How Much Of This Is Real?

Last week I was having dinner with my friend Bob, who hadn’t seen A Red Woman Was Crying. Bob works in network television. He’s the editor of a series and therefore is always dealing with the show’s reality (captured image sequences and sounds) which he arranges and rearranges and modifies according to his judgement about how best to tell the story.

He paged through the copy I handed him and then asked how much of it was based on my experiences among the people called the Nagovisi, and how much was invented.

Bob wanted to talk about how I made these stories.

Professor A, an anthropologist, attended A Red Woman Was Crying’s launch in Buffalo. In a room full of poets and fiction writers, at the city’s best bookstore, Professor A asked if the book was “a rewriting of your field notes.”

I was shocked. True, there was a kind of pleasure at having created something that another anthropologist believed to be “real.” It’s easy to trick people who know little about anthropology or indigenous people (as evidence I offer the success of Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, a Tarzan comic book masquerading as “anthropological fiction”). It should be much harder to trick a professional anthropologist, and yet that’s what I seemed to have done.

By implying that my book was fictionalized ethnography, rather than fiction set in another culture, Professor A diminished not only its literary value but my imaginative capability and the originality of what I had created.

I’ve been bothered by this ever since – not so much the actual incident, but what it represents: the notion that an anthropologist who writes fiction will have everything he writes interpreted as ethnography.

Professor B, another anthropologist, read the story “I Don’t Kill People Anymore” and then asked me, in an email, whether I had actually sat and talked with the leader Mesiamo about the Vietnam war and the My Lai atrocity as, in the story, the anthropologist Elliot Lyman does.

Professor B was interested in memoir and had read A Red Woman Was Crying’s front matter (which perhaps Professor A had not). He’d done plenty of Pacific fieldwork himself and had spent time with a man widely believed to have been a dangerous sorcerer. He knew that the Mesiamo character was based on the real person named Mesiamo, and he knew I’d been doing fieldwork when the My Lai atrocity happened. So although my short answer was No, his was a reasonable question given time, place, and external events. Professor B – like Bob – wanted to know the nature of the strands I’d woven together in the story.

I can explain why Bob and Professors A and B asked the questions they did, I think. But then there are the many people at readings and elsewhere who unhesitatingly ask me How much of this is real?

I suppose that part of this must be because I self-identify as an anthropologist, and make it clear that I lived among the people I’m writing about, spoke their language, knew their culture, and all the rest. I do this as a defense against being thought of as another of the fiction writers who have appropriated “tribal” people without understanding them, or write about anthropology in ignorance of what it is and how it’s practiced.

People rightly believe that fiction is invented and scientific research isn’t. They believe that fiction isn’t bound by what really happened, but anthropological writing is, so they suppose, as Professor A seems to have, that anthropological fiction is no more than reworked ethnography. That Professor B and Bob didn’t is to their credit, but in my experience they’re in the minority.

This isn’t the place to talk about the nature of fiction, except very generally. All writers draw on their experiences, people they’ve known, events – but those things have undergone a sea change, transformed by imagination’s alchemy into something else: fiction. When a work is pre-defined as fiction, a sophisticated reader would not think of going to a writer and asking, “Is that character really your cousin Joe? Did Joe really do that?” or “Did that really happen to you?”

The reader knows that the writer might be building on second or third or fourth hand information, or gotten it from news media, and then given it a life of its own. By the time it makes it into a manuscript there’s no necessary literal connection at all.

Even so, most of the people I talk to about my work seem to assume that I’m reporting rather than creating. They don’t seem to understand that although some of my characters are drawn from living people, I’ve also created an imaginative, fictional world for those characters to live in – a world in which they don’t have to do what they really did.

In my kind of fiction, that world must accurately reflect their culture and way of life. In other words, I can’t have my Nagovisi characters completely drop Nagovisi culture just because something in the plot might happen more easily if they were to behave as age- and gender-equivalent Americans might.

At the same time, I have to make their actions and thoughts comprehensible to readers of a very different culture. This isn’t easy. As I was writing A Red Woman Was Crying I was constantly deciding whether what the Nagovisi characters thought and how they behaved was going to need some explanation, and if so, what the minimal form of the explanation could be.

For example, it’s a rare American reader who understands matrilineal kinship and clans (yes, the term clan is commonly used, but almost never correctly). Most American readers cannot comprehend life in a very small, kinship-based community in a remote part of the world without some help. I have to provide the background. Too much ruins the fiction. Too little makes it incomprehensible.

In my last posting, I wrote about Jack Livings’ terrific story collection The Dog. If I ever run into Jack I’ll certainly ask him some things about how he wrote his stories. I have a lot of questions, but they’re straightforward ones, along the lines of what Bob and Professor B wanted to talk about.

Take Jack’s wonderful character Omar the Uyghur. I’d like to learn how Jack constructed Omar, and learned about the kinds of situations a man like that might find himself in. I wonder whether he met someone like Omar, or whether people told him about someone like Omar or, because we’re talking fiction here, both Omar and his interactions with the Chinese are entirely invented, built only on what Jack already knew about Uyghur-Chinese relations.

I’ve had people ask me about my character Mesiamo because, to them, he seems a very dangerous man and my readers know that he’s based on the real Mesiamo. They wonder how a man like me – an ordinary American graduate student in his mid-twenties – could have gotten close to a man who was at that time still feared by thousands of people across three or four neighboring cultures.

The answer is that Mesiamo was only frightening if you knew what he was capable of. You wouldn’t know it from his manner, which resembled that of the old TV detective Columbo. He was unfailingly pleasant and witty and his intelligence was of the highest order. Of course I knew that beneath that were considerable depths.

Another answer is that Mesiamo wanted to get close to me, to make sure I wasn’t a danger to him or his people.

In the story “I Don’t Kill People Anymore,” the fictional Mesiamo wants the fictional American anthropologist Elliot to see his teeth. Having known Elliot for more than a year, he thinks it unlikely that he’s a spy or is in some way working against the Nagovisi. But he’s not completely certain. He sets out to make sure that Elliot understands just how bad an idea betraying the Nagovisi to the colonial administration or the copper miners would be.

But he doesn’t intend to do anything so simple and obvious as boasting in order to frighten Elliot. He decides to talk about his own violent past in such a way that Elliot will realize that his strategies have always been much more complex than just threatening or killing people.

Here’s a lightly-edited excerpt.

(Mesiamo is narrating; “White Man” is the anthropologist Elliot. “Kiap” is the term for an Australian colonial official.)

. . . I said, “I thought you might be interested in some things I haven’t told you about,” and he said, “About fighting?” and I said, “Yes, but not about soldiers. About a Kiap who arrived with the Army, and ordered me to kill men who weren’t soldiers.” I paused.
He said, “The Kiap ordered you to kill Nagovisi?” and I said, “No, he wanted me to go down into Siwai and kill a man there.”
I acted as if there had been nothing much to it. I told White Man the Kiap said a Siwai named Uta — a man I knew well — was helping the Japanese. He told me to go there and kill him. What White Man might find interesting about this story, I said, was that although I didn’t like being ordered to do anything, I did kill Uta.
I paused, and then said, “With my knife.”
“A knife fight?” White Man said.
“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t want a fight. We talked and ate and smoked and chewed betel in his feasting house and then at night when everyone was sleeping I took my small knife, rolled over and slid it between his ribs into his heart.”
I made the motion although I had no knife in my hand.
“I shoved my forearm into his mouth so he couldn’t scream. I could feel his teeth, his tongue, his lips. He made some noise but it could have been the noise of a man having a bad dream. No one woke. I didn’t pull out my knife, so there was almost no blood. I lay on him until he died and then I picked him up and put his arm over my shoulder and walked outside with him as if we were two men going together into the forest to piss. If any of his men saw us leave, they said nothing.”
White Man’s eyes widened. He shifted on his seat. “And then?”
“And then?” I laughed and slapped his shoulder. “And then I threw his body into the Hupai and either the crocodiles ate him there or he washed down to the coast and they ate him in the mangroves.”
White Man was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Yes, the Hupai carries a lot of water, yes, I can see that would work.”
I knew he was searching for a good response. But he didn’t find one. He knew crocodiles didn’t range far up the Hupai, but he said nothing about that.
I laughed again. “Yes,” I said, “Yes, crocodiles can be useful.”
Then I twisted him a little more. I told him that I came back to Nagovisi and told the Kiap I hadn’t been able to find Uta, but that I’d sent word to the Japanese commander that Uta was working for the Australians, and so the Japanese killed him. Even now I’m not sure he believed me, but Uta disappeared, as the Australians wanted. They never knew I killed him.
White Man was shaking his head and making noises in his throat. Then he took a stick and poked around in the fire. I said nothing.
He said, “Can tell me why, if you didn’t want to obey the Kiap, you killed Uta anyway?”
I gave him another push, again as if we were having a joke, and said, “I didn’t want him to think I was his boy, and because along the Nagovisi-Siwai border Uta was my rival and – I hesitated for a moment — “because I wanted one of his wives.”
“One of his wives?” White Man said, and I said, “Yes, as I said. After I killed Uta she left Siwai and came up here.” I pointed. “She’s over there.”
White Man was startled. “What?” he said, “Really?” and then he quickly said, “Ah, I don’t mean ‘really’ because clearly it’s true . . . Kavibura?” and his voice trailed off.
From the back of the house Kavibura called to him, “Elliot! Yes! That’s how it was and I’m glad I came here, because otherwise I’d never have chewed betel with a white man.”

So. How much of this is real? How much of this did Mesiamo really tell me? Here’s the relevant section from my typed notes.

(“Siuai” is a variant spelling of “Siwai,” and ANGAU was the wartime Kiap unit.)

. . . There was an ANGAU man at Sovele who was nominally Mesiamo’s superior. He wanted Mesiamo to go and pull a lot of Siuai up here to safety, because there was going to be a big fight and he didn’t want them killed. There were 3 big Siuai men who were if not collaborators, at least sympathizers. The ANGAU man wanted Mesiamo to kill them, but Mesiamo wanted him to kill them. This whole theme was repeated through the war stories: they wanted Mesiamo to do the “illegal” killings, but he wouldn’t do the government’s dirty work. He would only kill those he had something against. They had a tough time down in Siuai but finally got the people back up here to safety. They got 2 of the men up here, I don’t believe they killed them.
The third man came up as far as Lopali. He sent word for Mesiamo to come and see him. The ANGAU man said if you go, you can’t come back. Mesiamo went anyway. This man was very large. They talked for a long time. They slept in one house, and early in the morning Mesiamo asked his boys to kill him but they wouldn’t, so Mesiamo did. Then they threw him in a river. Went back to Sovele and told the ANGAU man what had happened, but put out the word that the bigman had run away — this was a lie. He had had 5 wives, all sisters. M’s Siuai wife is one of them. The Kiap got one pregnant. The Policemen beat up some, and the rest went here and there.

You can easily see the places where I went beyond the “reality” of my notes.

When I looked at these notes 45 years after I typed them, I couldn’t interpret “if you go, you can’t come back.” It makes no sense. I think that what I meant to type, there in my leaf house in the village, was “if you don’t kill him, don’t come back.” But I’ll never know; what I typed is the only reality available to me. I remember our discussion only vaguely. Mesiamo is long dead and my handwritten notes (from which I typed) are long gone.

But at least the outline of a real historical event was there. Getting inside the fictional Mesiamo’s head was more difficult. In the village in 1969 I had no sense that Mesiamo was telling me the story for any particular reason. He told me any number of WWII stories, many of which involved violence.

The emotional manipulation is also fictional. Certainly Mesiamo manipulated me, especially at the beginning, and – as I eventually learned – in ways that had been completely opaque to me.

I knew that Mesiamo was wary of me for a long time, but I felt confident that after a year he believed that I was what I seemed to be. I wouldn’t want to say that the real Mesiamo trusted the real me, but he came to behave as though he did.

If you read the story, you’ll learn that during the conversation about Vietnam and My Lai, Mesiamo extracted some dark secrets from Elliot. What Mesiamo made of those secrets, he says, “bound him to me, which is better than having him fear me.”

This is the sort of thing the real Mesiamo would have done, had he and I ever been in the circumstances the fictional Mesiamo and Elliot were in. But there never were circumstances like that, and the character Elliot has very little of me in him. The secrets Elliot revealed to Mesiamo were not in any way mine.

Mesiamo appears in two other works of fiction, both set on Bougainville during WWII: Peter Pinney’s The Glass Cannon, where he appears under his own name, and T.A.G. Hungerford’s The Ridge and the River, where he appears under another name.

Pinney and Hungerford were Australian Commandos; Mesiamo told me about fighting with the Commandos, though not about those two.

In neither novel is there anything from Mesiamo’s point of view. It pleases me that other fiction writers thought Mesiamo worthy of being a character, but it pleases me even more to be the first fiction writer to give him his own voice.

And although I believe it’s true to the big man himself, it’s a fictional voice.

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