So Long a Letter

So Long a Letter Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mariama Bâ

Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal, then part of French West Africa. She grew up Muslim, attending Koranic school from a young age, and her family was relatively wealthy. Her father served as Minister of Health under the French colonial regime and went on to become one of the first Ministers of State after Senegalese independence. Her mother died when Bâ was young, and so she was raised mostly by her grandparents. Against their wishes she attended college, where she studied law. Upon graduating she became a schoolteacher. Bâ was an outspoken, politically active feminist. In the years leading up to and following Senegalese independence, she wrote essays against French assimilationist policies, joined a number of women’s rights advocacy groups, and penned newspaper articles on education, genital mutilation, and the unequal treatment of women in Senegalese society. She had nine children, whom she raised more or less single-handedly after divorcing her husband. So Long a Letter (1979) was her first novel. Written in French, it was published to immediate literary acclaim. In 1981 the book won the first ever Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, and it went on to become one of the first novels by an African woman to gain international attention. Bâ, whose health had been declining for years, died later that year. Her second novel, A Scarlet Song (1981), was published posthumously.
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Historical Context of So Long a Letter

The West African country of Senegal, in which So Long a Letter is set, has a long and rich history, much of which roils beneath the novel’s surface. Before the colonial period, the region now called Senegal was long a part of the powerful Ghana and Wolof empires. Today most Senegalese identify as Wolof, an ethnic group marked by its strictly defined caste system and widespread practice of Sufi Islam (Islam was first introduced to the region in the 11th century). Bordered on three sides by the Sahara, the Atlantic, and the jungles of sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal—in particular its capital, Dakar—was once an important trade hub and, for that reason, a contentious region among the colonial powers. France eventually assumed control in the late 19th century. Under the French system, colonial subjects were theoretically offered a path to French citizenship, but such an approach forced them to first receive a French education and assimilate to French culture, and in any case the law was never really put into practice. Still, Senegal eventually gained four seats in the French National Assembly. Beginning in 1914, the deputies who filled these seats, all native Senegalese, began to push for Senegalese independence, which was peacefully signed into law in 1960. Léopold Senghor, a poet, was one of the most outspoken of these deputies, and he became the first president of Senegal. Mariama Bâ belonged to a slightly younger generation; she came into her literary powers just as Senegal achieved its independence. Bâ’s Senegal was a young country faced with an uncertain future, entering an increasingly global economy and saddled with the responsibility of reaffirming a national sense of self.

Other Books Related to So Long a Letter

The mid-20th century saw the ascent of a number of black francophone authors who came of age under French colonial regimes across the globe, a movement to which Mariama Bâ certainly belongs. Léopold Senghor, a Senegalese poet and the first president of independent Senegal, was the perhaps the most prominent of these authors. Together with Aimé Césaire, a poet and playwright from the Carribbean island Martinique, and Léon Damas, a French Guianese poet, he founded a literary movement known as “négritude,” whose proponents emphasized distinctly African cultural values and traditions in opposition to French colonial oppression, following Senghor’s dictum that “We must learn to absorb and influence others more than they absorb or influence us.” Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land (1947) and Léopold Senghor’s Collected Poetry (1998) are both foundational texts of the movement. The contemporary Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a novelist and short-story writer operating within the African feminist tradition that Mariama Bâ more or less inaugurated—her novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and story collection the Thing Around your Neck (2009) might be read alongside So Long a Letter. Marie NDiaye, a French author of Senegalese descent, could also be considered a spiritual successor of Bâ. Her novels Self-portrait in Green (2014) and Ladivine (2016) both follow women who, much like the main character of So Long a Letter, struggle to overcome colonialist oppression and a patriarchal society.
Key Facts about So Long a Letter
  • Full Title: So Long a Letter
  • When Written: 1979
  • Where Written: Senegal
  • When Published: 1979
  • Literary Period: Contemporary, Post-colonial
  • Genre: Epistolary novel, Feminist novel, Post-colonial literature, Négritude
  • Setting: Dakar, Senegal
  • Climax: Ramatoulaye learns that her daughter, Aissatou, is pregnant.
  • Antagonist: Modou
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for So Long a Letter

Semiautobiographical. Many critics have remarked on the similarities between Ramatoulaye’s life story and Bâ’s own. For example, Bâ had nine children—not quite Ramatoulaye’s twelve, but still a lot!

School in her honor. In 1977, Leopold Senghor helped found a boarding school on Goreé, an island in Senegal, and named the school after Mariama Bâ. The school is open to this day.