Letters From Beyond: Untold stories of woman abuse by men
By Review-Tanaka Chidora
Letters from Beyond by Prudence Natsai Muganiwah-Zvavanjanja (2016), New Heritage, Harare: Zimbabwe, ISBN: 978-0-7974-1771-9.
Prudence Natsai Muganiwa-Zvavanjanja’s Letters from Beyond (2016) are a series of letters written from beyond the curtain of life by a woman who is no longer worried about (un) necessary contrivances like public image or not washing one’s dirty linen in public.
These letters are written by someone who has seen it all and has realised, too late, the inadequacies of clinging in quiet submission to a societal ideal that may keep one’s marriage running (pretentiously running) while bringing the one who is clinging to the end of a life whose main achievement was in being a good wife (this, too, a piece of hypocrisy by graveside eulogy reciters who were not there when she was suffering). This is how Letters from Beyond appears to me.
I remember in one of our discussions Prudence remarking about an incident at the launch of Letters from Beyond when one gentleman wanted to subject Letters from Beyond to very serious critical analysis. Her confession to us was like (this is not verbatim), “Well, I don’t know about all those technical terms. All I know is that I wrote things that I have seen happening in life.” True. That is exactly how this book should be read. Technically, it may fall short of all those qualities that are supposed to give it undoubted literariness, but for me, its appeal lies predominantly in the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’.
Letters From Beyond is about the abuse of a woman by men who had vowed to give her love the “till-death-do-us-part” way. Death comes but it looks like he/she (well, death is both male and female) gets help from the men to speedily lead the woman to her death. Her name was Olivia. She lived. She loved. She was abused. She hoped . . . but she died hoping. A whole lifetime reduced to these four sentences. That is where the tragedy actually is. In a society where explanations for abuse-ridden marriages vary from the fatalistic one of destiny (that’s the way it is) to ultra-spiritual ones (there is an army of demons fighting your marriage/your late grandmother or the village witch are behind this) what are the chances of the obvious being stated? The obvious is this: your husband is abusive and you need to walk out before it’s too late! I know many will beg to differ, but after reading Letters from Beyond you will realise how so much abuse is being swept under the carpet or explained using extraterrestrial (did I just use that word?) terms when the truth of the matter is that many women need to write letters from this side of the universe (instead of writing from beyond) and deal with it before it’s too late. For failing to write her letters on time, Olivia, from her grave, regrets:
I went down memory lane, recalling the time when my marriage was on the brink of collapse and I had sought Gogo Manera’s help in my hour of need. She had noticed how my eyes were always swollen no matter how hard I tried to hide them behind my fashionable sunglasses. She had discerned how my trademark carefree laugh when I passed by her house and said hello had been replaced gradually by quick waves as I drove past, not wanting to linger for too long in her presence lest she noticed . . .
Perhaps if I had listened to her advice, I would have been better off today. She was much older, had been through much more and obviously was better informed when it came to such issues. Perhaps if I had walked out early enough, like she had advised . . . (pp. 3-4).
So in order to try to salvage the situation, for other women in the same situation, she writes these letters. In Zimbabwean literature, the act of dead and buried women speaking to the living is not new. The late Chenjerai Hove experimented with it in Bones. The difference with Letters from Beyond, however, is that Olivia is not speaking through a human body but through letters. They do not have a particular addressee as is the case with Alice Walker’s Colour Purple. I am sure Prudence left out that option in order for the letters to speak to anyone who reads them, men and women.
Letters from Beyond is peopled by abusive men, almost all of them. I found this a strong case of bias on Prudence’s part. However, this bias worked even more positively in my reading of the letters. It made me hate being any of the men in the story. I hated being Stan, Henry or Uncle Jerry.
The only good man is Uncle Jimmy but he is poor and dies too soon. Prudence creates the characters of these three abusive men in a way that brings them to life, sometimes to so much life that you are tempted to measure yourself against them.
That was my worry when Mai Chidora began to read Letters from Beyond. My worry was that she would try to read these men against the character of her husband, that is, myself.
Up to now I haven’t gathered enough courage to ask her if she sees any of those three many (or all of them) in me.