Week 3 of Nonfiction November (November 14-18) focuses on “all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic” and is hosted by Christopher (Plucked from the Stacks).
Last year, introducing my post on this week, I wrote that what the idea of “stranger than fiction” brings to my mind are those coincidences (and the like) that happen in real life that a fiction writer could never get away with. This week’s topic host, Christopher, though, takes a broader view, including things like “overcoming massive obstacles”, “scams” and “natural wonders”. My interpretation is a bit different again.
I’m starting with an essay I read via the Library of America’s Story of the Week program, James Weldon Johnson’s “Stranger than fiction” (my review). Johnson wrote one of those trickily titled novels, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912). It was inspired by his own experiences, and has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Its protagonist is a young unnamed biracial man, who, because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The novel chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.
In 1915, Johnson wrote his essay “Stranger than fiction” about his novel’s reception. To summarise what I wrote in my post, he basically found that for many Northern reviewers, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction, whereas Southern critics asserted that the work was unbelievable because, Johnson wrote, they didn’t believe African Americans could “pass” as “the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority.” For Johnson, this was “laughable”, as most people, he said, know of people who are “passing.”
There are so many “stranger than fiction” layers to this essay and situation but I will leave it here. This essay would, of course, have been another great Week 2 pairing for me with Nella Larsen’s Passing.
What can be stranger than families?
Families, of course, are the stuff of fiction, particularly unhappy ones (as Tolstoy famously shared), but they can also be found in non-fiction, particularly in memoirs, so here I’m going to share three families which were/are strange for one reason or another:
- Alison Croggon’s Monsters: A reckoning (my review) chronicles a sister-relationship that went badly sour. It’s always sad – and yes, a bit strange to me – when families fall apart. The collapse of siblings relationships is particularly devastating I think.
- Jane Sinclair’s Shy love smiles and acid drops (my review) chronicles the author’s parents’ difficult relationship. There is much that is “strange” here for most of us, starting with the family’s bohemian lifestyle.
- Cindy Solonec’s Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (my review) is strange in a different way. The relationship here is a positive and productive one, but the press release for the book makes its “strangeness” clear when it says the book is about “the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” (near Broome). Debesa is also a little strange in form as it is one of those hybrid biography-memoirs in which the writer is part of the family she’s focusing on.
None of these families are probably stranger than anything you’d find in fiction, but they do prove that the strange families you find in fiction can indeed be realistic!
For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your strange offerings I’m sure, but, if you’re not, I’d love to see what strange nonfiction you’ve read.