The following essay was published in WBUR Cognoscenti on March 31, 2015:
Narrative non-fiction is not an objective undertaking; the author determines which facts to include and shapes their interpretation. So how does a writer flesh out the virtues and flaws of people he respects?
I recently published a memoir of post-earthquake Haiti; an upbeat story of Haitians and Americans working together to accomplish something worthy. It could have easily turned into a litany of noble deeds, but I didn’t limit the narrative to positivity. Tension turned our altruistic story into a gripping one. Each character displayed a few warts, myself included. Though the text reveals deep affection for everyone involved, not everyone likes what I wrote.
I was concerned how to present people in a balanced manner. This led to a double litmus test for evaluating prickly passages. First, I always coupled a fault with a virtue. This was easy since all the major players are rich in virtue. Second, I didn’t disparage any character more than I dissected by own shortcomings. Polishing my own peccadillos, along my comrades’, reinforced one of the book’s theses: we were ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing. My editors agreed with my approach; narrative non-fiction is not journalism.
Truth blurring is rampant among every form of writing. Novelists research specific times and places to lend authenticity to imagined plots; journalists shape scenes and dialogue to enliven events. Every non-fiction genre inhabits a literary neighborhood where reality, perception, and memory find unique balance. Even John Berendt, author of the New York Times all-time bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil confesses, “Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties.”
Narrative non-fiction provides an author latitude. Not every event that occurred over three years could be described in my book. I determined what to include and reported it through the prism of my experience. I upheld Roy Peter Clark’s non-fiction maxims: do not add and do not deceive. Still, some passages bristled. I decided the overwhelming positivity eclipsed those few rough scenes.
I was wrong.
The advance publication copy described one family as boisterous. The father sent me a blistering email. After two years of living, working, arguing, and building together, he severed communication over that single word. I read his objections, the Free Dictionary definition of boisterous he inserted in his terminal email, and his declaration that it was both inappropriate and insulting. I couldn’t understand how this guy turned so hard, so fast. Especially since I don’t consider boisterous an insult. Especially since any observer would agree his family is boisterous.
The sting of rejection took weeks to subside. Meanwhile, I landed a promise from Paul Farmer of Partners in Health to write a cover blurb. Communication with his staff went well until they missed the copy deadline. Then I heard nothing. My polite emails degenerated into pleas. Finally, his staff admitted reservations about the book and produced a list of passages they considered insulting to Haitians.
I reviewed their list and decided against making their requested changes. There’s solace in being an equal opportunity insulter. A nonprofit dependent upon donations needs to be sensitive to every perceived insult; Partners in Health cannot afford to consider a phrase like Haitians are allergic to multi-tasking as ironic rather than damning. Despite evidence that American’s penchant to do too many things at once is both inefficient and unhealthy, they lifted the phrase out of context, as any spin-doctor might. They didn’t consider how that point-of-view helped shape my emerging awareness of Haitian culture or that American construction could benefit from the focus our Haitian crews brought to their task. Organizations tuned to any possible slight cannot cotton subtlety.
People who’ve read the book have universally appreciated my balance of narrative, personal insight and contextual research. Unfortunately, people in the book have objected to how they’re portrayed. My own sister, described as someone with “a flair for drama that I lack”, telephoned and exclaimed, “You called me a drama queen!”
I now realize my criteria for evaluating the book’s content was naive. As long as we live in a world of sound bites, as long as someone can cut and paste a phrase without context, no litany of sweet talk can mask the bile generated by a single harsh word. And though I may be comfortable divulging details of my personal life, that doesn’t mean others will bless how I interpret their actions.
The main characters didn’t have the opportunity to review or edit my text. This is my story, in which they play a part. It is the truth as I know it. They may dislike my version of the truth, but no one has refuted it. They may harbor equally valid yet competing truths. Mine just happens to be the one pressed between two hard covers. And that permanence makes everyone wary.