Cast Among the Bones: My Life in Fiction is the transcription of an intimately transparent life and an unwavering honesty; Page after page, Schonstein carefully invites the reader to participate with her in life’s challenges, to enter her world as an observer.
In this brutally courageous first-person account, Schonstein unravels the often harrowing experiences that have 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 the psyche, while artfully turning fact into fiction. Her unique ability to tap into her pain while exploring the possibility of preserving it is a continuous reflection – a reflection that engenders appreciation.
Each chapter is chaperoned by an intriguing cast that sets a gripping plot: stories are steeped in precise historical and geographical context, swinging from challenge to challenge, suspended by the exploratory expanse of a woman to Eternal hope.
This is his 23rd book and Schonstein is already working on another novel. “It’s going to be short, a short story. I am also preparing for 2021 Poetry at McGregor anthology,” she says.
It’s a blue sky day in Cape Town when we meet. Schonstein’s home is a distinct reminder of one person’s many journeys: multicolored fabrics, quilts and artwork adorn the rooms – and many books, his own and those of others.
“Rather than a tea with an author, I would prefer a banquet with several of them. They would certainly include Shakespeare, Carson McCullers, Richard Llewellyn, Betty Smith, Tolstoy and Pasternak. And poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot. But I would also be sure that Primo Levi was present. I recognized what I had learned from them. I would tell them that I wouldn’t be who I am without them. Not just for the masterclass in the art of composition that each offered through their books, but for the companionship of their characters — the lessons, the life skills,” she says.
The book chronicles some of the many people who shaped Schonstein’s world, one act or word at a time; there is a nun who, unbeknownst to Schonstein at the time, had kept one of her schoolbooks to return it to her a few years later; in retrospect, the novelist thinks that perhaps the nun knew she had talent – which was at odds with the emotional cruelty of some of the other nuns.
There was also Mrs. Evans Senior, who played an important role in bringing her inner authorial garb to life, telling a young Schonstein to “draw within herself” and “consider how she might redirect her pain to a goal”. In fact, she notes, “Looking back, it’s clear that you can create a sort of emotional and spiritual ‘aquifer’ within yourself. You can fill it with beautiful experiences, prayers, poems, music and stories, thus enriching your inner self. And later, much of the resolution can be found through that inner self.
“Mrs. Evans senior, in her wisdom, alerted 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 overseen by South African author, linguist, translator and 2003 Nobel Prize winner in Literature JM Coetzee, who also appears to have spotted his 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 trick like my thesis. He was certainly understanding and allowed me to put that aside and write a different thesis, which was later published under the title A time of angels. Subsequent communication indicates that he knew I would continue to earn my stripes as an author,” she wonders.
If his novel The Hostel in Helsvlaktepublished in 2020, took 10 years to be written, a whole different process took root for Cast among the bones.
“I wanted to show how I draw on my own life to feed my fictions. I did not write a series of events from birth to today. Instead, I presented it more as a series of vignettes, populated with archetypes and meaningful exchanges. I have included excerpts 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 simple. I conceptualized the shape of memories over a number of years. And then I wrote intensely during the year of Covid confinement, 2020.
“I didn’t have writer’s block. Once the manuscript was finished, I was rather afraid to publish it; I didn’t know if anyone would want to read it. But then I realized that a lot of the issue he was dealing with, like drug addiction, was a common struggle, and a lot of the issues I was struggling with were common struggles. Then I saw that I had a responsibility to share.
Thrown among the bones begins in Rhodesia around 1950, as she recalls the dramatic backdrop that sees her parents escaping Europe from a ‘still in shock’ World War 2.
“At the time of Rhodesian Bush War, I was already “tattooed” by the emotional impact of the war. These indelible marks came by a sort of osmosis from my parents who had lived through the Second World War. My Czechoslovak 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 charged with hidden pathos and mourning.
“It was charged with a sense of ‘unfinished business’ that I would later be compelled to examine through works of fiction and poetry. The Rhodesian War was more “real” in that it was happening in my own life.
“These two expressions of war – the hidden and the real – have shaped me as an author and a poet by imbuing me with very strong emotions and feelings concerning the error of war and the horror of genocide. “, she says.
“I think I remember the events emotionally, rather than with my mind. So maybe I can say that they are still there, lodged in my heart, so to speak.
Slowly uncrossing her legs to face me directly, she describes how war and genocide compelled her to explore empathy, compassion and tolerance in and through her multiple personas. “My skills are those of writing. I am able to approach the horror of war and genocide, not through political activity, but through the creation of fictional characters. These fictional characters are brave of me. They tackle the thorny debate around the recurrence of war and genocide.
Schonstein’s father’s deep sadness at losing both parents in the Holocaust draped a veil of mystery over his past, hiding it from him. The novelist explains how writing poetry allowed her to process some of her grief at not only losing her grandparents in the Holocaust, but also her legacy.
“Poetry continues to be a wonderful remedy. Its writing, its reading, its enjoyment at live events, its discovery in song and opera…all of these forms of poetry play a part in healing,” she notes.
In The master’s trickwhich was released in 2008 and was designed “as a memoir of author and conscience», the story takes place in an apocalyptic future, and here too poetry is healing and used as a « tool of peace »; in fact, the book could almost be read as a prayer. Frankly, Schonstein explains, “Indeed, it can be considered prayer, if the prayer involves praise and lamentation. This novel wraps a poem of praise to the Earth, as well as a deep lament over the fate of the Earth in our human hands. It is driven by deep creativity, which is another way of looking at hope. So yes, with praise, lamentation and hope, there is prayer present.
Another praise and lamentation to the Earth can be seen in another chapter of Thrown among the bonesin which Schonstein describes at length and with compassion the destruction of natural kingdoms and the displacement of populations as a direct result of the construction of the Kariba Dam and human resilience to harness the strength of the Great Zambezi. It’s a kind of juxtaposition: weakness and strength; repression and redemption; beauty and ruin.
“As we see in everyday life, these polarities co-exist. The trick is to learn to mmanage them. I find that poetry is a balm. Organize the Africa! and Poetry at McGregor anthologies allows me to enter very deep spaces of the human heart. Working directly with poets, I see all of these polarities, and I see the struggles and triumphs that these polarities bring about. Let me say that all anthologies are inspired by this narrative called life,” she says.
And indeed, life – battered, brutal, beautiful and magical – fills the pages of his books; as in A quilt of dreams where she unpacks the effects that drug addiction leaves in its disastrous wake – her own mother suffered from addiction. “The main character opens the novel looking head-on at his alcoholism and the brutal side of his nature it activates. He has to unpack a lot of things; he has to be brave; he has to walk past those bottles, refuse them, and begin his own healing. It’s a triumphant book, it’s about redemption on all levels.
I ask her if she believes that people affected by their loved one’s illness will ever be able to recover. “If ‘recovering’ means that everything will be as if the addiction never happened, then no. People affected by the addictions of their loved ones will take this narrative with them. The thing to do is to address the self- healing; revising scars; removing scabs; forgiving; understanding. All without accepting more harm and without hurting yourself. The best way is to be creative. DM/ML