“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth”—Albert Camus
“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” —Wallace Stevens (in Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose)
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”—Tennessee Williams (in The Glass Menagerie)
Do Fiction Writers Have to Tell the Truth?
Geri answers the question as it pertains to one of her own stories. Parts of this response also appear on the So to Speak Journal website.
Unlike her nonfiction counterpart, a fiction writer is rarely castigated for not adhering to the historical truth in a novel. Readers enter into a piece of fiction because they are seduced into thinking, “well, this could be true,” and staying hinges upon the beauty of the writing, the availability and depth of the characters, and any number of crafty methods used by a fiction writer to lure her reader. I like to think of it as a license to lie, cheat, steal, plunder, and it’s one of the reasons I love the form of fiction. It’s like playing. However, there’s nothing innocent about a piece of writing once a writer lets her kite go. Once it is out of her hands, becomes an offering, finds its reader, it becomes information—a thing of power—and there is the rub.
It is one thing to write a fiction, and it is another thing to set that fiction in a specific time that references a specific history. This is especially so when the writer of the story must leave her own set of circumstances, must rightly engage in the research of said history, because it’s not something she herself has experienced. It’s not part of her own tradition, but rather a tradition she has married into.
In my case, this marriage is literal; my story is one that is inspired by the stories of my husband’s family. I have been given permission to do this, to fictionalize the stories, to engage in the activity of imagining, of envisioning, of seizing any number of stories that I have been privy to. It’s territory that is fraught with wrong turns, yet I have jumped in. I’ve tried to steer clear of misappropriation and of misdirection.
In this story, I have tried to fathom, and enter into the psyche of, a woman who came of age in World War II Hong Kong. Whether foolhardy or arrogant, I can only hope that I’ve intuited well in trespassing, that I’ve trodden with compassion, with empathy. Lovely as it is, empathy alone will not do. It’s necessary to show that there is the history, but it’s the impression, rather than the need to catch every single true thing, that creates the illusion of truth. But before that, the writer has to know the truth. The writer has to know that she has a debt to those who will not or cannot speak.
The staging for this story is a nursing home in America, but the voice of the story clearly designates a character whose memory is at sea. She is not confined to place or time in her mind. She does not remain in the nursing home but remembers a past, and this memory displaces her. One could call it dementia. One could call it magical realism. It is not my business to deconstruct the story here but to discuss the role of history in a piece of fiction.
My characters, both the woman from Hong Kong, and her husband, originally from the south of China, are people who come out of a history. They are who they are partly because they are products of a difficult history that has been appropriated by an imagination and some study, and while this is not a history but a fiction, the history looms up as something to be acknowledged, to be reckoned with. I’ve called it “difficult” but it is ever so much more.
One could say, “well, this is a piece of fiction, after all”—and leave it at that. One could say, “well, this story is set in present-day America, and it is in another story where this history is dramatized”—and to some extent, this is true. However, it would seem negligent to let the matter of an under-reported and very ugly history be glossed over, a source of unspeakable pain and humiliation to those who experienced it that remains virtually invisible to those who did not.
It is well known that the Japanese invaded China in the 1930s, that Japanese soldiers took over Hong Kong and many other parts of Asia. But it is less well known that the Japanese war effort established a large number of “comfort stations” in these countries where they requisitioned and kidnapped anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 women and girls into prostitution to service their soldiers.
In my effort to come to grips with this story, I’d compiled a bibliography and read a number of articles about “comfort women,” as they have been called, and I read several books, some of which were written by the women themselves. In the last decade or so, this history has been exposed, and the Japanese government, once unwilling to claim responsibility, has issued an apology.
In the story, I allude to such a history, but I do not spell it out. Similarly, I make a number of allusions to Chinese immigration to the United States without calling any attention to the racist and discriminatory policies that comprised the laws of immigration that permitted, even encouraged European immigration but excluded Chinese immigration. There were a number of them; these were laws that separated families for life, that forced Chinese people in America to carry certificates at all times.
Many Chinese people came to America by way of Latin America and Cuba, where they risked becoming enslaved; they entered the country through loopholes. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and China Men, I first read of how the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the records, and how many of the Chinese people in California claimed citizenship, saying their records were destroyed. The laws were so severe and degrading that California issued an apology in 2009. It wasn’t until June 18, 2012 that the United States Congress issued an apology for these laws.
These historical occasions are much more than a backdrop for this story, which nevertheless takes place a good fifty years after the liberation of the concentration camps, after the dropping of the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” onto the good earth of Japan. In the 1930s and ’40s, when some of the very real people from whom these fictional characters are derived were living in the United States, sending money back to China or Hong Kong, and—whether legally or not—boarding a vessel to cross the great seas, it was next to impossible for Chinese people to gain entrance into the United States.
Conversations with other writers about tracking down the history—the truth behind their fictions—were full of warnings: “Be careful not to become overwhelmed by too many details.” It’s a deep well. You can get lost down there. But you must go down to the bottom. Fiction writers might not need to be as scrupulous as nonfiction writers because they have the playing field to fall back on. It is hard to make a rule for a practice that has “pretense” and “invention” at the core of the convention, but in the end the result will be a marriage of fact and the imagination’s or the voice’s arrangement; the artist’s hand must make form of the clay, and in that clay there must be any number of filaments that ring true—what makes it “seem” true or “look” true might not be the actual facts themselves.
But here, even though it seems as if I keep running into it, I’m trying not to focus on the “seems” part of the art but the debt a writer owes to the history, to the record, to those whose lives that truth has washed over. And if the fiction writer has skipped a step, she can depend upon the reader to find her out.
In my case, I knew I’d written the truth. I’d worked with family stories. I’d conducted interviews. I’d put together a bibliography. I’d read a handful of articles, both scholarly and lay, and I’d read some books. I’d gotten myself almost sick with information. That’s the truth. And it took a good year after compiling all that for me to feel ready to find my way to writing that particular story, and it was two years after that that I finished the story, found the finishing touches.
The fiction reader in me needed that distance. But the story wouldn’t have held up without the knowledge, the facts. I couldn’t literally go back to the past, but I could read enough material to make that reality such a part of my psyche that it had made me sick—and still it isn’t mine, but it’s as close to mine as it can get.
Perhaps a reader will forgive the errors, the missteps of a writer, but the reading suffers for each little error, and what is unforgivable are the larger, emotional errors that occur because of a writer’s failure to simply engage the subject.
My advice for the fiction writer? Fall down the well, and stay down there long enough to give yourself an experience, but get yourself out of the well and dry yourself off. And see what you will say.
You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your reader. And you owe it to the well.
Have you written or read about historical events or settings that required a trip to Geri’s “well?”