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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.2 (2007) 450-462

On Mariama Bâ's Novels, Stereotypes, and Silence
Wandia Njoya

The title of this article is borrowed from Trudier Harris's essay that analyzes the reception of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.1 Harris argues that Walker had been chosen by the one-track-minded American media, which, "by its very racist nature, seems able to focus on only one black writer at a time."2 The publicity had in turn created "a cadre of spectator readers . . . who do not identify with the characters and who do not feel the intensity of their pain, [but] stand back and view the events of the novel as a circus of black human interactions."3 Harris suggests that the acclaim Walker's novel received had discouraged critics from writing critical reviews, even though the characters appeared implausible against the historical background and experience of black Americans.

I raise similar concerns about the increasing critical focus on Mariama Bâ's novels, particularly Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter).4 Bâ's first of two novels is currently about the most popular African woman-authored novel in the United States and is featured in reading lists of courses that range from French to African and women's studies. However, there is little or uneasy acknowledgment that Bâ and her characters represent a small and privileged section of African societies or that her women have condescending views of African traditions consistent with colonial ideologies. The few critics who have been categorical about this reality have been criticized for ignoring the colonial masculine privilege. Between them and those who read Bâ's work as an expression of a feminist consciousness, the intricacies and the human complexities in the narrative are minimized, while the biases and assumptions behind the popularity of the work remain unquestioned. In this article, I argue that the popularity of Bâ's novel rides on stereotypes of African cultures as inimical to love, individual fulfillment, and monogamy. I trace these images to the imperial framework and locate them in the criticism of her work.

Femi Ojo-Ade's critical review of So Long a Letter is perhaps the best place to begin such an analysis because of the status it has since acquired in African literary criticism.5 As Pius Adesanmi has noted, Ojo-Ade seems to have carved a niche in literary criticism on the basis of the article, probably because he was a male critic who gave an unfavorable review to an African woman's book.6 However, his criticism of Bâ's feminism as condescending toward [End Page 450] African traditions is well merited and shared by J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, Katwiwa Mule, and Uzo Esonwanne.7

Although I generally agree with these critics' concerns, I find some weaknesses in their approach as well as in other scholars' responses to their analyses. Both sides of the debate neglect the human and emotional aspects that underlie So Long a Letter. The novel is a letter from Ramatoulaye to her friend Aïssatou, and many of their common values and experiences are therefore assumed and remain in the background of the narrative. The intimacy of the friendship and the genre are necessary for Ramatoulaye as she mourns the death of her husband, Modou, a man she appears to still love despite his having left her for one of their daughter's best friends after twenty-five years of marriage. However, Mule minimizes this situation when he remarks that during the mourning rites, Ramatoulaye "is more concerned with cola nut stains on her house tiles than with the ritual of bonding at time of death in the community."8 These comments ignore the fact that the bereaved usually focus on minute details of events because of the intensity of their pain, and they ultimately discount the fact that Ramatoulaye's goal is to articulate her experience rather than offer a lucid analysis of...