In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. She pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers insight laced with an acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.
This is an extract from Sorry, Not Sorry.
We don’t really write what we like
No one owns their stories and the telling of them like white male writers. They are given endless opportunities for it. They can write about anything. They can pen rants about white-men problems and white-men wealth. They can wax lyrical about cars and boats and spaceships. They can have reams and reams of motivational articles published about being ‘bosses’. Without, mind you, ever having to refer to sexual harassment, unequal opportunities, discrimination or unequal pay. But the cherry on the vanilla cake is that they also get to write the soft, sensitive, soulful stuff. You know?
Like that time one of them – many of them, all of them – got paid to take a five-star hot air balloon across the universe until they reached the Northern Lights or whatever. It must be really nice that, over and above the aches and pains stuff, they get to scribble beautiful, elaborate stories neatly threaded with free trips and once-in-a-lifetime excursions. Wonderful experiences complete with decadent buffets. Charming. No lives of servitude here. No minds of servitude either. They are just out there, writing what they like. And media outlets cannot get enough of it.
Let’s talk about Steve Biko for a second. In 1978, Biko’s collection of essays, I Write What I Like, was published in South Africa. Penned between 1969 and 1972, it was prohibited from being published before that because … well, we all know why. The name of the book – now famous and regularly quoted – comes from the title under which he published his writing in the South African Student Organisation newsletter using the pen name Frank Talk.
Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, remains a powerful figure in South Africa. He was a courageous fighter against apartheid whose writing and insight is testament to not only his wisdom but also his passion and courage.
He is also extremely cool. Biko is so cool, man. He resonates because of his mind, but he is also relatable because he is so damn cool. That’s why a lot of young people like him. Many of them have not even read I Write What I Like, but tons can emulate his vibe. I’ve met a few of these youths. A lot, actually. Biko’s image endures. The way he lived and the way he died are romanticised, and in this time of youth rising and buildings falling, no revolutionary encompasses the iconic aesthetic of young heroism more than he does. His is an image of rock-star proportions neatly tied up with charisma. Today’s youth may not have read the literature, but they have certainly adopted Biko’s definitive image, which in Millennial terms can only be described as #radicalfleek.
The key precept in the Black Consciousness Movement can be summarised in one quote from said book: ‘The most potent weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ This central tenet refers to the relationship between liberation and servitude. The quote extends beyond the physical properties of servitude and addresses mental slavery. It urges black people to own their stories, to break free from the shackles of predetermined narratives imposed on them by the people history ‘belongs to’. It is a calculated statement. Firm in its determination to inspire black people to discover their own pasts, their own values and their own selves. And more importantly, it is a reminder that they must be the ones to own and tell of those discoveries. It’s a powerful ideology, one that resonates with me when I think about writing what we like today.
But let’s get back to basics. The second half of the Biko quote I cited above goes like this: ‘So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.’
Let’s focus on the ‘whites (think they) are superior’ bit. How can we make whites realise that they are not superior but only human, and, in turn, how can we rise out of inferiority if we cannot tell superior stories? Even if we take ownership of our stories and claim the rights to them, we are still – in many instances – unable to paint the entire picture. Let’s admit that we may write, but we definitely may not write just anything.
When was the last time you saw a piece of writing in mass-produced, commercial media by a person of colour who stitched together lengthy, breathtaking sentences about, let’s say, a nostalgic song they happened to hear on the bus, or the train, or the aeroplane while on their way to deliver a handwritten note to an ex-lover they were trying to win back? Or what about reading a long-form essay by a person of colour who wrote a story about a story about a story they once heard about a great-aunt’s kettle somehow discovered in a second-hand store, and in some strange way this kettle played a massive role in reuniting a pair of twins who were separated at birth? Or some crap … It could happen. These kinds of real-life experiences happen to white male writers all the time. I know this because they get to tell us about it.
They get published and they get paid and they get praised for stories like these. Stories that often have little point, except to entertain and inspire. Beautiful thoughts written by white men get published on full pages of weekly newspapers, or posted on websites to be shared until kingdom come. Simply because they were ‘brave’ enough to tell it. ‘Brave’ enough to spread joy and magic, and sprinkle fairy dust over the gravesite of news we’re offered every day.
Dear public, this is not brave. This is opportunity. This is privilege. I am questioning, and have questioned for a long time, whether another pretty story about a white man’s life is altogether necessary.
Their work need not contain stark revelations about race or religion or revolution. These kinds of stories are empty of confrontation and that’s considered okay. They do not have to be educational. They need not investigate transformation and discrimination. There is no demand for factual statements of intersectional feminism, for example. There is no struggle in their sentences. All features, by the way, that must be present to the max in stories by people of colour. When last did you read a piece by someone who wasn’t white that did not embody one or more of the aforementioned themes?
I am not saying we, as people of colour, should stay away from writing about the ‘isms’ and more. Baby Jesus, Moses and Muhammad know that if we don’t write about those pressing and necessary issues, no one will. Or worse, the ones who do write about them will be the ones who have no claim to those stories. They do not own the experiences, and therefore, should not write the experiences. That would be filth and lies, although it happens nevertheless. We call it appropriation. It comes in many shapes and sizes.
We own the hard stuff. We really do. We own the struggles. And if we don’t write about them, the country will forever dwell in the lily-white utopia that once was. If we do not claim and drive these conversations, we leave room for our minds to be colonised once more. But here’s the truth (and strike me if you will): the struggle is exhausting. And we are not just the struggle. And so sometimes (by which I mean a lot but not all of the time), I wish I could get paid to write the nice stuff. Because, you know what? We also like nice things.
Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee is published by Penguin Random House South Africa.
Born to a Muslim family in the apartheid township of Laudium, Pretoria, Haji Mohamed Dawjee came of age just as South Africa’s democracy was finding its feet. She was Africa’s first social media editor in a newsroom at the Mail & Guardian, where she went on to work as deputy digital editor and disrupted the peace through a weekly column. She now pursues her own writing full time, infuriating and delighting readers with columns for EWN, Women24 and the Sunday Times, and contributing freelance journalism and opinion to other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @sage_of_absurd and buy Sorry, Not Sorry