Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lying Memoirist Portrayed Gang Member We Can Love

I don't write a lot of literary criticism on this blog, but I do come from distinguished literary stock, and this is more social criticism anyway.

Last week, I read with interest this glowing New York Times profile of Margaret B.Jones, a single mom who has just published a memoir about growing up a foster child in tough, gangland South Central. The piece hinged on the contrast between Jones' current tranquil, extended-family-of-friends life in a nice four-bedroom house in sleepy Eugene, OR, and her traumatic background of violence and death in LA, which she portrayed in the book with an unusual vividness and compassion that the writer hinted was essentially feminine.

"Unlike several other recent gang memoirs, all written by men, Ms. Jones’s story is told from a nurturer’s point of view. Along with grit and blood, every chapter describes tenderness and love between people as well as the rites and details of domestic life."

Well the story wasn't just nice and readable because it was by a chick. It was readable because it was TOTALLY FALSE, and it was accessible because it was written by a white person who went to private school, grew up with both parents, and knows these stories only through her friends that she met at Starbucks.

Hmm. I used to hang out in independent coffee shops in high school (before New Orleans had Starbucks). I was friendly with a lot of colorful characters, like a gutter punk named Nacho and a bunch of semi-itinerant musicians and drunks of various backgrounds. Does that mean that I understand the shit that they went through every day? Absolutely not.

As a journalist who has wrestled with--and been criticized for--issues of representation and identity in my own work, (can I really claim to speak for the most burdened members of Generation Debt, etc) I feel like it's the duty of all conscientious writers to call out not only this troubled woman, but the entire publishing industry, for an act of brazen cultural appropriation. This woman outright stole the identities of poor people of color and packaged them into an attractive story that the New York Times swallowed hook, line, and sinker.

Related: Undercover Black Man: Fucking liar


Unknown said...

...packaged them into an attractive story that the New York Times swallowed hook, line, and sinker.

Not just the NYT, but her agent, her editor, her publisher...I find it humorous that in today's NYT article her publisher bristles at the suggestion that he should've vetted the book better, saying that the author went to "extraordinary lengths" to be deceitful and "provided people who acted as her foster siblings." Actually, later in the article it becomes clear that her editor never met with her in person and only saw photos of the alleged foster siblings. In spite of her editor's statement that “In the post-James Frey world, we all are more careful,” the editor's efforts in this fastidious quest for veracity amounted to having “...numerous conversations with her about the need to be honest and the need to stick to the facts.”

The attempts made by the publisher and editor (and media who reviewed and wrote about the book and author) to corroborate its basis in reality seem pathetic to me. Could it be that most editors and publishers don't really care much whether a memoir is, in fact, true...they just hope not to get caught having published a sham?

Of course, the biggest shame should be reserved for the author. Knowing her true background I felt sick to my stomach reading the original NYT profile from Home & Garden.

Anonymous said...

Nice one