‘Thrown Among The Bones: My Life In Fiction’ is a thought-provoking autobiography by South African novelist Patricia Schonstein
Punctuated by moments where the past and the present collide, Patricia Schonstein generously gives voice to the multitude of scenes and events that paved her life, as an inventive author and an award-winning poet.
Thrown Among The Bones: My Life In Fiction is the transcription of a life that is intimately transparent and unwaveringly honest; page after page, Schonstein carefully invites the reader to partake in life’s challenges with her, to enter her world as an observer.
In this brutally brave first-person account, Schonstein unveils the often heartbreaking experiences that defined her as an artist; she explores the roles of the people who shaped her imagination; she reflects on the impact that anarchy and uprising have on one’s psyche, while artfully crafting facts into fiction. Her unique ability to draw from her pain while exploring the possibility of preservation is a continuous reflection – one that engenders appreciation.
Each chapter is chaperoned by a fascinating cast who act out a captivating plot: the stories are steeped in precise historical and geographical context, swaying from one challenge to another, suspended by one woman’s explorative expanse for eternal hope.
It’s her 23rd book and Schonstein is already working on another novel. “It is going to be a short one, a novella. I am also putting together the 2021 Poetry In McGregor anthology,” she says.
It is a blue-skied day in Cape Town when we meet. Schonstein’s home is distinctly reminiscent of a person’s many voyages: multicoloured fabrics, quilts and artworks adorn the rooms – and many books, hers and others’.
On the subject of books, Schonstein explains that she learnt about writing from reading, anything from Alfred Noyes’s The Highwayman, to Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley and the Old Testament.
“Rather than tea with one author, I would prefer a banquet with a number of them. Among them would certainly be Shakespeare, Carson McCullers, Richard Llewellyn, Betty Smith, Tolstoy and Pasternak. And such poets as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot. But I would also be sure that Primo Levi was present. I would acknowledge what I had learnt from them. I would tell them that I would not be who I am without them. Not only for the masterclass in the craft of composition that each offered through their books, but for the companionship their characters gave – the lessons, the life skills,” she says.
The book recounts some of the many people who shaped Schonstein’s world, one act or word at a time; there’s a nun who, unbeknown to Schonstein at the time, had kept one of her schoolbooks only to give it back to her a few years later; in retrospect, the novelist thinks that maybe the nun knew she had some talent – which was at odds with the emotional cruelty at the hands of a few of the other nuns.
There was also Mrs Evans Senior, who played a large role in bringing her inner author’s costumery to life, telling a young Schonstein to “tap into herself” and “examine how she could redirect her pain into purpose”. In fact, she notes: “Looking back, it’s clear that you can create a sort of emotional and spiritual ‘aquifer’ inside yourself. You can fill it with beautiful experiences, with prayer and poem and music and stories, thus enriching your inner self. And later, a great deal of resolution can be found through that inner self.
“Mrs Evans senior, in her wisdom, was alerting me to believe in myself, to take note of my ‘aquifer’, my inner strength.”
Later, while at university, Schonstein’s master’s thesis was overseen and supervised by South African author, linguist, translator and 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature winner JM Coetzee, who also appeared to have spotted her talent.
“As my supervisor, he surely saw that I had bitten off more than I could chew when I proposed the scaffolding of The Master’s Ruse as my thesis. He was certainly understanding and allowed me to put it aside and write a different thesis, one that was later published as A Time of Angels. Later communication does indicate that he was aware I would go on to earn my stripes as an author,” she muses.
If her novel The Inn at Helsvlakte, published in 2020, took 10 years to write, an entirely different process took root for Thrown Among the Bones.
“I wanted to show how I draw on my own life to fuel my fictions. I did not write up a series of events from birth to present. Instead, I presented it more as a run of vignettes, peopled with archetypes and meaningful exchanges. I included extracts from my various novels to illustrate this mirroring of real life in fiction; these appear as endnotes. It took me a year of diligent, daily work,” she says, adding: “The writing was straightforward. I conceptualised the form of the memoir over a number of years. And then I wrote intensely during the year of Covid lock-up, 2020.
“I had no writer’s block. Once the manuscript was complete, I was rather afraid to publish it; I was not sure whether anyone would want to read it. But then I realised that much of the matter it dealt with, such as substance abuse, was a common struggle, and that many of the questions I struggled with, were common struggles. So I saw that I had a responsibility to share.”
Thrown Among The Bones starts in Rhodesia circa 1950, as she recalls the dramatic backdrop that sees her parents having escaped Europe from a “still reeling” World War 2.
“By the time of the Rhodesian Bush War, I was already ‘tattooed’ by the emotional impact of war. These indelible markings came through a sort of osmosis from my parents who had experienced World War 2. My Czechoslovakian father had escaped the Holocaust; my mother had endured Italian fascism and the German occupation of Italy. They barely spoke of their experiences, but the atmosphere of our home was loaded with a concealed pathos and mourning.
“It was charged with a sense of ‘unfinished business’ which in later years I would be compelled to examine through works of fiction and poetry. The Rhodesian War was more ‘real’ in that it was being enacted within my own life.
“Both these expressions of war – the hidden and the real – shaped me as an author and poet by imbuing me with very strong emotions and feelings concerning the error of war and the horror of genocide,” she says.
“I think that I remember events emotionally, rather than just with my mind. So perhaps I can say that they are always there, lodged in my heart, so to speak.”
Slowly uncrossing her legs so as to face me directly, she describes how war and genocide pushed her to explore empathy, compassion and tolerance in and through her multiple characters. “My skills are those of authorship. I am able to address the horror of war and genocide, not through political activity, but through the creation of fictitious characters. These fictitious characters are brave on my behalf. They tackle the thorny debate surrounding the recurrence of war and genocide.”
Schonstein’s father’s deep sorrow at losing both his parents in the Holocaust draped a veil of mystery over his past, concealing it from her. The novelist explains how writing poetry enabled her to process some of her grief at losing not only her grandparents in the Holocaust but also her heritage.
“Poetry continues to be a tremendous remedy. The writing of it, the reading of it, the enjoyment of it at live events, the finding of it in song and opera… all these forms of poem play a role in healing,” she notes.
In The Master’s Ruse, which was published in 2008 and was conceived “as a memoir of authorship and conscience”, the story is set in an apocalyptic future, and here too poetry is healing and used as a “tool for peace”; in fact, the book could almost be read as a prayer. Candidly, Schonstein explains: “Indeed, it can be seen as a prayer, if prayer entails praise and lamentation. This novel enrobes a praise poem to the Earth, along with a deep lamentation for the fate of the Earth at our human hands. It is enshrined with profound creativity, which is another way of seeing hope. So yes, with praise, lamentation and hope, there is a prayer present.”
Another praise and lamentation to the Earth can be seen in another chapter of Thrown Among The Bones, in which Schonstein describes at great length and with compassion the destruction of natural kingdoms and the displacement of people as a direct result of the construction of the Kariba Dam and man’s resilience to harness the strength of the Great Zambezi. It’s a juxtaposition of sorts: weakness and strength; repression and redemption; beauty and ruin.
“As we see from everyday life, these polarities do co-exist. The trick is to learn how to manage them. I find poetry to be a balm. Curating the Africa! and Poetry in McGregor anthologies allows me to enter very deep spaces of the human heart. Working directly with poets, I see all these polarities, and I see the struggles and triumphs which these polarities engender. Let me say that all the anthologies are inspired by this narrative called life,” she says.
And indeed, life – battered, brutal, beautiful and magical – fills the pages of her books; like in A Quilt of Dreams where she unpacks the effects that substance abuse leaves in its disastrous wake – her own mother suffered from addiction. “The lead character opens the novel looking head-on at his alcoholism and the brutal side of his nature that this activates. He has to unpack an awful lot; he has to be brave; he has to walk past those bottles, refuse them, and begin his own healing. It is a triumphant book. It deals with redemption on every level.”
I ask her whether she believes that those affected by their loved one’s disease can ever recover. “If ‘recover’ means everything will be like the addiction had never happened, then no. Those affected by the addictions of their loved ones will carry that narrative with them. The thing to do is to address self-healing; to revise the scars; remove the scabs; forgive; understand. All this without accepting further harm and without harming oneself. The best way is to be creative.” DM/ ML