it not to still be similar.

I haven't had time to read about how keen people are on Westernisation now, and to what extent that has changed over the last 40 years, and differences between communities on that, but this one of the most interesting subjects I'm taking away from the book. (Is it connected with the extent to which traditions was lost to colonialism? So if there are very few traditions remaining, whether positive or harmful, the idea of reconnecting pre-colonial practices is less ambiguous for activists, because positive ones can be chosen?)


message 11: by Erin (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 5 comments Agnese wrote: "I totally agree with Antonomasia on the misleading cover choice for this book. There's a frustrating dissonance between the story that deals with quite modern issues and the impression that is conv..."

While I found the exposition interesting and informative, it didn’t feel fitting to me when the writer was telling her friend things she already knew. To me, this only works if the writer is emphasizing the effect said event had in them, a new perspective they’ve gained on it, or something else which the reader of the letter would not already know. Other than that, I thought the book excellent and am glad that I read it!


message 12: by Ella (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 37 comments Antonomasia wrote: "Is it connected with the extent to which traditions was lost to colonialism? So if there are very few traditions remaining, whether positive or harmful, the idea of reconnecting pre-colonial practices is less ambiguous for activists, because positive ones can be chosen?)"

I wasn't chastising anyone for over-generalizations, and I'm in much the same boat as you. I've read SO much from Nigeria that it tends to overtake my ideas. And I have never been to any part of Africa, but I do plan on getting there someday.

I think your questions are ones that I see modern writers struggling with, along with the rest of us. There have been movements toward tradition, then -- especially women -- find parts of that tradition an uncomfortable fit, so it feels to me like we're still trying to work out "how should a person be" in all of this. Though, as I said, I have no special insights here. I just thought her speech gave me tons of things to think about.

Erin wrote: "Agnese wrote: "I totally agree with Antonomasia on the misleading cover choice for this book. There's a frustrating dissonance between the story that deals with quite modern issues and the impressi..."

I would agree that the cover you guys pointed to is pretty bad. I have a newer version that's all in black with green/gold-yellow/red highlights. It is far less objectionable.

I'm not sure how I feel about the exposition. I do agree with Erin that for me it didn't truly fit given she was writing to a friend. Though, often we need to reiterate some things to a friend just to make a story or our point of view make sense, it felt just a touch unrealistic when hard facts were part of that letter.

Honestly, it's been so long since I wrote a letter like this to a friend that I don't even know what's realistic anymore. I used to love writing and receiving super-long letters, but I've not done that since I was in my early adulthood.

I'm glad we read this, though, because apart from the book itself, as Anto points out, there are loads of questions and ideas here that will serve as a springboard for further reading and lots of thought.


message 13: by Lisa (last edited Mar 03, 2020 08:33PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa | 1 comments One point I found interesting towards the end of the novella is how Ramatoulaye relates to her daughters. While she herself may buck tradition in many ways, there is a generational progression of ideas that she struggles with in relation to her own children (who engage in smoking, extramarital sex, etc.). I see this as a very honest commentary of Bâ's on the changing roles of 'tradition' and 'progress' and the delicate balance to be found there. And of course, that feeling is relatable for mothers from any cultural background, be it Senegalese, Nigerian, American, etc.

I do agree that the epistolary aspect comes across as awkward. Some of the West African literature I've read is heavily influenced by oral tradition and can almost be read as a performance piece. I'm not qualified to draw all those links , but it does help me wrap my head around the exposition present here. The only other Senegalese novel I've read, Le baobab fou, is also presented in something akin to interior monologue storytelling form. I must read more books from Senegal, lest I generalize from a paltry sample size of two!

Edit: Upon further reflection, I completely confused Le Baobab Fou with The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, which is not Senegalese at all... and brings to mind this article on book covers which made the rounds some years back. Oops. Sorry for the digression, folks.


message 14: by Ella (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 37 comments Lisa wrote: "One point I found interesting towards the end of the novella is how Ramatoulaye relates to her daughters. While she herself may buck tradition in many ways, there is a generational progression of i..."

Oh dear - those covers, all together, really are quite, ahem...something.


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