Patricia Schonstein’s memoir a rich, textured account of a beautiful life
Nancy Richards chats to the author about fact and fiction, images and archetypes in ‘Thrown Among the Bones’
Thrown Among the Bones: My Life in Fiction ★★★★★
African Sun Press
“I workshadowed briefly as a teenager in the radiography department of Salisbury General Hospital. I saw bones — broken, injured, damaged by bullets in the Rhodesian war. It made a great impression on me. Bones are the scaffolding that hold us together, they are what soothsayers throw to tell fortunes...”
Patricia Schonstein explains the title of her book. The first part of which tells her life in stories, the second offers passages from her seven novels — ones triggered by events and people in her life. It began as a personal exercise. “I was aware of the richness, the extreme beauty of my life and the archetypes that have walked through it. I wanted to collate it into something — a poem, an essay maybe — then during Covid-19, I just sat down and wrote it.
“It was hard to decide to let the world know my innermost thoughts — in books they appear as fiction, in memoir they appear as truth. Bearing in mind memoir is only the truth as you remember it — the mental photographs you take. Diaries and journals helped, but early in life,” she says. “I learnt to absorb, and store, beauty — likewise people, behaviour, situations.”
Schonstein recalls the “rich life” that, now in SA, began in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, her spirit home. “The windblown gold savannah grass, virgin earth where insect, tree, frog and bird nations were intact.”
She also recalls lessons learnt from her conflicted parents. A German-speaking Czechoslovakian father who escaped the Holocaust — from him forgiveness. From her fearful, addicted Italian Catholic mother — compassion. The opening line of her first book Skyline: ‘This is how our father leaves home. He does it without any explanation. He just does not come back one Friday night,” describes exactly what happened in her own family.
Natural beauty apart, her childhood, straddled confusingly between the saints and angels of Catholicism and the persecution of Judaism (Sufism came later), was also enriched by a convent education. “Nuns dressed in black and white who’d forfeited their sensuality, sexuality were my first archetypes”.
Many followed — fools, healers, guides, noblemen. And books, books, books — those left her by her father, those she was guided to and those in the bookshops where she worked in Zimbabwe and SA. It’s not hard to see how the line between real life and the gift of writing blurs.
Each of her novels has a theme harvested from experience, but Skyline, written 21 years ago in an angry teenage voice that roared from her breast, deals, at its core, with war. War for her is anathema. She describes it as taking our best and delivering the worst. “As a writer and a poet all I can do is persuade people not to pursue it. How one prevents Putin or any president, I’ve no idea — but my job is to enlighten the human heart away from that dark behaviour.”
The environment plays a recurring, rumbling role in her work, in her life. A journey she did with her writer-environmentalist husband Don Pinnock across central Africa in the footsteps of David Livingstone was one significant eye-opener. But indicating the seriousness with which she undertakes any endeavour, “before setting off we commissioned a protective talisman from a Xhosa igqirha”.
A valued skill gained at the convent (in addition to the discovery of writing and poetry as healers) was embroidery — references occur in both the memoir and her fiction. It has stayed with her and manifests in a passion for all things textured, textile and tactile. This book feels very much like an intensely embellished work of selected and stitched threads.
In closing, she says: “As children we are handed Baggage. The contents should be examined and interpreted... before transmission to further generations. It should not be left to fester.”