Here’s the thing, writing what you want when what you write is your livelihood is not easy. In fact, as writer and journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee will tell you, it’s near impossible. Unless of course you want to sacrifice your livelihood for the chance to tell the stories that are bursting from you.
It’s a bold move and one she took when writing her latest book Here’s The Thing, a collection of thought-provoking essays that in her own words form a book that “is pure heart and passion. A book of thought, pondering, analysis, critique, and humor… A book of writing what I want.”
What that amounts to are essays on everything from body image to cancel culture, being a Black Woman to long Covid, parenthood to dustbins, and everything in between. Her essays have that authenticity you can’t fake. They’re relatable, thought-provoking, and oftentimes, make you laugh out loud. Some of my favorites include her essay on liking nice things, her thoughts on dustbins, and her two listicles – lessons from the game of tennis and the ABCs of adulting.
Recently, I got to meet with Haji over Zoom to talk about her book, courage, the responsibility as a writer of color, and of course, dustbins.
What inspired your latest book, Here’s The Thing?
It was a matter of following up from “Sorry not Sorry “and looking back at that work and the work I’ve done since then – in the media, as a journalist and as a writer. Also looking in my life and how it’s changed. I found that there was a lot of relevance that other people might find in that as well. The last thing I wanted was it to be a book about myself – Haji’s life. I think that with Covid and everything that the world was going through globally at the time – human rights, gender activism, me too. We were all going through it as a people and especially as women and women of color and I just thought ‘I’m going to start writing these stories down because these questions and opinions and contemplations are stuck inside of me and there is nothing worse than having a story stuck inside of you’. My hope is that people will come to the table and have a conversation, whether it’s about the funny stuff, the serious stuff, the controversial stuff, or the political stuff.
It takes a lot of courage in today’s time to speak up. With fiction writers there is safety because they can write something controversial, but because it is clothed in fiction, they can remove their person from it. When you’re writing, it’s your opinions and your life. How do you have the courage to voice your opinions so strongly?
I say this in the book. If you take these hard lines and hard stances of yes and no, black and white, and right and wrong, we don’t leave room for nuance, interpretation, engagement, and just room to simply say I don’t know if what I’m saying is right. I don’t know if what I’m thinking is right or how to approach this in a way that is sensitive and compassionate. We’re not allowed to ask those questions because we will get shot down. I just got to a point with this book where I was like, how the hell do we progress as people then? How do we move forward and create understanding for gender standards, gender fluidity or queerness, and gender violence and cancel culture and culture itself and religion and who we are and personal identity? How do we come to terms with all that if we’re not willing to talk about it and stand up and say this is confusing to me? [To say] this is my opinion. It may not be the right one, but I’m complicated and you are complicated and it’s not just as simple as we all think, so I’m inviting you to the table. Please have a conversation with me. I’ve laid out my stance. It’s clear.
When you are so outspoken and say what you think, do you think there is more of an acceptance for people to disagree with you? Because you’re willing to have the conversation?
I’m hoping the book will get to a point where people will want to have gracious conversations about it. An important part of having a conversation is to show grace and we don’t do that. It’s about hard militancy now and being stand-offish and constantly wanting to be right and be the wokest woke ever and I really don’t believe anybody is. My hope for the book is that people will see it as someone who isn’t completely right, but as someone who is willing to stand and up and go, ‘this is weird and complicated and I don’t like it and this is a crap way to have a conversation, but let’s engage with that, have grace with it and engage in it’.
There is an essay titled “writing what you like” where you speak of the expectations of what Writers of Color should write – it’s something your wife also mentions in the forward. You end that essay with a Steve Biko quote “I write what I like” which is what this book is. How did you get to a place where you have the confidence to speak up and write what you want? And what advice would you give other writers who are struggling with needing to pay bills but also wanting to write what they want to write.
It’s a difficult one and I think I got to where I am because of my experience in working in media and journalism and a variety of media houses. Through all of those, regardless of which little box of democratized media it belonged to, everything for me has always been a fight. And this isn’t me – this isn’t unique to me or my experience. It is every single Black Woman who goes into the workspace, whether it is corporate or media. They have to work ten times as hard; they have to prove they are ten times better, even though they already are. On top of that, they have to take and pick off any challenge that greets them at the door as soon as they walk into the building, and there will be challenges that come out of nowhere that are completely unnecessary and out of your job spec. I can’t stress this enough, no one will understand this more than a Black Woman. We are constantly being bated to be caught on the back foot, so that if and when the ship does go down, it can be the same old story – you see it’s because we put her in charge. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. In the last year, for the first time of my life, I decided to stand up for myself and say something because I’m too old and too experienced. I’m too aware of my self-worth and knowledge and skill set to fall in this trap of being caught on the back foot so that I can take the fall for something that isn’t my problem. I just backed myself and I faced a lot of micro-aggressions and consequences because of it.
I don’t want to sit here and say everyone else must go do this thing, because at the end of the day, the facts are the facts, I am unemployed as a result. I wake up unemployed every day and it scares me, because we need to put food on the table, pay our rent or bonds, and send our kids to school. It is scary for me, but at the same time there is a massive existential crisis I go through everyday where I’m choosing to be unemployed because I refuse to be part of a system that treats people like me like that. But also, I want a job, but I’m so lost -where do I go? I don’t know the answer, I don’t know how to change that, but I just know that you do have to reach a point in time where you back yourself.
What I really liked about the book and why it resonated with me – is that yes, you’re speaking about yourself and personal stories but you’re sharing stories that are relevant and relatable. That’s what makes it such a wonderful read. You see you, Haji – but you also see yourself (the reader) through the stories you are telling.
That’s not a conscious thing to be honest – it’s how I write. I always say when you write you leave your blood on the page – you give your everything. If you’re going to do it, do it with your whole soul. I never want to be burdened by the fact that the writing must be good instead of honest. A lot of people don’t enjoy it. My wife doesn’t – she says, “you can think about it, you don’t have to say it”. But I do.
What was the hardest story to write?
The essay about Black Women speaking up – For a Black Woman, Silence is Death. It was hard to write because it was a very important essay to me and even now thinking about it, I feel so many things. I feel passionate about it and angered by it, and I feel a sense of activism and despondency at the same time. It’s so many emotions and to get the balance right in the chapter, between revealing a sensitive Black Woman instead of an angry Black Woman; but also revealing what it means to choose violence in a way that people don’t understand. To grasp the balance between those and not just go balls to the walls, that was very hard to do. It was also a hard topic to engage with because of my lived experience at the time. It was important that I got that right because I think a lot of people think we enjoy being angry Black Women, but we don’t. No one likes to be angry. What everyone does like is being heard and if there is any population that is heard the least, it is Black Women and I wanted to make very clear what that violence looks like and what it stands for.
Do you feel that there is an added responsibility that is placed on you as a Black female writer to speak about these things?
100%. I am very well aware and almost threatened in myself of the privilege that I have to be able to share these things. To have an opinion, to see something and say something or to bring racial injustices or micro-aggressions or whatever to the light because I know there are people watching. There are people who look like me, talk like me, who don’t have the privilege of saying something and of being seen and heard, who are expecting that of me. Then there is the personal fight. I must go to bed at night with my values in tack and my morality in tack and I have to have peace with myself that I picked the right hill to die on today. Because we have so many hills and so many battles and that’s another thing I’ve had to do – learn which battle I’m going to engage in, and it is hard. On the one side, there is a massive social responsibility to pick a hill to die on and on the other side, there is massive consequence we may face because people are choosing not to hear us, but they hold the power.
You share some amazing lessons from the game of tennis – can you share your favorite lesson from tennis?
I love all of them so much. Tennis is such a humbling game; it is the game of life. My favorite one is, if I have to choose, is the one about perfecting your serve. That is the most important one, because it is the only shot that you’re in control of. It’s the first one you make when it’s your turn and it’s the only thing you can dictate. Anything else is reactionary but feeds off that first shot.
The first shot should always be the deepest. Perfect your serve. If you make contact with anything you encounter the first time, if you get your first draft as close to perfection as possible, if you master that five-minute elevator pitch, if you have the administration of your life sorted at the break of day, you will end up scoring a lot of free points. Give it your all, the first time around.
You speak about your battle with Long Covid, what was the most helpful thing you have done to cope with it?
The best thing I did, and it took a really long time, is to take care of my body. If you take care of body, you take care of your mind. As someone who has chronic depression and chronic anxiety and social anxiety, that’s a bad thing to deal with already. So, it’s a good thing for me to keep my body moving because then I am more settled. With Long Covid, I have found that keeping my body healthy, respecting it, and remembering to move it has become a cathartic act more so than to keep myself in shape, because it empties me of everything that is wrong. It empties me of the fact that I don’t have to think about whether I’m going to stutter now or am I going to remember how to count the tennis score. I don’t have to think about if I spelled a word right, no matter how many spell checks I’ve run it through. It empties me.
I always feel that if your body can do something then your mind will soon follow. And I’ve taken that stance which is really helpful. I also take a bunch of vitamins – B12, D2. I’m very strict about my chronic medication. There are long lasting, especially for me, neurological effects which are very very scary. I just try to be honest about them because it’s humiliating and embarrassing as a person of words who loses them without knowing when or how or why. But I just need to lean into being honest about it even if it is humiliating because I just worry people will think I’m really stupid. I’ve had several panic attacks about that.
Has having covid and long covid changed the way you look at your body?
Yes, it’s changed in the sense that I never want to look like that again. I know what the dark side looks like now and I don’t want to go back there. I am 100% overwhelmingly body negative.
Have you found your perfect bin?
No, I have yet to find the perfect bin and feel that I must give up because the choice is now sending my kid to daycare or get the right bin and because he’s a toddler there’s trash everywhere so I’m leaning towards the daycare salary.
What are you reading now?
The interview has been condensed for clarity.