“I feel like such a fraud,” said Norma Khouri. She was sitting next to me on a panel, addressing the large audience gathered in the tent at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival in August last year. Our panel was titled “It's My Story Regardless,” and subtitled, “What is the writer's responsibility to facts when telling their own story?”
“You are all writers,” Khouri went on, “and I am only a hairdresser. I am only writing so my friend will not have died in vain”.
I was filled with shame. I had just been babbling about some writerly point regarding the “construction of realities” on the page, and here was she talking about the real world of oppressive life and violent death. What did literary and intellectual concerns matter in the face of real evil? What did it matter how one chose one's words when one had to cry aloud to the world; my friend was stabbed to death by her father?
This August, I have been following the unfolding Norma Khouri hoax with obsessive fascination, and renewed shame. The fascination is not just because of a bewildered admiration of her consummate artistry as a conwoman, but because her hoax reveals the fragile, but I hope still beating, heart of autobiography. She has unwittingly demonstrated that an autobiography is nothing if it is not "true".
It is not that anyone these post-modern days expects or believes in a whole truth, or one truth; every reader now knows that the selection, ordering and emphasis of the details of a life can alter the “truth”. But still, there is a distinction in the reader's mind: the events that are recorded in a life either did or did not happen.
If they did, the autobiography is “truthful”; if they did not, then the autobiography is a con. A bit of fibbing or embroidery is different. Everyone does that every day, but a whole life invented and presented as true takes advantage of emotions and ought to be filed, not under fiction, but in the “Great Australian Confidence Tricksters” section of the library. (I have no patience with suddenly calling a false autobiography a work of fiction. Fiction is its own kind of creature, based on its own truth, not an autobiography caught faking it).
Even in literary biography, where the main interest and joy lies in the writing rather than the facts of a life, the reader expects the events to have happened - always allowing, of course, for the distortions of memory. Readers know there will be shadowings, highlightings, omissions and flutterings of wings to distract from the real location of the nest. Yet they trust the writer is trying to give them her heart and mind - not take the readers' hearts and minds for a ride. They trust their emotions are not being jerked about to provide the rent for a house on Bribie Island.
As to the renewal of shame; I have come to see the real issue lies not in having our emotions duped, embarrassing and hurtful as that may be, but in having allowed our reason to be duped. While emotions were aroused, reason ignored the fact that Khouri was manipulating and inflaming unacknowledged anti-Islamic prejudices. My intellect remonstrated; you can see what she is doing with her tragic story, her emotive language; she is appealing to your irrational hidden fears of strangeness, you suspect that the account is untrue, perhaps even with a hidden political agenda; don't fall for her emotional house of cards.
It’s taken a while, but I'd like to speak up again, this time for literary and intellectual “babble” in the face of exploitation and prejudice. Unexamined emotions are not always right. They can be warm and generous and pleasurable and we couldn't do without them, but they have poorly developed powers of discrimination and can be easily fooled. It is necessary to examine “constructions of reality” in both autobiography and fiction. We may find such constructions made of grubby and flimsy cards indeed.
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