The backstory: 'Scatterlings'

08 August 2021 - 00:00 By Rešoketšwe Manenzhe


The winner should be a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction.

Taking place more than 100 years ago, Scatterlings by Rešoketšwe Manenzhe (Jacana Media) is a highly original novel about migrancy that incorporates myth and ritual and the stories of extraordinary, ordinary women. In this journey someone will get lost, someone will give up and turn back, and someone may go all the way to the end.

Rešoketšwe Manenzhe on the genesis of Scatterlings

I started Scatterlings in January 2015; I had graduated not long before that. A lot of my friends were looking for work, starting work, or trying to decide between industry and academia. Naturally, these decisions ended up being influenced by the available opportunities.

For South Africans, the situation was marginally better. A few, especially those who had been sponsored to complete their studies (like me), had more options, or rather, they could easily get jobs. But for Nigerians and Zimbabweans, it was trickier. I can't presume to completely understand the socio-economic realities of the entire continent, but from my personal experience it became apparent that what had expelled them from their respective countries was now repeating itself. As simply as that, people were trying to leave for Europe, North America and East Asia.

It seemed that Africa was a kind of glass ceiling that one had to break in stages, with SA being, at least economically, the last stage. I started seeing it as a place to be survived,
to be escaped and, when all was said and done, to be narrated as an obstacle. So I wanted to explore it as a place to be returned to, hence my character Alisa, and everyone else around her.


Miss Alisa Miller's Journal: 1912

Monday, 1 January

My biggest fear is that I won't be able to hold on forever, that one day I will give in and end my own life. It's a very complicated predicament to find oneself in; even I don't understand it. As I've reached a milestone of sorts today, my thirtieth birthday, I've decided that it is, perhaps, time that I started to at least try to understand. Surely, I owe it to myself.

I should start by saying I'm not suicidal. In fact, I'm not inclined to any form of murder at all. I also feel, however, that when I was eleven years old and ground up glass so I could put it in my tea, I was surely trying to kill myself.

I understand that these are contradictions. I also understand that I'm supposed to know the specific reason for seemingly wanting to kill myself, that if asked, I should recite such tragedies as: my father was born a slave, I never knew my mother, and so forth. I feel that if I told anyone about my predicament, they'd surely want a pathology, a tangible thing that can easily be cited; but the truth is neither my birth father's slavery nor my mother's death, nor any aspect of my life for that matter, has left me so completely without hope.

A natural question to ask is: How can you not know? How can you not understand? This is about you, after all.

It has to be something.

Of course it's something. That's what frustrates me; it has to be something. But
like love or joy or even hatred, I can't quantify it, nor explain it. For me it's like a child suckling its mother's breast simply because it knows to do so. Or that same
child saying "Mama" as its first word.

Or that same child falling in love thirteen years later, simply because it can't help it.

I can't measure my melancholy when I sink into it. I can't dissect it. The best I can do is this: sometimes, when I think about the burden of breathing and living and carrying on for the sake of carrying on, I feel helpless. It frightens me, this state of living for the sake of living. And the more I think about it the harder it is to breathe. If you've never had the feeling that you've died, been buried, then abruptly resurrected, it's not something you can easily understand. (Although to be honest, sometimes I think my mind concocts these stories as an excuse).

My dreams are surreal. I remember one in which I couldn't breathe; then a hand made of shadows dragged me into a deep and dark nothingness where I was suspended like a marionette held up by countless shadow hands, and all the while I still couldn't breathe. When I awoke I was paralysed in my bed, unable to move or scream or cry, and I was cold, so cold and stifled, as though I had come out of a grave.

It's as though I'm less alive, as though my life has been siphoned off into the nothingness I dreamt, siphoned off to birth the shadow hands that press down, press down to siphon out more of my life. They take their life from me, my dreams. I dread having to sleep. That kind of fear is so simple, so rudimentary, but with time it webs itself so intricately, so deeply, that it starts to web itself around your mind and heart and everything you see. It crouches at the base of your being, and no matter what you do you know it's always there, waiting.

It's the waiting that frightens me, because waiting ends, and then it must unfold into something new. By then, that web of fear and poison and malice will be old and familiar, so much like a comfort, like an enemy I can't recognise. It will be a long-forgotten friend I must embrace, and that's when I'll give in. It's like I'm falling into a hole that never ends, a hole I can't quite see, but I know is there, gaping, swallowing me, and there's nothing I can do about it. This is my biggest fear: I don't know if I'll be able to hold on forever.

I don't want to be this way: curled in my bed and crying over an emptiness I don't understand. I want what my mother wants for me: a smile, a clear head, light-heartedness, freedom from these chains I can't even touch or feel or smell, these chains that exist only in my mind. Freedom. Freedom.

More and more, I know I must go to Africa. I think that's the best chance I have of understanding whatever it is that's ailing me. In the same way I can't explain the contradiction of my attitude to life, I can't explain why I'm so pulled to Africa; well,
not beyond the obvious reasons. Something not quite of this world has been calling me there. I need to go. I need to understand the shadow hands I've been dreaming since my childhood.

I must convince my mother to let me go.