HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Doing the most with less


Early in September, I was invited to sit on a couple of panels for the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. When these sessions are over, authors are invited to sit in the main hall and wait for people to come and have their books signed. As I sat there, hoping people would purchase Here’s the Thing but very aware that many have to make the choice between buying a book or petrol or groceries, I started to consider the most important part of those post-panel sessions. Sometimes, well, almost always, readers will want to have a chat, ask questions and review the panel. These exchanges are often more enjoyable than signing books because they’re really a growth and learning opportunity for any writer who wants to know what readers are hearing when you write something.

The best thing a writer can achieve is to be relatable, to give a story away once it is written and renege ownership to an extent so that it becomes, in some way, the reader's own. In my seven years of being a columnist and the author of two books, I have been lucky enough to have many of these encounters – formally and informally. Many times people will stop me on the street, be kind, and offer me compliments about how much they appreciate my work or enjoy reading my work. These salutations are always met with utter surprise. This happened just the other day, in Jo’burg. I don’t live in Jo’burg. I never assume that anyone outside a handful of the Cape Town population ever engages with my work. I really believe that any writer worth a pinch of salt moves through the world thinking they are mostly disliked.

One of the questions I get most often from appreciative readers is: Where can I see more of your work? The answer used to be simple. There were at least three of four coveted publications that I wrote regular columns for or submitted long features to. They were weekly, they were stable, and they were always fresh and new. But this year, for the first time, I was ashamed by that question. I had no answer. At least six or seven people asked me this question. On the one hand, it was both humbling and pleasing to know that people were hungry to devour more of my work.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a great influence or an extra push to do more. To write more. To publish more. To grow more. This time round, my heart fell right through my body. In fact, when the first person asked me the question, I was silent for a long time. I don’t think I could control my facial expression of embarrassment. I had no idea where to redirect them. There is no new work. No more places left to read. No more leads to follow. The story has all but ended. And I was too humiliated to share this.

Fewer and fewer opportunities present themselves. To catch the red herring seems impossible. To tell people where to go, to read, to absorb, to drive me is an empty map. Only one thing exists – to search my name and hope that some old archive pops up. Is this what I tell people? “Well, there is nowhere to follow my work or read more of it. Maybe just Google me and old archives will hopefully pop up which have long expired and become mundane, which will offer you no satisfaction and me less” or was the answer simply the daunting revelation and open reveal that: “I don’t do that anymore.” Or “I can’t do that anymore, unfortunately, because I don’t’ have anywhere to write.” Or simply put, is the answer just a straightforward: “Sorry. You can’t. I failed.”

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As someone who only identifies as a career writer, whose entire passion and identity is wrapped up in doing everything they can to write every day, who eats, sleeps and drinks journalism and story-telling, I was nothing and no one at that moment. A once steadfast, career-driven individual, came face-to-face with aimlessness no one should have to face as they near 40. Had I worked hard for nothing, only to try and do the most with less and then to give up?

I can’t remember what I said. Whatever it was, I know it was probably a lie.

And now, every morning, instead of multiple words in my head that I cannot wait to put on paper and give away, I only have these: “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” Am I, like Scarlett O’Hara, the character who spoke these words, simply just Gone with the Wind?

We’re all here at some point. And all we can do is hope the wind will blow us somewhere else where we can thrive once more.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa' & 'Here's the thing'. Follow her on Twitter.

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