Literary memoirs, lies, race, and appropriation

by Carmen Van Kerckhove and Latoya Peterson

The latest fake memoir scandal erupted last week. Margaret B. Jones’ critically acclaimed book “Love and Consequences,” about a half white, half Native American girl’s experiences with sexual abuse, foster care, and gang violence, turned out to be a complete fabrication. Not only did Margaret Seltzer (her real name) actually grow up with her white biological family in well-to-do neighborhood, but she even faked the foundation she supposedly started to end gang violence. Latoya and Carmen had an IM conversation about it…

Carmen: It’s funny because just a few days before I this story broke, I had been thinking about this very issue while skimming some book reviews
in Elle. Why is it that these literary memoirs about people with fucked-up lives are written by white folks? Is there something about a white person experiencing this kind of dysfunction that seems unusual or abnormal? Whereas if a person of color wrote something similar, it would strike people as par for the course? And therefore less marketable?

Latoya: Def – it’s all about the fucked up lives of white people, I guess because they just assume minorities are fucked up so there is nothing special about that. I was reading ABW, and one of her guest bloggers mentioned how Felicia “Snoop” Pearson of The Wire has a book about her life and experiences…that didn’t get nearly as much press. And, I’ll agree, probably not a $100K advance either.

But that’s neither here or there.

My question is why did no one pick up the phone and verify the basics of her account? The publishing industry wants to act like they publish too many books to check – but they can’t take 30 minutes to call the Child Welfare department or whatever state organization is in charge of child care and verify she was there from xxxx – xxxx?

Carmen: Seriously. And if you think about how long the life cycle of a book is (can take 2 or 3 years to actually get published) – there is plenty of time for some basic fact-checking.

I was really struck by the fact that she chose to identify as half Native-American, half white, when in real life she’s just white. What did you make of that?

Latoya: Minority street cred?

Maybe she was trying to find the most oppressed group to identify with?

I’m just confused about the whole situation. The biggest thing I’m wondering about – if these were people she knew through her work, why didn’t she publish their memoirs? Or a book about her experiences? Or an anthology of their stories? Why did she feel the need to internalize their suffering and insert herself into the narrative?

Carmen: Who knows – maybe her agent told her that would be an easier sell? Not saying she has no blame/say in the matter, but there are people other than her involved in this project, I’m sure.

It is amazing though, that after Oprah ripped James Frey a new asshole on (inter)national television, that publishers wouldn’t take at least some basic precautions to prevent a similar debacle.

Latoya: Seriously.

And remember that person who was exposed a few years ago? Was it JT Leroy? Another fictionalized story of extreme poverty and suffering that people ate up with a spoon.

Why don’t PoC memoirs get this kind of attention? Do you think there’s some weird sympathy/empathy that kicks in when it’s another white person? Something that isn’t extended to people of color?

Carmen: Ohhhh yes – that whole hoax surrounding JT Leroy was pretty interesting. Forgot about that, but it does seem to tie into this general pattern.

It seems to me that the PoC memoirs that get the most play are those by famous people (duh), but also those that specifically deal with race. A couple that come to mind are James McBride’s “The Color of Water” and Rebecca Walker’s “Black, White, and Jewish.”

Have you ever read or heard of “A Child Called It?” That shit has been on the NY Times bestseller list for like, decades, and there have been a few sequels. I wonder if a story like that would be as appealing if it was about a PoC child? Maybe there’s an expectation that childhood abuse just isn’t that remarkable when it happens to a non-white child? Because there’s a sense that some lives are worth more than other? Similar to the way the media covers missing white girls way more than missing non-white children?

Latoya: I agree.

I keep thinking about that weird quote I read somewhere talking about the art involved in playing someone who is impoverished or a junkie, and how it is seen as remarkable acting when white actors play these roles, but when black actors play similar roles it is seen as normal. (Then again, there is that whole counter argument about Halle Berry & Denzel Washington’s Oscar wins – but that’s another conversation entirely.)

Yeah, I think there is this weird racial reinforcement that goes on where people only expect PoCs to tell PoC stories and nothing else; but if you are trying to sell a PoC story, it can be very hard to find a buyer. It’s just strange. I can write about coming to terms with my race and the burden and all that – but I can’t write about my life and how race plays into it. It’s like publishers get confused.

This situation does make me wonder though about how book deals are granted in the first place. Part of me wonders how it is so easy for some people to get a memoir deal and so difficult for others. I took this yoga and writing class where this white girl just got offered a book deal because she was at a party and told a funny story.

I was sitting there in lotus like WTF? I need to hang with different people.

Now to be fair, the other two white girls with book deals worked for them, went through rejections and solicitations all that. So it’s not like book deals fall from the sky for white people. But it does feel like that sometimes…

On the other hand, I do wonder if a lot of PoCs are actively seeking book deals about these things. I know a few friends with some amazing life stories – starting with being born dead and revived – but everyone’s real blase about it. The idea is that we’ll write a memoir when there’s something to write about. There is also the normalization of what you go through – I’m sure my cousins could kick Margaret Seltzer’s ass with life stories stranger than the one’s she made up, but…they don’t really see it as something that’s special. A lot of people go through shit. You deal and move on.

I think maybe to pen a memoir, you have to feel like your life story is remarkable and worth telling…and convince a publisher of the same thing. So maybe that’s where a lot of the issues lie.