Farah Damji's memoirs Try Me - published on July 6 - are the stuff of scandal. How's that for a hook? A writer and cultural commentator, a former editor, a former jailbird and now an ethical fashion designer who has blinged Madonna and Mary J, she is an "Indian woman who has lived, loved, fucked and fucked-up in spectacular fashion," according to Liz Jones' ex and newspaper columnist Nirpal Dhaliwal.
"Long before she went to prison for perverting the course of justice and theft, Farah Damji was making waves by being a coloured woman, living an anti-coloured woman's life," opens the press release for her book. The story she tells, which starts in Africa and then shifts to India, embraces the New York worlds of fashion, design and the city's glittery lowlife, always edged by celebrity, and her social, professional and sexual encounters with British media and literary figures. Her revelations, indiscretions, anecdotes and conclusions will upset and infuriate many of her subjects and their lap dogs.
If Farah sought reconciliation or redemption in writing this book she may find herself disappointed. On the other hand, her brutal X-ray honesty - which does not even begin at self-exculpation - is matched by a vivid and brilliant prose style which stands as some kind of virtue in itself. I have always been a sucker for elegant clarity. As the writer and filmmaker Farrukh Dhondy says of Try Me: "At last an immigrant autobiography that doesn't have a mission to complain."
Farah agreed to an email interview
Farah Damji! Before we get to the matter in hand - your upcoming memoirs Try Me - tell me your star sign and whether you think you're true or untrue to it. And while we're being mystical - you make many references to Hinduism in your book - have you ever consulted a psychic (if so, what was said?)
Sun sign in Libra but Scorpio everywhere else with a little light sprinkling of Leo. Librans are meant to be artistic and balanced and not temperamental. So one out of three is a fail grade. Psychics told me I would be married with the white picket fence by the time I was thirty. That fortune is a little late in the telling.
So, why did you write Try Me? It is fiercely honest and won't endear you to your critics.
I didn't write it to endear me to anyone. I am not particularly endearing. I wanted to tell my story in my own words.
How hard did you have to sell the proposition for Try Me? Was it hard going or a walk over?
Sold it three times. Once to a Big Book Publisher who then decided they were going to change MY life story after I had signed in blood on the dotted line and spent the advance. Sold it then to a teeny weeny (un)publisher who turned out to be a neo-Ghandian, post-nuclear proto-feminist who wanted to use my book to push hers and her brother's and then I landed, in the midst of drowning and not waving, like the little animals two-by-two, in the safe sanctuary of The Ark Press.
It was an easy sell because people thought they could re-package it so the story became a facsimile of itself. A popular genre at the time (2007) was Indobrit Chic-lit, it was a bit like looking in a watery reflection, in a murky lake. They didn't realise that I wasn't motivated by anything else than the need to tell MY story in my words so it was easy to walk away when things became contrary to commissioning pillow talk. I think most commissioning editors and literary agents are spawned from the devil's own seed.
Darling, now look. There's no nice way of saying this, but you've been baaaaaaad. Jailed in the US, imprisoned for perverting the course of justice in the UK, working for underworld kingpins in New York, meeting Mafia bosses, writing the kiss 'n' tell about your affair with the married travel writer William Dalrymple and having another affair with a married man, Allan Jenkins of the Observer, and more. What's the worst thing you've done of which you are ashamed?
The thing which I am most ashamed about are the years I have wasted by being absent in my children's lives. That can never be replaced and they are the ones I value the most. Shame is a waste of time. Who is going to get anything from it? I feel bad about you making me feel bad and that negativity erodes my sense of worth and success so the desire to be a "good" person is worn down. But these are all other people's ego-based value judgements. I did crime, lots of it, I was sentenced by a Judge, I did my time. People need to learn to get on with it. I certainly have. I contacted everyone ( I could find) when I came out prison and I wrote to them and apologised for being such a shit. Most were incredibly kind and gracious, one or two (mostly Asian media wannabes) were vile and cold. What to do?
How do you think the wives of these men will feel about certain intimate revelations in your book?
Oh Madame Arcati. I don't know and I don't care. These wives' husbands were sniffing around like dogs sniff bitches on heat. If a man cheats once and a woman puts up with it, she has created a vacuum where there used to be trust and commitment. If you marry a rake, be prepared to be muck-raked. Both these men are serial adulterers, I wasn't the first and I certainly wasn't the last in either case. These wives stayed, whereas I wouldn't, so I can't say what they might feel, I feel differently.
I take it Allan was better in bed than William ....?
Couldn't possibly say but now that you mention it....
How do you think your family will react to private revelations about certain matters?
My parents are stuck like adolescent narcissists. I am sure they think they were perfect parents who provided every material comfort that money could buy. Indeed they did. But they were and continue to be lousy parents. I don't judge them, I just don't want them in my life, they do the best that they can and it isn't ever going to be enough so the best thing is to stop having the expectation that they will change and find that lost love elsewhere. TV or chocolate are good substitutes. Besides, who cares? I have been disinherited by my daddy decades ago...
You write in Try Me: "I’ve lived like a lost butterfly that flutters this way and that, seeking warmth and nourishment. I sought shelter from the sun that burnt my wings, yet I craved her warmth. I wanted the light." Outside metaphor, define light and warmth. And if there's one person I could promise you would never have to meet again, who would he or she be?
Light and warmth are unconditional love and acceptance, from your god, your children, your lover. It's what I sought outside myself my whole life, but never found. Light to me means God-sense in my life. I have that now. There isn't one person, I would like to never set eyes on again, there is a whole village, we'll swap names later...
I see you know The New York Post's gossip writer Richard Johnson. What's he like?
Nasty little piece of work. He doesn't really do anything anymore, he's so ******* by noon that his sidekick the scary Paula Froelich does it. Paula used to be a sweet thing, worked as the receptionist at the Holmes Place on Fulham Road but is now a little caught up in her own reflected glory. Last I heard she'd written a book of scraps and tidbits, leftovers they couldn't use on Page Six.
Indobrit - which you edited - was launched in 2002, a quarterly magazine for British Asians living in the UK. You wrote in the New Statesman of your father who left the UK and returned to Africa: "He had had enough of the British, his bastard bank manager and all the things that reminded him that, despite owning the best bespoke suits and a sizeable chunk of Soho, he was still regarded as un-British." Is this one reason why you think multi-culturalism is a con?
I think it is a con because there's no such thing. We aren't meant to be this great big melting pot society at all. We're "meant" to redefine our own versions of who we are all the time, we are all works in progress. Besides, more and more people are mixed race, live in more than one place, don't necessarily conform to the norms of their birth culture. We need to achieve transculturalism, wherein we look "above" a person's culture or creed into what that person is inside.
Are the Brits inherently racist?
I think Lord McCauley sums it up better than I ever could, in 1835 in his speech to Parliament, about India. The British are inherently fearful, that they are not good enough or that they will be "found out." Of course not all of them, but an unpleasant BNP backing minority. "I do not think we would ever conquer this country ... for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation”
Where are you with Toby Young? He described you as a "a nasty little Indian" which he denies. Then I read Geordie Greig of the London Evening Standard was offering his services as a peace-maker. What's going on?
I awe Toby Young. What a strange thing to call me when he could have called me so much else? We are spectacularly fine. As long as he stays on his side of the bed / planet / universe and I stay on mine, we will have no more friction. It was all due to Mercury in Retrograde, bad communication and all that. Didn't the Americans cook him and eat him on Celebrity Carnivore?
Have you changed? Could you resist major temptations again? How do you know when you've changed?
Yes. I think I make better choices. I think you know when you have changed by the people who are in your life. It's a reflection of what is going on inside, in a way. So no more gangsters, criminals, hookers, journalists, lawyers, j/k. Some very solid good old friends have always stuck through sick and sin but some talented and lovely new people have entered my life too. To stay.
If there's one thing you could change about jail, it would be ....
The horribly itchy polyester sheets. I missed my Pratesi, darling. No seriously, the entire Criminal Justice system needs to be completely overhauled. Thankfully we have been relieved of that god-awful Jacquie Smith [as Home Secretary] but the prison estate is too huge and unwieldy for any effective change to take place.
I am involved in a Prison Project which teaches accountability and responsibility. I think criminals change when we as a society start to realise that we are all part of the problem and that crime doesn't exist outside of determining factors such as class, background, economics and race.
We need a much more reformative, restorative system not just one that exists only to punish. Big stick no carrot can't work. Not everyone can write a book in prison and it's a human shame that so much talent, time and potential isn't put to better use. And I don't mean making number plates, I mean teaching people in the prison system real life skills so they can go out and live valuable lives, not repeat old crimes and go back into the cycle.
Finally tell us something about your life now. Would you edit another magazine if you could?
Ethical fashion, working on a big presentation for a big high street chain, who are not too well-known for their current stand on ethics in fashion. You can't use organic cotton and then chain some sub-continental kid to his sewing machine for fourteen hours a day and pay him £1 and call it an ethical garment. There has to be complete transparency all the way down the chain, from how the textile crop is grown, dyed, manufactured, stitched, finished and to how the final item is packaged, marketed, paid for and transported. It's more than just soothing our Guardian-singed consciences because we feel we "should" do something or support a movement.
No more magazines for me, been asked but Dead Tree Media is endangered and it's a soulless life, I wouldn't want to go back to it. I love writing and am formulating a plot for my second book. My life provides fertile ground for stories! Watch this space...
Farah, I wish you all the best with your fascinating and brilliantly written book.
More about Farah and Try Me extracts, click here
To order a copy of Try Me, click here