Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary hoaxes and identity scandals
Have you ever heard of the Ern Malley affair? Or of Helen Demidenko? Or what about Mudrooroo? These are just three of Australia’s literary controversies involving false identities. Why are Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson perfectly acceptable pseudonyms, while Helen Demidenko, for example, is not? Aye, there’s the rub…
It seems to have something to do with a conscious attempt to defraud, to trick … and yet …
Let’s look at three recent Australian literary scandals. One is white male author Leon Cameron whose supposedly autobiographical novel, My own sweet time, was published in 1994 by indigenous publisher, Magabala Books. He presented himself as Wanda Koolmatrie, a Pitjantjatjara woman of the Stolen Generation, and he won the Dobbie Literary Award. The truth didn’t come out until he tried to sell his sequel and the publisher asked to meet him. And then all hell broke loose.
Another is Norma Khouri‘s Forbidden Love which was published by Random House in 2003 as a non-fiction account of the honour killing of her best friend in Jordan. It was a best-seller, but after being exposed by Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Malcolm Knox, she admitted – eventually – that she had taken “literary licence”. For a work marketed as non-fiction, this was a bit of an understatement!
Then there’s Helen Demidenko, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Her novel The hand that signed the paper won the Vogel award for unpublished manuscript in 1993 and then the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 1994. Helen Demidenko was a pseudonym for Helen Darville. On its own, that doesn’t seem like a huge crime, but the controversy came about because she presented her novel as being based on the experiences of her Ukrainian family. She said that the events that she wrote about in the book “actually happened”. Well, they may have, but not to her or her family. This book became the subject of a longstanding literary debate*.
What probably made people most angry about these hoaxes is that they involved authors appealing to our sympathies – by masquerading as minority writers (in the case of Cameron and Darville) and/or writing a “true” story about a devastating event (in the case of Khouri). And why did they do this? To get published, to rise above the crowd? Or, to make a point (as had been the case with the Ern Malley affair)?
In general, literary hoaxes tell us something we all know, that it is tough to get published and that prevailing cultural and social sensibilities can get in the way of who and what gets published. They also suggest that for some people the ends just might justify the means. But, besides these, let’s say, more practical concerns, they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Would Khouri’s book have packed the same punch if it was known to be fiction? Why or why not? We know honour killings occur and Khouri** reached a lot of people with her story. Is the message less valid because she based her story on research rather than telling the true story of a friend? Similarly, are Demidenko’s and Koolmatrie’s stories somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the authors aren’t who they say they are?
The bottom line is, I suppose, is the work the thing? Always? It depends?
What is your experience of literary hoaxes – and what do you feel about them?
* An additional controversy regarding plagiarism came later, though she was I believe acquitted of this latter accusation.
** Khouri’s story is complicated by the discovery of other fakes or frauds in her life.