SELF-HELP­LESS

We chat to journo and au­thor, Re­becca Davis, and share an ex­tract from her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - BY LIESL ROBERT­SON

if you recog­nise Re­becca Davis’s name, it’s prob­a­bly from her by­line on news site

Daily Mav­er­ick sit­ting atop a hard-hit­ting news piece. So how does a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst end up writ­ing hu­mor­ous non-fic­tion?

‘I was ap­proached by Pan Macmil­lan to write my first book about five years ago,’ says Re­becca. ‘At the time, I was feel­ing re­ally ex­hausted by the vol­ume of South African non-fic­tion deal­ing only with crime or pol­i­tics or “why SA was go­ing to the dogs”. The news is de­press­ing enough, and for my own san­ity – be­cause I cover that stuff in my day job – I wanted to write some­thing that wouldn’t push me over the edge.’

The re­sult? Best White and Other Anx­ious Delu­sions, a col­lec­tion of es­says. Her se­cond book, SelfHelp­less, although au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, has a more spe­cific theme.

‘As I ex­plain in the first chap­ter [read on for an ex­cerpt], what got me started on this par­tic­u­lar quest was that I stopped drink­ing and was then forced to face the re­al­ity that when you’re not us­ing al­co­hol to man­age your anx­i­ety, life is ac­tu­ally quite hard. So I started look­ing for things to do and ways to live that don’t in­volve al­co­hol but also of­fer some kind of path to mean­ing in the mod­ern world.’

The other thing that prompted her new­found so­bri­ety, she writes in the book, was love. Although her wife, Haji, never gave her an ul­ti­ma­tum, her drink­ing was threat­en­ing to sour their re­la­tion­ship – and Re­becca wasn’t will­ing to let that hap­pen.

‘What saved me, in the end, was love. It’s corny, but it hap­pens to be true,’ she writes. Iron­i­cally, she ac­tu­ally owes her re­la­tion­ship to al­co­hol. Re­becca met Haji at a club one night, and ‘in a fit of drunken bravado’, put her num­ber in her phone. ‘When we met at the club, I was vrot,’ Re­becca says with a laugh. ‘I sent her a mes­sage the next day and said, “Do you want to get a drink?” She thought it was some weird me­dia net­work­ing thing.’

‘I didn’t know it was a date un­til the end of the night,’ says Haji.

‘I don’t know who asks some­one for a one-on-one net­work­ing ses­sion at a dive bar in Sea Point,’ cracks Re­becca. ‘And then, that was it. We started dat­ing, and three months later we got mar­ried. There wasn’t a pro­posal; we just agreed we would do it. That was two years ago.’

Dur­ing each chap­ter of the book, Re­becca tries out a dif­fer­ent self­im­prove­ment trend, rang­ing from the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous. Some she took to; oth­ers, not so much.

Go­ing into it, she had some set ground rules. ‘I had de­cided that I wasn’t go­ing to do any­thing that was too phys­i­cally bru­tal. So for in­stance, ev­ery­one kept ask­ing if I was go­ing to take ayahuasca, this South Amer­i­can shaman drug, but I’d heard about too many peo­ple who had taken it and spent the whole night vom­it­ing and cry­ing – it re­ally dredges up all this stuff. So that was out.

‘I also didn’t want to do any­thing in­volv­ing nu­dity or too much creepy phys­i­cal con­tact with strangers – noth­ing too touchyfeely. And ob­vi­ously it had to be avail­able in South Africa. There’s all this sh*t now over­seas, like all Gwyneth Pal­trow’s Goop stuff, or the Ja­panese prac­tice of otona­maki – which is adult swad­dling. That stuff hasn’t ar­rived here yet.’

For some of her ex­pe­ri­ences, she dragged Haji along. So was there any­thing Haji thought had merit? ‘I hated ev­ery­thing,’ Haji says from the next room. Re­becca laughs.

‘Haji was not a fan of a lot of things. She en­joyed the ex­er­cise; and I think she quite likes it when I med­i­tate and I’m gen­er­ally a bit calmer. In the be­gin­ning she was quite will­ing to fol­low me along these paths, but that didn’t last. The last thing she did was the flota­tion tank, which I ac­tu­ally re­ally liked. She couldn’t bear it, and I think that also shows how so much of this stuff is com­pletely sub­jec­tive. I thought it was su­per­re­lax­ing, and for her it was just bor­ing tor­ture.’

Haji is also a non-fic­tion writer. Do they ever ar­gue about who gets to use which anec­dote?

‘The thing with Haji and me is that we write about very dif­fer­ent things, so there isn’t re­ally a sense of shared ma­te­rial, so much. She sug­gested the three-word blurb for this book should be “white peo­ple’s things”,’ Re­becca says, laugh­ing.

The first thing Re­becca and Haji try in the book is a Sa­cred Mush­room Cer­e­mony – a guided trip on magic mush­rooms led by a woman in Som­er­set West. (‘Ev­ery­thing hap­pens in Som­er­set West,’ says Re­becca.) She found the ex­pe­ri­ence so tran­scen­dent that the book al­most ended right there – she was ready to start mi­cro-dos­ing daily. ‘I was like: “I’m done.” This is it. And then, thank God, I did it again – and I had a ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Even though she was ‘more cyn­i­cal than not’ go­ing into most of the ex­pe­ri­ences, Re­becca was sur­prised to dis­cover real gems along with the com­plete misses.

‘The best ex­am­ple of a com­plete fail was prob­a­bly the sweat lodge,’ she says. ‘When I re­searched it, peo­ple on the in­ter­net had writ­ten these po­ems about the glory of sweat lodges and how it made them feel. When I tried it, I could not be­lieve that so many peo­ple had been duped by this process!

‘On the other hand, I was pleas­antly sur­prised by the Marie Kondo-in­spired de­clut­ter­ing bout. As some­body who is very messy and likes to col­lect stuff, I was very re­luc­tant about that process. But I found that prun­ing your pos­ses­sions did have a kind of clar­i­fy­ing ef­fect on my spirit.’

Re­becca also went to see a sangoma (‘in ret­ro­spect, you

Re­becca met Haji at a club one night, and ‘in a fit of drunken bravado’, put her num­ber in her phone.

prob­a­bly shouldn’t pick a men­tal health prac­ti­tioner off Gumtree’); learned about her ‘past lives’ through hyp­no­sis; helped the less for­tu­nate; and spent the night in a Death Café. ‘It’s not a coun­selling ses­sion; it’s an op­por­tu­nity for you to dis­cuss the con­cept of death – with strangers,’ Re­becca ex­plains. ‘What you think will hap­pen to you after you die, what you want your fu­neral to be like, and how you feel about death. Be­cause no one ever talks about it.

‘It was dur­ing the Cape wa­ter cri­sis and, at the time, that was all peo­ple could talk about: Day Zero and run­ning out of wa­ter. But at Death Café, we had deep, mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions about real things. It was one of the few things I wrote about that I re­ally liked.’

Re­becca has also given up so­cial me­dia since writ­ing Self-Help­less. ‘My Face­book ac­count is gone. I don’t have In­sta­gram and I don’t re­ally go on Twit­ter any­more. Twit­ter in par­tic­u­lar is quite a toxin. The tone of the dis­cus­sion is just so neg­a­tive, par­tic­u­larly about SA pol­i­tics. You end up feel­ing that black peo­ple and white peo­ple can never get along, and men and women can never get along. Then you go out into the street and it’s not quite like that.

‘I’ve also come to re­alise that when jour­nal­ists live-tweet, they’re lit­er­ally pub­lish­ing break­ing news on a ri­val plat­form. Be­cause that’s what Twit­ter is – it’s a news site. Now you’re giv­ing that news to Twit­ter for free in­stead of to your own site. You’re scoop­ing your­self!’

Re­becca Davis and her wife, Haji Mo­hamed Daw­jee.

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