By the Book: Q&A with Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Sorry, not Sorry, published by Penguin Random House.
Sorry, not Sorry, published by Penguin Random House.

Author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa Haji Mohamed Dawjee has read Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things every year for the past ten years and thinks Charlie Brown's football is the ultimate metaphor for a bully.

What do you read when you're working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I read a lot of long-form pieces in The New Yorker, I generally read more non-fiction than I do fiction just because I like to keep quite a stocked mental library of research, resources and facts. However, I also read for style. So I will delve into pieces by great writers. Dorothy Parker is one of my favourites, as are the non-fiction writings of Alice Walker, Angela Davis, James Baldwin and Arundhati Roy. I try and stay away from stuff that's too similar to the subject matter that I am writing on, especially opinion pieces on the matter, purely because I am so afraid of plagiarism by proxy. Like when a thought sticks with you and you end up thinking it's your own and write it down as part of the composition when actually it's some subliminal residue from something else you've read and you end up plagiarising because you haven't attributed. This is a real fear of mine.

How do you organise your books?

Currently my book shelf and space don't allow for much organisation. I can only describe it as a bit of an organised mess. All the spines face outward and I know where things are when I look for them but nothing is vaguely alphabetical, or aesthetically organised according to colour or anything. Perhaps one day when I am a fully-fledged adult I will have a more sensible archiving strategy. 

Who is your favourite fictional hero or heroine? Your favourite antihero or villain?

Celie in Alice Walker's The Colour Purple has to be my ultimate fictional hero along with Ammu, Rahel and Esther's mother in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I have read this book annually for at least the past ten years. I always come back to its power and beauty and intricacies of the culture and characters. I also really adore young male protagonists like Karrim, the narrator in Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Surburbia and J.D Salinger's Holden, the main character in The Catcher in the Rye. As for villainous characters, among my favourites are Moby Dick, the whale in the book of the same title and Charlie Brown's football, the ultimate metaphor for a bully and many other things – think about it – in the Peanuts cartoons by Charles Schulz.

What's the last book that made you furious?

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter saw the synapses of my brain short-circuiting in pure revolt. It's a dense book that does exactly what the title says, tells the story of white people but in relation to how the world and other people exist in the world because of them. It addresses things like phrenology, religion and standards of beauty.

What's your advice for aspiring writers?

Leave your blood on the page and always, always, always find the one sentence you love most, the one you're most proud of, the one that makes you sit back and think, gee, I did that, I am such a great writer, and delete it. 

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

In the current economic time of betrayal and sacrifice I would really love President Ramaphosa to read the short story by Jorge Luis Borges called The Gospel According to Mark. It speaks to themes of sacrifice as I've mentioned, as well as salvation by using symbolism and biblical codes as allegory.

Is there a classic book you never got around to reading until recently? 

I supposed I should get past "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but then again, what for?  

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?

My wife bought me a Kindle for our paper anniversary. She is quite creative, and I do appreciate the minimalism of not having to carry books when I travel, I guess and also having access to libraries at half the cost. However, I am a traditionalist and very much a paper girl. I can't resist paper cuts, the smell of pages and the sound they make when you turn them. I read any time. When a book captures me, it follows me around. Dusk to dawn. 

* Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and best selling author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa which has been long listed for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @sage_of_absurd

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