The recent debate, floating here to Australia from America over the need for truth in non-fiction, has me riled all over again.
It is as if there is a desperate wish to turn non fiction into absolute truth, as in reportage, when even reportage has its own bias and slant,however many so-called facts are presented. While fiction, however much invented or imagined, can also be based on fact.
For me the one ray of sanity comes from Anders Monson who argues against this tendency towards binaries, and supports the notion that when we read anything, including journalism and especially non-fiction, as when we read fiction, we need to suspend disbelief.
The very fact of writing – whether non fiction or fiction and all shades in between – distorts the so-called facts.
To me it’s a tedious debate and yet it stirs up such passions.
From now on, I tell myself, I will refer to my writing as ‘autobiographical fiction’ and that way I cannot be accused of making things up, of telling lies or of deceiving my reader.
For those who do not know, a non-fiction writer and academic, John D’Agata has written a book, The lifespan of a fact, as a dialogue between a non-fiction writer, in the guise of John the author himself, and his fact checker – to me his alter ego – Jim Fingal.
Both men battle it out, and to some extent both look ridiculous. John, in his cavalier disregard for the truth, and Jim, in his obsessive compulsive tendency to insist on ‘all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.
I find myself remembering a time as a child when I went with my younger sister and oldest brother to stay at an aunt’s house in Rosanna. For some reason we stayed overnight.
My aunt remonstrated with my sister because she had refused to eat her egg at dinner. I knew my sister hated eggs. All her short life my sister had hated eggs. No one ever forced my sister to eat eggs. In fact, we sometimes fought over who might get to eat her egg in her place.
We only ate eggs once a week on Sundays as a treat. I refused to boil or fry mine. I preferred to separate the yolk from the white, and then whip up the white with a fork for what seemed like hours. Gradually, I added sugar and ate the whole concoction once it had stiffened into mountainous peaks.
My brothers usually managed to get my sister’s egg, but I liked to imagine how good it would be were I to enjoy the whites of two eggs whipped up to meringue type consistency, and not just one.
That night at my aunty’s house after my sister pushed her egg away, my aunty forced it into her.
‘A big girl like you not eating your egg’.
In the shower this morning as I refected on this memory, the fact checker popped into my mind. ‘Describe the egg,’ my internal fact checker said. Was it boiled – soft or hard – or was it fried?
Oh dear, my memory lets me down. I cannot remember. To take up either position, egg boiled or fried, is to invent.
Fortunately, it is an inconsequential memory, though Jim Fingal, the fact checker in D’Agata’s book would most likely want to ring my sister for verification. And my sister in all likelihood would not remember this event.
In my memory we have never discussed this incident since that time. It has lain in my mind as a slightly tragic moment, one of those difficult events from childhood when I watched the betrayal of my younger sister and did not manage to help her escape the wrath of my aunt.
A young me, looking for evidence?
That same night we slept on camp beds, which my aunt had made up in her lounge room. My sister and I lay in these beds side by side. My brother must have gone elsewhere because he was not there in my memory when I woke in the night to the cold damp realisation that I had wet the bed.
I told no one. I hid the evidence under the blankets, dragged up over the sodden sheets in the morning, and that’s where the evidence remained, hidden from view.
Presumably, my aunt or someone else found the bed wet when they stripped it, but not a word was said, as far as I know.
How can we know the truth of this experience? I trust my memory but there are so many gaps.
If I were to write this passage into a story, my imagination would kick in. My memory might then borrow from other events and times in my life to help me to furnish this house, and also to account for the absence of my aunt’s several other children.
In my memory, only my sister and I sat at the dinner table. In my memory, my brother ate later with the grown ups.
But this aunt had six children, all of them slightly younger than me. Where were they? They must have been there but I cannot picture them, only my sister and her force fed egg and the camp bed with its yellow stain and the sour smell of fresh urine that by morning had turned stale. They are all that remain. Unless I turn the anecdote into a story and to do so I must embellish.
But from now on I shall call it ‘autobiographical fiction’ to avoid the wrath of the thought police.
My thanks to Dinty W Moore from Brevity’s Non-fiction Blog for alerting me to this. Let her have the final say. Scroll back to read about this saga. It’s fascinating, however much it might cause me at times to boil over.