Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Fake Ethnic Writing

Louis Menand had an interesting article in the New Yorker back in December about literary fakes, in part a review of a book by Christopher Miller. He covers all kinds of hoaxes, but the ones that interest me are the ones based on false claims about the ethnicity of the writer.
A good example is the novel “Famous All Over Town,” which came out in 1983. The author was Danny Santiago, and the book’s narrator was a young Chicano, named Chato, who tells the story of his coming of age in East Los Angeles. The novel was critically acclaimed, and the hoax survived for about seventeen months. Then, in an article by John Gregory Dunne in The New York Review of Books, Danny Santiago was revealed to be a seventysomething white writer named Daniel James, who was from a well-to-do Midwestern family and had attended Andover and Yale. Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, knew James, and were in on the hoax.
None of the many Latino writers who praised the book suspected that it was by on old white man.

Then there was "Paul Smaïl" who claimed to be a French-born Arab, or Beur.
The first Smaïl novel, “Vivre Me Tue” (“Living Kills Me”), was published in 1997, and its author was received as a genuine voice of the Beur community. North Africa specialists were as fooled as anyone else. Sales were strong; a successful movie adaptation was produced; subsequent Smaïl novels were published; and people wrote dissertations on the work of Paul Smaïl.
The real author was Jack-Alain Léger, who intended to book as an attack on the whole idea of the Beur identity and of cultural pluralism more generally.
The protagonist in “Vivre Me Tue” is a sympathetic ethnic who has suffered from discrimination, but, like Chato, he wants to escape the prison of identitarianism and become, simply, French. It is an anti-multicultural book. . . . The reception of the books allowed Léger to argue that maybe the real fiction was the concept of “Beur identity.”
A more complicated case is “The Radiance of the King,” a novel published in French in 1954 and in English two years later. The author was a Guinean writer named Camara Laye, and the story is set in Africa. It was received as a leading work in African literature. In 2001, Toni Morrison published a piece in The New York Review of Books in which she called “The Radiance of the King” “an Africa answering back.” It gave us, she said, “Africa’s Africa”—that is, it passed the authenticity test. But there had been rumors right from the start that Laye had not written the book, and Miller, reviewing the scholarship, concludes that “The Radiance of the King” was likely written by a former Nazi collaborator from Belgium named Francis Soulié. Laye evidently agreed to go along, and put his name to it.
The reason, I would say, that all these writers are able to get away with pretending to be someone they are not, is that so many people assume novels are like life. They think the novelist's voice is a true voice speaking something that approximates the truth. But it is not. People do not speak like characters in novels, or think like them, or experience the world in such a neat and contained way. It is easy for someone with the necessary talent and knowledge to create the illusion of authenticity, but that is only because people used to reading books have become inured to their style of falsity. To take only the most famous case, I could not begin to list all the claims that have been made about who Shakespeare must have been, based on how convincingly he put words in the mouths of soldiers or courtiers or women. He was not a soldier or a courtier or a woman, just a genius with words, and that is enough.

A character in a book is not a person; it is more like a painting of a person. Whether the painting seems to capture the essence of the person depends on the skill of the painter, not whether the painter grew up in the same kind of neighborhood as the subject. Just so with writing novels; whether you believe in the character depends almost entirely on the skill of the writer. In our world, most people with that level of expertise in fiction writing are well educated and white, so most of the people who could put a convincing minority kid on a page are well educated white people. Very few if any actual Hispanic teenagers have that kind of literary expertise.

This is not to say that creating believable characters is easy. Writers often do years of research into the worlds they depict, or else rely on decades of their own experience. Daniel James was able to create such a believable and appealing Latino boy from East L.A. partly because he spent years working as a volunteer in just the sort of neighborhoods he depicted. But really most readers can be convinced by a show of knowledge and buzz words. The world of novels is such a distorted mirror of the real world that very little of anybody's real life really makes it onto the page, which enables an outsider to create a real-seeming fictional life.

The desire to believe that something is "real" is all around us. I can remember many rumors about which scenes in famous movies were "real," and I once overheard a long discussion about a pro wrestling match that was said to be "real", in the sense that the two wrestlers really hated each other and decided to just have it out with no script and see who was better.

Sorry, no.

It's all art. To be authentic, as they say, is just to fake it convincingly.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

To take only the most famous case, I could not begin to list all the claims that have been made about who Shakespeare must have been, based on how convincingly he put words in the mouths of soldiers or courtiers or women. People, he was not a soldier or a courtier or a woman, just a genius with words, and that is enough.

I think a huge part of the issue is that people assume that in order to be intimately familiar with something, you must BE something.

Shakespeare wasn't a soldier or a courtier or a woman, but surely he KNEW a number of people who were, and spoke to them about themselves and their lives. Is that really so hard to imagine? Lawrence of Arabia wasn't an Arab, but he could tell you all about their society at the time he lived, because he went there and learned from the locals, and he cared deeply and passionately about having an authentic understanding of their lives.

Often the key to authenticity is getting the little details right, but it's absurd to think that only the people who have experienced those little details firsthand for all their lives could duplicate that level of accuracy.

I myself was once mistaken for a modern soldier by a veteran when commenting about the smells of modern battlefields. I've never been anywhere near a warzone, thank goodness, and yet the fact that I'd given more than the usual amount of consideration to what the soldier on the ground must have to live through, what life in an army camp must be like, lent an air of credence to my words strong enough to suggest I'd lived it. (And it certainly helps a great deal that scent is such a powerful sense memory to draw on, and people are wired to respond to it.)

We're ultimately not as different from one another as many people like to think or argue, and all it really takes is a willingness to learn, and the empathy to put yourself in someone else's shoes, to be able to learn authentic truths about people.