The night I met Suleika, it's as if I couldn't see or hear anyone else in the room. My spirit was so taken with hers. I quickly discovered we had such wild overlapping mirrored stories and I know that we will be a part of each others lives forever. Her heart, her story, her light is such a gift to this world and I feel so incredibly honored to know her, love her and to be loved by her. I am so thrilled to share my sister, friend, teacher with you. What a beautiful light bearer of truth she is.
Photos taken by Kat Harris
Suleika, you have one of the most incredible stories. Would you mind sharing a bit of your journey with us?
At 22 years old, a little less than a year after graduating from college, I was diagnosed with leukemia. Overnight I went from being this feisty, fresh-faced aspiring war correspondent living in Paris to living out of a cancer ward. I was gutted when my doctors gave me a 35 percent chance of long-term survival, and it felt like all of the things I’d worked so hard for had vanished.
I started researching all of the great artists who’d created masterpieces while bedridden, like Marcel Proust, Frida Khalo and Henri Matisse. They inspired me to feel like there was some kind of creative project I might be able to do, even though I was stuck in a hospital room. That’s how I eventually found myself in an unlikely career as a war correspondent, although not in the way I’d expected. What started as a blog, where I began reporting from the front lines of my hospital bed, turned into a weekly column and video series that I wrote for the New York Times called “Life, Interrupted.”
Today, I am incredibly lucky and grateful to be cured of my cancer. While writing didn’t save my life—medicine, and an incredibly supportive army of humans did that—I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that writing gave me something to live for, and that it continues to help me survive.
You have such a beautiful background that has given you such a open, diverse and unique lens to see the world. Would you share a bit about your parents, their cultures and how you spent your summers as a child?
I was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to two immigrants. My mother is Swiss and my dad is from Tunisia, in North Africa, which is where they currently live. At the end of each school year, we'd rent out our house and use these funds to travel for the summer. The rule was that we were each only allowed to bring a backpack. Our first week was typically spent living with an exchange family and studying the language of whichever country we were visiting. Then, we'd adventure around, riding chicken buses and staying everywhere from a youth hostel in Nicaragua to a nudist beach in Mexico. I found all this extremely embarrassing—most of the kids I knew were going to Disney World for their vacations, and I wanted my family to be “normal.” But now that I’m older, of course, I wouldn’t trade my unconventional upbringing for anything.
How did growing up with immigrant parents shape you and mold you into the beautiful soul I know you to be today?
“Where are you from?” is a complicated question when you were raised like I was, moving around constantly, speaking one language at home and another at school, and having parents who are from very different countries and cultures. I’ve never really felt like I belong anywhere, other than maybe New York City, which is about as close to a haven for misfits as any I’ve found. My parents showed me that home doesn’t necessarily have to be something you can locate on a map—it’s a place you have to create within yourself. Because of them, I’ve learned how to be comfortable with standing out in a crowd, and how to adapt—two skills that served me well, especially when I got sick, I think.
You just turned in your book! (which I am beside myself to read) Can you tell me a bit about your process? How was writing it for you? (It was my freaking nightmare:) )What is the name of it and release date?
I did! My book is called Between Two Kingdoms, and it's forthcoming from Random House, sometime in 2020—assuming I get my revisions done on time! It’s a memoir about my recovery from leukemia and the solo 15,000-mile road trip I took with my dog Oscar when I was coming out of treatment.
While I was writing the first draft, I kept a post-it note above my desk that said: "if you want to write a good story, write what you don’t want others to know about you. If you want to write a great story, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” This book pushed me to do just that, and the process brought me to my knees, literally, more times than I can count. There were many moments when I doubted I would be able to finish the manuscript. But, of course, now that I’ve pushed through to the end and handed in my draft, I feel like the process was ultimately healing. And now that I’m almost done, I can’t wait to do it again. I’m already cooking up my next book project. Lord save me.
What would be your greatest hope for people to take away from your book when they finish it?
I wrote Between Two Kingdoms for anyone who has had their life interrupted at some point, whether it’s by the ripcord of a diagnosis, or some other kind of trauma or heartbreak that brought them to the floor. My greatest hope is that this book will feel like a friend of sorts, and that it might provide solace to those who feel alone.
You are speaking on THE MAIN STAGE OF TED in Vancouver this month!!!!! Holy Crap, I'm so proud of you! What will your main message be? When will it be available for us to watch?
Oh my goodness, thank you! I am so excited, and so wildly nervous! I don’t think I’m allowed to say what it’s about yet, and I’m not sure when it will be available to watch—both highly unhelpful answers, I know! But I’m planning to send out a newsletter as soon as my TED talk goes online.
Describe your personal style.
Parisian business woman teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Who would you like to introduce to the FREDA Community?
It’s my honor to introduce you to one of the strongest, most inspiring women I know: Behida Dolcic. Seven years ago, I wandered into her hat shop in Hudson, NY and I knew, from the moment we met, that she was extraordinary. It was my 24th birthday, and I was recovering from a bone marrow transplant, still bald from all the chemo. Behida spent an hour chatting with me and helping me find the perfect, handmade straw hat. Years later, we’re still friends, and I can’t wait for you to get to know her. Behida's story is unlike any other I’ve heard, and I think you’ll quickly understand why I’m so awed by her.