Published Feb 09 2023
During my last round of book selection, I scoured through lists upon lists of recommended books until I thankfully came across Rešoketšwe Manenzhe’s novel, Scatterlings. Scatterlings follows the arduous journey of a multiracial family, the van Zijls, during the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, a law that prohibited relationships between a white person and people of other races, in South Africa. As the main characters Abram and Alisa van Zijl navigate their crumbling but technically legal marriage, they both learn the government is going to find ways to make their partnership illegal and use their children, Dido and Emilia, as evidence of breaking the new law. Weaved through the novel are so many complex themes—such as the evils of slavery, the destructive effects of colonization, the loss and long-term trauma that impacted hundreds of thousands of people because of colonization and slavery, the challenges of being a liminal identity (adopted, multiracial, interracial relationships), the importance of being connected to one’s ancestors, and so many others—taking the reader on a journey in search of one’s ancestors and finding one’s true home.
During the passing of The Immorality Act, Alisa immediately feels the rightful fear of what this means for both her and her family. Alisa knows that once one freedom is taken, there’s nothing to stop the government from taking more. Abram, however, blinded by privilege and the corresponding hope (and safety) of his whiteness thinks Alisa is exaggerating until an officer from the House of Assembly comes to “survey” their home: “As simply as that, the wool of foolishness was clawed from Abram’s eyes. Ah, how quickly it all happened. By the time the sun set and rose again, all his hope was gone.” Because of Alisa’s struggle with her mental health paired with an increasing sense of doom brought on by the passing of the Immorality Act, she decides she can no longer continue living and decides to do the unthinkable: Take the lives of her and her daughters. Reaching this heartbreaking rationale, Alisa decides she must keep her daughters from facing the same punishments of their skin Alisa has experienced, “I couldn’t spare my daughters the burden of my skin, but I must spare them this—this thing I must do. I can’t leave them behind. They would be shunned. One tragedy they could survive, but not both at the same time.” This terrible conclusion ends in the death of Alisa and her youngest daughter, Emilia. Her eldest daughter, Dido, barely pulled from the reaches of the fire by Abram.
It is painfully clear the constant onslaught Alisa has faced her entire life has contributed to her struggle with depression, “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 moth wants for me: a smile, a clear head, lightheartedness, freedom from these chains I can’t even tough or feel or smell, these chains that exist only in my mind.” Alisa’s seemingly inherent mental struggles might also be attributed to transgenerational epigenetic trauma (a topic Jamie Ford eloquently tackles in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy). Some 65 years from when the reader encounters Alisa in time, we know so much more about mental illness and have been delving deeper into the complexities of transgenerational epigenetic trauma. Now, equipped to understand the likelihood Alisa is carrying the trauma of slavery as the daughter of enslaved people*.*
The darkness that follows Alisa manifests as a deep yearning for Africa: “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…Something not quite of this world has been calling me there. I need to go.” This “something” could easily be traced to the calls of her ancestors, a forgotten people of West Africa. A people decimated by colonization and the slave trade.
Part of Alisa’s yearning for home is her desire for connection to her ancestors that was refused her and her family. But, through her passing, she created the precise circumstances for her family to be connected back to their people. Mmakoma, Dido and Emilia’s nanny, felt called to give Alisa and Emilia a traditional burial and connect Dido with their ancestors. During the ceremony Mmakoma leads to re-connect Dido with her ancestors, Dido finds immediate connection:
“The song carried her name through the wind, through time and time and all the echoes of the people that bound her where she stood. That call lulled her. It wove her into its endless ribbons of foreign faces and strange names and shadow memories. It pulled her gently, and them strongly into the pot, where the faces and names and memories told her stories that sheltered her soul.”
And, though the story of Alisa is marred by tragedy, there are beautiful moments of hope like this or when we’re introduced to Alisa’s old journal entries and catch young Alisa less burdened. Alisa was called back to Africa. She unfortunately was unable to connect to the place of her ancestors as she had sought, but Dido was able to complete Alisa’s journey while beginning her own.
The last chapter of Scatterlings ends in this incredible depiction of how Dido is reconnected to her ancestors with the help of the wind of singing voices, “A call echoes from her. It was a child-voice. It begged for refuge from a nameless people somewhere in the world…Being the wind of singing voices, it was compelled to catch the child-voice…The wind the carried the echo this way and that…” Not only has the institutions of colonization and slavery ripped people from one another and their land, it becomes clear these systems have ruptured a whole people so completely even the ancestors are scattered, “The ears [the wind] sought were scattered. They were in this place and that, beneath this earth and that, beholden to these people and those who came from over there, to every place and nowhere at all, to every god and none, to nothing, to everything.” This scattering of people, scatterlings, recalls the title and Alisa’s yearning for Africa, for the home of her ancestors, but even they are scattered. Thank goodness for the persistence of the wind of singing voices who chooses to search even the “The Gate of No Return” where “[t]he wind slipped through…and whirled to call forth the ancient people of that place” finally “[t]he child-voice was home at last,” which leads the ancestors to both the souls of Alisa and Emilia bringing them home with them and simultaneously setting them free.
In an incredible book dense with so much rich commentary on colonization, slavery, identity, ancestry, spiritualism, and others, Scatterlings takes the reader on a family’s journey for reconnection to their people that allows them the freedom to live in the present despite attacks the same oppressive institutions only guised under a different name. It is a book that speaks to the amazing perseverance of Alisa who courageously follows her heart back to Africa to find home, and, even more amazingly, finds it even when all hope was lost.