Monday, February 04, 2008

Does the Truth Matter in Memoir?

More questions are being asked now about the accuracy of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone (now incidentally a best seller here in Malaysia), with the Australian still hot on the case.

Not only does there appear to be a "timeline discrepancy", (and more evidence on this score has been collected by the newspapers European corespondent Peter Wilson who publicly confronted Beah with it) but it seems that the deadly fight that Beah describes in a UNICEF rehabilitation camp (and one of the scenes in the book that most shocked me) may not have taken place - relief workers and international agencies have said that they could find no record of such a thing happening. Enough evidence is in to seriously question the veracity of the book.

Leaving quite aside the question of the morality of passing off something as memoir when it contains fictitious elements, just how does it get past the editor and publisher anyway? (And don't forget, there have been not just one but several cases in past years of memoir fakery and/or embellishment - see here and here which ought to have made publishers jumpy.)

Deborah Hope does the rounds of Australian publishers to see what measures for checking veracity are in place. Not many, it seems.

The paper's New York correspondent quotes Janice Harayda, a former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle as saying that the US literary establishment gave former Sierra Leone child soldier Ishmael Beah a "free pass" on the accuracy of his international bestselling memoir A Long Way Gone because it wanted to believe his story was true. She adds that she believes that an investigation is long overdue:
The truth matters ... If there are parts of this book that are not based on real events or are not part of the writer's personal experience, then these should be identified somewhere in the book.
When Dan Chaon, Beah's creative writing teacher at Oberon College, Ohio was challenged he said that:
... factual inaccuracies did not necessarily compromise the work because it was a memoir rather than a piece of journalism.
Which isn't I'm afraid my own understanding of "memoir".

And I have to agree with Harayda:
... There is a clear line between fiction and non-fiction ... Readers bring different expectations to non-fiction and they have a right to know whether it is fiction or has been fictionalised.
Brian Appleyard in the Sunday Times discoveres that the scale of a map included in the book is wildly inaccurate and makes Beah's wanderings look more pronounced than they could possibly have been.

In all this, though, I feel extremely sorry for Beah, who has surely gone through enough pain and trauma in his short life, and whether or not always factually accurate, has written an exceptionally powerful book full of strong emotional truth. He was trying to survive a situation that remains beyond our worst nightmares, and he was at times high on drugs. He didn't have a watch or a calendar in the jungle. Memory lapses could be expected. Probably the line between objective fact and just telling the best story was blurred for him.

But does that fully exonerate him, or Chaon, or his publishers?

I think the only honourable way out for all concerned is to admit fault and print a simple disclaimer to go with the book:
Some parts of this story have been fictionalised.
We will still love the book, and Beah has survived much much worse.


Rob said...

I agree - this does seem to be an egregious case where elements have been sensationalised. As you know, our friend Mr Wilson was not averse to embellishing his life story in order to make a better story, and indeed the basis of Roger Lewis's extraordinary animosity to Burgess seems to have been that Burgess didn't always give an entirely factual and verifiable account of his life. But there is a difference in his case I think - he was a man in his sixties recalling events of forty years and more previously. So when Lewis spends pages of footnotes proving that Burgess got the name of an officer wrong, it seems very much a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In the case of Beah, since the major selling point of the book is the nature of his adventures, then to fictionalise them seems wrong. He is, however, following a long tradition, of which the examples you mention are but the latest. What about Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year", an apparently eye-witness account of the epidemic of 1665? Defoe was 5 years old in 1665...

BreadCity said...

I find this whole question absurd. Did these people actually read any of Beah's book? It is about being a young child, brainwashed and strung out on drugs. How can you expect 100% factual accuracy? That's like chastising "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" because according to reports by an Australian newspaper, the people in the casino did not actually transform into giant lizards.

How can anyone who claims to enjoy reading make a concerted effort to turn cartographic discrepancies into means for an "investigation"? This is a classic case of establishment critics who know nothing about writing and nothing about subjectivity, knocking on a young writer for no reason. Shame on them.