Rešoketšwe Manenzhe is an award-winning author. She won the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2019/2020 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. In 2020, she released a book titled Scatterlings– published by Jacana Media. In this Q&A, Rešoketšwe reflects on writing Scatterlings, history and race in South Africa, creating diverse female characters, and shares a surprise with her readers.
Question: For the benefit of our EW Blog readers, tell us who is Rešoketšwe Manenzhe- the author, and her writing journey?
First of all, thank you very much for this interview, Ezekiel. I truly appreciate the opportunity.
The easiest answer to who I am, is writer and engineer. I started writing when I was in high school; that’s where I fell in love with literature. I studied English as a second language, so we read and analysed short stories and poems. I liked poems better because there were so many layers to them. I enjoyed trying to decipher the meaning of everything – what the author intended versus what the reader could more easily take away. But I never thought of writing as a lucrative thing; that’s why I went into science, and later, into engineering. In any case, I then submitted poems and short stories to online magazines. That allowed me to get feedback and grow as a writer, and eventually gave me the confidence to experiment with longer pieces.
Question: Your latest book, Scatterlings, how has it been received by the public since it was released in 2020?
My biggest worry was that it would be too different from what readers enjoy or find entertaining, especially since it deals with such difficult subjects, and in a context that isn’t necessarily immediately relatable. I was worried that South Africans might have some fatigue regarding tragic stories, especially regarding our collective history as a nation. I was also afraid that the story wasn’t contemporary enough. But readers have appreciated these aspects. They’ve also appreciated the lyricism. But mostly, they’ve appreciated the characters. I’ve truly enjoyed hearing from readers and getting their impression of the story.
Question: The title of the book Scatterlings, why did you decide to go with this title?
Actually, the original title was Scatterlings, or Children of I. It ended up just being Scatterlings because the word encapsulated everything I hoped to portray. All the characters are displaced in one way or another, they each represent some specific form of wandering. The fact that it’s not a commonly used word gave me the opportunity to be on-the-nose and subtle at the same time.
Question: The story is set during the apartheid era and centred around Van Zijl family, a mixed-race family. Talk to us about what inspired the storyline?
Everyday South African life is intricately informed by race. Something as simple as a person’s home address can be a detail about their family history. Often, this history is unique to certain people, certain groups of people. I was very interested in exploring that through what, in my opinion, is a very South African lens. The first thing most of us ask each other when we meet is: “So where are you from? Does that mean you’re Sotho/Venda/Tsonga?”
Because our histories were so profoundly touched by some form of displacement or segregation, for many of us, for some reason, knowing a person’s origins is important. I was interested in exploring these aspects, or certain parts of them, through the collision of characters whose experience of South Africa was influenced by its unique blend of social factors.
Question: Many people have stated how they could easily relate to the many characters in the book, tell us about the creation of characters like Alisa and Bram and how you positioned them to carry the storyline throughout?
Historical fiction can be tricky. Firstly, history already exists, so that can be limiting because inaccuracies can disconnect readers from the story. Secondly, there is a temptation to rely on historical landmarks. And finally, since history is so rigid, there is a risk of telling a story that’s already been told. The easiest way to not fall into these mines, was to tell a character-driven story. I took personal pride in narrating, for instance, the journey of a character named Mmakoma. She’s an elderly woman from the Balobedu Tribe of modern-day Limpopo. She’s a migrant labourer on a wine farm in the present-day Western Cape. I approached her story from a few perspectives. She reflects on the disruption of colonial rule on her culture. She comes from a tribe that is little known even in modern-day South Africa; this afforded not only me an opportunity to broaden the diversity of the characters, but it also gives readers an opportunity to read about a people they might not have otherwise come across. But more importantly, Mmakoma, along with Alisa and Josephina, represents an active effort on my part to give prominence to historical characters that are often ignored – black women. Her displacement was of a specific kind, and in creating a character like Alisa, another displaced woman, and Abram, I had the opportunity to explore the complexity of Mmakoma’s displacement from multiple perspectives.
Question: Alisa evoked many mixed feelings from different readers, with some stating that she is a selfish person, while some sympathized with her decision to have taken her life and that of her daughter. Would you say that Alisa was a selfish mother in that regard?
Perhaps strangely, both reactions make sense to me. The actual act of killing a child is selfish, of course. There can’t be an excuse for that. That’s one of the reasons Alisa is placed where she is in the book. It was necessary to give readers a fair opportunity to come to terms with her actions simply as they were, without her perspective or personal context, then meet her later. But on the other hand, her experiences and views of the world are so very specific, and her journey could only lead her one way. She is better-travelled than all the other characters, and she had found that there wasn’t anywhere in the world she could simply be herself, and be completely safe. She was trapped, and the way she saw it, her story, her children’s story, could only end one way. When I wrote her, I simply wanted to give readers her journey and let them decide.
Question: While democratic South Africa legally permits mixed-race marriages unlike, apartheid government with its iniquitous laws. However, mixed-race marriages are still unions that are often frowned upon by certain people in our society. Why do you think that is still the problem?
South Africa is very affected by race. Our history is very informed by race. Most of us lived in the apartheid era. There are still people who lost families and homes to apartheid. There are still people who were imprisoned and tortured. There are still inequalities. I can’t speak definitively on this as I haven’t done research on present-day mixed marriages in South Africa; but personally, I think it might be too soon to expect complete harmony.e
Question: With this book, what message(s) were you trying to convey to all South Africans, Black, White, Indian and Coloureds?
There honestly wasn’t a specific message I was trying to convey. But as I’m growing older, I’ve become more familiar with South African history and how the actions of individuals and the collective can and have shaped this place we inherited without a choice; how, as a people and as a country, we got to a place we sometimes don’t quite understand, a place that most of us can’t escape. It will sound naïve, but I guess I’m trying to find the beauty in our country. There is a lot to be frustrated with; so it’s become necessary to actively find reasons to love this place. That was one of the reasons I searched for the folktales that I fused into the book. Such simple moments of beauty are necessary. I suppose my message then would be for people to try to be more in touch with our home. There’s a lot of beauty to be found.
Question: If you were to invite your three favourite authors to a book reading session in Giyani, who will that be and why them?
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Riana Rossouw. I’ve been influenced by them to a great degree. But on a wide, less selfish scope, I think they write important literature that very honestly tells Africa’s stories. I enjoy that even when they portray elements that have, for a very long time, been used by western media to somewhat mock the African collective, they provide all sides of the story, all the complexities. They tell complete stories.
Question: What is your message to young people, particularly to ladies who come from rural areas and who want to be writers and publish their works?
For them to keep writing and to keep telling their stories. But I think the bigger message should perhaps be sent to arts and culture officials to invest in young artists. The arts in general, need to be more lucrative than they currently are. We need more initiatives, better funding, more accessible platforms, more overall support. Young women need to be able to pursue their dreams without worry of destitution. We already have the stories and the will to tell them. We need resources. We need support.
Should your readers expect a new book from you anytime soon?
Oh, yes! I simply need to find the time to finish drafting the manuscript, which I started some time in 2014. It’s coming … soon.
Thank you so much, Rešoketšwe for your time.
Again, thank you so very much for this opportunity. It was a pleasure.