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 Her novel The hand that signed the paper won the Vogel award for unpublished manuscript in 1993 and then the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 1994.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.

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary hoaxes and identity scandals

  1. Ah, this has made my thinkingmind whirl. You’re right, each of these recent “hoaxes” and the furore seem to centre on people feeling angered that, well, either the fact that the author has appropriated another cultural identity or experiences, or that we’ve been “tricked” into associating and valuing that cultural identity or experience in a “fraudulent” way. And yet, if it’s made us question the current status quo, or think differently about a minority group/The Other in a more equal/understanding way, is that not a strength in itself? Perhaps if there was more of a consensus that fiction has the power to show the truth of the world, these hoaxes would never have been pulled in the first place? Oh, my mind is a muddle of conflicting thoughts and ideas now!

    I blame you. 😉

    • Thanks Hannah … I wanted to keep this short but I’m glad you raised the issue about the role of fiction or our hopes for it. This whole issue does make one’s brain hurt. There are so many angles – economic, social, cultural, philosophical, literary – to view hoaxes from. And they crisscross each other to some degree which makes it doubly hard to make it all clear.

  2. I remember the Demidenko scandal when it happened in Australia and I remember being shocked – more than anything – by the way she was vilified by the press. I’d be curious to know how the book stands now, and whether its issues were dealt with well, and how Darville/Demidenko has progressed from that low point.

    • Thanks Catherine … yes and one wonders how much of the vilification came from embarrassment. How dare she trick us, and so on? I haven’t read the book – it came out at the height of my mum-wife-worker busyness and I really only read the books my reading groups scheduled. I’m intrigued to read it now but who knows if I’ll get to it. It would be interesting to know what has happened to her since wouldn’t it? I do think, though, she was a bit “slippery” in that she changed her story a bit as the “affair” went on (at least as I recollect) so that it was hard to know where the “truth” really lay. But, on the other hand, her book is fiction so that should be what it is about, shouldn’t it?

  3. It depends. Primarily I think the work is the thing unless the hoax hurts other people. Hurt is a tricky word – I mean it in the sense of positive harm, not just someone taking offence. Feeling hurt because of being fooled is not enough – that’s just everyday life. But Khouri’s book is unforgivable because it hurt the work of those trying to stop honour killings. On the other hand, Robert Dessaix upset a few people when he revealed that a major figure in Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev had been completely invented, but that wasn’t really a hoax and it didn’t actually hurt anybody. Ern Malley was lots of fun, although Max Harris probably felt a bit damaged. Demidenko is more complex. The way she used the historical background and appeared to identify with her characters was really creepy. But the novel itself is, well, a novel, with characters that do bad things, as in lots of novels. It’s not anti-Semitic, but Ukrainians might consider it anti-Ukrainian because the ones doing the bad things are Ukrainian. And actually the mulitiple voices of the novel undermine each other, so that the weak arguments of Fiona and her uncle that he should not be tried for war crimes are contrasted with strong images of his crimes, and by examples that show that people like him did have a choice. So if we can consider the novel as separate from the behaviour of its creator, then the work is the thing. Though I wouldn’t defend that too strongly.

    • I like this Bryce … it’s pretty much how I feel but I’m glad you’ve grappled with that tricky question of “hurt”. Some of the “hurt” in these affairs are more “embarrassment” aren’t they. But others can have a real negative impact. Like you, that’s where I also look beyond focusing only on “the work”.

  4. I hadn’t heard of any of these scandals so I can’t comment on them, but the one scandal I can think of concerns Elie Wiesel’s holocaust book Night (which is incredible, btw) and whether or not it’s a memoir or fiction based on his cumulative experiences. Of course the minute the word ‘fiction’ appears,there’s the idea that it’s ‘made up’ and then holocaust deniers run with that.

  5. Glad to know Australia has its own James Freys! In some sense these things are buyer beware. I mean, if you are reading a memoir and it has “scenes” that involve direct dialogue it is silly to believe that is exactly what was said. One has to expect that writers take some creative license. At the same time, one must also be able to trust that while what is being reported may not have been exactly what was said, it is at least in the spirit of what happened. I also expect that a writer of a memoir is appropriately representing him/herself. If he says he is Ukranian then he better be. If the events happened to a friend, then that had also better be the case otherwise it really is just fiction.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie, Australia is famous for it’s literary hoaxes.

      And I agree re memoir. If it’s a good story but not yours … You made it up … Why not make it fiction? Because, I suppose, memoirs, particularly misery ones are more likely to be best sellers. Says something about we readers too doesn’t it … Something both good and bad!

  6. There was an interesting case perhaps 30 years ago in the US, when it turned out that Famous All Over Town had not been written by the Chicano youth Danny Santiago but by the middle-aged social worker Daniel James. More recently, it turned out that the Forrest Carter, who claimed to be Cherokee and as such wrote The Education of Little Tree had been known in an earlier career, as Asa Carter for writing part of the “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech for George Wallace.

    Quite recently Mike McGrady died, who in 1969 managed the writing of Naked Came the Stranger an effort by the reporters at Newsday to create a terrible sex-drenched bestseller. His obituary may be available yet at the New York Times web site, and the novel has its own entry in Wikipedia.

    The old country has had its share, too. Think of Vortigern and poems of Ossian.

    • Ah thanks George, I had heard of the Little Tree saga but had completely forgotten it.

      I’ll check out Wikipedia for Naked came the stranger.

      I love hearing these stories … they show such chutzpah even if the ethics is a little shaky at times!

  7. If God moves in mysterious ways, then prose – especially the fiction kind – can move in completely inexplicable ways. This is quite a cryptic way of saying that in the world of writing there isn’t much that is black and white except the print on the page. All else is open to interpretation and analysis!

  8. As a linguist, I know how the label can influence the perception of the entity thus labelled, and to me ‘literary hoax’ indicates that it was a deliberate trick which the trickster intended to be found out (and which we should applaud). Does that apply to Demidenko? I would argue not…

    • Fair enough Tony … Re your question, probably not re Demidenko, probably definitely not re Khouri, probably yes re Ern Malley! It all depends on the intent behind the hoax/fraud doesn’t it? And Demidenko was a little slippery about the intent.

  9. Having just read All That I Am by Anne Funder, I can understand why a reader like myself, deserves to know if the story is fact or fiction, or based on fact. That is the case with All That I Am. You know from the outset that the story is based on fact, but is written as fictional story. Obviously this has not discriminated the book from receiving awards or award nominations – it may even win the Miles Franklin Award. No one likes to be deceived. If a story is well written and can hold a reader’s attention it will receive the recognition it deserves.

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