Exploring the Fact in Fiction: A Dialogue with A’Eysha Kassiem

EXPLORING THE FACT IN FICTION

A DIALOGUE WITH A’EYSHA KASSIEM

A’Eysha Kassiem was born and raised on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa, where she has been a journalist and editor for almost two decades. A keen traveller and nomad, Kassiem has also worked in various international newsrooms as a foreign correspondent. A storyteller at heart with an interest in African history and justice, writing has always been central to Kassiem’s life. Suitcase of Memory, which was born in the Netherlands, was 15 years in the making and is her debut novel. 

BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL

This conversation took place via email, with both A’Eysha and Kris being in Cape Town. 

Kris: Your debut novel, Suitcase of Memory, centres around Bastian Bredenkamp: a dead South African with secrets to share. He has hyperthymesia—the ability to remember nearly everything that occurred in his life. The story is set in 1940s-1960s South Africa, a time when Apartheid legislations were passing and South African lives were changing. The ineffectiveness of its racist legislation becomes the centre of your novel as judges and lawyers are forced to argue the impossible: how does one categorise human races? You even include, at the end of Suitcase of Memory, a transcript from one such trial. What drew you to revisit such an absurd time in history and write about it in your novel?

A’Eysha: I have always loved history, and especially South African history. Where most see it as a series of dates and long-winded speeches, I see it as the story of the human condition. The past is not confined to a time period. It is also the here and now. And while every generation may have its respective challenges, our memories are short. Humanity inevitably loops back over the same issues time and time again. Even in the 21st Century, for example, we are still having to make a case for why black lives matter, still having to explain why the k-word is derogatory, still having to engage on issues of tolerance and basic human dignity. Suitcase of Memory is a snapshot. It is a book that I hope takes the reader by the shoulders, shakes them up a little and says, “Hey, we have been here before. Remember the mistakes. Remember the lessons. Remember all the ways we are the same.” 

Kris: I like that line of yours, “Suitcase of Memory is a snapshot”. It captures how the book presents the past that it talks about. In my reading, this was that the past holds truths for the present, or here and now. One can interrogate this further and ask how reliable the snapshot is. Suitcase of Memory does so by upending the history Bastian once thought to be normal. I suppose it’s because humans are the ones remembering? 

A’Eysha: I like that you use the word ‘interrogate’ because that’s really important. I think it’s a necessary part of deconstructing the past—holding it up to the light to see it from different angles and perspectives. Memory is a complicated thing—there is individual memory, collective memory, selective memory—and all of those things come together in the way we remember our past and interpret it and by default, how we interpret ourselves and each other. Least of all, memory is also inherited and passed down through generations. So yes, upending history is something that we should never hesitate from.

Kris: It also allows you to tell a wonderful story where the complexities of human life have not been lost to a monolithic idea of history. I’m thinking in particular about the opening scenes with Mamma Sanri and Khadeejathree sharing grapefruit on the stoep. It’s such a poignant image. It’s also striking because it’s a story that could not be told in its time. The friendship of two women of different races needed time to pass before it could be shared, despite it being about something as mundane as eating grapefruit. In this way we get the human lives that make up history alongside a retelling of a larger history.

These titbits were the essence of daily life, the stuff beyond the headlines, the ordinary every day. The references mentioned in the book about a concert that was due to play in the city then, and a hairdressing competition that was taking place in Johannesburg are all real extracts from old newspapers. So while the book is fiction, there is plenty that is fact.

A’Eysha: I think it’s important to recognise that no matter the time period, history still plays out against the backdrop of ordinary everyday lives with ordinary everyday people. Much like this historic time we find ourselves in right now—people still fall in love, get married, make friends, have babies. But usually when we reflect on the past, we only ever really think about it in terms of all the “big things”—Sharpeville, the Rivonia trial, the 1994 elections. Somewhere in that conversation, I think we forget that history didn’t only happen to the greats; and it didn’t only happen in the big moments. It was part of all the facets of daily life in so many ways—right down to the way that two people eat a grapefruit on a stoep. It’s not always about the big things. It’s also about the grapefruit.

Kris: Perhaps this is why your characters felt so real to me. The lawyer, Hendrik Grobler, for instance, was great because he seemed both smart and stupid. He isn’t the type who would be used at the Rivonia Trial, and perhaps this is why he felt so real. I could never trust him fully, and in that sense he was like all lawyers I’ve met. Like you say “history didn’t only happen to the greats.” Where do you get models for such ordinary people who lived so long ago? 

A’Eysha: Journalists, I think, more than being expert writers are expert observers. When we talk to people, when we listen to them, when we look at a story, we notice the kinds of things that the average person may not even be aware of. We tend to tap into all the things that make up who that person is—their mannerisms, their context, their experiences, their family, their upbringing. All of these things are, of course, also the ingredients for building believable characters. My characters feel real because they are real in every way that a human being can be real, with both the good and bad wrapped into one. I think if you were to look really closely at each of them, you could probably find things that you loved and hated about all (I certainly can!). So while I may employ a little make believe as a writer of fiction, my characters certainly don’t. Hendrik Grobler is every bit the lawyer he is because he is built around real life observations of how people behave, interact and hide the things that they hope no one sees.

Kris: I read that you referred to the newspaper archives of the time to help you get a sense of the world. As a writer, how do you approach the archives to find stories that you can engage with? 

A’Eysha: Yes, that was one of my favourite parts of the writing process. The main thing for me was to approach the archives from a point of curiosity, rather than with the expectation of what I would find. I wanted to feel like I was exploring my city from scratch—as if it was a place that I did not know at all, had never visited, and had never been a part of. And in a way, the Cape Town of old is all of those things. I did not experience the city in the 1940s-1960s, so it meant that I could really look at it with fresh eyes. On the one hand, it was an analysis from a journalistic perspective – I have spent most of my career in newspapers, so I have an intimate understanding of what happens behind the scenes, such as why something is on Page 1 versus Page 10 or why it’s above the fold or below, why it’s on the right hand side instead of the left. This helped me to get a broader perspective of the media’s narrative, and by default, what the general society might have been like. But my exploration also went beyond the news stories. I looked at the advertisements, the classifieds, the job ads, the letters between residents. These titbits were the essence of daily life, the stuff beyond the headlines, the ordinary every day. The references mentioned in the book about a concert that was due to play in the city then, and a hairdressing competition that was taking place in Johannesburg are all real extracts from old newspapers. So while the book is fiction, there is plenty that is fact.

Kris: Perhaps we can look at that line between fact and fiction? Your book draws attention to the arbitrariness of their divide. Bastian’s hyperthymesia, for instance, seems more fiction than fact. It’s so unbelievable to me that someone can remember everything, yet it’s a real condition. It’ll probably be unbelievable to Bastian that others don’t remember their own births. It seems made-up, fictitious, but is true. Our want to categorise what is true and what is false might be indicative of what we lack ourselves. To be sure, I’m suggesting that we need to be more receptive to a world where fact and fiction work together. 

A’Eysha: I think it is human nature to try and make sense of the world by looking for some kind of structure or order in a bid to understand patterns and trends. We classify people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’. We try to pull apart fact and fiction, and classify things as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We like to live in a world of black and white because it makes us feel in control of our surroundings and the world at large. But life, I think, is far more complicated than any of us care to admit. And in many ways, Suitcase of Memory challenges the very nature of the things we like to categorise. In the book, of course, classification is explored specifically in terms of race—but the black and white inference runs far deeper throughout the story, where life itself is not just ‘black or white’.

Kris: Perhaps our want to make sense of the world by creating structures merely proves these structures to be constructions. Your book, for instance, depicts how hard the apartheid government fought to affirm the racial structures that they put in place. Like you say, “Suitcase of Memory challenges the very nature of things we like to categorise”. I’m interested in how religion fits into this aspect of human nature. Suitcase of Memory has characters traverse lines between being a Muslim and being a Christian. 

A’Eysha: I think it is important to mention that one of the overriding themes in Suitcase of Memory is the sameness in diversity. Like race, religion is something that sometimes keeps people apart—whether out of fear or ignorance. So it was important to me to have a character like Bastian who identifies with both Islam and Christianity—two religions that are sometimes portrayed as polar opposites. I liked the irony of this mostly because I think people generally inherit their faith, much in the way they inherit memory, without really thinking about it or interrogating what they believe. Bastian is the only character in the book who resonates with both religions—the others are either very clearly Muslim, Christian or apathetic and, at times, even secretly try to convert each other to their beliefs. Human nature is often about finding comfort in doing the same things in the same way that they have always been done. However, as Bastian later proves, had any of the characters in the book actually interrogated their beliefs, they may have got along just fine.

Kris: That’s a wonderful line, “Sameness in diversity”. The characters in the beginning, though living under apartheid, lived in a somewhat diverse space. By this I mean that Bastian’s childhood included conversations with people from other races, and indeed his perception of racism in South Africa came from these encounters. Society draws him towards apartness, but his defiance from love has him confront this system. His case soon reveals, as you say, our sameness in diversity. Suitcase of Memory, it seems, aims us towards our sameness, towards remembering that our similarities come before our differences. 

A’Eysha: I think that usually when we look at each other, we see all the superficial things first—race, gender and religion. We usually skip over the most obvious one: human. So when we meet someone for the first time, rather than looking for the sameness, our starting point is almost always: what is different? We go on to make snap judgments about each other based on our own preconceived ideas, stereotypes and perceptions of what we think we know about who “other” people are.

I always thought that the great American writer, Maya Angelou said it best: “It is impossible to hate when you look someone in the eye and recognise them as human.” Suitcase of Memory takes us on pathways that explore our common humanity and everything that comes with it.

Kris: This reminds me of an email we had off the interview about how your novel was really born in the Netherlands. It fascinated me how such a South African novel can be born in another country, but I see now that it comes down to that sentiment of yours: “Suitcase of Memory takes us on pathways that explore our common humanity and everything that comes with it.” It gives the book a global flair. It can be for everyone, and I shouldn’t pigeonhole it

A’Eysha: That is something I am often asked—what kind of book is it? Is it a love story? Is it historical fiction? Is it a court drama? I think it is difficult to pigeonhole it, as it is all of those things rather than one specific thing. And yes, as you say, the book was born in the Netherlands, even though it would be reborn many many times after that. Being an alien in the Netherlands at the time gave me the necessary mental and emotional distance from my native country. Sometimes, the further away you are from something, the clearer it becomes. 

Kris: And would I be taking it one step too far if I were to ask you why it took so long to get a finished, publishable, version written? 

A’Eysha: No, not at all. On a surface level, I struggled a lot with how I wanted to tell this story and from whose perspective. You can have a great idea and great characters, but the most important part of a story is always in whose voice you choose to tell it. The first drafts of this book did not have Bastian as the narrator for example. In fact, the story was told from everyone else’s perspective, except Bastian. I stumbled on Bastian’s voice out of sheer frustration after I had exhausted (and failed at) just about every other way to tell this story. On a personal level, I also felt that I needed to grow as a writer and as a person first. I started writing this book when I was 20 and finished it in my mid-30s, so the manuscript saw me through all kinds of personal growth within my own life. I would like to think that with personal growth comes a certain maturing of one’s own perspective and understanding about the world. The naïve 20-year-old me could never have written this book in this way, but the 30-something me had since learnt a bit about life and who I was and had gained some experience.

So perhaps stories work on their writers in the same way that writers work on their stories—where there were many different drafts of the story, there are also many different drafts of me too.

 

Photo credit for featured image of A’Eysha Kassiem: Radiefa Peters.

This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.

Kris Van der Bijl

Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming. 

KRIS VAN DER BIJL

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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