April 2008

Marie Myung-Ok Lee


Fake Memoirs and the New Racial "Passing"

The author of the much-touted memoir, Love and Consequences, about a foster child who escaped gang life in South Central Los Angeles, Margaret Seltzer (who wrote under the pseudonym Margaret Jones), turned out to be a white woman who grew up in wealthy Sherman Oaks (the part where “Desperate Housewives” is filmed). The house of cards came tumbling down when she was unmasked by her sister, after a prominent story about the book appeared in The New York Times.

While so much of this story is noteworthy in the post-James Frey era (in fact, she seems to have even outdone Frey in terms of the magnitude of her deceit), one glaring but less-examined aspect of this story is her participation in a longstanding literary genre: white writers pretending to be Native American.

Perhaps it has to do with the abominable way Native Americans have been treated historically that memoirs of unimaginable deprivation and cruelty are almost guiltily appealing to readers and lauded by all-too-credulous cultural arbeiters such as the The New York Times (profiles on the book and author appeared in the House & Home and Book sections) and Oprah, as they reflexively embrace these “human stories.” So much so that the “poor abused Indian” memoir has become a sub-genre of the recently popular genre of sexually abused child/gay/drug addict/Holocaust survivor memoir, which has spawned plenty of fake memoirists of its own.

The literary fascination with Native Americans goes back to the seventeenth century with the popularity of so-called captivity narratives, titillating, sometimes embellished autobiographical accounts of being kidnapped by Indians. These accounts were runaway bestsellers of their day: in colonial New England, houses had two books: the Bible and The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Mary Rowlandson’s account of her time among the Wampanoag Indians. In the early twentieth century, “Grey Owl,” a.k.a., Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, an English-born man, wrote a series of popular autobiographies and subsequently embarked on a lecture tour and even visited the British royal family to tell stories about his life as an Indian existing in harmony with nature. His books are credited with starting the conservation movement in Canada, and he wasn’t found out until shortly after his death in 1938. He has been followed by writers such as “Forrest Carter,” whose 1976 account, The Education of Little Tree, of being a Cherokee orphan raised by mystical and loving grandparents also received rave reviews in The Times and became a best seller; this author, whose real name is Asa “Ace” Carter, was actually the leader of a local Ku Klux Klan branch, and was unmasked, as Seltzer had been, by a relative.

“Nasdijj” became a darling of critics when his memoir about his hardscrabble life on the Navaho rez, which included being raped by his white father and of watching his son die of fetal alcohol syndrome. His memoirs were excerpted in Esquire and won a prestigious PEN award before he was found to be a white man named Timothy Barrus whose only previous published work was gay pornography. This inglorious group of fakers is populated with dozens of current authors, prominent and less so, whose lineage has come under suspicion, many of them unable or unwilling to produce any kind of documentary evidence of their tribal affiliations.

The question that comes out of this is, what is so bad about being white that drives these authors to undertake elaborate feats of deception, which must, of course, affect their day-to-day lives. Is this the racial “passing” of the twenty-first century? And why Native American? In terms of melanin, many Native Americans look white -- but then again so do many blacks and other mixed race people, but we have yet to see the fake memoirs from these groups.

It’s telling that in the racial hierarchy, no writer wants to pretend he or she is black or mixed-race Asian or Latino, even though stories/fantasies of hardship in these groups abound. Further, no one wants to actually be Native American (i.e., live on the rez, endure the higher poverty and disease rates, etc.) but many want to pretend to be one. The 2006 census showed that from 1960 to 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry jumped by a factor of six, without a concurrent increase in birth rates or changes in counting methodologies. In short, being Native American is cool.

As a person of color, of Asian descent, to be exact, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what other minority group I’d like to be a part of, should the opportunity to switch arise. However, I did get a taste of the Native American writer mystique when I attended, as a neophyte writer, a writers’ conference filled with National Book Award winners. I was surprised to find myself invited into the company of some of these luminaries, one of whom in particular was fascinated by my background of growing up in rural Minnesota and wanted to hear more about my fishing “traditions.” The fishing opener is the closest thing we have to a secular holiday in Minnesota, and so, pleased to be eating dinner at the “big” table, I was more than happy to oblige.

This eminence grise went out of his way to introduce me to other famous folks and wrote out reading lists. I was still baffled but pleased by my good fortune. My other friends at the conference complained that there was no access to the established writers and yet, I had somehow been granted an ALL ACCESS PASS.

This didn’t last long; the reading lists the man gave me were heavy on Ojibwe cultural texts, and I realized, as I fumbled with my childhood coin purse -- a leather pouch with beads, that, if you looked at it carefully, said in cheap gilt SOUVENIR OF HIBBING, MINNESOTA -- that this man believed I was a Native American writer. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t disabuse him of this notion right away -- I was having a fabulous time at the conference -- but he found out the truth and banished me soon enough.

Ironically, as a minority writer, I feel that it’s more difficult to break into the literary world, and I tread carefully in my choice of subject matter, fearing too much Asian exotica would brand me as a literary sell-out. Yet, these white writers are selling out a culture that isn’t even theirs, and the so-called best minds in the publishing and book review world seem unable to sniff out these imposters, or even, really spend a lot of effort doing so.

Maybe this new literary trend has to do with the state of today’s rootless society, that a more generous assessment might be that artists reflect what is going on in society, and this is just evidence of a collective yearning to connect with a “tribe.” Margaret Seltzer indeed claims she wrote about a fake life as a half-Indian gangbanger to give voice to the voiceless, to head off stereotypes of “South-Central-as-petting-zoo.” But whose voice is she championing with her disturbing lies about an alcoholic Indian birth mother, drug running, driveby shootings, and breeding pitbulls for gang members? Listening to her NPR interview, it seems that she gleaned much of her information about South Central from the Wayan Brothers’ spoof film, Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. By falsely claiming authentic experiences, she does grave disservice to the same, unnamed “people” she claims she wants to help. It was Wittgenstein who said that a writer had to know herself, really know herself, first, or all her writing will be a form of deceit. Seltzer and other writers contemplating “passing” might want to consider joining the tribe of Truth, first.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the author of the novel Somebody's Daughter. She teaches creative writing at Brown University."