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Literary Fakes, the Personal Touch

Yesterday, I wrote about Ishmael Beah, the child soldier who wrote a book about his experiences and is now caught up in the oh so fun literary scandal of Did I Lie, Did I Not. Well, to add to the continual interest of this story, I got a post by Dan Chaon, the creative writing teaching of Beah who was quoted in the original article.

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"

Neat, hey?

Anyhow, I suppose, in a fashion, as regular readers here will know, my interest in literary fakes--proven or not--is one that I've had for a while, and which was, in actuality, one of the influences in writing 26lies, which is an autobiography that features a lot of information about literary fakes. My interest in this stuff then, is somewhat academic, as I have no investment in if Beah is proven to be true or not, and yesterday's post was written from that standpoint. However, I can well imagine that my half assed post on a story that I've taken no time to research, and which is taking its factual parts out of the Australian, would do well to cause upset to people involved. For that, I'll offer an apology, but it is more than likely that I will make some half assed commentary again on this blog, either about this topic in particular, or about another, and if you could keep in mind that it's not commentary aimed at the people, but the story, it'll be all nice and chilled and laid back. Or, perhaps not. I'm usually good either way.

In response to Chaon's last comment, however, about the Murdoch run conspiracy against Beah, I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass on that one. Since the story has come out in an Australian paper, I'm simply going to put it down to the country's fascination with finding literary fakes and then publicly bashing them for a while. We've a reasonable enough history of it, after all, though the time could perhaps be better spent exposing and knifing the politicians who lie to the country and then get caught out in, say, elections, but then we'd probably really be getting down to who has a choking hold over the media here.

Still, thank you for coming by and posting, Dan. It's appreciated.

If others are interested, there are replies by Beah himself and his publisher, here.


Jan. 22nd, 2008 09:49 am (UTC)
Dear Ben,

Sorry to sound a paranoid note in the last part of my response to your post. In the U.S., the main association with Murdoch is FOX News, which is a very slanted, conservative venue, a big supporter of Bush, (whose regime has been the kind of thing that makes an old liberal professor very paranoid.)

I know almost nothing about the history of Aussie journalism ("Dingos Ate My Baby," aside) but I have to admit that the reporter I talked to was very crafty.

For example:

REPORTER: What do you make of the revelations of factual flaws in Ishmael Beah's story?

ME: Ummm. Well, I wouldn't necessarily be concerned about it until after I hear what Ishmael has to say.

RESULTANT QUOTE: "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.

REPORTER: So you feel that there was a degree of poetic licence in the writing of this memoir?

ME: Well, I wouldn't use the term "poetic licence." But there is a difference between a piece of reportage and a memoir. The reporter is aware of himself as an observer, and is always 'writing' in his head as events occur; the memoirist is relying on memory. I don't think this book is being presented as a piece of journalism. Ishmael wasn't taking notes as he was running for his life. The book is a memoir.


ARG! You can see how foolish and sloppy I was in responding to the questions, and that is what made me so upset.

I'm keeping my mouth shut from now on. Ishmael is a smart guy and he can speak for himself.

Thanks, Ben, for letting me say my peice.

Best wishes,

Dan Chaon
Jan. 22nd, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Responding
hey dan,

that's cool. i'm glad you got to say your piece, and i hope it gets linked round for you.

as for the local media reporting here, it is not the same as fox media in the states, though you wouldn't call it liberal or balanced and fair in some regards, y'know? but the country has had a long sort of interest in literary fakes, tracking back, i think to the 1940s, now. people like helen darville, and norma khori are examples of more recent fakes that have made a bit entrance to the scene, and then been revealed to be lies. which of course has very little to do with your situation, but it might go some way to explaining the interest (or not).

as for the journalist... man, they're all about twisting your words for what they want. you got to watch for that.

anyhow, i hope it works out for you. you got anything else you need voiced public, let me know, and i'll give you some blog space here.
Feb. 2nd, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Responding
Peter Wilson is a well known journalist here in Australia. Seeing that Beah's supporters seem intent on portraying him as a cold-hearted bloodhound intent on monstering war-traumatised children, I think it's worth referring people to this story of his role in arranging the evacuation of a badly injured Iraqi child to safety:
Since Wilson is being portrayed as the type who would "do anything for a story", it's particularly worth noticing that while other journos were crowding around the child's bed til he begged to be left alone, Wilson did not enter the ward because he did not want to contaminate a sterile environment.
Dec. 13th, 2008 05:54 am (UTC)
Re: Responding

i am reeserach a new hoax book, not pubbed yet in NYC, but soon, and i need your help in chatting with you. can you email me at danbloom At gmail DOT com


Tufts 1971

this story is even MORE amazing than the BEAH story...and when the hoax is revealed it will make world headlines. trust me...do email me sir