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Suitcase of Memory: SA author A’Eysha Kassiem tackles racial and cultural identity in debut novel

A'Eysha Kassiem made the difficult transition from journalist to fiction author with her debut novel Suitcase of Memory. (Photo: Radiefa Peters)

A’Eysha Kassiem is a fresh, black voice on the literary scene. Her novel, Suitcase of Memory, delves into the untold stories of apartheid South Africa and grapples with the memory of our country’s fraught past.

It took more than 15 years for A’Eysha Kassiem to publish her debut novel, Suitcase of Memory. The journey, she said, was riddled with numerous failures and an equal measure of tears. 

“Most people think writing comes easy,” said Kassiem, who abandoned her novel four times and persevered through several failed manuscripts. 

The journey began when Kassiem was studying journalism in the Netherlands on an exchange programme. For the first time in her life, she was alone and far from home. She turned to writing as a source of comfort. 

“I started to craft these characters that were dealing with issues related to identity struggles,” she explained. 

On her return from the Netherlands, she abandoned the novel but kept ruminating over it for several years, until 2018. Spurred on by the pending arrival of her first child, she put metaphorical pen to paper.  

“I started to think a lot about things like legacy and traditions, the stories and history of my community and the things that have been passed down to me through generations.” 

Cape Town-born author A’Eysha Kassiem’s debut novel, Suitcase of Memory, is a fresh exploration of South Africa’s apartheid past. (Photo: Radiefa Peters)

Elements of this are evident in the book, which is set during apartheid and grapples with the memory of our country’s fraught race relations through the eyes of Bastian Bredenkamp, a coloured man with European features. He was adopted by influential white parents and passed off as their own, but when he falls in love with his housekeeper’s daughter, Rashieda, he does the unthinkable and approaches the Race Classification Appeals Board to insist that he be reclassified from white to coloured.

Bastian has a rare condition called hyperthymesia that allows him to remember everything that has ever happened to him since the day he was born. He is also dead. 

According to Kassiem, killing off her protagonist from the outset allowed her to tell the story from a “unique vantage point”, as she believes that life is best understood in hindsight.

“In order for Bastian to really tell the story the way I wanted him to, it had to be in a way where he could almost make sense of it,” she said. “I think it would have been quite a different story had he told it as if it were happening right now, so reflecting on something gives a very different kind of story.”

And reflecting on her writing journey, she believes 15 years is what it took for her to be ready to write Suitcase of Memory.

“I always say that sometimes stories wait for their writers,” said Kassiem. “When I think about it, now, there was no way that the 20-something me who was a student could have written this story, because then I was this scared and overwhelmed person and this story needed somebody who wasn’t.”

She calls her book a story about the “power of untold stories”, some of which are found in the seemingly mundane memories of apartheid held by ordinary South Africans. 

A’Eysha Kassiem’s debut novel, Suitcase of Memory, is an inventive tale of love and defiance set during apartheid. (Photo: Radiefa Peters)

“It’s not just the kind of stuff that we always hear about when we talk about our history, like the greats – Mandela and Luthuli. We know that story. But I don’t think we are as in touch with the ordinary, everyday South Africans who had to live through the experience too, and what that meant.” 

She recounts her own memories of how the education system changed during the transition from apartheid to democracy. 

“When I started school in Grade 1, which was then Sub A, we were taught stories about the great explorer Jan van Riebeeck… We sang songs about the coming of van Riebeeck and his ship the Dromedaris. 

“Then democracy came, around mid-childhood, and history was rewritten. Suddenly, for the first time in my schooling, I get taught a completely different story… that Jan van Riebeeck is a thief, he is a pillager, a destroyer, and for a child to understand that difference in narrative is very difficult.” 

Kassiem says this was her first lesson on narrative perspective; something she has held close during her impressive career as a journalist and editor spanning nearly two decades. 

She has been news editor at both the Cape Times and News24. She also served as editor of Fin24 and the international publication, PrintWeek, based in Dubai.

As a fresh black voice on the literary scene, Kassiem feels that African literature has not transformed enough.

“You have a publishing industry that is largely white. Even if you are a black writer, as I am, it’s still gonna go through a white editorial executive.”

This is the case in journalism as well. It’s a stumbling block to telling untold stories.

“Until we actually have more black editors and more black publishing houses, I think it will take a really long time to unearth the kind of stories that I hope South Africa, and South African writers want to tell and want to write. 

“The world needs more black voices and, specifically, more black female voices. It’s so important.” DM/ML

Suitcase of Memory is published by Kwela Books and is available at major bookstores nationwide and at aeyshakassiem.com.

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