Writing as a wife

Square

29 April 2018. Can one write a biography about one’s significant other?  The most journalistic answer would be ‘no.’ One is too biased and personally involved. If anything was ever a ‘conflict of interest,’ this would be it. A spouse can’t testify in court against the other spouse: the risk of untruth is just too great.

On the other hand many, including myself, would love to read what the spouse of someone who happens to be in the public spotlight would have to say about their intimate life. If Melania would write her book about Donald Trump every single person in the world would want to read it or -if not in a position to buy books- at least hear about it. I would give a dear thing to be told the intimate stories of the likes of Bill Gates, Vladimir Putin or Cyril Ramaphosa (no, not Jacob Zuma.)

But in most cases these books would be written by former, or disgruntled and estranged, spouses. It is unlikely that Melania could write her book with approval from the Donald himself. When I googled ‘spouses writing about one another’ the first thing that came up was a tell-all memoir from a Hollywood actress about her awful, cheating ex.

How can you write a book about a living man you still share your life with, and love?  Such a book would be at great risk of being completely and utterly boring. Anything more exciting than that could lead to divorce or at least long term acrimony.

But -of course there is a but, since I am about to do precisely such a thing-, I have some experience writing about people I love. In ‘It’s better where the whites are’ I wrote the biography of Prudence Mbewu, the Eastern Cape Chief’s granddaughter, rebellious single mother and storyteller who brought up my children. In that endeavour I tried simultaneously to be the ghost writer of what Prudence herself wanted to share of her life and the observer who wrote about her, which I could because Prudence and I were living in the same house for years. I am grateful to her for her sense of humour, that allowed for hilarious qualities and anecdotes to make it to the book, and for her trust, that resulted in a written life story that we both felt was truth- without being hurtful.  (Quite a result for an effort that had started with her telling me that “people in the Eastern Cape used to say one should be careful among whites because they write a book about you before you know it.”)

Ivan, so far, he has not said ‘no’ to the project -I don’t know what I’d do if he did – but I know he watches me with some alarm. This is probably justified. First of all, I am an investigative journalist. And I told him, very early on in our relationship, that I would not qualify for underground work because I could never keep a secret in my life. “Thanks for telling me,” he said then, 27 years ago.

So here it goes.

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