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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

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Thread of humanity that binds us all

Published May 7, 2021


How books are written is one of those fascinating things - whether it takes weeks or years in some cases is what makes it worth the read.

Years and years is how long it took A’Eysha Kassiem to write her first novel.

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Q: You have had an impressive career in hard news journalism, and now a novel?

A: The truth is that I first started writing this novel around the same time I started studying journalism almost 20 years ago. I was living in the Netherlands at the time – my first time away from home, scared, confused and utterly overwhelmed. Writing helped me to feel less alone then. But over the years, I eventually abandoned the novel before finally going back to it while I was waiting for my first child to be born. It was the first time in my life when suddenly I had all this uninterrupted time and could finally sit down to write the story that I’d been carrying around in my heart for the longest time. (I should add, though, that that was also the last time I did anything uninterrupted again!)

Q:The novel follows the life story of Bastian. He suffers from a rare condition that is like hyperthymesia, where he has a highly autobiographical memory. In Bastian’s case, he can remember everything that has happened to him since birth. This must be quite terrifying; how did you juggle his thoughts and contain them in the novel?

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A: Bastian was a really interesting character to write, not just because he is the narrator and suffers from a rare condition, but also because he is dead. And death, of course, remains the Great Mystery. Despite what you believe – or don’t believe for that matter – no one really knows what happens until you get there. Bastian being dead allowed me to write about his thoughts from a unique vantage point, despite his condition. It meant that he could reflect on his life in a way that is both nostalgic and neurotic.

Q: Does the novel address the complexities of where we come from and how that defines us?

A: The novel is steeped in themes related to memory – and not just the memories we create every day, but also the kind that are inherited – from others, from family, from generations who came before. Oral traditions are a form of memory. History is a form of memory. So, in this way, like a suitcase, memory is something we all carry around with us. The book asks: how does memory define you? And whose memory is it? And how much of it will you take with you to the grave?

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Q: Our history in SA is fraught with old pain?

A: During my years as a journalist, I would interview all kinds of people and, whether a judge or a janitor, the conversation would almost always turn to South Africa’s past – dreams that were unfulfilled, lives half lived, justice that never came. I think we underestimate the power of the untold story and in a country such as ours, there are many. For millions of South Africans, memory is not just 27 years of freedom. It’s watching your house bulldozed with all your belongings in it, it’s having to explain to your children why they can’t play in certain parks, it’s being called a “boy” in front of your grandchildren. These are things we carry around with us, too. For Bastian, the power of his untold story is what pushes him to finally tell his tale – even if it is only from the grave.

Q. How does the novel address who we really are?

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A. Identity is a multi-layered and complicated thing. For example, there is my identity as a woman. My identity as a black woman. My identity as a black Muslim woman. My identity as a black South African Muslim woman. Each of these come with their own histories and experiences and understanding how all of that fits together in one person can be difficult. This is especially true when so many of those histories overlap with oppression and slavery. I think in terms of healing, rather than love, others should first listen, acknowledge the hurt and try to understand. Love is what happens when you do all of those things anyway.

Q: By using the voice of a character after his death, does this free you as an author to explore life more fully?

A: Quite the opposite, actually. In my experience, life is almost always understood backwards. Bad things happen, and in the moment we don’t always understand the why because we are consumed with the grief or the trauma of it. But as the years go by and we reflect on our lives, we realise that had A not happened, we may never have had B. We see our stories more clearly. For Bastian, being dead means being able to tell the story of his life in a way that captures all of the nuances, the mysteries and the secrets – something he would never have been able to do if he were alive.

Q: How would you describe the book in two sentences?

A: It’s a story about the sameness in diversity and about that golden thread of humanity that binds us all. It’s about the power of an untold story that finally finds its voice.

Suitcase of Memory is now available on (R205)

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