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Telling our stories 1

A'Eysha Kassiem
A’Eysha Kassiem – Telling our stories

How books get written is one of those issues which really intrigues me. Sometimes they are written in a rush – at least I’ve heard some authors admit to this – but mostly they take weeks, months, years to write. Years and years is how long it took A’Eysha Kassiem to write her first novel. We were recently in touch by email about her forthcoming book.

You wrote this novel – Suitcase of Memory – on the Writers’ Masterclass in 2018, A’Eysha, but you’d actually started working on it years before that hadn’t you? What’s the writing trajectory behind Suitcase of Memory?

I had in fact started writing Suitcase of Memory about 15 years before the Writers’ Masterclass. At the time, I was a student in the Netherlands and had never been away from home. No one in my family had ever owned a passport up until then, so the experience was as foreign as foreign can get. It was also the loneliest time in my life, where I grappled with hard questions around identity. I realised that I had no idea who I was without the familiarity of home, of culture and community. So, to help me feel less alone, I created these characters who were dealing with some of the same struggles as I was. At the time, it was called The Suitcase – because all the questions I was suddenly confronted with seemed to arise from that one decision to pack a bag and travel somewhere new.

It seems the loneliest time of your life paid off. The thing is, why did you decide to go back to that early version? That’s often a hiding to nothing.

People who have read Suitcase of Memory often tell me that they are haunted by it. I find this rather ironic, as all the characters in the book are haunted, too – by memory, by secrets, by words unsaid. Despite the many other writing projects I’ve worked on over the years, this one lingered. I kept meaning to get back to it, but it always felt like looking at a postcard from a really difficult time in my life. Eventually, I abandoned it completely.

Then, 15 years after I had first started writing it, I was expecting my first child. This made me think about all the people who had come before, all the stories that had been passed down to me, the old wives tales, the mysticism, the magic. We are, after all, in so many ways, other people’s stories. I knew I was finally ready to write the novel I had meant to write all those years ago. Maybe it’s true what they say – writers don’t always choose their stories. Sometimes stories choose their writers.

How long did it take you to write the version that’s due for publication?

I wrote the first three chapters as they appear in the book in one sitting and the entire novel in a year. I am convinced, however, that I could not have done this without the help of your Masterclass. Had I written it entirely on my own, I would most likely still be writing it now.

That’s gratifying to hear. Were there many rewrites?

Well, as the saying goes, writing is rewriting. In this case, however, rewrites were minimal. I put this down to all the worthwhile feedback in the Masterclass, which allowed me to fix any plot holes early on. If anything, the publisher wanted me to write more, with added scenes to really cement some of the themes and character development in the book.

It’s an incredibly prescient theme how history gets absorbed into our memories and how quickly we forget about the past and the dire threat that apartheid posed to so many. What sparked the idea of getting the story told by a character who is dead?

Yes, indeed. The story is told by a narrator who is dead and death is a very central theme throughout. The book, in fact, opens with the narrator’s funeral, which is where we meet him for the first time. The decision to do this was twofold – in the first instance, as a literary device, it allowed the narrator to have a bird’s eye view of how the story unfolds from a unique vantage point. Secondly, I have always thought of life as being a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – you have no idea what all the puzzle pieces really mean until the very end when you get to see the whole picture. So being dead, the narrator is finally able to tell his story fully because at last, he understands why everything happened the way it did.

You have a real go at the legal system – such as it was – and there is a good deal of humour in your telling of it, why did you decide on this strategy?

As a former justice reporter covering high profile trials at the Western Cape High Court and interviewing inmates at Pollsmoor Prison, I always found the experience to be peppered with light-hearted moments too – even in the most serious of cases. I think as South Africans, we are incredibly resilient, no matter what happens. From the Guptas to state capture to Eskom to a pandemic, somehow, we still find that thread that allows us to see the irony and the humour in difficult situations. Perhaps it is simply part of who we are and how we have learned to survive. I mean, where else can you say Ja, nee (yes/no) without anyone ever questioning it?

The story is about forbidden love, legally forbidden love and how completely devastating the consequences were. But it is also a triumph of the human spirit.

Each of the characters in this book is dealing with a struggle that is unique to them, where no one else in the book can solve it for them. This is of course set against the backdrop of the broader struggle of the country at the time. Love is naturally part of this, although not always in the way one would think. The struggle of love in this book is not only in terms of romance, but also permeates family and friendship.

Cape Town is a major character in your novel but then it is your home city. Did you find it an easy city to write about?

Well, the book spans several decades from the 1940s to the 1960s and so the Cape Town we know today is not necessarily the Cape Town of yesteryear. Because of this, despite its familiarity, it also felt like rediscovering the city anew. When describing some of the scenes in the book, I often had to check how old the building was to make sure that it did in fact exist at the time! So it was like imagining the Cape Town I know, but through a carefully selected filter.

You’re a journalist and journalists often battle to switch from fact to fiction. Was this an issue for you?

I think this book actually lent itself to both fact and fiction. Much of the book, especially in terms of the court scenes toward the end are factual. All the testimony about genetics, race and religion are true, where I engaged with experts on the subject matter to make sure that, while the setting was fictional, the content was legitimate. My hope is that readers will find this to be both compelling and fascinating. So in this way, being a journalist and a writer seemed to weave together seamlessly.

I also spent time at the National Archives, reading old newspapers as a way to really immerse myself into a time period I hadn’t lived. In addition, analysing old adverts and classifieds from the time were especially eye-opening and entertaining! You can always tell from the ads what a society aspires to or what is considered desirable because retailers in any time period serve it up on a platter with extra sauce.

Just to return to the Masterclass: you were on the 2018 Masterclass, again on the 2020 Masterclass and will be finishing your next novel on the 2021 Masterclass. A leading question: how does the class help you?

From the overall structure of the Masterclass to the way it is executed, it is every writer’s dream. It pushes me to think hard about the plot and the characters even before I’ve submitted a single chapter. Plot holes are identified early, so I can fix them immediately. Most importantly, the deadlines force me to write. I have found that even when I am faced with writer’s block, I write through it anyway. Finally, the honest feedback is invaluable. It’s how you become a good writer, by unbecoming all the things that make you a bad one.

Do you have a title for the new novel?

The next one is very different from the first. It’s called Place of Spades.

Is the time period contemporary or are you revisiting history?

It’s set in an alternate Cape Town, where Robben Island is a barren and deserted landscape overrun with wildlife and soon, also, wild men. It’s a place for sinners, for exiles and deserters. There are some historical references along the way in terms of an abandoned prison of old and the legends of shipwrecks from long ago.

I am sure your publishers have been supportive and are enthusiastic about Suitcase of Memory. You were being sought by two publishers originally: what made you go with Kwela?

Personally, I value passion over everything and Kwela was passionate about the book from the start. They went as far as offering me a book deal even before the final version was completed. They countered every step of the way and insisted that anything I was being offered elsewhere, they could not only match, but better. I believe in publishers who seek out black writers and who actively promote their work. Diversity and representation matters, not just in the boardroom, but also in books. It’s time we began telling our stories.

A’Eysha’s book – Suitcase of Memory – will be published by Kwela Books in May 2021.

Get more out of your writing.

 Click here for a course on Writing Fiction. Click here for a course on writing a memoir, Writing Reality. If you’re looking for supervision while writing your memoir or novel, join The Writers’ Masterclass. There’s a new class starting in February 2021. You’ll be in good company.