Inventing the Past: A Conversation
Colum McCann: I’m going to throw out a few quotations that I hope will inspire some of our conversation today. The first is from So Long, See You Tomorrow, by the great William Maxwell:
What we, or at any rate I, refer to confidently as a memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really just a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
Secondly, Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” And finally, according to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.”
So, with these remarks as context, can any of us define this strange, nebulous difference between fiction and nonfiction?
Imma Monsó: This difference is not important for me. I’ll give you an example. I was finishing a novel when my partner died, and I didn’t want to continue writing fiction. So I began to write something like a diary, or a memoir. I wanted to catch all the details of our life together, and also all the details about mourning—because it’s very interesting, our difficulty to confront death and loss. It’s even rather amusing—the sentences you hear when you have lost someone. I was writing every day these pages, but I didn’t want to publish them. They were a diary, a daily account of the facts. It wasn’t literature for me.
And eight or nine months ago something changed. Suddenly, one day, I felt a certain pleasure, and this pleasure was greater than the sorrow of the therapeutic writing that I was doing. Suddenly I recovered my sense of humor, my ironical side, my usual style in my other books. I knew at this moment that it could be a book, it could be literature. And I don’t want to call that memoir. But the difference is not important to me.
Laila Lalami: Well, with the times we live in, we seem to be trapped in a work of fiction. But for me, the distinction does matter. It matters because a book does not exist in the void. When you publish a book, there is a contract between the writer and the reader. If I say that a book is fiction, that affects the way the reader approaches it. If I say, “This truly did happen,” that affects how the reader will interpret it. And, as writers, when we use historical fact in fiction, there are also ethical questions about how we’re going to use those facts. These things all matter.
Arthur Japin: To me, it’s very unimportant, strangely enough. Having said that, of course, almost all of my books are about real lives. But I do make fiction up—it’s a very complicated thing. One of the strangest things I’ve learned is that it is possible to invent the truth, as I found with this first novel, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi. I research my books, and always there are hiatuses, empty places in the archives. You see that something must have happened, that something must have changed in that life, and you cannot find what it is. And after having lived with this person, with this character, for so long, knowing so much about him or her, something wonderful happens. You come to this void, and you ask yourself, “What happened?”—and suddenly there’s a voice that answers.
I’m well aware that it’s my own voice, that I’m not in a séance. But Kwasi Boachi has been out now in Holland for eleven or twelve years, and still, almost every week, someone finds something in an archive or a letter from a great grandfather in which the main characters are mentioned. Over the years, many of the things that I made up, which this voice told me, have proven to be true. Through this empathy, you find a voice and the core of this character. You’re so close to it, it actually becomes easy to invent the truth.
Michael Wallner: I had a similar experience. In my book April in Paris a German soldier takes off his uniform, puts on civilian clothes, and strolls around Paris. I had a reading in Cologne, and an old lady came to me and said, “Do you know my husband?” I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, that’s what happened, he was an interpreter, he walked through Paris like that.”
McCann: On June 16th, 1904, Leopold Bloom walked around Dublin. My great grandfather walked those same streets, but Leopold Bloom is much more real to me now than my great grandfather, whom I never met. Sometimes the characters we create are more real to us than the six and half billion people in this world whom we haven’t yet met. Do you think that fiction writers might be the unacknowledged historians of the future?
Lalami: I don’t remember the history books that I read in school, but I do remember the novels that I read that were set in those days—and that is what I think about when I think about the past. I remember the stories, because stories are part of how we live or how we survive.
Japin: You know, one question I am often asked by historians is, “Why don’t you stick with the facts?” But if you stick only to the facts and do not tell a story, those facts will not survive. There’s a picture of Kwasi Boachi, for example, that had been lost for many years. My German publisher found the picture and gave me a copy. I wanted all my translators to have this picture on their desks while they were translating his lines, so I went to a copy center. I put this picture down on the desk, and the boy behind the counter, who I’m sure didn’t finish his schooling, who likely didn’t read Dutch, said, “Oh, that’s a famous prince.” That moment is why I take all these facts and put them into fiction—because they come alive again. Kwasi Boachi is alive again after 150 years. And that’s the only way you can put the love and the life back into the facts.
McCann: So, Arthur, how does a writer who’s white, Dutch, European, make the triumphant imaginative leap back to an African prince? How does he make the moral, ethical leap back to another culture that is not his own, nor his own time?
Japin: Well, people always are amazed. When Kwasi Boachi came out, they were amazed that I was white. When In Lucia’s Eyes came out, they were amazed that I was a man and not a woman. When Big World came out, they were amazed that I was tall and not short. But that’s what the writer does—you become someone else.
Lalami: I agree that with books, with all this imaginary life, there really are no borders. We go to books because we want there not to be borders. So you should be able to write about whatever it is you want to write about—whatever character, whatever era. But the question isn’t so much what you write about but how well and how convincingly. There are good books by writers who are white about people of color and there are bad books by white writers about people of color—and vice versa.
McCann: But if you are that person of color, surely you examine such books more closely than, say, a white critic coming from a different angle?
Lalami: When we write, we try to get at the truth through the lie of the story. If somebody writes a book about my culture, with which I’m obviously very familiar, the lie truly has to be very convincing. If it’s not, it pulls me out—where another reader may not notice that. This is why I was talking about the dialogue between the book and the reader. The book does not exist by itself, but with both the reader and the author.
Japin: But Laila, what you forget is this empathy, this acting part of the whole thing. If you ask, “How can a white man speak about African Americans, or about black people?” that suggests we’re so different that I couldn’t possibly imagine how someone else is feeling. I can, and that’s the fun of writing. That’s probably the reason I write—why I take a different character every time, and a different setting, and experience the way it is to live that life, through writing and acting and imagining, and empathy.
In Ghana, where the history that I depict in Kwasi Boachi took place, they made a huge theatrical play out of it, with two hundred people taking part. I asked the people involved, “How does it feel having me come over to talk about this history?” And they said, “We’re happy that you do it, because we’re so busy, we’re struggling so much, that we can only look at the present day, or maybe try to look ahead, but we never look back.” If I had given into the shame that I felt in the first place, and hadn’t written the book, I think a lot would have been lost. So don’t be afraid. Trust that voice if those voices exist for you.
Lalami: I agree. When I talk about responsibility, what I have in mind is not my responsibility towards my critics, but my responsibility towards my writing and my characters. I’m writing a new book set in Casablanca, about a young man taken in by an Islamist group. It’s a touchy subject and everyone has an opinion about it. When it’s a subject like that, I can’t let all the other opinions and everybody else’s ways of looking at the subject interfere with my own way of dealing with the characters. I’m trying to be as specific to that character as possible and as honest to that character—especially if he’s going to do something that’s not very good.
Japin: That’s interesting. If I started to write about things that actually happen around me and set them in the present, I would be too involved. I would get too angry. I have to distance myself to understand why people do things. Because nobody ever acts out of pure maliciousness—that doesn’t exist, and that’s not interesting. If I look around me now, and I think about the people who flew into the World Trade Center, I do not have the distance yet to totally immerse myself in those people and fall in love with them the way I should if I make them characters—and show all their sides and show why they thought this was a good thing. I need to have that distance, and history provides that distance for me.
McCann: Is there any part of history that a fiction writer should not go to? Is there any sort of story that we should stay away from?
Japin: I wrote a book called The Big World about little people who lived in Coney Island in their own little world, their own little Lilliputian town. One of them was in Germany traveling before the war. I got this from a photograph I found. I saw all these little people in their little world in 1938—and also saw the war coming and knew what was going to happen to these people. I started researching it, and I found this fact—as a writer you’d say it’s a wonderful fact, but of course it’s horrible. In Auschwitz, Mengele had a fascination for little people. He wrote plays that he had them perform. The only family that came out of Auschwitz complete was a family of little people. And I thought, this is wonderful for my book. And at the very same moment the project died for me. There was no way that I wanted to go into Auschwitz with my method of not worrying about the facts and making these people live again. That’s where it stopped for me.
Wallner: I would say you could go anywhere. Especially in Germany, there is a necessity not to forget. History, of course, is made of millions of details. The details are lost over the years. So we know that France was occupied from ’42 to ’44, but what interested me, after I got into research, was what really happened between 10 and 10:30 a.m., between the occupiers and the French people. What did they do? Where did the French people, and the Germans, get their hair cut? Diving into that changed the plot, it changed the characters—it even changed the ending.
McCann: So if you’re true to the texture of the time, you don’t have to necessarily get every fact and figure correct.
Wallner: You wouldn’t—you wouldn’t get them. So you have to invent.
Lalami: I agree that there isn’t anything that you couldn’t write about or any perspective that you couldn’t write from. Whether other people would feel comfortable with that is another issue. I’m reminded of a controversy that arose in Morocco a few years ago when the author Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote a beautiful, wonderful book called This Blinding Absence of Light. It was based on real events. There was a desert prison where King Hassan had put all of his opponents and tortured them. It was an absolutely terrible chapter of Moroccan history that went on for eighteen years. And during that time Tahar Ben Jelloun didn’t speak in favor of any of these people who had been imprisoned, though he spoke on many other issues. When people were released and were trying to write their own books, their own memoirs about what they went through, he sat down and interviewed one of the survivors and wrote a book about it. And he gave part of the royalties to the man, but it was still a huge controversy in Morocco. People were saying, “How dare you write about it? The people should be telling their own stories. Where were you for eighteen years?”
So there is a responsibility that the author has. People’s lives are not product. You can use events that really happened, but when we are inspired by these events in our work, we must not trample over people’s lives.
Monsó: It’s for that reason that I prefer to write about my own life.
McCann: But then do you make a product of your own life?
Monsó: Yes, of course—it’s very elaborate.
McCann: Is there a dilemma in doing that? Is there a personal dilemma in making a product of your own life?
Monsó: No, because when you think you are doing literature—and not only a daily account of your own life—you manage to have distance enough. There are real people in my book, but they must come to life as characters, not as persons who have lived.
It’s very difficult. I try to be completely honest and I think it’s so important that the author be tender with his characters. I was with my publisher once, and she had noticed that my mother had a very surprising personality—she was a very odd person. So one day my publisher asked, “What’s your mother like?” And at the moment I didn’t answer because it’s so, so complicated. And then I went home, and I wrote four hundred pages—and that was the answer. That was my third novel, and it was the only way to describe that individual personality. Fiction allows us the manner, the right manner, to do that.