The Role Of Background Of The Author In So Long A Letter By Mariama Ba
C.S. Lewis said “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
Setting in literature refers to the where (geographical/physical) and when (historical) events in a story take place, be it in drama, poetry or prose. The setting of the novel So Long a Letter is really important and decisive because it is directly related to the author’s background. The events in the novel take place in Dakar the capital of Senegal during the precolonial period and purely in the Senegalese’s tradition and culture. Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French, born in Dakar, she was raised a Muslim, but at an early age started to criticise the inequalities between the sexes resulting from African traditions. She lived in a similar society as the one in her novel, where girls did not go far in school, women were obedient to their husbands, and men were treated as superior than women. So Long a Letter is a sequence of events narrated in the form of a letter, by the (fictional) recently widowed Senegalese school teacher Ramatoulaye. It is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband’s abrupt decision to take a second wife. Mariama Ba’s life is reflected in the text first with the similar setting and with major figures, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. The presence of similarity and references to Ba’s life is present throughout the book. The most recurrent similarity is the chauvinism criticise by Ba, either in Ramatoulaye’s life or Aissatou’s.
Firstly, looking at the setting it is seen that the background of the author has a major impact on the way she writes her novel. Bâ was raised during the colonial period. She went to school while at the same time attending the Koranic school. At that time, Senegal was dominated by the Muslim religion, polygamy and the society was patriarchal. In the novel it is indicates that Ramatoulaye, her children as well as other female were attending Koranic school, and few of them attended French school. Even when they were doing so they were facing oppositions from men surrounding them as well as Bâ’s maternal grandparents did not plan to educate her beyond primary school. This is one of the instances which make us to look at how Bâ tries to criticise the inequality present at the time between men and women. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist course stemmed from her background, her parent’s life and her schooling.
Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the respect and how they are important in the society. That is why she laid emphasis on all the details directly affecting the woman in general throughout the novel. “My wound continues to bleed”. Here the author exposes how Ramatoulaye is affected not by her husband’s recent death, but rather the pain that comes up from her husband’s rejection of her by taking a younger wife after twenty five years of marriage. At that time, men had the right to take many wives and it is reflected in the book where Modou Fall as well as Mawdo Ba took each a second wife. But Mariama Ba, was formally against polygamy, and refused to share her husband with another woman so she divorced and moved to go further into here education, where she can become the modern woman she has always wanted to be. We can see that Aissatou is the keen representation of Mariama Ba in the novel because she is also against the treatment given to women in the Senegalese culture. This is why she did not accept to share her husband, Mawdo Ba with another woman, she therefore divorced and moved to another country to continue her education. Mariama Ba as well as Aissatou clearly showed their disapproval with polygamy that they both take as a threat for the dignity of women.
Unfortunately, the Muslim religion permitted the men to have more than one wife so they could do anything but just leave their household and stay with their dignity, the most important thing according to them. As Aissatou said “I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way”. When looking at Ramatoulaye, we remarked that she represents the typical Senegalese woman because though educated, she still respects and follows the muslin traditions. She remained with her husband, despite the fact that she was sad of sharing her husband with the young friend of her daughter. But because she was obedient to the tradition and religion she supported to live in an unhappy home. She portrays the life of the majority of women in Senegal, how they were generally unhappy in the day to day life because they share their husband with two or more women. She is not completely against polygamy but for sure her pain is clear. Though brave Mariama Bâ experienced the many facets that women in Senegal must deal with. After becoming a widow, Ramatoulaye’s life is really hard because she had no professional training. As a result she will have to face the economic and emotional consequences of being a single mother. Ramatoulaye was not able to be alone, that is why she said “The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation therefore depends inevitably on the family” (Page 89). Ramatoulaye aches in her frustration because she wants her children to have the strength of being a part of a united family as what the Muslim religion and the Senegalese culture want. Their family has been divided by the second wife, and Ramatoulaye worries a lot for her children’s future, thus the future of the nation.
So Long a Letter is a keen portrait of a society in transition because several conflicting trends can be picked out, like during Modou Fall’s funeral. As Ramatoulaye letter recount what happen after the funeral, as well as the events leading up to her husband’s departure and his death. According to Senegalese tradition, one of Modou’s brothers offers to make Ramatoulaye one of his wives but she refused because she saw that he only wanted to take her money and properties. Ramatoulaye’s own daughter is representing another stage in the development of African women’s consciousness. This is due to the fact that she is living her life following the western culture by wearing trousers and smoking.
The events that I have described above are a direct transfer of Mariama Bâ’s life as a Senegalese teacher, women and wife. She wrote So Long a Letter as a memoir of her life, but there are some modifications she made in order to preserve her privacy. One of those is the fact that Bâ divorced after twenty five years of marriage while Ramatoulaye holds on to her marriage of thirty years. Also Ramatoulaye have twelve children while Bâ only had nine.
Mariama Bâ has revealed in her novel So Long a Letter, her thoughts, her perceptions on life and emotions in various ways. All these facts were identified thanks to the similarities between her life and that of her major characters, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. But what is clear is that Bâ was a feminist who criticise the chauvinism present at the time in the Senegalese’s culture which was according to her humiliating women. She suffers the indignity of an oppressive Islam culture as a Muslim woman in Senegal. It is thus indicates that Bâ’s background had a considerable impact in the way she wrote So Long a Letter. The question now is: Are books the accurate means to transfer a message? Because the main reason why Mariama Bâ wrote works of art was because she strongly believed that with books her message can be transmitted from generation to generation. This book has already been published in more than a dozen languages and is about to appear in more, this can signify how universal and timeless the book is. Also according to her “The power of books, this marvellous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationship and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted”.
- The Patriotic Vanguard. Retrieved 13 September, 2017, from http://www.thepatrioticvanguard.com/profile-senegalese-writer-mariama-ba
- Brainyquote. (2017). BrainyQuote. Retrieved 13 September, 2017, from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis115363.html
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