I first heard of Marieme Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre when living in Dakar, but despite its great reputation and brevity–89 pages in my translation–I only just got to it. My mistake, in some ways, but on the other hand, having gotten a bit older, gone through a lot, and learned to understand more about people, it’s just as well I came to it now.
To briefly rehearse the plot: Ramatoulaye’s husband took, as allowed by law and custom, a much younger wife. She rightly understands this as a rejection. He dies suddenly, and she faces both her past and her future. She pens a long letter–89 pages in my translation–to her friend, Aissatou, relating her thoughts.
The book, more than one bit on the internet points out, is often used in post-colonial lit courses to illustrate the “woman’s point-of-view,” etc. This is certainly appropriate, such as it is. It is also pointed to as an example of an African feminism, which I would not disagree with either. I am in favor I will stress of both endeavors.
The problem is that a lot of people will read those two descriptions above, imagine that they know what to expect–post-colonial=Europe bad, African feminism=African and European men bad–and completely miss what’s actually happening. It’s well-known that liberatory movements are often misrepresented, but less commonly noted that this is often done by sympathizers.
As regards the book’s post-colonial place: Ba was of the first generation of independent young people in Senegal. As such, and not unlike the brilliant Ousmane Sembene, she works through, in her literature, the realization that independence was the start of a lot of work for the country–in this case, Senegal–even more than it was the end of a process. A line stands out:
One does not easily overcome the burdens of a thousand years. (73)
Ramatoulaye is shocked to find her daughters smoking:
Suddenly, I became afraid of the flow of progress. Did they also drink? Who knows, one vice leads to another. Does it mean that one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards? (77)
There is nothing conservative about these concerns, despite the internal discourse in the United States. Ba is facing a central fact of modern capitalism: it doesn’t care about people. It cares about selling. I had a friend who spent some time in Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union. He noted a proliferation of old US pornography, Penthouse more than anything, he said, sold on the “free market” in Russian kiosks. Yes: one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards. We can discuss the dynamics of those morals, i.e., who makes them, how they are enforced, etc., all from a critical angle, but I say as a leftist that at some point we need to discuss in more detail not just the problems in out societies, but what kinds of communities we want to form. This is where those of us living in citadel of capital need to shut up and listen to the peripheries.
The question of African feminism is critical as well. I will note anecdotally that both my wife at the time and I noticed in Senegal that we saw patriarchy everywhere, but very little if any misogyny. Neither of us would have allowed the possibility that the two were separable before we lived there, but we witnessed it. We were there nine months, too–not just a quick trip. By no means were things equal: as Ba notes as a matter of course, there are strict limits on women in the Senegal of her day. However, she conceives, contra a universalizing white feminism in which everyone is essentially the same save for social construction, or an essentializing white feminist in which all women are more or less the same, a feminism which means that people are free to be who they are. She does not, however, reject a dualistic approach to gender:
I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. (88)
You can reject this proposition and furthermore note its heteronormativity, and I’ll say that for my part I do, but do so understanding its context. This is not a feminist who is behind the times (the white people in the US being au courant), nor has she merely been browbeaten by the oppressor. This is a reflection of a place where there are emphatically two unequal gendered spheres, but in which each values the other. This is a far cry from US misogyny.