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The Box: A Story of Friendship, Queer Love, Transitioning and Parenthood


Anthony Sauerman, author of The Box, talks to myGwork about his latest novel, set in apartheid South Africa, which tells the story of three friends, touching on LGBTQ+ themes of queer love and transitioning, as well as prejudice, privilege, discrimination and inequality.


Hi Anthony, can you tell us a bit about yourself?


I lived the first 30 years of my life in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town before moving to the UK to make a new life for myself and my now husband, Manfred. We met 30 years ago in that city at a time when apartheid was officially still in place and it would have been illegal for us to frequent most public places together, bars, restaurants, cinemas etc, in view of the fact that Manfred was classified as “colored” back then. After two years of living together, we decided to make the move to London, with £200 in our pocket and sleeping on a friend’s floor for six weeks. London gave us the freedom to be who and what we were, and provided Manfred with a sanctuary away from the racial prejudices and preconceptions that bedevilled his world back home. We have lived in London ever since. 


Can you share a summary of your latest book The Box?


Set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa, The Box chronicles the lives of three friends, Alex, Johan and Ismael, who meet for the first time as teenagers on a farm in 1905 and become inextricably drawn to one another by a force of nature that they neither understand nor feel able to share outside their circle. Alex and Johan fall in love and become intimate, which they share with Ismael, forming a lifelong bond amongst the three friends and setting their lives on a course from which they are unable to escape. 

They spend a day by the dam taking photographs of one another on an old camera, which they later secret away in an old shoe box that serves both to torment and to invigorate them through the travails of their lives. Johan leaves the farm in an act of love and self-sacrifice to save Alex from himself, followed shortly by Ismael, chastised by his family for fraternising with white people, after which their lives take different paths. Alex gets married and has two children, and Ismael moves to District Six, a multi-racial suburb in the center of Cape Town. 

The Box proves to be Alex’s undoing. He gets thrown out of the family home by his wife and leading him back into the loving arms of Ismael in District Six, where not only is he required to reclassify as “colored”, but decides make the inescapable decision of transitioning and living the rest of their life as Alexis; Ismael’s adoring wife.  Chapters 1 and 2 tell the story from the perspectives of Alex/is and Ismael respectively, while Chapter 3 picks up the story from the perspective of Alex/is’s son, John, who starts a lifelong journey of finding his father, the man who inexplicably abandoned him and his family when he was no more than six years old. All roads indeed lead to District Six, where John confronts the reality of who his father is, as witnessed by the contents of the box, but then flees home before meeting Alexis. Father Mostert continues the story in Chapter 4, describing the eventual reconciliation of Alexis and her son, John, ending with the final memorial for the three inseparable friends where John acknowledges the truth of who and what his father was, and his reconciliation with the role that the three friends played in his own life, and those beyond. 


What led to write this book?


I have always had a passion for writing, and used to write all the time in my twenties, but I put it on hold to pursue my legal career. When I retired in 2020, I picked up the pen again and immediately wrote two books about the work I did as a lawyer, which was greatly helped by the Covid lockdown. I was halfway through writing my third law book, when I had a dream that planted the seed for The Box. I ran into the living room at four in the morning and scribbled it all down on a piece f paper, the characters, the plot and, most importantly, the feeling of the story. I am sure that much of inspiration for The Box is derived from my own sensitivities about growing up in apartheid South Africa, and the enduring sense of injustice and lack of fairness that characterised daily life there, much as it had grown to be normalized. So, the story really digs deep into a range of issues prevailing at the time, prejudice, privilege, discrimination, inequality, social engineering and injustice and delivering a degree of catharsis. 


Why did you decide on having a trans protagonist?


The basic assumption of the book is that, as much as LGBTQ+ people exist today, they must have existed one hundred years ago, and yet we have no way of knowing how they lived their lives, what challenges they faced on a daily basis and how they coped with who and what they were. This came to me in the dream, the handsome Boer boy who arrives unexpectedly on a farm in 1905 and falls madly in love with the farmer’s son, Alex, without any understanding how or why he would be drawn to someone of the same gender. And, their mutual friend, the "colored" farmhand of Muslim descent, who falls equally in love with Alex, again with no understanding of how it could be possible. The three of them enjoy the summer of 1905 together, accepting one another for who and what they are, and in the process transcending everything that held them apart, race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, truly ahead of their time. I was Alex in the dream and, although I am not myself transgender, I experienced the sense of freedom and elation that came to him in discovering his true self. Or, rather, her true self, should I say. 


What’s the main takeaway of this story? 

This is a story of love and loyalty, but it is much more about transcending our differences and accepting one another for who and what we are, regardless of the consequences. Our three friends were way ahead of their time in this. They managed to escape the laws, prejudices and divisions of the day and build the perfect world on the farm, if only just for the summer of 1905. They then remained true to that place for the rest of their lives at considerable loss and cost to themselves, acting as role models for others to follow. John’s eulogy to them in the final pages of the book is a true testament to the sacrifices they were required to make and to the impact they had on the world around them, albeit posthumously. 


The Box is available to buy on Amazon here.