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STUDENT ESSAYS FOR ENGLISH 200 ELECTIVE S4C/S4E: LETTERS FROM HOME: BÂ'S SO LONG A LETTER AND MARAIRE'S ZENZELE.
See essays by
- Joanne Goldschmidt
- Lindiwe Rapoo (not yet available)
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Elective: Letters from Home
Joanne Goldschmidt's essay responds to the following topic:
In her letter to Mawdo, Aissatou writes:
Princes master their feelings to fulfil their duties. "Others" bend their heads and, in silence, accept a destiny that oppresses them. That, briefly put, is the internal ordering of our society, with its absurd divisions. I will not yield to it. (31)
Consider whether Ramatoulaye, in contrast, colludes with the "internal ordering" of her society..
Ramatoulaye can be seen as both colluding with her society and its 'absurd divisions' and as transgressing traditions. In many instances Ramatoulaye is not courageous, she does not stand up against oppression but she does find a way of expressing herself and voicing her resistance in the letter and through her body. The author does not treat this conformity negatively, she uses it to highlight the position that post-colonial black women find themselves in. The author also uses Ramatoulaye as a tool with which we can identify the hard choices that we are faced with and find an appropriate form of resistance. She treats Ramatoulaye and Aissatou with empathy and sympathy and that is why it is often hard to decide whether Ramatoulaye is courageous and speaking out against an unjust society or whether she is bowing her head to the forces of Senegalese society. In discussing Ramatoulaye's roles and reactions to changing shape of her life, we can highlight where she is resisting and how and where she colludes and why. It provides a greater understanding of Ramatoulaye's predicament and the predicament of women like her.
In this novel Aissatou is the recipient of the letter but at the same time she behaves as an alter ego for Ramatoulaye. When Aissatou's husband takes a new wife, she leaves him, even though this transgresses the internal ordering of her society. In the extract above she explains to her husband why she is leaving him, she refuses to yield to the "absurd divisions" of their society. Ramatoulaye, on the other hand, when faced with a similar situation chooses to remain with her husband. If Aissatou is seen to transgress traditions then it would seem that Ramatoulaye is colluding with the 'internal ordering'. Yet as this essay will prove things are not so one dimensional.
Being a complex character Ramatoulaye's motives for staying in her marriage must be considered. She mentions a few in the following extracts:
'Leave? Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? Did I have enough energy to bear alone the weight of this responsibility, which was both moral and material?' (pg. 39,40)
'I knew a few whose remaining beauty had been able to capture a worthy man, a man who added fine bearing to a good situation and who was considered "better, a hundred times better than his predecessor"…I knew others who had lost all hope of renewal and whom loneliness had very quickly laid underground.' (pg. 40)
She is no longer a young woman and is scared of ageing and worries that she might never find someone else. Her identity is invested in her marriage and her family. This sense of identity can also be found in Zenzele, where the author's mother-in-law explains her personal history through the wrinkles on her body:
'…There are birthmarks and then there are these. He-he. These are the marks of life. My face, just as it is, the map of my toils and joys, is as precious to me as your little waist and your rounded breasts are to you. This is testimony to the love I have given my family. There is not a mark here that is not my own…It is a body of love.' Zenzele: pg43
Her wrinkles are the text and her body is the paper on which it is written, it a history and an identity that is ingrained in her family and which cannot be erased. Ramatoulaye also feels that her identity is ingrained in her family and her history. She does not want to leave the security of her home even though her children encourage her to do so. She does not have the courage to leave and start over again. The future is too uncertain. This can be summed up by:
'Thus Ba epitomizes the feelings of rejection a modern African woman may experience when, in a changing climate of opinion, she does have some choice in the direction of her life, but may not dare to break tradition & opt for total independence.' Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa, 33
This is a problem faced by many woman of this age - coming straight from their fathers homes to their husbands the thought of starting over is daunting. The author acknowledges it but through Aissatou she shows that often leaving, is the best and most fulfilling solution. It may be difficult and daunting but it is still possible. Aissatou leaves her husband and becomes a translator for the United Nations and then emigrates to the West. Her job as a translator is interesting because she can be seen as someone to lives on the boundary of many worlds and translates between all these worlds. She is a black, Muslim woman living in the West and the fact that she is successful demonstrates that with brave tenacity she manages to live successfully and happily by translating the many worlds that transverse her.
In an interview with Barbara Arnold for Afrika Mariama Ba says: 'Politically organized women may be able to influence the progress of a country. The plain women's organisations do not aspire to that…We have no illusions that we, by ourselves, can change the fate of Senegalese women. But what we can do is to help open their eyes.' Afrika, vol.21, no 12 (1980)
This intention is fulfilled in So Long a Letter, because she opens our eyes to the predicament that present-day Senegalese women in polygamous marriages, find themselves in. Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are tools that she uses to explore the choices that women are faced with. Tools that encourage oppressed women to speak out.
This novel can be seen as a search for identity, Ramatoulaye (like Aissatou) consists of many aspects - she is a black, middle-class, Muslim. She is not purely western or purely African, purely traditional or modernized. She lives in a world intersected by many ideas and identities. She frames her decision as an act of courage. In a way it is because she is a symptom of the Senegalese social and political system and a post colonial system and she responds by remaining present even if she is silent. It can be seen as courageous because she does not run away. She shows her resistance by remaining there. In this sense she is not conforming completely to tradition. She speaks out against oppression in a passive yet equally important way, she may not leave completely but she does maintain a part of her that cannot be colonized by through her writing and her body.
Ramatoulaye's middle-class status is an interesting and important factor in that she has the choice to leave. That choice is not afforded to all Senegalese women - it is the privilege and perhaps western influence of the middle-classes. Mariama Ba is also addressing a fairly middle class section of the population. She identifies with the problems of the middle class and uses her protagonist to highlight the increased choices that the middle class have. Ramatoulaye makes the choice to stay but Aissatou, her alter ego, makes the choice to leave her husband.
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou don't subscribe to a purely tradition point of view. They attended French schools, they were educated in Western thought but they are not purely western either. Even though the idea of polygamy repulses Ramatoulaye she stays in her marriage because her sense of Islamic and Senegalese traditions override her western belief system. She chooses to stay in a marriage which is no longer healthy, a marriage in which her husband does not see her or their children.
She basically is forced to give her husband up because even though she doesn't relinquish the marriage contract he chooses to go and live with his new wife and her family and he cuts off ties from her. She still sees herself as courageous but I see her as bending her head and resigning herself to the status of first wife, with a husband who neither loves nor sees her anymore. She relies on Aissatou for a car that will save her family face. While 'Lady Mother-in-Law' lives in luxury. In this light she is not courageous enough to transgress society and, like Mawdo, she subjects herself to the 'absurd divisions' of Senegalese society.
Ramatoulaye's marriage becomes a virtual institution. She is shut up and silenced and she finds a voice in this letter that she writes to Aissatou after her husbands death. Jacqueline, Ramatoulaye's friend is similar to Ramatoulaye is many aspects. Jacqueline has a nervous breakdown because she cannot find a signifier for herself, she cannot find a voice with which to speak.
'A black African, she should have been able to fit without difficulty into a black African society, Senegal and the Ivory Coast both having experienced the same colonial power. But Africa is diverse, divided. The same country can change its character and outlook several times over…Jacqueline truly wanted to become Senegalese, but the mockery checked all desire in her co-operate…' (pg. 42)
Jacqueline moves to a new country and is subjected to a different culture and religion. Being a black woman in this situation means she is triply prejudiced against. She suffers a triple marginilisation in terms of race, gender and religion. The mental illness she suffers is an articulation of her pain, it is her way of speaking out. Her body becomes the site of her resistance, her fight against being repressed and oppressed. In this way she is similar to Ramatoulaye who uses this letter as a means of articulating her pains and of finding her identity. The text is a body of words and the text becomes the body of the character. Her letter, her body is her resistance, her sanctity that no-one else can enter or disrupt. Like 'Linda's cave' in Zenzele it is her personal domain and her site for defying her society:
'Linda and I - well actually it was more Linda's idea than mine - created an underground kingdom beneath the far pillar of the arch of the concrete bridge over the Umvumvumvu River.' Zenzele: (pg. 19)
'It is a perfect, our own private place. This is our special kingdom. We make the rules, nobody can come and tell us what to do or make us run away.' Zenzele: (pg. 21)
In this letter, this personal space, Ramatoulaye can express her voice and tell her story. This form of fighting back suggests that Ramatoulaye does not collude with the 'absurd divisions' of her society. Her imagination can never be touched or colonized by others, it is an ideal battle ground against being silenced. The author applauds this resistance, because we may not all be capable of resisting like Aissatou and Linda but we can all keep a piece of ourselves, our imagination through which we can fight against an unjust society.
It is often hard to distinguish in this novel whom Ramatoulaye is addressing and from where she addresses them. This can be explained as the writers intervention into the novel. Being a post modern work it is aware of the fact that it is a novel - a created work. By constantly intervening the author makes her presence as creator known. The novel can be seen as a search for identity by the author as well as Ramatoulaye. Mariama Ba explores two choices in this novel, that of Ramatoulaye and that of Aissatou. These two women could be one woman who explores two paths simultaneously and therefore takes on the roles of two women. In life we are never afforded the opportunity to take two choices simultaneously. We choose one and can only wonder and guess at the results of the second. Perhaps this novel is a way of affording the author both choices at once. Post colonial writing often looks at limitations, and this novel looks at the limitations of being black, Muslim and female and also of physical limitations - only being able to make one choice at a time. This novel becomes the "Sliding Doors" for Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. At the end of the novel Ramatoulaye waits for Aissatou to arrive and this can be seen as the writer finally finding a way to reconstruct the two roles into one woman. Being a created work the novel can transcend reality - it can offer two choices at once. This interpretation gives room for both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou to be courageous and nonconformist. Both deal with their society, traditions and norms in a different yet equally trying way.
It is hard to say whether Ramatoulaye colludes with the 'internal ordering' of her society. She bows her head to oppression following traditions and norms, but although she is silent she is an all present, physical reminder.
The author uses Ramatoulaye as a tool to highlight the possibilities open to black women in post-colonial societies. To serve as an insight as to where women can be more brave, more courageous and speak out against their oppression. Ramatoulaye does collude with her society but this serves to emphasize how much further women ,and especially black women in Africa, can fight their injustices.
Ba, Mariama: So long a Letter: New Hampshire : Heinemann,1981.
Bruner, Charlotte (ed.): Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa: Heinemann
James, Adeola: In their own voices: African women writers talk: Studies in African Literature. New Series: 1992
Maraire, J. Nozipo: Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter: Crown: February 1996: From the reading pack.
Arnold, Barbara. ' The long road to emancipation.' Afika, 21:12 (1980)
Dr. Thomas Hale: Penn State university: Masterpieces of Literature From Africa: 'Study Questions for So Long a Letter and Biographic information on author Mariama Ba'.