Enclosure/Disclosure in Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre

by Mildred Mortimer
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Title:
Enclosure/Disclosure in Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre
Author:
Mildred Mortimer
Year: 
1990
Publication: 
The French Review
Volume: 
64
Issue: 
1
Start Page: 
69
End Page: 
78
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Language: 
English
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Abstract:

 

EnclosurelDisclosure in
Mariama B2s Une si longue lethe
by Mildred Mortimer
DEPICTING THEDAKAR-NIGER RAILWAY STRIKE of 1947 in his novel Les Bouts de
bois de Dieu, Ousmane SembPne gives several female protagonists revolutionary
scripts. When Penda delivers a fiery speech proposing that the
women of ThiPs march on Dakar, she is responding to a community crisis,
the railway workers strike, by moving women into public space. Both her
speech and the march challenge societal norms: "De memoire d'homme
c'ktait la premiPre fois qu'une femme avait pris la parole en public A ThiPs"
(289). Although Sembhe projects the women into the political arena, he
concludes the novel on an ambiguous note. As the marchers near Dakar,
Penda dies, killed by the police. At the conclusion of the demonstration the
women return home to resume their former activities: "Le soir venu, elles
regagnaient la maison paternelle ou le toit conjugal" (371). Women who
have been catalysts for change either disappear or are recuperated by the
patriarchal structure.'
SembPne published Les Bouts de bois de Dieu in 1960, two decades before
the emergence of Senegalese women writers Nafissatou Diallo, Aminatou
Sow Fall, Mariama B%, Ken B ~ ~ uB%l ,. in~ p articular, offers an important
contrast to SembPne's text. I propose to study her Une si longue lettre,
seeking a response to the following questions: Does BA's text reveal
Sembcne's same ambiguity? In other words, are women who appear as
catalysts for change sacrificed or recuperated by the patriarchy? How does
B% treat the conflict between the patriarchal tradition that confines African
women to domestic space and women's struggle to claim public space?
In her first novel, B%chooses the letter as a vehicle for recounting episodes
of her heroine's past. Following her husband's death, Ramatoulaye
begins a long letter to her childhood friend, Ai'ssatou, in which she describes
how she copes after Modou, her husband of twenty-five years,
takes a second wife. Choosing a young woman the age of his oldest daughter,
Modou abandons Ramatoulaye and their twelve children.
B% received the Noma prize for Une si longue lettre, acclaimed by the
judges for its significant testimony and true imaginative depth (Zell 199).
Given its strong attack on polygamy, however, the novel was evaluated
primarily as a sociological statement. Critics who focus on the sociopolitical
and cultural dimensions of polygamy in the work agree that Ramatoulaye,
the heroine, is a victim of a society that endorses and encourages
70 FRENCH REVIEW
polygamy, but disagree as to whether she uses her energies heroically to
overcome obstacles or to reproach bitterly the patriarchal s t r ~ c t u r e . ~
Without neglecting the socio-political implications of the work, the present
study focuses upon Ramatoulaye's journey to self-understanding, emphasizing
the narratee's role in the novel. I shall argue that Ramatoulaye
addresses her long letter (28 chapters) to Ai'ssatou because she is both an
intimate friend and an important role model. The reader learns that
Aissatou faced the issue of polygamy in her own marriage, refusing it
before the crisis occurred in Ramatoulaye's home. Ai'ssatou's revolt and
subsequent "escape" to America makes her Ramatoulaye's ideal reader. Her
success in the "new world is convincing testimony that the journey outward
is possible.
By writing to Ai'ssatou the narrator introduces the tension between
enclosure and the outward journey. In B2s fictional world Senegalese men
are most often offered the opportunity to make the journey outward,
returning home with gained maturity, whereas Senegalese women are
usually barred from this experience. Modou has been to France to study;
Ramatoulaye has not. Given this context, Ai'ssatou's journey to the United
States is a radical statement of revolt.
The death and funeral of Ramatoulaye's estranged husband result in
enclosure for Ramatoulaye rather than the outward journey. Following the
demise of Modou, Ramatoulaye is committed by Islamic tradition to spend
four months in mourning and seclusion. ~amatoula~usee s this period to
travel in time rather than space. She recalls the past in an attempt to
understand herself better and to cope with the present. Annis Pratt states
that women's escape through imagination is strategic, a withdrawal into
the unconscious for the purpose of personal transformation (177). Indeed,
Ramatoulaye turns to the inner journey to obtain knowledge, through selfexamination
and maturity, through personal transformation. By examining
her own thoughts, memories, and the collective experience of family
and nation emerging from colonialism, Ramatoulaye attempts to gain a
heightened sense of maturity.
The reader's task in this work is to evaluate Ramatoulaye's inner journey,
bearing in mind a binary construct, the portrait and the mask. Does
the novel conceal as much as it reveal^?^ Let us refine the question. Does
enclosure (brought about by the Islamic tradition of respectful mourning)
lead to disclosure, or ironically, to concealment and therefore to the selfdelusion
of a protagonist who proposes an inner journey for the explicit
purpose of lucidity and self-understanding?
The novel begins with a direct statement of purpose:
hsatou,
J'ai rep ton mot. En guise de rkponse, j'ouvre ce cahier, point d'appui dans
mon dksarroi: notre longue pratique m'a enseignk que la confidence noie la
douleur. (7)
ENCLOSUREIDISCLOSURE 71
Having just received a letter from Ai'ssatou (which we later learn announces
Ai'ssatou's forthcoming visit to Dakar), Ramatoulaye announces
Modou's death. At the same time, she expresses the need for this correspondence
as support in time of crisis. This very long letter, ultimately a
diary, will allow Ramatoulaye to express her intimate thoughts and justify
her responses to life through the act of writing to her ideal reader, her
closest friend.
Thus, the death of Modou, not his second marriage and ultimate abandonment
of Ramatoulaye and their children, is the catalyst for the letter.
The important subtext in the work, revealed in the opening paragraphs, is
the importance of female bonding, presented as a legacy of traditional
Africa. Ramatoulaye recounts the friendship between their grandmothers,
mothers, and finally recalls their shared childhood: "Nous, nous avons us6
pagnes et sandales sur le meme chemin caillouteux de l'kcole coranique" (7).
Hence, at the beginning of her letter Ramatoulaye acknowledges that
Aissatou is her ideal reader because of common experiences: a shared Islamic
past, a long sustained friendship, and a painful experience of polygamy-"
Hier tu as divorck. Aujourd-hui, je suis veuve" (8). Later, she will
come to terms with Ai'ssatou's decision, her choice to embark upon the
journey outward to a new world and a new life.5
Enclosure as an important structuring element of the novel must take
into account the Islamic context; the latter influences both the narrative
content and structure. The mourning period, an obligation of Islam, provides
Ramatoulaye with the time frame in which to write the long letter.
Opening the notebook that becomes a 131-page novel, she explains:
Mon coeur s'accorde aux exigences relqgeuses. Nourrie, d&s l'enfance, A leurs
sources rigides, je crois que je ne faillirai pas. Les murs qui limitent mon horizon
pendant quatre mois et dix jours ne me genent gu&x-e. J'ai en moi assez de
souvenirs' h ruminer. (18)
Islam as well provides the vehicle for disclosure. "Mirasse," an Islamic
precept, calls for the disclosure of all possessions of the deceased for the
purpose of inheritance. Ramatoulaye states: "Le Mirasse" ordonnk par le
Coran nkcessite le dkpouillement d'un individu mort de ses secrets les plus
intimes. I1 livre ainsi h autrui ce qui fut soigneusement dissimuli." (19). Her
religion thus encourages revelations of a deceased person's past so as to
praise the individual. She reinterprets this practice to allow for the disclosure
of Modou's financial and emotional treachery. She explains that upon
his death she learned that he had taken a loan to pay for his second wife's
home by putting a lien on his first wife's property (a residence that they
had in fact paid for jointly). Subsequently, Ramatoulaye broadens the definition
of disclosure to unveil Modou's emotional breach of faith in their
marriage.
Ramatoulaye's reaction to the process of "mirasse" is crucial to her journey
toward lucidity and the reader's understanding of the protagonist.6 By
72 FRENCH REVIEW
disclosing Modou's transgressions to the readers (Ai'ssatou, you, me), she,
the betrayed individual, allows us to seek evidence of a healing process. We
can then ascertain whether the victim remains victimized, blocked by his
betrayal of their married life, or whether she proves capable of transcending
the experience by word and deed, discourse and actions.
For the purpose of analysis, the novel can be separated into three sections.
Announcing Modou's death and introducing the concept of mirasse,
the first part (letters 1-4) puts forth the two structuring devices: enclosure
and disclosure. The second part (letters 5-17), depicts Ramatoula~e's journey
through time. By means of analepses (reaches into the past or flashbacks),
the protagonist gathers information that prepares her for the
present. In the final part of the novel (letters 18-24) Ramatoulaye, having
spent forty days in mourning, forgives Modou. However, as a widow Ramatoula~
ef aces a series of moral and emotional challenges that test her
judgment and values. These trials complete the protagonist's maturation
process.
Hklene Cixous, a leading exponent of the women's movement in France,
has written: "Woman must put herself into the text-as into the world and
into history-by her own movement" (875). Once Ramatoulaye concludes
the description of the rituals surrounding Modou's burial, presenting ethnographic
details as well as her open criticism of the crass materialism that
spoils tradition, she encounters the difficulty of "putting herself into the
text." She begins with two false starts: a "cri de cmur," in which she
proclaims herself victim, followed by a letter to Modou, not to Ai'ssatou, in
which she remembers with great sentimentality their first meeting. Although
Ramatoulaye praises Modou's progressive views, as she recalls
them, his words contradict her portrait; they reveal a young man locked
into gender stereotypes. For example, calling Ramatoulaye his "nkgresse
protectrice," Modou languishes in Paris, missing "le dandinement des
nkgresses le long du trottoir" (25). Hence, Ramatoulaye's acts of telling and
showing contradict one another.
This analepsis, a flashback reaching thirty years into the past, poses the
problem of the narrator's reliability. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, who considers
personal involvement to be a main source of unreliability, defines a
reliable narrator as one who provides the reader with "an authoritative
account of the fictional t r u t h (100). Intense personal involvement in her
own story leads Ramatoulaye, an auto-diegetic or first-person narrator, to
insert the story of Ai'ssatou's marriage into the novel. By writing about
Ai'ssatou in addition to writing to her, Ramatoulaye restores the objectivity
that will grant reliability to her narrative. Aissatou serves not only as ideal
reader and role model but as reality "anchor" as well. Thus, by using the
structural device of doubling-parallel events or similar experiences that
reinforce the sense of parallel lives-Ramatoulaye regains an authoritative
voice.
The doubling begins in the first letter when she remembers their shared
ENCLOSUREIDISCLOSURE 73
childhood. Later, she recalls that both young girls were inspired by the
extraordinary vision of their European school director. Looking back on
these formative years, Ramatoulaye views her school mistress as the one
who freed them from tradition. She writes in the first person plural, emphasizing
the school director's effect upon both of them:
Nous sortir de l'enlisement des traditions, superstitions et moeurs; nous faire
appririer de multiples civbations sans reniement de la n6tre; elever notre
vision du monde, cultiver notre personnalitk, renforcer nos qualitks, mater nos
defauts; faire fructifier en nous les valeurs de la morale universelle; voila la
tkhe que s'etait assignee l'adrnirable directrice. (27-28)
The director's message is clearly subversive. Urging her students to break
with tradition and to affirm their personality, she calls for revolt rather
than submission. Ramatoulaye's act of rebellion is to reject the suitor
chosen for her by her mother, and marry Modou Fall, a man of her own
choosing. Similarly, Aissatou, the daughter of a blacksmith, defies the traditional
caste system by marrying a son of royalty. Their rebellion has
further consequences; their choices prepare the way for polygamy. Ramatoulaye
chooses a man whose propensity towards infidelity is immediately
recognized by her mother. Ai'ssatou, who marries above her station, incures
the vengeance of a scheming mother-in-law who succeeds in bringing
a second wife into her son's household.
Although the doubling creates the dimension of parallel lives in the
novel, the narrator reveals that Ramatoulaye and Ai'ssatou are not mirror
images of one another. When their husbands enter into polygamous marriages
for different reasons, one to please a scheming mother, the other to
find the excitement of youth, the two women react to polygamy in very
different ways. Ai'ssatou rebels; Ramatoulaye acquiesces. Ai'ssatou responds
to Mawdo's announcement of his second marriage with an angry
letter in which she states her refusal to remain within the marriage:
Je ne m'y soumettrai point. Au bonheur qui fut nbtre, je ne peux substituer
celui que tu me proposes aujourd'hui. Tu veux dissocier l'Amour tout court et
l'amour physique. Je te rktorque que la communion charnelle ne peut etre sans
l'acceptation du coeur, si minime soit-elle. (50)
Ramatoulaye, who quotes Ai'sstou's entire letter, cannot bring herself at
this point to follow her friend in revolt. Despite admiration for Ai'ssatou's
refusal of polygamy, she turns the other cheek. The second section of the
novel discloses not only Modou's treachery but Ramatoulaye's failed revolt.
Both husband and wife lose touch with their earlier progressive selves. He
becomes a caricature of an old fool trying to regain his youth: "Modou
s'essouflait A emprisonner une jeunesse dkclinante qui le fuyait de partout"
(72). She, lacking courage, agrees to a polygamous union out of fear of
loneliness. Only after he truly abandons her and she is forced to take on the
role of single parent does she resume the rhetoric of revolt. Ramatoulaye
arguably writes the "long letter" to Ai'ssatou upon Modou's death because
74 FRENCH REVIEW
she was unable to write the "short letter," as Ai'ssatou had done, and
thereby reject polygamy.
The second section can be characterized as failed revolt but it prepares
the protagonist for the series of trials or challenges that result in her final
transformation. This preparation takes the form of comforting past memories
on the one hand, and acts of independence on the other. As she evokes
memories of her youth and early adulthood, the narrator uses them as a
source of happiness. Recalling the years when she was first married to
Modou (as was Ai'ssatou to Mawdo), Ramatoulaye turns to nature for
inspiration. She depicts the beach at Ngor:
Sur le sable fin, rince par la vague et gorge d'eau, des pirogues, peintes
nsvement, attendaient leur tour d'Gtre lancees sur les eaux. Dans leur coque,
luisaient de petites flaques bleues pleines de ciel et de soleil. (35)
Viewed metaphorically, the boats waiting to be launched on the vast
ocean correspond to the two idealistic couples whose lives, at that moment
in time, are filled with boundless dreams. This optimistic phase occurs in
the mid-1960s when the Senegalese nation was first emerging from colonialism.
As Ramatoulaye faces adult responsibilities in her personal life,
Senegal assumes the responsibilities of nationhood. Hence, the narrator
establishes a direct link between the personal and the historical-political
phase.
Although the mid-section of the novel depicts a protagonist who appears
to have lost her earlier rebellious stance (and is therefore unable to revolt
against her husband's abuse of power), two specific incidents toward the
end of the section indicate that, despite her initial acquiescence, Ramatoulaye
will recapture both the spirit and the language of revolt. First, Ramatoulaye
recounts her experience of braving the curious stares of a public
who wonders why she is alone at the cinema.
On dkvisageait la femme mGre sans compagnon. Je feignais l'indifference, alors
que la colPre martelait mes nerfs et que mes larmes retenues embuaient mes
yeux. Je mesurais, aux regards Ctonds, la minceur de la liberte accordbe A la
femme. (76)
Here Ramatoulaye finds the courage to venture alone into public space but
at the same time masks her anger toward a hostile public. Then Ai'ssatou's
gift of a new car allows her to travel more freely in the city. The Fiat proves
to be a challenge. She conquers her fear of driving and obtains her driver's
license. These experiences affirm her presence in public space. Occurring
after Modou's departure but before his death, they attest to the protagonist's
essentially independent spirit and foreshadow her final transformation.
The fortieth day of mourning marks the beginning of the third and final
section of the novel. At this point, the widow forgives her late husband. In
addition, suitors begin to ask for her hand. First Ramatoulaye's brother-inlaw
and then a former suitor propose marriage. Presented with a co-wife
several years before, Ramatoulaye is now asked to become one herself.
Refusing her brother-in-law (whose offer is motivated by the desire for her
inheritance), she finally expresses her anger: "Ma voix connait trente
annkes de silence, trente annkes de brimades. Elle kclate, violente, tant8t
sarcastique, tant8t mkprisante" (85). The woman who greeted the announcement
of Modou's second marriage with a smile and feigned indifference
now removes the mask of passivity and acquiescence. She finds the
words to affirm her identity, expressing her conviction that marriage must
be a choice between partners, not an arrangement between families:
Tu oublies que j'ai un caeur, une raison, que je ne suis pas un objet que l'on
passe de main en main. Tu ignores ce que se marier signifie pour moi: c'est un
acte de foi et h o u r , un don total de soi h l'Gtre que l'on a choisi et qui vous a
choisi. (J'insistais sur le mot choisi.) (85)
Later, rejecting the second suitor, Daouda Dieng, whose motivation is
affection not avarice, Ramatoulaye writes him a letter to explain that she
cannot enter into a polygamous marriage because she has suffered the - ~
consequences of one. Thus, Ramatoulaye finally writes a letter rejecting
polygamy, although neither the tone nor the circumstances recall
Ai'ssatou's angry words to her ex-husband, Mawdo.
Having learned to express her anger openly as she rejects polygamy,
Ramatoulaye faces her final trials. Forced to cope with family crises as a
single parent, she rises to each occasion: a son's motorcycle accident, then
the pregnancy of an unmarried daughter.
As she writes her last letter to Aissatou, Ramatoulaye eagerly awaits her
friend's visit. The dual process of introspection and writing, of enclosure
and disclosure, have led Ramatoulaye to cease questioning Modou's initial
rejection. No longer a victim, she now expresses new hope in her future.
"C'est de l'humus sale et nauskabond que jaillit la plante verte et je sens
pointer en moi des bourgeons neufs" (131).The epistolary novel that began
with Modou's death ends in an expression of rebirth.
Ramatoulaye's journey leads to lucidity. She discovers that Modou abandoned
her because of his weakness, vanity, and she learns a deeper truth, to
believe in herself. By removing her mask, the smile of acquiescence, she
recovers her earlier vitality and optimism. Moreover, the successful conclusion
of the first journey prepares the protagonist for a second one, a new
quest for happiness.
At the end of the novel Ramatoulaye awaits Aissatou in the traditional
manner, seated on a straw mat. Unlike kssatou, who chose the outward
journey and left Senegal in order to begin a new life, Ramatoulaye decides
not to leave her community. She avoids the risk of uprootedness in exile,
the challenge that her friend assumes, and reaches a new beginning via a
different route. Ramatoulaye creates an identity that blends traditional and
76 FRENCH REVIEW
modern elements. Rather than break with her society, she attempts to
work from within.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between B%'s novel and the orphan
tale of oral narrative. For example, Bernard Dadik's "Le Pagne noir" recounts
the adventures of Aiwa, sent by her stepmother to whiten a black
cloth. As she travels in search of water in which to wash the object, the
orphan courageously confronts danger and frustration. Finally, the ghost
of her mother descends from heaven to replace the black cloth with a white
one which the stepmother immediately recognizes as the winding sheet
used to bury Aiwa's mother. Not only does the orphan accomplish the task,
she teaches the wicked stepmother a le~son.~
Both B%'s novel and Dadi6's folktale depict a vulnerable female protagonist.
Ramatoulaye, like Aiwa, ventures forth unprotected in a hostile world.
She has lost the protection of her husband (a variant of the orphan's loss of
a parent), and is forced by a patriarchal society to grapple with a series of
difficult tasks. One of her final tests is to reject her two suitors. By refusing
a second marriage to which she is not committed by love, Ramatoulaye
confronts and overcomes her fear of loneliness. The orphan's trials have
been compared to initiation rites.8 Ramatoulaye's tests initiate her to a new
stage of life: the role of a single person.
In Dadi6's orphan tale, Aiwa, despite her hardships, never removes her
mask, a smile: "Elle sourit encore du sourire qu'on retrouve sur les l6vres
des jeunes filles" (22). Ramatoulaye, on the other hand, discards the smile
that has functioned as a mask and asserts her individuality and independence.
As she assumes a dynamic identity, she reaffirms the rebellious spirt
of her youth. Challenging the patriarchy that demands submission and
obedience, Ramatoulaye looks within herself to find the courage to break
free.
When Aiwa accomplishes the impossible task, she is rewarded for her
stoicism and obedience by receiving the help of her mother, a spirit of the
dead. Ramatoulaye's intercessor, however, is not a spirit from the other
world, but Ai'ssatou. The faithful friend and confidante offers Ramatoulaye
two gifts, a car and a letter, and thereby provides her with tools of transformation.
The Fiat allows Ramatoulaye to lay claim to public space by traveling
freely in it, thus encouraging her to affirm a new identity. The letter,
Ai'ssatou's declaration of separation from her husband, Mawdo, initiates
Ramatoulaye to the act of writing as a process as well as a product of
liberation.
In contrast to the winding sheet of the dead mother, a white cloth that
puts an end to the orphan's quest in Dadi6's narrative, the white sheets of
Ramatoulaye's notebook propose a new beginning. Presented as a therapeutic
activity in the early pages of the novel, writing subsequently results
in liberation as well as in healing. Moreover, in BVs novel, the act of writing
as a process of disclosure that promotes discovery and self-affirmation
clearly reinforces female bonding. Hence, the two structuring devices, enclosure
and disclosure, the one facilitating the journey inward, the other
recording it, serve another important function; they strengthen
communication between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. These bonds between
narrator and narratee have made it possible for Ramatoulaye to put herself
into the text.
At the end of her journey, B2s heroine, unlike Semb&neJsc atalysts for
change, is neither eliminated nor recuperated by the patriarchy. On the
contrary, Ramatoulaye has learned to use the enclosure as her refuge and
writing as a means of communication to strengthen female bonding. In B%'s
text the written word becomes a creative tool of self-expression and a
weighty weapon against the patriarchy. By recording her journey to selfunderstanding,
Ramatoulaye, in effect, writes her own revolutionary
script.
Notes
o or further discussion of women's role in the novel, see Scharfman.
'TWO factors contributed to the absence of women writers. Throughout Africa, the
colonial educational system made greater efforts to educate boys rather than girls on the
assumption that schools should prepare an educated male elite to serve the colonial administration.
In addition, traditional African societies viewed European education, particularly
higher education, as superfluous training for young girls who would become dutiful wives
and attentive mothers. See Davies.
%ee Flewellen and Ojo-Ade.
4 ~ e n e v i ~Svloemski maintains that Ramatoulaye's one-sided correspondance bars objective
critique: "Therefore, we observe in Bd's text (that) the narrator's discourse functions
both as a portrait and a mask; it conceals as much as it reveals" (135). While providing
important insights into Bd's fiction through careful textual analysis, she dismisses Assatou,
the narratee.
5~lorenceS tratton believes that Ramatoulaye, who does not travel abroad, becomes
increasingly ambivalent to A'issatou, who "literally and figuratively storms the walls that
confine her" (163).
6 ~ b y e Boubacar Cham writes: "Mirasse" therefore becomes the principle that legitimizes
and regulates Rama's act of systematic personal revelation which simultaneously constitutes
a systematic analysis of some of the most pressing socio-economic and cultural issues
challenging women and society" (33). In contrast to Cham's socio-economic emphasis, I will
focus on the personal development that results from disclosure. Slomski, on the other hand,
writes that the Islamic custom allows Ramatoulaye to launch into the series of torments she
has endured as Modou's wife (140). I will examine disclosure to see whether it leads exclusively
to victimization or results in self-understanding.
7 ~ oar more detailed discussion of the role of the wicked stepmother, see Lee, who notes
that often the orphan's virtues win her the supreme reward-marriage. Her husband then
brings about the stepmother's downfall (22). or a study of the orphan tale, see Domowitz.
FRENCH REVIEW
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18-22.
Domowitz, Susan. "The Orphan in Cameroon Folklore and Fiction." Research in African
Literatures 12 (1981): 350-58.
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SembGne, Ousmane. LPS Bouts de bois de Dieu. Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960. Reprinted,
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Scharfman, Ronnie. "Fonction romanesque: rencontre de la culture et de la structure dans
Les Bouts de bois de Dieu." Ethiopiques 1.3-4: 133-44.
Slomski, GeneviGve. "Dialogue in the Discourse: A Study of Revolt in Selected Fiction by
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