A’Eysha unpacks memory in debut novel

Edgemead resident A’Eysha Kassiem, who grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, has just released her debut novel, Suitcase of Memory.

“Don’t be afraid to tell your story. Whatever it is, write it. Save it. Rewrite it. The world needs your voice.”

This is A’Eysha Kassiem’s advice to aspiring writers. Some may think it’s a cliché, but she has literally lived the experience, having written and re-written her debut novel eight times and abandoned it four times in the 15 years the story has been evolving inside her.

The 38-year-old Edgemead resident who grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, this month released Suitcase of Memory, a beautifully written story of love, memory, the anti-apartheid Struggle and the division it sowed among South Africans.

Before studying journalism at the then Peninsula Technikon in Bellville – now part of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology – A’Eysha attended Mitchell’s Plain and Parkhurst primary schools in Westridge, Ferndale Primary in Ottery and Livingstone High in Claremont.

She attended Fontys Journalism School in the Netherlands as part of an exchange programme and has worked at several news organisations locally and abroad, including the Cape Times as a journalist and later as its news editor; as a news editor at News24, editor of Fin24, and editor-in-chief of PrintWeek, in Dubai.

She is married and has a daughter.

I asked her about writing, getting published and the role of the writers – and readers – in the 21st century…

When you were young, did you enjoy reading?

My mother often jokes that my father bought me my first book before I was born and I came out reading it. I come from a family of readers, so both my parents were instrumental in my love of reading and books.

I grew up in a house where books were as much a part of the furniture as anything else, where regular visits to the local library were an exciting outing and where telling stories was just part of the everyday. As a child, I loved books about Spot, the dog (my daughter reads these now), all the Roald Dahls and Enid Blytons (The Faraway Tree series remains in my top 10 of all-time favourite books). Charlotte’s Web by EB White was the first book that made me cry – I was 12 when I read it and I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Do you remember when and why you decided to make a career in writing?

Yes. I was 5 years old when I made and illustrated a makeshift children’s book with my dad. I drew the pictures, he wrote down the words that I narrated and we stapled it all together. It is one of my most treasured childhood memories – and I still have that book. It was like magic – seeing something in my head come to life on the pages. I knew then that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. Now that I’m a writer, I guess the only thing left is to grow up.

You made the leap from journalist to writer of fiction. Tell me about that transition.

I have always thought of myself as a writer first and a journalist second. Even when reporting on journalistic events, I would make sense of it in terms of a story: Who are the main characters? What is their narrative and why? What is the overall plot? So, in this way, it doesn’t really feel like a “transition” at all. Being a writer is who I have always been – the only difference is that now there is a book with my name on it.

Religion, race and love are some of the major themes in Suitcase of Memory. Talk me through this and the rich imagery of delicate fabric and sewing in your writing.

Suitcase of Memory is a book about the sameness in diversity. Religion and race are usually two of the biggest things that we tend to view as what makes us different. You see this in our national discourse as well – we always talk about things from a point of difference. We hardly ever talk about all the things between us that are the same. No matter your creed, culture or nationality – we have far more in common than we’re willing to admit. As for love, well, what else is there to really throw a spanner in the works?

The references to fabric and sewing is a homage to my own memory and heritage – there is a lot in the book that is an ode to my great-grandparents and grandparents, some of whom were tailors and seamstresses.

What is your writing process? And is writing a solitary experience for you?

I have to write in a clean space – so none of that creative chaos. Some writers can write in between a pile of crumpled up paper, stuffed animals and dirty dishes, but I can’t. If my desk is messy, so is my mind. That being said, I don’t necessarily need to write in a quiet space away from everyone. Having been a journalist for almost 20 years, I am well-versed in writing just about anywhere and on anything – so the writing process isn’t necessarily a lonely one. For example, there were some parts of the book that I wrote at The Castle (pre-Covid) among a group of bubbling tourists.

On social media you have written about the many years of work – and tears – which have gone into getting this work published. What inspired this story and what has it taken to finally get it published?

We often talk about success as something that just happens for the lucky few. I really want people, and especially young people, to know that usually, and certainly for me, the pathway to success was called failure. I have been trying to write this book for 15 years. I first had the idea as a student while I was living and studying in the Netherlands. I was really struggling with my own identity and what it means to be a black Muslim woman in the world today. So, I built these characters who were dealing with some of the same issues that I was as a way to make sense of what identity is.

I wrote so many different versions of this book and they all ended up in the trash. Over the years, I abandoned it four times. At one point, I didn’t look at it for more than three years. Many years later I was expecting my first child and suddenly, I found myself thinking a lot about my childhood. I was finally ready to write it and finish it. Of course, the version that exists today is very different from the one I first wrote all those years ago. The original draft was written by a scared and overwhelmed student. The book that exists today was written by a woman who isn’t. It took almost a year before any publisher offered me a book deal. I was just about to finally give up when suddenly three publishers came knocking. It was a deeply rewarding experience after 15 years of waiting to finally tell this story.

In an age of instant gratification, microblogging, and the shrinking of the book-buying public, is it still important for people to write and read books?

Yes, absolutely. As a reader, books (whether printed or digital), teach us things about ourselves – and others – that few things can. It allows us to consider and explore different perspectives on the world, see things from unique vantage points, experience worlds that we may know nothing or very little about. This is important because seeing things from different perspectives is the basis of understanding people who are seemingly “different”. It helps us to foster empathy when we realise that there is so much that we do not know about each other. I have always believed that books teach people how to replace judgement with curiosity.

As for writers, well, writers are needed more than ever. Writers give us the words we didn’t know we needed to say and the stories we never knew were necessary.

See review on page xx