Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pants on Fire

Maybe by now you've heard that author Margaret B. Jones (actual name, Margaret Seltzer) has admitted - only after being ratted out by her sister - that her memoir about growing up in Los Angeles' inner city gang culture was pure fiction. Or, as she claimed, not completely fiction, because the situations happened to people she knew. I had read the glowing review of her book, Love and Consequences, in the New York Times on Thursday, followed with the article on her and her daughter at their house in Eugene, in the Time's Home & Garden section over the weekend. I was hooked, and planning on going to see her speak at Powell's tonight, but - obviously - that event's been canceled.

What a crazy turn of events - a memoir telling a story of a place - South L.A. - and a culture that is as foreign to many Americans as a foreign country, but starkly real to those who live there. It's the story of a subculture, told by - surprise - an outsider. A white girl who grew up in Sherman Oaks and went to a fancy private school.

Selzer argues that this story might not be completely fiction, because the violent realities of gangs and places like South Central L.A. are real for many people; but it is not non-fiction because it didn't happen to Selzer. This speaks to a much larger race and class tension both in the United States and internationally. Who's qualified to give a voice to whom? If the voice isn't authentic, what's its value? Was Selzer demeaning the people, or trying to represent them?

An author who addressed this in a respectable way is Dave Eggers, with his novel What is the What. Based on the actual life of a Sudanese boy, Egger published it as fiction, acknowledging the shape he gave the story, the gaps he filled when his subject couldn't remember something. The story is powerful because of the boy's memories, and Egger's skill in winding those memories into a gripping narrative. I believe giving a voice to those who have none is the most powerful gift you can give as a writer. But I also wonder if the most responsible thing you can do as a writer is to teach, to give others the tools to speak up for themselves, too.

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