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More Literary Fakes!

THE American academic who helped Ishmael Beah produce the first draft of his bestseller A Long Way Gone yesterday defended the former Sierra Leone child soldier over serious flaws in his timeline, but was unable to vouch for the book's factual accuracy.

Creative writing professor Dan Chaon said if errors did exist in the autobiography, they should be put down to poetic licence, saying that during the two years he and Beah worked on the book, its factual integrity was never discussed.

"If it turns out there are factual errors, I wouldn't necessarily be all that concerned about it," said Professor Chaon of Ohio's Oberlin College.

"I don't think the book is being presented as a piece of journalism. It's being presented as a memoir."

Because of course, a memoir shouldn't be true.

This is the latest little literary scandal doing the rounds here in Australia, come about not through maliciousness, but from "a couple from Busselton on Western Australia's south coast, Bob and Peta Lloyd, who were keen admirers of Beah and his book. Lloyd, newly appointed as general manager of Sierra Rutile in mid-2007, originally believed he had located Beah's father, Joseph, who worked at the mine. An investigation during the past two months by Inquirer has revealed the man is not the father - although he is a relative - but the dismissive and/or hostile reception the Western Australian pair received when they initially tried to tell their good news to Beah's publishers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book's distributors in Australia, HarperCollins, and Beah's American guardian, so distressed them that they went further, to the website of Enough Rope with Andrew Denton." It seems that investigations by the pair led them to figure out that the dates in Beah's book were out by two years.

Two years!

Has anyone not heard of research?

I mean this on both sides, mind. If it is true, why trust the recollections of a thirteen year old, and if it's not, and you're going to fake it, why not do the research? Take it from me, if you're going to fake it, a little bit of research goes a long way.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone that I'm interested in this story. I find myself really quite caught up in the concept of 'truth' in literary work, and I find myself, both within work and outside it, pushing the concept around. Should it matter? Should it being real mean a thing when it's all reconstructed scenes on paper and in your imagination? Perhaps, perhaps not. What's important, I find, is that you make it truthful in some fashion, and I think that applies to all kind of work, even if it's just an emotion, or a thought that runs through the work thematically. I want--and I like--for something to feel as if it is true, and you can be true, I find, on a number of levels, but of course that's a different debate than the one linked to Beah.

Strangely, I am actually a bit down on people like Beah--and Frey and Leroy, for example--who were caught out with the lie after their work achieved a degree of success, but this is mostly because they did get caught out, and they didn't live the lie well enough. Way I figure, you have to live the lie, and this includes research, creating the persona, and making sure that a basic background check won't catch you out. You can't do one or two and then lose out to the third, as most do. If you're getting caught out in a very basic query--if, say, I can pick up a phone and call someone--then you've not done your job well enough.

Still, makes for fun reading.

First quote is from here, second here.


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(Deleted comment)
Jan. 20th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
yeah, i like that memoir line.

it's a pretty stupid thing to be caught out on, too, really. to find a set of dates, that's what? fifteen, twenty minutes research?

there is, however, a middle ground in novels and biographies--there's that whole inspired by real life, and things that riff on events that have really happened. once you start putting things like 'narrative' into a real life event, things do get changed round, even if it's just a little. i mean, i get you're point--there is a very simple line, and it sounds like these guys fibbed, so fuck 'em for being caught. but you can find a murky inbetween for the two.
Jan. 20th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
As I was saying to andrewmacrae, the way this is panning out it seems quite likely that Long Way Gone was originally written without an expectation that it would be published and therefore without a stringent requirement of factual accuracy.

When it was realised a dime could be made out of it, issues about accuracy were probably passed over too lightly.

This work is well known in the US as a consciousness-raiser about Sierra Leone. Because of its potential to change people's political attitudes the requirement of accuracy (or at least undeniability) is that much greater.
Jan. 20th, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)
yeah, i read the last bit in there about it being a consciousness raiser--which is why it's a bit disappointing to see it caught out on such a simple fact.
Jan. 21st, 2008 12:16 am (UTC)
It is a shame, because even from the early reporting you can determine that if Beah is declared a fraud by the media it will damage the cause of Sierra Leone in the US and elsewhere.

And to be fair the blame for that will lie quite squarely with the publishers and the author.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 21st, 2008 05:05 am (UTC)
well, i know when i'm talking about dates, i feel free to be as loose as i want. 9/11, 6/13, 2/5, what does it matter, hey?
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 21st, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)
thank you :)
Jan. 21st, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
I find myself really quite caught up in the concept of 'truth' in literary work,

I've heard tell of folks who, when intrigued by a concept, go out and write a novel about it. Or a pseudo-memoir.

Crazy folk, them.
Jan. 21st, 2008 07:23 am (UTC)
yeah, i dunno who those folk are. i wouldn't have anything to do with them. i mean, imagine the wanky things they'd do with that kinda concept?
Jan. 21st, 2008 11:02 am (UTC)
Dear Ben,

I don't usually do this but I am so annoyed that I have to write to you and your readers. I have written a letter to The Australian but I don't know whether they will publish it.

I was radically misquoted. I would have never used the term "poetic licence," for example. My position is that I would like to wait to hear what Ishmael himself has to say. There was never a good reason for him to "lie" about the facts. Is it more impressive that he was a child soldier for 2 years, or 2 months? Ultimately, what's the difference in the degree of suffering this kid endured? When he was writing this book, he didn't have any sense that it would become a bestseller, so what would be the point in inventing facts? And if he was lying, why would he be so stupid as to mix up major dates? That doesn't make sense.

It seems to me that you guys are awfully naive in accepting your Murdoch produced "news" as gospel. Hmmm. Do you think there might be an agenda in the decision to go after a third world author whose work is making people aware of human rights abuses in his country?

Something to think about.

Yours truly,

Dan Chaon
"The creative writing teacher"
Jan. 21st, 2008 10:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Ishmael
hey dan,

thanks for coming by. i'm going to post your reply in a seperate entry so people can see it.

in answer to your specific question, i'm not actually accepting murdoch as gospel. since i figure you don't know me, my interest in literary fakes is more of an academic one, as i've written a book around the concept. i'm more interested in the 'weight' of truth, which is not to play down what you're going through here, but it's why the story has caught my attention.
Oct. 10th, 2008 01:52 pm (UTC)
I just read Beah's memoir without being aware of any of this going on. That being said, after reading a few articles about this (e.g., from Slate), I'm left wondering: Really?

As a reader, I was neither fascinated by the timelines nor the length of time Beah spent as a soldier. Sure, I read the timeline at the end of the paperback but what what really got me thinking were his descriptions of the attacks and the reactions, his detachment as soldier, his feelings of anger... well, you get my point. Nowhere have I read any disputes about his witnessing the brutal murder of civilians for the sheer joy of killing by soldiers and the use of cocaine and other substances (including war movies) to 'train' child soldiers. To me, that is what matters in his book, not those timelines. Now if someone wanted to start disputing those experiences, I'm willing to listen to the arguments, but until then, the debates about timelines and names and fake fathers just seems silly at best.
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