Keith Sandiford, author of Measuring the Moment, eloquently made the claim for Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as a reliable documentary source. Sandiford writes, “Throughout the narrative, Equiano makes a conscious effort to delineate the principal incidents and experiences of his life as faithful memory would allow and to appraise his conduct with honest judgement and sober reflection” (119). To me this is how Equiano embarks on making his narrative credible:
“I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity. . . People generally think those memoirs only worthy to be read or remembered which abound in great striking events, those, in short, which in a high degree excite either admiration or pity; all others they consign to contempt or oblivion. It is therefore, I confess, not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranger too, thus to solicit the indulgent attention of the public, especially when I own I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant. I believe there are few events in my life which have not happened to many; it is true the incidents of it are numerous, and, did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great; but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favorite of heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life. If, then, the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication.”
The narrative begins in the unassuming, yet ardent voice that carries the reader throughout his life story. He makes his plans entirely clear: he intends his narrative to open the world’s eyes to the degradation and inhumanity of slavery. Yet he knows, too, that merely preaching of goodwill towards Africans would not turn any heads. He must show directly the irony that those naming others “barbarians” were the barbaric ones themselves. His intensely personal story, with detailed descriptions of what he saw – cruel or ordinary – and of how one African dealt with forced encounters with different lands and cultures, was what it would take for Englishmen to relate and thus to understand.
A number of themes pervade Equiano’s narrative. Editor Robert Allison says the text revolves around “freedom and salvation.” Adam Potkay in Forum: Teaching Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, claims that Equiano’s narrative had a number of persuasive modes, modes such as “apologia, allegory, sermon, exhortation…” and criticism directed to abolishing the slave trade (604). Power and identity struggles are also important problems Equiano faces. Some of the most telling passages involve Equiano’s discussion of his various names. In his Ibo native land, he was named “Olaudah,” which signified “one favored, and having a loud voice and well spoken.” His name was thus symbolic of his strong anti-slavery voice. His name testified to his extraordinary life and also suggests his relative fortune, or perhaps God’s Providence. Luck and grace would play a large role in his life and narrative. Yet in Virginia Equiano was called Jacob and then Michael – he no longer had control over his own identity. The passage where he is given the name Gustavus Vassa describes clearly the struggle for self-empowerment versus outside control:
“While I was on board this ship, my captain and master named me Gustavus Vassa. I at that time began to understand him a little, and refused to be called so, and told him as well as I could that I would be called Jacob; but he said I should not, and still called me Gustavus: and when I refused to answer to my new name, which I at first did, it gained me many a cuff; so at length I submitted, and by which I have been known ever since.” (61)
That Equiano would later accept this name he once objected to so strongly furthers the question of identity which Equiano, and all displaced Africans, were forced to face. Equiano, at one point, considered himself more Englishman than African, yet he later realized the obligation he owed to his native people. But he nevertheless would struggle with dual identities his entire life: African yet Englishman, slave yet friend to his masters, freed man yet not protected by the laws. His double name was an outward indication of his life ambiguity.
The narrative’s first paragraph reveals Equiano’s intense motives for writing. Yet the work is interesting in that it appeals to not only moral (though they reign supreme) but also economic reasons for the abolishment of slavery. In Talking Too Much English, Tanya Caldwell argues, “Equiano, far from establishing himself and black Africans against Britain as a potental ‘new force’, Equiano sees the danger of being perceived in this way and reveals the thouroughly European nature of his mind most convincingly when he proposes strengthening the system of which he is part by offering up Africa to forces of British trade” (268 and 280). Sure, the degradation of a people was unchristian, but Equiano advised that it was uneconomical as well. Africa could be an enormous market to feed the industrial revolution. And, “by changing your conduct, and treating your slaves as men, every cause of fear would be banished. They would be faithful, honest, intelligent, and vigorous; and peace, prosperity, and happiness would attend you.” (100). In other words, freed men would be better workers.
Equiano attacks not only slavery but also racism. Today’s reader, living in a world where the ambiguous parameters of race create so many rules, may find his thoughts on race relations a bit strange. Equiano believed that intermarriage was the key to ending racism by blurring the distinctions that make race so obvious. It is important to keep in mind that Equiano’s perspective differs greatly from many other former slaves. Remember that he was a young boy when taken from his family; his few memories are supplemented in the text by Abolitionist Anthony Benezet’s account of African traditions and customs. Equiano, too, admired and coveted British culture and society. Intermarriage was an easy solution for him, for he never had the opportunity to forge one strong identity. For both Englishmen and Africans, however, this solution was not quite so clear-cut.
Equiano’s modesty yet honesty, his diligence and faith without a preaching tone all appealed to the public. His narrative offers a uniquely personal, yet universal account of the degradations of slavery. Readers concluded on their own that the system needed to be changed. Equiano allowed his readers to conclude that he was “a decent person who did not deserve to be enslaved, and that therefore no African deserved to be enslaved.” (14)
After returning to Europe, Equiano’s life followed a path of struggling for identity. During this period, Equiano struggled greatly with his religious beliefs. He wanted to be as perfect a faithful to God as possible and faced the guilt of breaking his commandments. He saw and participated in many debates between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant doctrine. Equiano even witnessed a sermon by the immensely popular leader of the Great Awakening in America, George Whitefield. On a voyage to Cadiz, Spain, Equiano had a vision of Christ and was converted to evangelicalism. Following this, he accompanied Dr. Irving on a voyage to cultivate a plantation at Jamaica and the Mosquito Coast, Nicaragua. There he attempted to Christianize some of the Indian population, to no avail.
Yet Equiano’s greatest addition to the cause would be his own story of oppression, which he announced with the publishing of his narrative in 1789.
Motherhood – its joys and sorrows – and the status of women in a particular society are major elements defining the novel. B’s text is, in fact, a novel employing the epistolary form to convey the thoughts and feelings of a recently widowed woman in Senegal, Ramatoulaye, to her longtime friend, Aissatou, who lives in the United States after experiencing many of the same marital and societal problems as the letter writer. The novel is especially striking in that it depicts the lives of educated upper-class urban people.
So Long a Letter is remarkably straightforward regarding lives of Muslim women and the examinations of the causes of various experiences, especially the negative ones. And while the lives of many women have improved to some extent since these novels took place, numerous oppressive laws remain that relegate women to inferior status. Many African women see these works as a watershed and attest that the customs and expectations for women’s behavior in many places and among many groups have not altered considerably in everyday life.
One critic, Carole Boyce Davies, who co-edited Ngambika, a major work on women in African literatures, sees the efforts of these writers as quite comparable-and comparably bold: “…writers like Miriama B question and overturn some of the entire traditional attitudes to womanhood and women’s place” (242).
This distinct approach to the topic of motherhood is dramatically displayed in So Long a Letter, the life of the main character, Ramatoulaye, is also dominated by her children; however, for a variety of reasons, the children are not the pivotal element of her story or, seemingly, the overriding concern of Ramatoulaye’s life. She was an educated woman with a career of her own, and her family enjoyed at least a minimum of financial security. Her letter to her close friend implies that while her husband remained in the marriage, she must have had to work very hard-with a teaching job and twelve children to care for-but that she had household assistance and was able to manage without undue hardships while finding a great deal of satisfaction in her life. When her husband deserts her for a young woman, Ramatoulaye then feels the great burdens of motherhood.
Ramatoulaye’s vivid descriptions of her daily efforts-the “details” of her life as mother, for example:
“The purchase of basic foodstuffs kept me occupied at the end of every month; I made sure that I was never short of tomatoes or of oil, potatoes or onions during those periods when they became rare in the markets…
The last date for payment of electricity bills and of water rates demanded my attention. I was often the only woman in the queue.
Replacing the locks and latches of broken doors, replacing broken windows was a bother… My son Mawdo Fall complained about burnt-out bulbs that needed replacement” (Ba 51).
Her life, though, while exhausting and frustrating and, undoubtedly, terrifying at times – particularly when children become ill or injured, Ramatoulaye has money for sufficient food and even has modern conveniences in her home.
Nevertheless, Ramatoulaye has other experiences as the protagonist – while the children cause a great deal of her daily trials and drain her energy, these same dependents rouse her from her personal misery. Rama explains: “I adopted a sprightly tone to rouse my battalion. The coffee warmed the atmosphere, exuding its sweet fragrance. Foaming baths, mutual teasing, and laughter.” After documenting numerous further items of their lives, she summarizes these particulars with a brief but plaintive cry: “I shed tears of joy and sadness together: joy in being loved by my children, the sadness of a mother who does not have the means to change the course of events” (53).
Concurrently with the experience of motherhood, the novel also examines the life of Rama and Assitou as women in their societies. Decisions regarding marriage, family, properties are all at the disposal of the males of both societies. Both woman’s situation as beloved wife is undermined by the husband taking another (and younger) wife, an action sanctioned by the religion and officially by the society but which, according to the effects that occur in both stories, destroys the trust of the marriage, the self-esteem of the wife, and the fabric of the family’s life together.
Miriama B’s book features a character that is much more articulate and unaccepting of the narrow role allowed to women in her society. B’s female characters have been called “champions of change and justice” who “inspire other women and people to live and carry on” (Chain 100). Ramatoulaye does suffer some of the same restrictions on her movements as her friend does by virtue of being a wife and mother. She spends a great deal of her life feeling that events are out of her control: marriage (although she and her husband had chosen each other rather than entering into an arranged marriage), property ownership, domination by in-laws, her husband’s desertion.
Nevertheless, for many reasons of sufficient money and an education, Rama finds the strength to oppose some of the expectations of her society. She learns to drive, forces herself to go to the cinema alone, notably refuses marriage offers from men of high repute (primarily because they are already married) and courageously accepts her second daughter’s unwed pregnancy without reprimanding her or even indulging in the wailing that is traditionally expected of her.
Edris Makward declares that B is “the first African writer of either sex apparently to stress unequivocally the strong desire of a new generation of Africans to break away from the age-old marriage customs and adopt a decidedly more modern approach based on free mutual choice and the equality of the two partners” (278). In addition, Rama’s daughters – at least the two presented directly in the novel – represent a new direction for women in their society. It is her children, especially these daughters, who are adamant that their mothers divorce their father when he takes a second wife. Both Daba and Aissatou clearly seem like people who will make decisions for themselves. Daba, who has earned a prized baccalaureate and freely chosen a man to whom she is engaged, actually challenges her father by deliberately appearing in the nightclubs where he and his new wife (originally her classmate and friend) spend their evenings. “She would arrive late on purpose so to sit in full view of her father” (Ba 50). This young woman is no withering, oppressed victim of society.
The second daughter is named after the full-fledged rebel in the story (who never appears, but is the recipient of the letter), Ramatoulayess friend Aissatou, who did divorce her husband when he took a second wife. The daughter Aissatou is quite aware of the import of her unmarried pregnancy. But Rama is amazed that, although Aissatouss confession is delivered “in a broken voice accompanied by much sniffing,” it is yet “without any regret!” (82). This young woman is not a victim either; she has entered freely and lovingly into a sexual relationship and is thoroughly willing to assume responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
All of the female characters in So Long a Letter represent women who attempt to, and to some extent succeed in, taking control of their lives. Rama closes her letter (the novel itself) by asserting “I have not given up wanting to refashion my life. Despite everything -disappointments and humiliations-hope still lives within me” (89).Miriama B herself declared in an interview she gave after accepting the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa that a unity of all women cannot be denied, “…there is a cry everywhere, everywhere in the world, a woman’s cry is being uttered. The cry may be different but there is still a certain unity”(Chain 89).
The truly radical nature of the two novels cannot be overemphasized. Not only are both books utterly engrossing as good stories and extremely well crafted works of art, but they also make dramatic statements about their position in society. Maryse Conde contends, “the personality and inner reality of African(s)…have been hidden under a heap of myths, so-called ethnological theories, rapid generalizations and patent untruths” (Davis 242).
Allison, Robert J, ed. Equiano’s Interesting Narrative.
Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.
B, Miriama. So Long a Letter. Translated by Modupe Bod ;
Thomas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1980.
Caldwell, Tanya. “Talking Too Much English’: Languages of
Economics and Politics in Equiano’s The Interesting
Narrative,” Early American Literature. Volume 34 3
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Imagination: A Study of the Novels of Miriama Ba,” in
Eldred Durosimi Jones, Eustace Palmer and Marjorie
Jones, (Eds.) Women in African Literature Today.
Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.
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Female Igbo Writers: Achebe Emecheta, Nwpa and
Nzekwu,” in Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves
(Eds.) Ngambika. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press,
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of Happiness in the Novels of Miriama Ba,” in Eldred
Durosimi Jones, Eustace Palmer and Marjorie Jones,
(Eds.) Women in African Literature Today. Trenton, NJ:
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PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1988.