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Razer: Sam de Brito the dissident

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Two weeks ago, the writer Sam de Brito died suddenly at 46 and he left behind a family, a community and obituaries of a word count to rival his own life’s work. Two weeks ago, it seemed improper and pointless to write an account of a man to whom tributes were flowing. Today, though, it seems worthwhile to add some thoughts about this difficult, reasonably significant bastard. His memorial is done and those who loved him have begun the difficult work of naturalising their grief and so it doesn’t seem wrong, and, in fact, feels slightly right to offer memory from another standpoint.
I’ll tell you why it feels right in a moment.
First, I need to recount the peculiar way I happened to know Sam, and thereby begin to tolerate his project as an annoying, shit-stirring writer. We were by no means close and I had about as much time for his blokey, beachside heroics as he did for my world of wretched shade. He was pure Bondi who lived hard in the sun and spent big. I am a thrifty suburbanite who looks to the Melbourne sky only to see if her cabbages need water. Sam was flash and friendly whereas I am slow and cold. But, we were connected by circumstance and so began to speak every few weeks by phone.
Sam first contacted me because he felt, he said, that we were allies. I told him we were certainly not allies and that he had, in my view, written certain columns just a Kid Rock song away from full-blown Men’s Rights Activism. He said that he knew that I wouldn’t approve of his thinking to which, I think, I replied, “What you do is not ‘thinking’, mate. It’s a low kneejerk kick to a make-believe feminist monster”, but he persisted in talking to me and my big monstrous mouth for two reasons.
The first belongs to this decade. We were writers, he said, who attracted a volume and an intensity of critique quite inconsistent with our profiles. And it was true that we were both modestly known but quite widely reviled, so talking with him privately about strategies to manage outsize hate in the internet age seemed harmless. On the topic of how to overlook death threats and offended liberal feminists, I agreed to talk just once.
The second reason, which kept us talking longer, belongs to 1972.
On Tuesday, February 22 of that year, when Sam and I were yet to learn the alphabet we would later abuse, the journalist Gus de Brito published a profile on a young Black Power activist in Sydney’s Daily Mirror. Its subject Gary Foley, now a quietly celebrated professor, was a 21-year-old force of history when he met and befriended Sam’s dad.
Gus de Brito, according to his son, came to be known as a good, jobbing journalist following his immigration to Australia. As a cadet in mid-century South Africa, however, de Brito the elder developed a very active interest in his nation’s anti-Apartheid movement. Now, if you are either young or forgetful, you might think of the African National Congress, in whose military wing Gus de Brito embedded himself, as a nonviolent band of brothers preaching peace. They weren’t. They were, as history demanded, armed communists who sought nothing less than revolution.
You can believe Oprah Winfrey and all the oblivious eulogies of Mandela if you wish. This posthumous sanitisation doesn’t alter the fact that the ANC seized power through the threat of its very real force and with no help from the awareness ribbons and only a little from the sanctions of the west. Mandela was listed as a terrorist by the US right up until his 90th birthday and despite occasional anti-Apartheid presentations by our government throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the ANC wasn’t exactly high on our Preferred Dance Partner list until it became South Africa’s ruling party in 1994. All of which is to say, the necessary end of Apartheid was not choreographed to the international rhythms of Kumbaya and that the older de Brito must have had some outsize balls to write sympathetically as a white South African journalist about the ANC. He risked pissing all sides off.
Writing sympathetically about Gary Foley for an Australian Murdoch tabloid in 1972 would have carried with it a similar, if mildly less lethal, threat. You don’t write, then or now, about Black Power in the press and expect to please anyone. The de Brito piece, says Foley in the 2014 book he edited The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, provoked his “instant notoriety” and greater surveillance and harassment by ASIO and police. But, journalist and subject remained on friendly terms.
A while back, Sam posted a particularly good Father’s Day piece about his dad whose anti-Apartheid investigations only became known to him following Gus’ death in 1999. “My dad would drive into the mountains to interview the ANC guerrillas and take them over borders in the boot of his car,” he wrote. “After a while, the cops smelled it on him. They grabbed him and took him into one of their basements for a couple of days and he quickly realised how fragile his place was in the world.”
Sam had mentioned his father’s early career at the end of our first conversation, I think, as a way to let me know that he didn’t take his own “fragility” too seriously. He said something about how nasty Facebook comments were perhaps not quite so bad as interrogation by South Africa’s counter-insurgency taskforce. I laughed and agreed that neither of us were true dissidents, just midlife grouches. Speaking of true dissidents, Sam said, you recently interviewed a guy that my father spoke with 40 years ago. And, he told me about the Gary Foley piece.
Foley, who has endured 40 years of clumsy misinterpretation by press of his thought, now rarely concedes to speak with journalists. Frankly, I only secured the interview for Time Out by misrepresenting myself a bit; I may have told him that I was writing on inner Melbourne’s least pretentious coffee shops. Whatever the case, Dr Foley did not loathe the published piece to the degree that he would refuse to take my phone-calls, and so, I continued to call him in the diminishing hope he would one day agree to another, much longer interview. Foley is, as Sam said, a truly dissident thinker and it continues to shit me that he will not yet permit me to write about his dissident thought at length.
Still, I keep trying, and sometimes Foley picks up the phone. When I called him a few years ago and mentioned the older and younger de Britos, he told me he thought of them warmly. He said that Gus had substance as a journalist and that he intended to visit Sam in Bondi and tell him as much as he knew about his dad, a journalist of substance and an unlikely Black Power ally.
When Foley learned of Sam’s death two weeks ago, he wrote with regret about this missed appointment. Regret he needn’t have felt, because Foley had exactly the impact on Sam, I believe, that his father would have preferred. Which is to say, Sam read Gary’s works and understood them and sometimes advanced a complex, dissident view of the type his father had first explored more than half a century ago.
Sam had begun to understand that things in the world were awfully complex.
Often, in attempting to evoke this complexity, Sam found himself between a rock and a very stupid place. I told him this very openly and upbraided him, particularly for his posts on feminism, many of which I considered to be hostile and undercooked. But, once in a while, Sam, who was brave enough to subject himself to my screeching and wise enough to consider Foley’s thinking, produced some excellent friction.
I believe Sam was becoming as fearless as his father.
He had a long way to go and certainly, his passage was slowed by the sweetest kind of obstacle. Parenting, as many have said, was his most critical gig. That guy loved his kid so much that I was often moved to tell him to shut up about her. “Not all women are charmed by tales of children,” I told him. “You can talk to me about the Varoufakis lecture I sent you, or you can fuck right off with your finger-painting stories”.
When Sam died, I wrote to a colleague who knew and liked him very well. I told her I was sorry and recounted some of these stories about our conversations and asked her to pass on to his family my regret not only for their loss but for Sam’s. He was an irritating bastard, I told her, but he was also one bound within the next decade to write his way into a hard and splendid place. I knew that he was working up to something. I knew that he was thinking beyond popular thought. I knew that he was trying to be brave. No one calls me, I told her, for an hour of satisfying agreement.
My colleague told me to write these things down. She said, I know you have little patience for children, Helen, but you know that his young daughter will one day need to learn about her father’s growing courage. Open a document, she said, and name it “Dear Anoushka”.
I am not as pleasant as my colleague, so I am yet to follow her advice and fill the file with the things I think this adult of the future should know. But, I am not so thick that I refuse to read the very plain narratives life occasionally offers. I will, eventually, finish it.
Decades ago, Gus de Brito and Gary Foley met and produced a shock great enough to disturb me, Sam and, much more significantly, the intellectual life of a nation and an ongoing Black Power movement. These actually brave men made a meaningful fuss which retains its power to disturb even the midlife mind. To ignore their difficult thinking is to accept an unacceptable present. To fail to tell Sam’s daughter of her father’s need to interrogate his own thinking would be my unacceptable future.
I can’t tell her, yet. So I’m telling you instead.
[box]Supplied image via Penguin[/box]

28 responses to “Razer: Sam de Brito the dissident

  1. I truly hated Sam de Brito’s writing, but this is a kind, honest remembrance of him. Much sympathies to his family’s loss.

    1. Just once, Internet. Just once could you reserve your “hate” less for columnists (particularly those who have just died and for whom the person to you happen to address your comments is pretty obviously grieving) and put it somewhere useful?
      “Die in a fire”. “I hate you”. “You are the actual worst”. These are all phrases that have found their way to my inbox in the last week.
      Seriously. Why? I’m quite batty and poorly raised but I would never ever think to say that I hate someone who was not profitably evil. We’re talking Ayn Rand, here. Even then, I “hate” that even such a naked ideology has influence and hot her, here.
      Sorry to go on. But, damn, please. Don’t be so rude, Internet. Just try to make it a rule not to say you “hate” someone or their writing writing unless you can make a very good case as to why.
      And maybe think that some of Sam’s close friends or family will read this? What have you gained in offering this opinion, Internet, other than to potentially upset people?
      I guess, at least, if it were not for all this hate, I would never have formed an acquaintance with Sam. Neither of us could ever believe how often people “hated” us.
      Internet. Please.

      1. I was not at all eloquent, but I specifically said I hated his writing, not him. I definitely did not hate him but his articles and opinions would fill me with fury. Apologies for inflaming things, I really didn’t mean to. He was well loved and popular, provocativewriter. Even someone who couldn’t stand what he wrote can see that. I’m sorry.

        1. For me the word ‘hate’ conjurs up a blanket wave of anti … I’ve read di Brito from years back, had no idea about his dad … and interspersed with stuff I didn’t agree with were some pretty awesome words that I went … huh …
          At the same time, for me, was an through di Brito’s writing an insight into his masculinity and his ideas.
          “Hate” means a blanket overwhelming nay and that’s what I personally have an issue with.

      2. Listen, back once again to apologise. I should have said I almost always vehemently disagreed with his writing to the point of outrage, but even so, as a person who felt this way about his opinions, I still found his passing tragic. Even this person who, yes, really didn’t like his stuff, felt the loss of him to the community and his people. Said it terribly. Shit comment on a lovely remembrance. I’m very sorry.

        1. Sure. I can see that you are sorry and I am grateful that you appear to have learned the way in which the internet erred.
          But, honestly. Who cares if you didn’t like Sam’s writing? You keep telling me that you didn’t, even in apologising. Write a blog post about it, if you must. But, don’t mention again that your strong revulsion for his work was justified here, okay?
          I know that some of Sam’s clan have read this. I know that his little girl might Google it in fifteen years. And what will they see but evidence that 2015 was a year in which it was considered okay to say “I am sorry he died, but he was shit at his job”.
          It’s not okay. It’s okay for you not to like his writing. It’s not okay to say it here.
          Sometimes, our opinions aren’t worth expressing in particular places for the harm that they will likely do.
          I spend several days putting together my thoughts about Sam before I even began to write. I considered how this might impact others because a young man just died, FFS.
          Read and understand: sometimes our opinions are not important. Sometimes we need to consider where and how we air them.
          Thinking something doesn’t mean you need to put it on public view.

          1. Been thinking about this a lot recently.
            However, we’re now in a world where we do think opinions are fact and that terrifies me.

          2. Tranquillo, Helen; Q’s post is frank but respectful. It is not defamatory or libellous in that it is personally nuetral…an expression of reasonable opinion directed towards his work, not the man himself. I cannot see a problem with this, and I suspect that Mr De Brito would say the same, if he could. One has to be a special type of narcissist to demand obligatory professional/critical deference, and judging from what I’ve read of him, I suspect Sam have been far to down to earth to qualfy as one of those. His lexicon is suggestive of somebody with a pragmatic, egalitarian mind. I cannot comment on de Brito’s work as I am completely unfamiliar with it, and have learned through wikipedia just now that he worked as a scriptwriter for the water rats and who dares wins programs. I cannot say I enjoyed either, from memory.
            Who has fifty loves has fifty woes, Helen.

          3. Oh gosh. I’m not a writer, I don’t write good. I don’t think he was shit at his job at all. I just disagreed with his stuff a lot, to put it mildly, and said it in a very thoughtless way. He WAS divisive, as I think you sort of mentioned in your piece. I guess I was one on the other side, and I still found his passing profoundly sad. So he is mourned by the people who love him, and even people who…didn’t, isn’t that something at all? Anyway, thanks for accepting my apology, and my apologies to his people. Best.

    2. How very noble and gracious of you Q. No doubt your considerate comment, and your sympthies would be greeted with nothing but warmth by the man’s grieving family

  2. Helen:
    Occasionally I read some of Sam’s opinion pieces – and even wrote responses – always one lost amid dozens. I never went back to check whether they had brought other responses in turn – satisfied that I had added to the conversation with some general agreement plus a personal perspective. I had no idea of Sam’s background nor that of his father – of his family at all. (What a pedigree, though!) Much happened in Australia during the 1990s and 2000s when I was living abroad – people from the media I recalled when I left were no longer around or silvered almost to non-recognisable in my framework of memory – or other clearly prominent opinion presenters – like yourself, like Sam – suddenly – without seeming adolescence – all grown up and there in my face as it were! Grown up and having taken their journalistic place while I had been gazing at other skies! Your reflection here I value enormously because it reveals Sam as a writer, thinker – unafraid to engage with others who – as you say about yourself – were in some senses diametrically opposed on aspects of our society. Moving! Thanks.

  3. This is a great piece, Helen, if I may say so. It brings to life another part of a person I didn’t know other than through his writing.
    I remember Mr de Brito as an advocate for animals – the voiceless and vulnerable. I am grateful to him for that. I am sad for his family and friends for their deep loss, and particularly for his daughter.

  4. Great tribute.
    Some of Sam’s columns were ridiculously insightful, stop-you-in-your-tracks insightful.
    I get a similar kind of pleasure reading Sam’s and your columns, Helen. I expect your writing to throw ice water in my face, and you normally do.

  5. Nice piece Helen. In a way, you were two of a kind to me. Sometimes I agreed with you, sometimes not, sometimes partially. Sometimes I didn’t bother to read either of you at all. But thank you for explaining Sam’s past, it explained a lot that no other eulogies did.

  6. Razer … really great writing … on Mandela we concur.
    And this piece – informative and beautifully written.
    I don’t much like revisionism particularly when people die … cos, well, complexity, I’m a huge fan of it.

  7. One of the best eulogies I’ve read. Beautifully thought through and conveyed, warts and all, as it should be. He and his family would be very appreciative of your writing I’m sure.

  8. Can I also add that during Mbeki’s “ideas” of HIV/Aids not being interconnected and the “Western” soothsayers Mbeki got to substantiate his premise for, I dunno, nearly seven years … Mandela said nothing. And meanwhile … epidemic. Google, it’s your friend.

  9. Razer, waiting for your opus on what is seen ie selfies, tweets etc and the private … how the private and public has become weirdly intertwined …
    and how “kids today” conflate it as the same … yep moderator pass it on …

  10. It takes a brave (?) person to put out their thoughts in a weekly newspaper column knowing that they will have it dissected and criticised. Yet those that can be polarising are often the ones that will stick in your brain, seeping through teasing you to make your mind or at least change the position from which you think. I get enough shit from friends about my usual social media missives (with their badly typed words due to using a phone), that there is no way in hell I could or would ever want to be a columnist.
    Some of Sam’s columns made me go “Grrrr” others (like his vegan pieces) made me go “Woah, I can’t believe I agree with Sam de Brito”
    I, too, hope his daughter can get to know her dad through the progression of his columns and the way he shifted his thoughts on issues. I wish her and the rest of his family and friends sincere condolences for their loss.

  11. What an interesting, moving and perceptive take on Sam’s sad passing. I’ve been trying to figure out why Sam’s death has had such an impact – the most for someone I never met. Helen’s hint – the loss at not getting to witness an evolving bravery (had assumed no more boundaries to push with Sam but of course there always is …)
    Suspect only someone of a similar ilk could so discern so FWIW in (marginally) offsetting the haters’ apparent hopes, hope to witness Helen’s morph.

  12. Thank you Helen for such a sincere and insightful piece of writing. Gus’ children and Sam’s daughter no doubt will find your thoughts valuable in understanding what made these men “tick”.

  13. We were travelling at the time of Sam’s death and I caught up with his last column online as we returned. It was a beautiful piece about co sleeping with his daughter and his great love for her. I then checked out the latest news headlines only to find that he had died. I was shocked and so sad because like many others I always read his column on Sunday and enjoyed his arguments even if I didn’t always agree with them. He went through a particularly anti-feminist stage but I considered that this was the bitter fallout from his relationship breakdown and it seemed to me that he was moving on beautifully over the last 18 months. You are right, he was a dissident and we need people like him to challenge us on our thinking about society and its mores. I miss him already and grieve for his beloved daughter.

  14. Several years ago: I had been in a new job for just under a couple of weeks when I inadvertently printed a Fairfax/Sam de Brito blog on hair removal (complete with comments). The company I was working for had a networked central printer that indicated the name of the person who was responsible for each print job. I didn’t even realise I had printed it until someone had placed all 160 pages of the blog onto my desk, politely face-down.

  15. Someone once wrote, I forget who, that as a writer you’re doing a good job if through your writing you create a current of opposing views. Vale Sam de brito you did that and more. I used to occasionally read Sam’s early pieces and as a female feel outraged at what I thought were blatantly sexist comments but reading his last piece about how he loves his daughter so much he didn’t want her to sleep alone so she didn’t feel scared. I know Sam in spirit still wants to keep his daughter safe.
    I knew Sam’s grandmother, Winnie Blake when I was nursing. Winnie was so eccentric and captivating with a delicious sense of humour, just like Sam and she absolutely loved Sam and all her family.

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