The furor over Margaret B. Jones's “memoir”—of life as a half-white, half-Native American girl who was abused as a child and then raised by a black foster mother, “Big Mom,” in south-central Los Angeles, where she ran with gangs, watched her loved ones die and received a gun for her 14th birthday—reminded me of a white girl I knew in high school, here in Southern California. Sophomore year, “S” decided she was Chicana, so she wore Pendleton shirts and dark lip-gloss, and squatted near the brick walls with the Mexican-American kids. Junior year, she “became” black. She wore Qiana shirts, put a blonde streak in her hair and sat at the picnic tables with the black students. Senior year she ran for homecoming queen, turning up with a blond guy from the wealthier school across town and a whole new look. But when she tried to return to the picnic tables, the black kids threatened to beat her up. They couldn't change their minds.
Margaret Seltzer, who turns out to have written a fictional version of a life lived in dangerous gang territory, could change her mind.
I write fiction. I've published six novels, and my second featured a character people called “Big Ma.” I am a short blonde woman who married into a large African-American family when I was very young, and that family remains part of my life now, 25 years later. There have been many strong black women in my life. When I wrote about a tall, dark-skinned woman raising twin boys, I imagined this character, and part of that imagining came from watching my husband, 6'4” and 250 pounds, alter a room when he entered it. But when my photo was taken for the back cover, I never pretended to be anyone else.
In the community of black writers I know, there have been several responses to the hoax. One is that it's an extreme measure of disrespect to pretend to be someone who lives in fear of death when so many young people actually live that way.
When one of my nephews, Sensei, was 13, two of his friends were killed in shootings, and he became so despondent he wrote his will. To write that down is the truth. To pretend to be Sensei disrespects his life.
The Times photo showed Ms. Seltzer with her very young, pale daughter. Her child is part of the story now. I don't lie in my essays about life with my big family and my ex-husband. How could I ever teach my daughters to be honest if I weren't, especially in this most public of forums?
My daughters are black, in the narrow confines of American racial definition. They cannot change their minds. My last novel, A Million Nightingales, is about a mixed-race woman who lived during slavery. I was not her. I was a mother, who stood over sleeping children and imagined what their lives might have been 200 years ago. I wanted people to read fiction and feel the immense desperation and triumph of a particular life.
The week before Love & Consequences was published, the Los Angeles Times asked me to interview “Ms. Jones” in Los Angeles, where she would be touring. Because of a sick child, I couldn't interview her, so I suggested the novelist Yxta Maya Murray, who based her novel Locas on gang members in East Los Angeles. We both wondered what we would have thought about “Ms. Jones” if we had driven around L.A. with her. How would she have taken anyone to meet “Big Mom,” who didn't exist?
Yxta wrote to me about why this has happened, yet again: “we have debased the novel, and the imagination, too. The coin of the realm is Reality. But we are doing ourselves such a disservice.... The work of the fiction writer is not designed to disseminate facts but to transport the reader into pure feeling for other people, and when such feeling is inspired about the underclass, it can influence and move society in a way that is far more powerful than a 'true story.' ”
This is why my oldest daughter, who's majoring in African-American studies, who knew only our California, called me recently after being moved by her first reading of James Baldwin's Another Country. “Oh, Mom,” she said, “I haven't been able to think of anything else for days.”
|Susan Straight's novel I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots (Anchor) was one of PW's Best Books of 1992. Anchor published her most recent book, A Million Nightingales, in paperback last year.|