Thoughts on Une si longue lettre: Tout ou rien

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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.”

Insouciance

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Back home – back to reading. Finished reading Slogans by Mark Burgess, am going to finish Une si longue lettre by Mariama Ba (Senegal) – finally – and then finally, finally finish the book on Congo. I have just finished putting together/writing the track listing for yet another of my increasingly frequent random-gum music mixes/life’s soundtrack (and addressed all the envelopes. Tedium). It’s been a rich and intense time for music listening. I can’t seem to help myself and just want to keep sharing.

I’ve got the latest season of Chef’s Table going in the background. Not being a foodie of any kind, I did not expect to care for this show, but a lovely former colleague recommended it to me, and I have been consistently entertained and surprised. In the first episode of the third season, the ‘chef’ is actually a Korean Zen Buddhist monk who does not at all consider herself a chef. In the second episode, they’re covering the relatively well-known White Rabbit restaurant in Moscow (even I had heard of it and I am not that interested in the world’s popular or best-regarded culinary marvels). The best part is listening to all the spoken Russian; the worst, seeing lovely live moose who were killed and eventually turned into the moose-lip dumplings the chef had long been dreaming of. Most of the series is all quite beautiful and exquisite in any case. And the back stories almost all fascinating. (The third episode on Nancy Silverton: “I think you need to be obsessed with bread… to be a baker.” Starting off on the right foot.)

Not many words to say about it, but my decision to ‘fake it til I make it’ in terms of forcing myself to pretend to be in a better mood worked – when I decided on the 14th that it would be my last day of moping and sulking, it was. I was not at my greatest or at the pinnacle of personal enlightenment on the morning of the 15th, but I gave it some thought, realized what I had been doing and from that moment on, everything has actually (I’ve not just been ‘acting’) been great – relief, release, mini adventure, deep thinking without thinking about anything in particular. Very freeing.

Revolutionary Letter #1
Diane di Prima
I have just realized that the stakes are myself
I have no other
ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life
my spirit measured out, in bits, spread over
the roulette table, I recoup what I can
nothing else to shove under the nose of the maitre de jeu
nothing to thrust out the window, no white flag
this flesh all I have to offer, to make the play with
this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move
as we slither over this go board, stepping always
(we hope) between the lines