Reclaiming the Voice in Bâ's So Long a Letter
Peter Barry identifies as one of the major aims of Postcolonial criticism the rejection of "the claims to universalism made on behalf of canonical Western literature" and more specifically "to show its limitations of outlook, especially its general inability to empathize across boundaries of cultural and ethnic difference" (198). Although Bâ's intentions are not primarily anti-colonial, her novel So Long a Letter exemplifies how African literature provides a different perspective of their culture, and despite not fitting the model of the English canon, is valuable and significant on its own terms. Bâ is not writing in defence of Africa. She is writing about Africa, and gender and class are much more fundamental to her work than race. It can be argued that rather than writing back to Empire, she is writing back to African male authors on behalf of African women, reclaiming the voice that has been previously denied to them.
Mariama Bâ was born into an influential Senegalese family in 1929. She was one of the first women to receive a Western education in Senegal. Reared by her maternal grandparents in a traditional Muslim household, she attended school only by the grace of her father, who had a strong vision of the future for his daughter. Bâ attended the French School in Dakar and went on to study at the École Normal in Rufisque, entering with the highest exam score in all of French West Africa, graduating in 1947. She experienced life under colonialism, and also witnessed firsthand the events surrounding Senegal's independence from France, which was granted on April 4, 1960.1 Taking the social and political context from which Bâ is writing into consideration, it is not difficult to identify the parallels that exist between her and Ramatoulaye.
African men and women were united in the fight against colonialism under Empire, but with independence achieved, the division between men and women was often broadened through national sentiments. As Elleke Boehmer has stated, "nationalist movements encouraged their members, who were mostly male, to assert themselves as agents of their own history, as self-fashioning and in control. Women were not so encouraged" (224). Women were excluded from participating to any significant degree in the social changes, and were in this way kept to the margins. In So Long a Letter, Bâ addresses the mechanisms by which women are colonized by the men of their own race. Like Bâ, Ramatoulaye is familiar with the excitement of the liberation in Senegal: "it was the privilege of our generation to be the link between two periods in our history, one of domination, the other of independence. We remained young and efficient, for we were the messengers of a new design. With independence achieved, we witnessed the birth of an anthem and the implantation of a flag" (25). But the changes brought about are not translated into equal opportunities for both men and...