Intermediate postcolonial francophone lit: Une Si Longue Lettre

Cover of 'Une si longue lettre

Shopping for french books led me to do something I’ve never done before: browse books by category on Amazon. This is how I learned that littérature francaise (from France) and littérature francophone (from the french-speaking former colonies) are sometimes treated as distinct literary categories. That is a stereotypically French thing to do, right? On the one hand, having enough pretension to consider French Literature as a world cultural treasure that needs to be distinguished from “literature in french”, and on the other hand having no shame about colonial racism. In any case, I found the categories helpful since one of my goals was to read literature in french from authors outside of France, but I didn’t know the special name for it.

Being only an intermediate reader, I started with Une Si Longue Lettre by Mariama Bâ. The english translation gets assigned in grade eight classes. I read it after getting through book 5 of Harry Potter (L’Ordre du Phénix), and I think I could have handled it after book 4.

Some things that make this an accessible read: it is a short book (165 pages, counting generously); each chapter is only a few pages and has a distinct topic, so you don’t have to follow long passages; and the entire book is a letter from a woman to her friend, so it uses mostly everyday language. Since the book is popular in classrooms there are lots of resources available online, including a DIY audiobook on youtube if you want to work on your listening skills.

I loved it. The narrator is a new widow living in Dakar, Senegal, writing to her friend to process her feelings and memories while she is housebound for the mourning period. She reflects on the post-independence generation in Senegal, the education and political rights of women, problems in her marriage and those of her friends, her relationships with her kids, how class and ethnicity work and how they are changing, and all sorts of interesting things. All of the social commentary comes up naturally during dishy gossip– the best possible format for a book?