How long have I had this novella, Une si longue lettre, on my shelf, picking at it, reading a page or two and setting it down again and again? It’s difficult to carve out the time and concentration space to focus on reading books in languages that are not my own. I have until this year packed my life with so much (meaningless) work and ‘stuff’ that I have rarely read books faithfully in my own language, let alone in other languages, except when required.
I have demanded of myself, though, that things change this year. If not dramatically, at least incrementally – and intellectually. It is not that demanding or time consuming to read a book that is just 130 pages long, in French or otherwise. In a relatively brief and personal story, Mariama Ba provides a glimpse at feminism and equality through the lens of being both an African and a Muslim woman. Many evaluations of this book will describe it as something akin to “Africa’s first feminist novel”, a “portrait of the struggle between modernity and tradition” (the story concerns polygamy and its effects on women and society as a whole).
And the bits that spoke to me most loudly:
The book, written as a long letter, takes place after the protagonist’s husband dies, and she is forced to mourn alongside his second wife. She writes to her friend, who has done what she did not have the strength to do – the friend leaves her husband when he takes a second wife. On the endurance of friendship: “L’amitié a des grandeurs inconnues de l’amour. Elle se fortifier dans les difficultés, alors que les contraintes massacrent l’amour. Elle résiste au temps qui lasse et désunit les couples. Elle a des élévations inconnues de l’amour.”
After the narrator/protagonist’s husband dies and her former suitor returns and offers to marry her, she considers seriously and declines, asking instead for his friendship. He responds, “Tout ou rien. Adieu.”