Make believe

While speaking to a few dozen friends recently, I tried out a confession.  I said that I was not really who I claimed to be; I was not as old as they knew me and that I had stolen the identity of someone older, someone who had gone through a much richer vein of experiences than I.
     It was a joke, and it fell completely flat.  Only a few people knew the references.  None seemed to care.
     I was making fun of two figures from the writing world who had just been in the news.  James Frey had been exposed by The Smoking Gun for having exaggerated many chapters in his life for his memoir A Million Little Pieces.  And J.T. Leroy had been exposed as not the bad boy male writer he claimed to be, but a woman who had apparently done none of what the author had claimed.
     Perhaps we writers get more excited by what other writers do than most people.
     But I understand the impulse to make believe.

That’s why I write fiction.  I’ve already lived my life one way; so when I write, I’d rather inhabit the lives of those who have enjoyed or endured other kinds of lives.  In my writing I freely make use of scenes from my own life and sights that I have seen, and I feel the same freedom in making things up: exaggerate, distort, stretch, narrow.
     I do sometimes write memoir and in those instances I strive for a close relationship to actual events, at least as I remember them in my memory.  And I know that memory is selective.  I remember once talking about a moment in childhood with my younger sister.  We remembered very different things.  An old friend from college days popped into my life last year.  She reminded me of a long conversation we had had one winter night thirty years ago.  I remembered it for one thing, she for others.  When she brought them up, they made sense in terms of who I was back then, but I couldn’t actually recall what she told me.
     But I think there’s something wrong in claiming to write memoir and then include things I know didn’t happen.
     Still, I understand the impulse within a writer to make things up, even one’s own life.  It’s very seductive.  I leave you to think over this excerpt from one of my favorite writers, the Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.  In Chapter 55 of his novel, The Shadow of the Shadow (Penguin edition 1992), he wrote:

The way things used to be: Tomas Wong

    I would have liked to have sailed away in all the ships I ever loaded, all the ships whose passengers I helped down the gangplank, carrying their bags covered with brightly colored labels from hotels, customs inspections, railroads.  I would have liked to have gotten aboard those big shiny white boats in the sunshine and gone away.
    I’m not from here.  From this land where I was born.  That’s something life teaches you, if you’re willing to learn, that nobody’s from where they were born, where they grew up.  That nobody’s really from anywhere.  There’s some people that try to keep up the illusion, working themselves all up over memories, and knickknacks and flags and anthems.  What they don’t know is that we all belong to the places we’ve never even been before.  If there’s any kind of legitimate nostalgia, it’s for everything we’ve never seen, the women we’ve never slept with, never dreamed of, the friends we haven’t made, the books we haven’t read, all that food steaming in the pots we’ve never eaten out of.  That’s the only kind of real nostalgia there is.
    Another thing you learn along the way is that at some point or other the road took a wrong turn and things didn’t necessarily have to turn out the way they did.  Nobody should have had to eat bug-infested rice or half-rotten corn in the oil fields, paying three times the regular price at the company store.  Nobody ought to have had to go out in the middle of the rains to close the valves on well number seven; muck around in the middle of the jungle laying pipe, drilling wells in the swamps, blasting dynamite, sleeping in the wet ground, taking in starvation wages while the foreman eats ham and butter out of the cans we carried on our backs.  And the bossman, far away in some big house in the city, sleeps in a bed without ever knowing who we are, without ever acknowledging the real source of his pleasure and his power, without ever having to think about us, while we carry him on our shoulders and our backs, pushing and grunting like so many ants, pushing his stocks up higher and higher every day in New York.
    That’s why I don’t want to go on those shiny white ships.  Because I’d have to pay for my dreams working eleven-hour days as a waiter, a busboy, shining the polished brass handrails, sweating in the heat of the kitchen.  That’s why the big boats stay far away, as I watch them come and go from every port, from all my dreams, from inside my nostalgia.    

If you haven’t read Paco Ignacio Taibo II, try him out.

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4 Comments

  1. Anjali

    Great piece, Mahmud! Your statement, “I said that I was not really who I claimed to be” reminded me of one of the short poems of Ramanujan that I have been mulling over lately:

    Self-Portrait

    I resemble everyone
    but myself, and sometimes see
    in shop-windows,
    despite the well-known laws
    of optics,
    the portrait of a stranger,
    date unknown,
    often signed in a corner
    by my father. (CP 23)

    I also loved the lyricism of that quote by Tomas Wong, but I must disagree with the blanket nature of his statement “nobody’s really from anywhere….What they don’t know is that we all belong to the places we’ve never even been before.” I don’t know–don’t we carry a bit of our childhood home wherever we go? I know that marathi food, the hills surrounding Pune and the cuture of the villages in those hills, the language, etc stay with me and shape my view of the rest of the world. This of course doesn’t mean Pune is only mine or I only of it. But I cannot deny its formative influence on my life. And you too carry so much of your life in Bangladesh with you in your writing, do you not?

  2. Tony

    I understand Anjali’s objection, but I interpret Taibo differently. The idea that nobody is from anywhere is tied, in Taibo’s story, to the idea that everyone is moving somewhere. The steamer, obviously, relates this mobility. But then the working-class struggle also communicates a kind of stifled mobility. The idea that “we all belong to the places we’ve never even been before” forcefully communicates, I think, that we “belong” or are beholden to our “programming,” our desire for the things that we can never have, those things that compel us to work, futilely perhaps, in terrible conditions.
    Even our nostalgia for a childhood, as Anjali promotes it, is programmed. We cannot remember, for instance, our earliest days. For that, we rely on family lore.
    I too share Anjali’s sentiment about the positive power of childhood to shape our future, though. But despite my vivid recollections, I recognize that my memory is hopelessly shot through with the programming that would inform many of those of my generation.

  3. Mahmud

    I’ve saved that Tomas Wong quote for many years because I liked the prose, liked the ideas, liked his spirit. I’ve wanted to share it with others and thought that this context was one where it could mean something. I quoted it to suggest that there is in each of us, a deep down desire, for “everything we’ve never seen”, for all that we have not been. And yet, sometimes, as for Tomas Wong or the other workers he mentions, the cost may be too high to go for it. For others, make believe may be monetarily lucrative, but you still pay a cost.

    And as for Anjali’s disagreement, well, I have long learned you don’t have to agree with everything a fictional, or even a nonfictional, character says. I personally try to avoid saying “everyone,” “always,” “never,” “no one.” But I also know that in the heat of passion, we often say such things forcefully.

    Tony’s remark makes sense though it’s one of those ideas that will take me a while to digest. It may well be true, but I’ve long forgotten the rest of Taibo’s novel to really be able to judge.

  4. Anjali

    Maybe I was too vehement in taking exception to that one sentence in that passage. I didn’t mean to imply that I disagree with the entire quoted passage. Maybe it is more to do with the fact that right now I am working on literature that tries to counteract larger generalizing categories by emphasizing location and geo-cultural specificities.

    And now let me contradict what I said earlier (I do this all the time!)– I also feel that while the locational attachments are real, they aren’t enough to link permanently self and place or self and world as we would like them to. So on the one hand I do insist that the place, the culture, the food, etc that one has grown up with stays with one for a long time, but whether one can reach that “kingdom of childhood” ever again is another matter altogether. After all, in looking for our “home,” aren’t we all a little like Ramanujan’s “adopted daughters researching parents /through maiden names / in changing languages…”?

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