Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
As a Muslim schoolgirl in Senegal in the forties, Mariama Bâ had to choose her life’s direction at the age of fourteen. When girls graduated from primary education in the French colonial system, the main options were enrollment in either typing or midwifery courses. Only the most academic students at Bâ’s school progressed to the École normale des jeunes filles de Rufisque: an elite teacher training college just outside Dakar, whose intake included the surrounding Francophone territories. Bâ had decided to become a secretary, but her dynamic headmistress, ambitious on her behalf, wouldn’t hear of it. “You are intelligent,” she told her pupil. “You have gifts.” So Bâ took the entrance exam for the École normale and received the highest mark in French West Africa.
The headmistress’s discernment of exceptional talent was again strikingly vindicated when Bâ, on publishing her debut novel at age fifty, became one of the first black African women to achieve international renown as an author. So Long a Letter, an incandescent critique of Islamic polygyny from the point of view of a middle-aged Senegalese widow, won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa and was translated into many languages. Bâ, who had been a women’s rights activist since the sixties, was suddenly hailed as the pioneering feminist voice of a continent. Sadly, she had little time to enjoy her success. Less than a year after accepting the Noma prize and giving a speech at the 1980 Frankfurt Book Fair, Bâ died of cancer. According to those who knew her, she didn’t rail against her fate. She accepted premature death as the price of her startling literary glory.
Posthumously, the plaudits continued to come in for So Long a Letter. A Guardian review of the 1982 Virago edition, translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas, described Bâ as “in a class of her own, conveying with real power and poetry a subtle, changing world of female experience which men do not see and cannot write about.” The London Review of Books declared: “One could not wish for a more politically alert and more passionately involved account of what life is like for educated Muslim women.” There was censure, too. The Nigerian poet and scholar Femi Ojo-Ade accused Bâ (along with her fellow Senegalese author Nafissatou Diallo and the Nigerian-British novelist Buchi Emecheta) of espousing a creed of “social and psychological alienation” and “cultural bastardization.” Feminism, he scolded, is intrinsically “an occidental phenomenon.” As Bâ said in her Frankfurt speech: “In all cultures the woman who makes demands or protests is devalued.”
Growing up in a conservative, affluent community in Dakar, Bâ was conscious of women’s rights from an early age. After her mother died, Bâ was raised by maternal relatives in an extended family network that included her grandmother’s three co-wives. Religious rituals were closely observed: there was a mosque in the courtyard of the family’s compound, and during school holidays Bâ studied the Koran under the supervision of an imam. Countervailing the traditional tenor of Bâ’s home life, however, was the influence of her progressive and liberal father, a civil servant who became the deputy mayor of Dakar and the first Senegalese health minister. Amadou Bâ made sure to foster his precocious daughter’s intellect by bringing her books, conversing with her in scrupulously grammatical French instead of Wolof, the local language, and ensuring—against the wishes of her grandparents and uncle—that she remain in school after age fourteen. Bâ’s grandmother, meanwhile, prepared her for the conventional role of a Senegalese Muslim wife, as Bâ explained in a magazine interview:
I had to know how to cook, do dishes, pound millet, make flour into couscous. I had to know how to wash clothes, iron ceremonial boubous [the colorful wide-sleeved robe worn by both sexes in West Africa], and when the right time came, with or without my consent, fall into another family—that of a husband.
Bâ went on to have three husbands, all chosen (and relinquished) of her own free will, and nine children. Her third and longest marriage was to Obèye Diop, a left-wing journalist turned politician who held the post of Senegalese minister of information. They had five children but eventually divorced. Looking back on their twenty-five-year relationship, Diop said, “The meeting of two opposing temperaments, two sets of roiling opinions, two voracious intellectual appetites, two different philosophies, is not easy to manage.” And both had demanding careers. After twelve years as a teacher, Bâ was appointed to the Regional Inspectorate of Education of Senegal; she also held positions in several women’s empowerment associations, including Soroptimist International. Around the time her marriage ended, she was encouraged by friends to write a novel. Annette Mbaye D’Erneville, the journalist and children’s author, told Nouvelles Éditions Africaines to expect a manuscript from Bâ, even though nothing had been written yet. The ploy worked: as soon as Bâ imagined the men at the publishing house mocking her for not following through, she began So Long a Letter.
Set in post-1960 independent Senegal, So Long a Letter is an elegiac, intimate series of confidences and reminiscences from Ramatoulaye, a widowed teacher and mother, to Aissatou, a childhood friend now living in the U.S. From the first page, with its nostalgic sketch of the women’s shared history, it is plain that a literary virtuoso is at work. Ramatoulaye tells Aissatou:
I conjure you up. The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the woodfires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-colored face as she emerges from the kitchen; the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.
Following her husband’s fatal heart attack, Ramatoulaye has begun her imposed period of mourning and seclusion. Over multiple days she receives an endless stream of visitors—friends, family, and strangers—paying their respects. Yet though she deeply loved her husband, Modou Fall, there is nothing straightforward about her grief, or about the ceremonies surrounding her. Modou, after twenty-five years of happy marriage and twelve children, took a second wife: his teenage daughter’s friend and study partner. Then, instead of dividing his time and financial resources between his wives as per Koranic law, he abandoned Ramatoulaye and their children entirely, draining a joint bank account as he did so. Five years later, he is dead, and she is obliged to follow all the rituals of new widowhood with her co-wife in her house and by her side. Among various torments Ramatoulaye suffers through gritted teeth, Modou’s sisters “give equal consideration to thirty years and five years of married life. With the same ease and the same words, they celebrate twelve maternities and three.”
Taking refuge in the past, Ramatoulaye also relives the dramatic events of Aissatou’s life. As a young woman, she married Modou’s friend Mawdo. But Mawdo’s aristocratic mother, Aunty Nabou, disapproved: Aissatou, who belonged to a lower ethnic caste and whose father was a goldsmith, wasn’t good enough for her son. Eventually, Aunty Nabou punished her unacceptable daughter-in-law by offering Mawdo in marriage to his young cousin. He consented, he said, lest his mother “die of shame and chagrin,” and he promised Aissatou he wouldn’t live with his new bride. But Aissatou refused to participate in polygamy. “I am stripping myself of your love, your name,” she wrote to him. “Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way.” While raising her small children, she trained as an interpreter and went to work at the Senegalese embassy in New York. “How much greater you proved to be,” Ramatoulaye marvels, “than those who sapped your happiness!” In seeking a different kind of dignity for herself when she was betrayed, Ramatoulaye called on all her reserves of emotional endurance:
To overcome distress when it sits upon you demands strong will. When one thinks that with each passing second one’s life is shortened, one must profit intensely from this second; it is the sum of all the lost or harvested seconds that makes for a wasted or a successful life. Brace oneself to check despair and get it into proportion! A nervous breakdown waits around the corner for anyone who lets himself wallow in bitterness. Little by little, it takes over your whole being.
So Long a Letter has often been read as autobiographical. Bâ called it “first a cry from the heart of the Senegalese women … But it is also a cry which can symbolize the cry of women everywhere.” Her heroine, she claimed, had a “greatness of soul” that she herself lacked. Whereas Bâ chose divorce and independence over cultural fidelity, like Aissatou (who also shares her surname), Ramatoulaye stoically contains her heartbreak and outrage while behaving—mostly—impeccably in the eyes of society.
After her official forty days of mourning, Ramatoulaye receives many offers of marriage in quick succession. First in line is Tamsir, Modou’s thrice-married brother. “I shall marry you,” her announces with a farcical show of magnanimity. “I prefer you to the other one, too frivolous, too young.” Ramatoulaye doesn’t care that the brother-in-law “inherits” her by tradition: she’s incensed by the idea that she’d agree to be Tamsir’s fourth wife, especially as she knows he’s just after her inheritance. Eloquent in her rage, she reminds him that he cannot even financially support his existing wives. “I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand … I shall never be the one to complete your collection,” she blazes. The reader, whose emotional investment in Ramatoulaye’s plight Bâ has effortlessly engaged, wants to cheer out loud.
It was Bâ’s view that polygamy is never good for women, who are forced into it “by men, by society, by tradition.” But she saw the underlying issue as universal—in her view, polygamy merely legalized and legitimized men’s inevitable behavior. She once remarked on seeing two houses in France with a connecting internal door, purpose-built to enable a man to go between his wife and his lover without stepping outside. “All men are basically polygamous,” she said. “This is a general man/woman problem … frankly I do not think that men can be sexually faithful.” Polygamy also features in the plot of Bâ’s second novel, Scarlet Song, published posthumously in 1981 and in an English translation by Dorothy S. Blair in 1986. A tragedy of doomed love between a black Senegalese Muslim man and a white French Christian woman, it is also a lamentation on patriarchally sanctioned male egocentrism and on the near impossibility of transcending one’s culture and upbringing.
When Ousmane, a young philosophy graduate from a humble background, marries Mireille, a wealthy diplomat’s daughter, the odds are stacked against them. But with their intelligence, idealism, and mutual devotion—and the birth of a son—they expect their relationship to survive conflicting worldviews and the widespread disapproval they incur. Ousmane, who romantically compares himself to the hero of a Corneille drama, reflects: “To choose a wife outside the community was an act of treason, and he had been taught, ‘God punishes traitors.’ ” Yet in Bâ’s scathing portrayal of a stubbornly sexist society, it is Mireille who suffers the worst punishment in the wake of her marriage collapsing. More structurally conventional and melodramatic than So Long a Letter, Scarlet Song is nevertheless a gripping and fascinating portrait of the complex, evolving social mores of post-independence Senegal.
Since Scarlet Song’s publication, Bâ’s work has gradually faded from international prominence. In the anglophone world, her deserved reputation as a grande dame of African literature doesn’t extend far beyond the occasional postcolonial literature college course. Not that she’d necessarily have cared too much: her priority was to blaze a trail for African women writers, and that she did magnificently. Bâ’s other primary goal was for girls to benefit from the kind of education she’d enjoyed. While she rejected the French assimilationist project in West Africa, she valued the colonial school system for its narrowing of the opportunity gap between the sexes. “We were true sisters,” recalls Ramatoulaye of her class at teacher training college, “destined for the same mission of emancipation.” Bâ’s name still graces one of the most prestigious public schools in Senegal: La Maison d’Éducation Mariama Bâ, on the small carless island of Gorée, where around two hundred girls are prepared for the baccalaureate.
Above all, Bâ believed in books as the key to women’s liberation. “The power of books,” muses Ramatoulaye, “this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence … Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress.” Or, as Bâ said to an interviewer the year before she died: “Books are a weapon, a peaceful weapon perhaps, but they are a weapon.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words without Borders, and other publications.