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