Deborah Lindsay Williams speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “‘You Like to Have Some Cup of Tea?’ and Other Questions About Complicity and Place,” which appears in Issue 20 of The Common magazine. In this conversation, Williams talks about living and writing in Abu Dhabi, traveling to South Africa with her family, and how narrow the western view of these places can be, often simplifying very complex issues of racial hierarchy, economics, culture, and history. She also discusses her novel-in-progress, The Corset and the Veil, based on the life of Lady Hester Stanhope, who fled England in 1809 in search of alternatives to her life as an impoverished aristocrat.
“We need to do more, Mom,” my son tells me. He’s fifteen, supports the Kurdish resistance and fancies himself an anarcho-socialist (“It’s not like being an anarchist, Mom, okay?”). The Young Socialist lives in a state of perpetual indignation about the state of the world. He insists that governments can and should do better, and that capitalism is the root of almost all problems—past, present, and future. He hopes for radical social change, but when I call him an idealist, he’s furious: “It’s practical, that’s all. Marx and Öcalan, their ideas would work if people weren’t just so… stupid. And greedy.” I usually tell the Young Socialist that, because I’m a literature professor, my version of “do more” is of the teaching and writing sort, rather than the man-the-barricades sort, which I know disappoints him. He says: “We’re all complicit, Mom. You’re white and a professor, and there’s no way to escape your own privilege, even if you’re only white by accident.”
“You Like to Have Some Cup of Tea?” and Other Questions About Complicity and Place
The guard at the gate smiles a toothless smile, and lightly taps the security boom open for me. We recognize each other; him with his brown uniform and heavy automatic tucked into a pocket on the front of his bullet-proof jacket, me with my rusted car and naive wave.
When the compartment door was drawn back, and I saw my room for the nearly twelve-hour trip home, I had to conceal my disappointment. The room was already occupied. Well, no problem. I thought to myself. Coming up to Johannesburg on the train I had been faced with the same problem. Then I had simply asked the conductor if I could change and he had found me a cabin where I could be on my own: to think my own thoughts, laugh out loud at my pettiness and, most importantly, write without distraction – all night if I so chose. Of course, things had been considerably easier on that occasion: my proposed companion had been an elderly white man who smoked like a steam engine and had the watery eyes and puffy nose of a heavy drinker. This time, however, I would have to make excuses for not wanting to share a cabin with a quiet middle-aged black man.