Title: Letters From Beyond
Author: Prudence Natsai Muganiwah-Zvavanjanja
Publisher: New Heritage Press
Editor: Phillip Chidavaenzi
Looking at Zimbabwean literature, it is rare to get a work of fiction in which a female character is both the protagonist and the narrator of the story. That is not to say such fiction is not there, Sophie in Virginia Phiri’s Highway Queen comes to mind.
Reviewed by: Conelia Mabasa
She redefines prostitution. Women have often been confined to supportive roles in the same way they are largely believed to play such roles in institutions like marriage, church and in other social relations in patriarchal societies. It is as if women were created for servitude, to neaten up spaces, to suck in their emotions, to tolerate, to be humble and to pay homage to men. A species created to make everybody else happy, except for themselves.
This is the woman that Prudence Muganiwah recreates in her book, Letters From Beyond. A serious negotiation for the meaning of life and relationships takes place through intrapersonal dialogue and inwards thoughts to afford readers a chance to engage with the main character, Olivia, on the level that renders censorship and bias useless. She cannot be telling herself lies and if we can read her mind, then the real story of her life unravels unhindered.
Orphaned early in life, Olivia navigates life through well-wishers and relatives — some distant — picking a word of advice from a neighbour, an aunt or a churchmate. Not only is orphanhood a setback, she is also unlucky in love.
Her childhood innocence is stolen by an aunt’s son — Moses — who sexually abuses her. The aunt is too busy to notice, she has Uncle Jerry to love and care for. Later on, Uncle Jerry tries to seduce Olivia, maybe he feels she owes him something; after all, he contributed immensely to her upbringing. And when the reader thinks Olivia has come of age and has found love with Henry, her only sister Virginia “steals” the guy from her. She excels academically, affording to leave her teaching job for an administrative job where she meets Stan. The writer makes one think at last Olivia is going to enjoy love, peace and quiet, but that is before Stan involves himself with his niece Theresa and becomes abusive. He becomes so mean as to beat her up even for flimsy reasons. She is taken aback. She cannot believe that she is a victim of domestic violence, but she is. A church woman advises her to keep her problems to herself. Sometimes she gets angry with herself, she cannot believe she has turned out to be such a feeble creature, acquiescing to other people’s demands without so much as a protest, no matter how feeble. There are children to take care of, besides a very demanding yet uncaring husband and a diabetic mother-in-law who visits as and when she pleases. She does not hide her dislike for Olivia. Though Olivia would love to return the favour, she cannot openly show her disdain for Gogo Mavira, good daughters-in-law must absorb it all and show their best side all the time.
The more she lingers around Stan, the more he abuses her, sending her to the intensive care and her eventual death. To sum up her life of loyalty and dedication, Olivia says: “I never kissed Uncle Jerry back. I loved Henry with all my heart. Vhiji was my all. Tete was my godsend angel. Gogo Mavira, the mother I wished for and got, and loved.
Except she didn’t love me back… In the end I hated her right back. And Stan, oh Stan!”
As if taking us back and forth as a narrative style and giving us an opportunity to peep into this woman’s mind is not enough, the writer takes us to Olivia’s funeral as seen by the dead woman herself. She can see who is doing what as she watches from above to have a clear view of the casket, the flowers, mourners and of course her children, just that she cannot do anything about anything anymore.
It is a riveting story of a victim of socialisation, religion and male dominance. I would have loved for Olivia to fight the system in her own small way, not to be the typical cornered African girl because no marriage, no matter how well-resourced, is worth dying for. Relationships are built by people and the same people can undo them, or yet build new ones altogether. And I would have loved for Stan to pay for his sins, not community service but then, don’t men get away with murder most of the time? And Moses, what became of him? This is not to take away anything from Muganiwah’s effort.