This article is based on the presentation "Cultures of Islam: A Diversity of Women's Voices," given at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, San Francisco, November 2003, by Immaculate Kizza, Georgette Jabbour, and Barbara Silliman.
So Long a Letter: Islamic Culture in Literature
The 2003 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English offered a number of sessions on creating multicultural, cross-cultural, and global communities in our classrooms. These included opportunities to more clearly understand the Islamic culture that many of us and our students know primarily from news reports of war and terrorism. In one three-hour session entitled "Cultures of Islam: A Diversity of Women's Voices," presenters gave a human face to themes such as the dynamics of veiling and migration in the work of several authors. One novel that was discussed—So Long a Letter by the Senegalese writer Mariama Ba—struck me as having powerful potential to broaden our students' appreciation for Islamic culture and the legacy of colonialism as seen through women's eyes.
Written as a letter from Ramatoulaye, a recently widowed schoolteacher, to her friend Aissatou, and set in Senegal after independence from French colonial rule, the novel is the story of a woman's personal journey told against the backdrop of the changing Senegalese society. So Long a Letter intertwines the stories of two women who struggle in different ways during this time of transition to reconcile their newly gained emancipation with their traditional roles as wives and mothers.
The themes of the novel are both timeless and time-specific. The setting of a postcolonial African nation where tradition and modernity collide and the shift from a patriarchal society to one in which women are gaining political and economic power (including opportunities for education) is a particular and clearly time-specific context. Yet, like all literature worth a second read, this novel has its timeless themes, such as generational conflicts and the growth from ignorance to knowledge. Interestingly, So Long a Letter appeared as required reading for the AP French Literature Exam some years ago, and the issues raised by translation and the potential for collaborative discussions between AP French and English Literature further recommend this novel for the classroom.
More Contemporary Works
The question-and-answer session following the "Culture of Islam" presentations focused on Islam as a culture spanning continents rather than being associated exclusively with the Middle East. The exchange expanded beyond the specific works from this session to others that might interest our students or could simply be added to our own reading lists. Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie came to mind, but contemporary women were also noted, including Arab American Diana Abu-Jaber (author of Arabian Jazz and Crescent) and Monica Ali, whose debut novel Brick Lane, about Bangladeshi immigrants in London, received rave reviews. The presenters distributed a bibliography of specific works along with general resources that may embolden us to teach more work written within a cultural tradition that some of us are only beginning to know. Two books the presenters especially recommended are Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong, and What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito.
The question of pairing these works with so-called canonical ones came up, and an audience member suggested Their Eyes Were Watching God by African American author Zora Neale Hurston as a novel that pairs well with So Long a Letter through the narrative frame and the theme of friendship. Janie Crawford in Hurston's novel tells her story to her best friend Pheoby, much as Ramatoulaye writes to Aissatou. As she tells her story to Pheoby, Janie fulfills "that oldest human longing—self-revelation" (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 10). Similarly, Ramatoulaye writes: "Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unknown to love" (So Long a Letter, 54). Both Janie and Ramatoulaye are rebels, women living during a time of dramatic social changes, travelers who journey outside convention.
Overall, the diverse voices and ideas explored during this session have continued to engage me. Mariama Ba's voice echoes for me in a passage one of the presenters read about the power of books. Ramatoulaye describes "this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress" (So Long a Letter, 32). Indeed, during these troubled times of fear and confusion, we can only hope she is right.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Ba, Mariama. So Long a Letter. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1980.
Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Fawcett Premier Book, 1969.