Conversations with Aziz
Aziz Hassim Over the past ten years he has become one of the most interesting writers to emerge out of the Durban literary scene. His debut book entitled The Lotus people was already winning awards before it was even published. Most notably the Sanlam award for an unpublished novel in 2001. Already in his seventies he admits there are only few things in life that worry him. Chief of which is his inability to stop smoking “I don’t what it is” he says “but I just can’t seem to kick the habit of smoking”. One might be surprised as to why a literary figure like Hassim at the height of his powers might worry about such things. Particularly because he has been known to ruffle a few feathers. Hassim has been over the years has been a heavy critic of the bigotry within the Indian community.
“I’m worried about the lack of tolerance within the Indian community and South Africa as a whole” says Hasssim “If a person of your own colour bumps you, you apologise, but if someone else bumps you people start fighting” he adds. Its opinions like these that have made Hassim one of the most revered writers in recent history. Born and raised in Durban’s Casbah, Hassim cites his upbringing as one of the most influential periods in his life “where we lived we were mixed” he says “and I think that had a profound impact on how I view people and life”.
Although many of the people he grew up with were later uprooted from the area and he never saw them again. Hassim sees his writing as his way of honouring and remembering those people. “writing is my own personal TRC” he says “it’s the only way that I can record the untold history of the Casbah”. Whilst telling this history he has found that many young people know very little about the area or even Grey Street, and the impact they had on South Africa’s fight for democracy. “Many of the young people I meet on book tours and universities do not know about the history of areas like Grey street or Yusuf Dadoo of Fatima Meer “he says “and it worries me that these stories will eventually disappear”
Hassim has also however placed a chunk of the blame on the inability of government to foster the literary and storytelling talent of the country “I meet a French writer a few years ago, who told me that the French government was giving grants to writers. You can imagine my surprise because we do not have that here” he says. Hassim has also expressed his dissatisfaction at how government still selects foreign books as recommended material for reading in schools “its fine to have a mixture” he says “but I was disappointed that my book (The lotus people) was not prescribed as part of school reading, because it tells the story of an essential part of our history” although a heavy critic himself Hassim has not gone without criticism of his own.
His second novel entitled the Revenge of Kali was lambasted by some as an attack on the Hindu religion “I don’t know what the fuss was about, yes Kali is a Hindu god but I do not speak badly about the Hindu community in my book” he says “but rather I write what I know and what I see”. Hassim embodies many of the characters in his writing however he admits that although his stories are true some of them had happened to other people. Having grown up in the Casbah and quit school at standard eight to work in the streets Hassim says that his experiences have found their way into the narratives he writes.
“I worked in many places and you meet a lot of people and see a lot of things happen. I try and recall that history and bring it to life as a story” he says. Hassim’s experiences have not however come without their drawbacks. As he worked as a young man he became more and more disillusioned about the moral standpoint of the Indian business community “they are exploitative bastards” he says “the whole lot of them, many Indian families have become big shots and rich at the expense of other hard working people and I hate that about them” Hassim’s latest book deals rather heavily with this subject. Entitled Song of Shoba the book tells the story of a warrior family who have their mother and three children killed and the aftermath of these killings “it’s part of my Casbah trilogy” says Hassim “and I think it will round of many if the themes that I had explored in my first two books and It’s another story I wrote in an attempt to accurately portray the realities of a forgotten history”