Writers are told to write like they are dead, but as a Muslim woman of colour that is something I struggle with.
By
Raidah Shah Idil

4 Aug 2020 - 8:45 AM  UPDATED 27 Jul 2021 - 1:57 PM

Nadine Gordimer once advised that writers should write like they are dead. “Don’t censor yourself. Don’t go along with the crowd. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be cheap. Young as you are, play dead – so that your eyes will stay open.” 

But when I write as a Muslim woman of colour, that is something I really struggle with. When I write my first draft, I am brutally honest. And then I think about my relatives who might read it. Especially the aunties. Ah, never cross the aunties. Then I start my self-edits. I am still very much alive as I write this, and I would like to stay that way. 

Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I certainly don’t.

Why do I put myself through this? Because writing is my favourite life coping tool. Life with three little ones under the age of five is non-stop during the day. I am constantly being pulled in all directions, literally and metaphorically. During the blissful solitude of night, if I’m not too exhausted, I can finally write. I find writing about my life experience deeply therapeutic, amidst the chaos of the actual writing process. Even as I write this during the daytime, my six-month old is crawling under my chair and my two-year-old is eating toothpaste. At least my five-year-old is at preschool. This is why I often prefer writing at night, but after the long hours, all I want to do is sleep. Until one of my kids wake up. And yet, I persist.

Why? There are so many taboos around simply existing as a Muslim woman of colour. Being alive in this world of so much gendered violence is already an act of resistance. And resisting, every day, is hard. When I write about my struggles, I hope that it will resonate with at least one person. If even one person feels seen, validated, and less alone, then it’s worth all the discomfort. I am compelled to continue to write, especially through the hard and rewarding years of raising little ones. 

Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I certainly don’t. The meaningful connections in my life both give me juicy content as well as real world support. Because of this, when I write about deeply personal and difficult things, especially about my children and family members, I sometimes write under a pen-name. I don't want to inadvertently hurt people I care about. And I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how good my intentions are, whatever I post in the public sphere can be triggering for others to read. Although I’m not responsible for other people’s triggers, I do suffer from the fallout. 

When it comes to writing about such deeply personal topics, emotional self-care is paramount.

When I first submitted my article about my estrangement from my father to The Feminist Wire in 2013, I had no idea that it would be selected for publication. I didn’t know that it would also go viral. All I knew was how cathartic it was to finally write about something I had been grappling with for years. After it was published, I was floored by the compassionate messages I received from all over the world. So many women related to my story, which both humbled and validated me. Still, I remember feeling so vulnerable when I realised how many people had read it, and I had to go offline for some time to cope. I realise now that writing that piece helped me process my relationship with my father and validated my own feelings. It eventually helped me reconcile with my father, several years later. I realised that I wasn’t a bad daughter for needing time apart from him to heal.

Zadie Smith described this in an NPR interview: “I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific. With my father, writing about him was genuinely an act of mourning. I didn’t realise I’d be the person who used my writing in that way. I suppose I often think of my writing as quite impersonal. But it turned out, when my father died, writing was exactly what I wanted to do.” 

When I write about confronting topics, I don’t always get positive feedback. An author friend, whom I confided in about the fallout from a piece I wrote about my home-birth, reassured me that getting a reaction like that is a sign I’m writing well. Since then, I’ve been very careful about what I share in the public sphere. When I write under my real name, I prefer to keep the gritty details only about myself and don’t implicate anyone else. It isn’t worth the heartache.  

Odds are that the aunties won’t read my articles. But if they do, maybe they can find something that resonates with their experiences too.

I’ve also learned that when it comes to writing about such deeply personal topics, emotional self-care is paramount. I can’t control the response to my writing. It could bomb, it could go viral, it could be a bit of both – but I can decide what I do write about. I never write about something's still too raw for me. If the response is overwhelming, then I go offline and spend time with my loved ones or time in nature. I also don’t engage with trolls who make snarky comments about my writing. There will always be haters.  

Writing about vulnerable topics is something I hope to do for the rest of my life. It’s helped me find out who I am as a person and realise that my story matters. It’s helped me process my life. To have the ability to write your life, can be a gift. Don’t be afraid to use it.  Odds are that the aunties won’t read my articles. But if they do, maybe they can find something that resonates with their experiences too. 

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