I am a marketer by training and profession (there, I admitted it! and, yes, I've read most of your blogs about book marketing, but haven't contributed because I usually market bank products or technology and, thus, know too little about book marketing to be useful). There are some writing genes circulating in my pool. A distant uncle on my mother's side was a poet. My father was a journalism major and began his career as a photojournalist. But I have never considered myself a writer. It is purely accidental that I became one.
And so I could use your help in better understanding the memoir genre.
There have been some literary hoaxes in dishonor killings land. The most famous case is probably that of Norma Khouri, who, in 2003, wrote a memoir entitled Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern Day Jordan (Forbidden Love in some countries). It made some best seller lists. Another is that of the anonymous Souad who, a year later, wrote Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men. You may read more about these hoaxes here: http://annies-letters.blogspot.com/2008/02/fabricated-tale-of-two-memoirs-by.html
I've not read Burned Alive, but I did read Honor Lost at a time when I'd been working on dishonor killings for a few years, but hadn't yet lived in Amman, Jordan, the setting of the book. I didn't find the book particularly well written, but it did bring wider attention to an important issue. The details of the dishonor killing Norma wrote about are representative of the real-life Jordanian cases of which I have knowledge. As a professional marketer, I thought the book served the issue. When I visited Jordan in the summer of 2003, a Jordanian dishonor killings activist I met told me she was carefully documenting all the inaccuracies in the book. She later joined forces with another Jordanian activist, and they pressed the issue with Norma's publisher and Australian journalists. In the end, the book was removed from the marketplace, and the scandal became a bigger story than dishonor killings.
The inaccuracies in the book were quite numerous. Norma wrote, inter alia, that the Jordan River flows through Amman (it doesn't and never has), that there are co-ed hair salons in Jordan (there weren't any at the time her memoir is placed), and that the character Dalia--who is the central figure and the dishonor killing victim in her book--exists (she appears to be a composite, but that could be for reasons of safety and security). Perhaps more damning, Norma's personal background didn't withstand much scrutiny. Although she was born in Jordan, she didn't grow up there, as she'd professed. There are inconsistencies about her name, her marital status, and where she'd lived and when. There are also some criminal charges having to do with scamming some people. Clearly, there are character problems.
My late friend Pammy, the Australian journalist who cared so deeply about human rights, and I were discussing this one day. Pammy had written two memoirs of her own. She told me there is a legitimate gray area in memoir writing, that most professional writers recognize it and don't necessarily view it with complete and utter contempt, and that she felt that the Norma Khouri brouhaha was a tempest in a teapot because the core of her memoir speaks to a greater truth. The inaccuracies, in her opinion, were minor and not central to the story. And my late friend believed that the rendering of Dalia as a composite was justified because of the nature of these crimes and the risk that outing them poses to the writer, the writer's family, and the victims' families.
All I know for certain is that the baby got thrown out with the bathwater in the Norma Khouri case. It was a huge missed opportunity for Jordanian activists to call attention to the dishonor killing problem in their country, to raise funds, to garner support, and to solicit international cooperation in addressing these crimes as they occur elsewhere. As a professional marketer, it is difficult for me to understand why they chose to spend a couple years picking apart Norma's book when they could've used that same time and effort to run with it, raise money for much-needed shelters, campaign to reform the laws, and focus their energies on making life easier for the at-risk girls and women.
I've since learned that, while I was living in Jordan and far removed from most things American, another literary scandal arose involving James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces. I'm sketchy on the details, but I know it ticked off Oprah, and You Don't Tick Off Oprah!!! :-)
And so I'm left wondering. . .where are the lines drawn in the memoir genre? And who decides? Is there an acceptable gray area, as Pammy asserted? When, if ever, is it all right to create a composite character? What are some legitimate reasons for writing an anonymous memoir? And is all dialogue in quotes in a memoir really the exact language used? Does anyone truly have such perfect recall? When is it okay to take liberties with the story line, and when is it not? How much legal exposure do memoirists take on when they use real names and relate real tales? Is there a way, short of labeling a memoir fiction, to protect oneself from it? Is there a legal or an ethical requirement to notify people if they will be written about in a memoir? What if they don't like how they are portrayed and, yet, the writer feels s/he has been fair?
Please discuss. I am but a marketer and, thus, clueless about such things. But I'm eager to learn, and I know many of you are quite accomplished in this genre.
Causes Ellen Sheeley Supports
For All Women Foundation