Good A Book Review & Analytical Critique Book Review Example

Published: 2021-06-18 05:27:17
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Category: Family, Education, Literature, Women, Novel, Colonization, Letter, Mariama BA

Type of paper: Essay

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In the most traditional of African cultures, the duties of a woman’s role in society was never deemed as capricious, much less being awarded the honorary title of representation of an ideology known as ‘feminism.’ Yet, the memoir-enriched fictional novel, “So Long a Letter,” (Une si Longue Lettre – in French) by Mariama Ba inspired much hope for African women to convey the collective plight of their positions to the world. The book is remarkable in a number of profound ways. The book is a diary-type of letter written from the female protagonist Ramatoulaye her best friend from childhood, Aissatou. Ramatoulaye is mourning the death of her husband, Aissatou is suffering divorce. It won the first NOMA Literary Prize according to The Patriotic Vanguard, having been published in more than a dozen different languages.
Grasping a basic understanding of Ba’s geographical and socio-historical setting is necessary to help appreciate the piece. Scholar Celarent (2011) explains that Mariama Ba was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1929 whose “father served with distinction at Verdun and the Marne,” returning to civilian life in the capacity of “an administrative career,” which culminated in the “minister of public health” position (p. 1391). Ba’s mother died early on, and in light of her father’s busy schedule her maternal grandmother raised her. Having married a devout Muslim, the grandmother stipulated many objections to Mariama receiving a higher education (Westernized), but eventually was allowed to attend secretarial school, and finally received formal training as a teacher. This review makes commentary on – and tries to evaluate and understand – colonialism in Africa, Senegalese customary effects on African women’s lives, and how the intelligence and sensitivity of Ba’s writing make these social inferences.
Summary of Contents
Modou is dead. Ba paints a description of the geo-social landscape of taking a taxi to the hospital where she gazes upon her dead husband’s body, noting “his crumpled blue shirt with thin stripesface, set in pain and surprise,” artfully describing death as a “tenuous passage” from two opposing worlds (p. 2). The novel is written in splices of flashbacks, wherein Ramatoulaye (Rama, for short) recalls how her and her best friend Aissatou both become teachers, which shows how they both were operating on the cutting edge of societal modernity. In chapter six Rama first meets Modou, who travels to France to study. The two exchange letters between Europe and Africa, until Modou eventually returns to Senegal, having earned his law degree. French West Africa embraces Muslim traditions.
Set in a colonialism environment in Africa, albeit moving towards post-colonialism, women’s roles particularly as located in that geographical ambience, were hard-pressed to challenge any other way of life. Perhaps inspired by her own life, the novel addresses girls’ attendance to Westernized schooling in pursuit higher education. Also, the title implies that the novel-diary must take quite a bit of time to explain Rama’s feelings, experiences, insights, ideas, and passions that directly affect her as a woman in Africa, where so little opportunities for women are validated outside of the home environment. Thus, the geographical component, basis, and underlying concept in the novel is very important.
The idea of the heavy patriarchal construction of African society, especially in the days and era between the 1950s and 1980s is clearly reflected in Ba’s novel. The critical nature of women’s connections to other women in terms of a network of friendship and support, cannot be underestimated. The point is, given the connection to the geography and key information of Ba’s characters, gives the reader a clue about the plight of African women being so oppressed was not a happily accepted circumstance. Ba makes this clear in her description of what happens after Rama’s husband Modou’s death. For example, during the funerary preparations Rama must share her space and place of honor with Modou’s younger wife. Ba (1980) writes very interesting words. Under a tent of canopy which they must share during the rituals of giving away possessions to the surviving men-folk relatives.
At the cessation of the slave trade, Senegal Country Review (2011) explains, the French decided that Dakar was a more suitable center in terms of an administrative headquarters, and as “showpiece of France’s empire” (p. 7). Thus, according to the same source, it was at this key geographical point of Dakar that the francophone, African socio-political intellectual of Leopold Senghor would lead the way of a young “black coterie of politicians” to utilize the evolving urban center to object to the continued use of forced labor and fight for the improvement of living conditions – thereby taking advantage of the universities and transportation systems of infrastructure the French were constructing. The complexity of her geo-political and social station in life is keenly reflected in Ba’s “So Long a Letter.” Celarent notes, Rama is not satisfied.
For example, in the funeral scene, Mariama Ba masterfully handles the details in telling about Ramatoulaye watching the custom of passing possessions out of her hands, to the parade of living male relatives of her husband. Ba (1980) says Senegalese women despise this tradition. In other words, the conscientious observer would realize that in typical Western culture, if a husband dies the wife normally inherits the house and all assets unless otherwise stipulated in a will. Ba’s commentary through fiction by using the character Rama’s voice, is almost revolutionary in expression of a feminist stand for the rights of women in Senegalese life.
The artistic expression and liberty taken by Mariama Ba, is only unusual in that African traditional society has always largely been male-dominated, and intensely patriarchal. Yet, Senegal has very special geo-physical traits in the realm of art. For example, in the world of painting Senegal art forms have an excitingly distinctive quality of vibrant colorations, and proudly dignified visual affirmation of Negritude, which was strongly encouraged by the first President Leopold Senghor, once national independence from colonial control was officially gained. In commenting on this wave of Senegalese artistic growth, Grabski (2006) and as modern Senegalese art would expand in the post-colonial era it would mark “Senegalese cultural production” as “original and authentically African,” as well as resonating with universal themes (p. 40). Visual arts and literary arts are two sides of the same coin of the harbinger of creativity. Mariama Ba, perhaps willfully or not, was on the cutting edge of contributing such a novel expressing social awareness and insight through female characters written so exquisitely.
Yet, returning to the funerary scene, although the male and an African woman’s in-law relatives receive all her possessions, a highly regarded wife will receive handfuls of envelopes of money. This occurs as the procession of men pass by. So skillful in her craft, Ba allows the main character Rama to express real happiness when her co-wife will leave, with a ‘Phew!’ as a sigh of relief. Therefore, Ba is able to express displeasure about the lack of certain rights escaping Senegalese women and at the same time, regard a freedom in expressing Rama’s feelings about certain social customs of being unhappy in the presence of multiple wives.
In this extraordinary way, Ba is able to craft a novel that simultaneously honors her religion, while expressing dissatisfaction with certain customs that impede women’s liberty. In one scholarly article, whose partial title reads “The Vocation of Memory and the Space of Writing,” Shaun Irlam (1998) discusses Ramatoulaye’s friendship with Aissatou who is living in the United States as a “difficult adaptation” to her “predicament,” perhaps since her friend is so faraway physically and they cannot have the comfort of seeing each other (p. 76). Thus, she writes a long letter. Missing her close friend in the time of mourning her dead husband Modou, the letter becomes therapy and a way of creating a geo-historical setting for the novel’s story. But Irlam (1998) also astutely notices the multiple purposes of Ba’s use of “vocation of memory” in the novel, which “serves a variety of purposes,” including communitarian, ethical, existential, therapeutic, and traumatic,” adding that Rama has adopted her memories as a way to self-console and advocate writing as a culture and ideology of expressing meaning from several different aspects (p. 77). For example, in thinking beyond her bitter disappointment at Modou’s marrying another woman, Ba (1980) is able to craft an existential observation, when adjoining philosophical explanations to her sadness over the matter, with “To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate” (p. 11). Ba (1980) continues to give Rama a voice by writing the character’s inner thoughts as “I think of all the blind people the world over, moving in darkness,” and of the paralyzed and misfortune of lepers, as “victims of a sad fate which you did not choose, compared with your lamentations,” then – ultimately – allowing Rama to ask why she is even allowing a dead man to determine the destiny of the rest of her life.
The following is a quote and not plagiarism. Ba (1980) lets Rama tell Aissatou in the letter, with regard to this memory, “We were true sisters, destined for the same mission of emancipation. To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own,” continuing to list a formidable list of the goodness of education for oppressed women (p. 15). Clearly, it seems then, that Ba was extremely consciously aware of the importance of African women to have the liberating opportunity of bettering their skills and understanding of the world through education.
Perhaps the most revealing sign of Mariama Ba’s sensitivity to the African woman’s plight has to do with her strong belief in freedom of higher education for women. Although others would disagree that Ba had any conscious intention of accomplishing anything more than simply crafting a novel, in the age-old familiarity of the genre and rubric of published storytelling, it is hard to escape that Ba did have a conscious awareness of an opinion that African women should be allowed to develop their minds and professions, if so desired. To this end, in commenting upon African women’s educational opportunities under colonialism, Diane Barthel (1985) states “few asked what the French wanted to make out of African women” (p. 137). In review of the early colonial period in Senegal in the 1820s, Barthel (1985) quotes an early governor of one of the early Catholic schools, as stating “Marriage is unknown and polygamy is established by universal usage. We must hope that a school for girls will contribute to making morals more easily accepted” (p. 140). As one can see, it is a difficult task to sort out original indigenous traditions, even in the face of an impending post-colonial modernity.
In conclusion, a French West African setting of Senegal, both for Mariama Ba as a novelist and in the background for Rama and the story, have given a vital and specific geographical location. While it is true that “So Long a Letter” does not focus on the evils of colonialism, the crossroads of its conditions and traditional Muslim-African customs cannot be ignored. It is also common knowledge among historians of Senegal, that the bubonic plague struck the country from roughly the 1920s to mid-1940s. Socio-historical and the geo-setting is critical and unique to Ba’s tale. The social observations, by use of character voice, imagery, and conversation to her friend in the letter, helps the reader to appreciate the fictional genre of fine literature. A new perspective may challenge or acknowledge that Mariama Ba had conscious intentions of promulgating feminist thought. But the fact that many observers all over the world receive her as a hero of feminism, weighs a lot. One aspect is certain. Had the story been set in any other environment, other than a colonized era (pre or post) African setting in Senegal, may have never had the impact it did for sociologists and analysts, despite the lyrical gemstones of her talent.
Ba, M. (1980). Une si longue letter. Dakar: Nouvelles éditions africaines. *also {Ba, M. (1989). So long a letter. Oxford: Heinemann Publishers.
Barthel, D. (1985). Women’s educational experience under Colonialism: Toward a diachronic model. Retrieved from Celarent, B. (2011). Une si longue letter by Mariama Ba So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba. The American Journal of Sociology, 116(4), 1391-1396.
Grabski, J. (2006). Painting Fictions/Painting History. African Arts, 39(1), 38-94.
History. (2011). Senegal Country Review, 6-8.
Irlam, S. (1998). Mariama Ba’s Une si longue letter. The Vocation of memory and the space of writing. Research in African Literatures, 29(2), 76.
The Patriotic Vanguard. (2013, August 3). Profile: Senegalese writer Mariama Ba [Data file]. Retrieved from

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