HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Not all journalism is memoir


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” so wrote essayist Joan Didion.

Didion’s early writing in the 1960s focused on reportage. She worked as a journalist in California penning articles on subcultures, social cohesion and fracture and politics. But many think of her as a gloomy prose-prone scribe popularly known for her books, her memoirs - The Year of Magical Thinking and The White Album – which opens with the aforementioned quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. Furthermore, Didion writes: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of the narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Didion’s writing at the time leaned toward something called New Journalism – a form of reportage that served to illuminate the world from the writer’s point of view, but self-insertion or observation is not biography or lived experience dressed in sheep’s clothing, nor is it pretending to be.

Everyone can write, but not everyone is a writer.

It is true that our narratives as journalists are carved by our view on the world. By people who move us. By strange things. By the things we comprehend and don’t comprehend at all but still seek to. By conflict and, many times, by what may seem like devious motivations. We don’t have to search very far to find the truth in the “devious motivations” bit – redirect yourself to the Sanef vs the EFF case or the myriad of op-eds written by my superiors, like Ferial Haffejee, for example. Or the persecution of journalists occurring worldwide because of their truth-telling. Search for the tyranny and oppression of journalists in Kashmir, or turn on any channel to see Donald Trump write off the news as a whole, alternatively, observe the mess that is Twitter, where everyone can write, for free, but it becomes clear why only a few are paid for it.

Story telling does not come cheap, nor does journalism. It comes at the price of bullying, persecution, misunderstanding and the toxic opinion that all journalism should be memoir. It is not. And when it is, there is one thing that separates it from the myriad of micro-blogs, also known as tweets, it is investigative in nature and it seeks to be reliable – as it should, always.

Twitter is where the shock-jockeys of hate go to play their best sets and the ability for anyone to believe they are the best means that anyone gets to tweet their version of the truth. Fake news is not rocket science, in most cases not all of it is even fake, it’s just partisan. To be partisan is to be subjective, to have an opinion and stick to it. Partisan is the column, the op-ed, the personal journal, the Facebook post, partisan is not journalism. It is not even memoir-journalism, which is, in many ways, a public service.

To be deployed and track a story, to write said story with a degree of skill, to story-tell, so to speak, and then to engage with the story because it has been disseminated for public consumption – to educate, enlighten and inform - is very, very different from deploying reactionary campaigns to demonise journalists, reporters and the very memory of the subjects that were interviewed and featured. An outrage does not a news-story make, and it will not erase checked facts. Even memoir-journalism - with writing that lives in prose and narrative, its style outside of the grasp of many news reporters who write by a recipe that is almost inaccessible to many other types of journalists because it is a skill to be admired of itself – is motivated by an energy to faithfully articulate the truth.

To poach information is free. Google, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other platforms have made this easy, but even poaching is not possible without reportage – to take the initiative and to harness the skillset to get out there and do the real work of covering the world is an actual job. It is a responsibility that extends far beyond outcry and the scrawling on a public toilet wall. And it is important because without it, there is no democratic state.

Memoir is lived experience, but not all journalism is memoir, nor should it be. Writing and reporting are skills and when they are exercised well, they highlight the transformation of the journalist and reveal the private self of what is essentially a public servant who is driven by wanting to tell the truth about current events for a living by speaking to people on the ground, to further illustrate the truth of said lived experience of said current event.

The fact that social media, citizen journalism, fake news and a post-truth society has all but completely demolished the wall between objective and subjective reportage has created further work for the writer, the journalist, to carve a new path of storytelling, or rather, to explore the path that unfolds before them, the path that allows for deliberate personal observation or minor insertions of self that sometimes leave the writer feeling raw, exposed, even stupid and a host of other things.

And so we write with the caveat that all content is subject to criticism and that criticism is often supported by first drafts - tweets that have not undergone the inspection, safety-net and gatekeeping of fact-checkers, editors and copy editors who are the first eyes of scrutiny and censure so that ultimately, what remains on the page is a truthful account of a current event.

We don’t choose this work because it is easy, we choose it because it is hard and every journalist worth their salt knows full well that in the age of musings and micro-blogging, any article has the potential to be doomed before it has even been given the proper treatment - before the subject has been chewed on or the sources of information properly considered.

We don’t just tell ourselves stories to live, not all journalism is memoir, we tell stories, period, so that we can live.

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'. Follow her on Twitter.