Doing No Harm: Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing in the Age of Umbrage

Some years before apartheid came to an end, I was invited onto a morning television talk show in the San Francisco Bay Area, to appear there with a black South African writer. His memoir had recently been brought into the light by Oprah Winfrey, and he was now on the circuit with the mass-market paperback. It seemed obvious to me why they wanted me on the show: I was white; I’d grown up under apartheid and was to be held accountable for its injustices and sufferings.

“I can’t do it,” I said to my editor.

“But you must,” she said. “It’s wonderful exposure. And it’s been far too long since your last book.”

My last book, published three years earlier, had been an autobiographical novel about a Jewish girl growing up in a rather eccentric theatrical family in South Africa in the fifties and sixties. The book had garnered respectable reviews and caused outrage in South Africa, where the government considered a few semi-sexual scenes between whites and blacks dangerously provocative. So they’d canceled my appearances at local universities, and on radio and television.

To be put on display again, now that all that was behind me—to be paraded out this time as the child of privilege, having to face off against a victim of such privilege—well, no, I wouldn’t do it.

“Do you know,” said the editor, “how many millions watch this show?”

Thousands or millions, it would only make the thing worse. “Can’t they find someone else?” I said.

She sighed. “We’d like you to do this,” she said impatiently, “and we’ll be disappointed if you don’t. But if you’re adamant, of course there’s nothing we can do.”

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