:: Article

In Search of Farah Damji

By Max Dunbar.

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Try Me, Farah Damji, The Ark Press, 2009 

Shortly before finishing this book, I see this sceptical piece by Sunny Hundal, who has ‘been trying to find out what [Damji]’s up to’:

There are two issues here. Farah Damji is trying to publish her memoir, a book titled Try Me. Secondly, she still has tussles going on with the court which we will document further in coming days.

According to court officials she (or her representatives) were last at Blackfriars Crown Court on 15th July. She is now due to be sentenced and the court is waiting on dates agreeable to both parties for another hearing. More on that soon.

The situation around her book is more unclear.

Farah Damji claims that ‘Try Me’ is being published by Ark Press, run by a woman by the name of Anna Cohen. So far it has been remarkably difficult to get Anna Cohen on the phone or even meet her in person at the office.

Any attempts to reach Ms Cohen at the office are rebuffed at the intercom and visitors are asked to make an appointment before they come into the office. It’s not clear what the secrecy is over. My attempts to contact Ms Cohen by phone were also rebuffed.

Furthermore it is unclear whether the book has been legally vetted for libel though a spokeswoman for Ark Press claims it is. One source mentioned in the book says it contains multiple ‘lies’ about them.

What’s remarkable isn’t the fact that Farah Damji has returned to the scene – that was always going to happen – but that the media continues to give her a free ride without digging further into the background. Unfortunately, it isn’t the last we’ve heard of her.

Say what you like about Damji, she has led an extraordinary life. This Ugandan socialite survived a kidnapping at age three. After a UK public-school education and a childhood filled with entrangement and abuse, she’s in New York, tanning coke and running callgirls. At one point she is suspected of the murder of a bent (and quadraplegic) accountant. Later, she visits her boyfriend’s house to find dim candles on the table and a prostitute tied up in the bedroom.’There was a pile of blood stained tissues on the floor. He had no colour, he was a ghostly shade of white.’

Back in London, Damji descends into criminality and chaos. The prologue sees our memoirist phoning up the prosecution barrister assigned to her fraud case, posing as CPS and feeding him misinformation. Damji goes on the run from prison, blogging the whole thing on MySpace; the opening of her art gallery is raided by police; she attempts to kite a cheque by handwriting three extra zeroes onto the amount.     

You can appreciate Sunny’s concerns about libel, especially in a country whose defamation laws seem to operate as an outdoor relief system for oversensitive charlatans. Damji’s aunt, the writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘had set herself up as the High Priestess of Left Wing Birkenstock clad lefties. She was still firmly outside the tent pissing on her own leg.’ Damji alleges a brief encounter with the travel writer William Dalrymple, whom she portrays as a flailing, insecure philanderer. The seduction takes place in a ‘walled garden’ with ‘Moroccan tea candles’ and ‘a woven Indian dhurrie rug… William had dressed in some Indian fantasy outfit’.  

Few are spared in the book, including herself: Damji records feud, flight and financial chicanery. Often she writes as if holding up one side of an argument, desperate to get the reader on side. Even though one is reluctant to take her word at face value (‘The truth is just an agreed upon set of lies’) there are passages where the reader can’t help but warm to her. After giving birth to her daughter, Damji confronts the cousin who repeatedly raped her as a child. His response: ‘You knew what you were doing, you wanted it.’ Meeting Margot Hemingway, a year before her suicide, Damji senses a ‘seed of self-destruction’ that she also recognises in herself.

And then there’s the prose. Sex is ‘the tiresome tangle of limbs that exists between pleasure and necessity’; New York ‘a shelter for the dispossessed, we who find comfort in each other’s longing’. Try Me is the textual equivalent of the back of a cab filled with half-known faces, drunk as hell, gliding through some nameless night, very fast… It’s an incendiary record of one who has walked on the wild side.  

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 30th, 2009.