Fact, fiction, and things in between

The latest round of fake memoirs-- and the seemingly overheated attacks on Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone-- have engendered numerous articles and discussions about fact, fiction, poetic license, and the rest of it. (My favorite take on the subject is Luc Sante's.)

As William Maxwell wrote, "in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw." That line (from So Long, See You Tomorrow) opens PEN America 8: Making Histories, thanks to Colum McCann. He moderated a conversation with Arthur Japin, Laila Lalami, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner, which is the first piece in the new issue (and which we've put online).

Even more on point, perhaps, is the piece that follows: "How She Penetrates," by Maggie Nelson. The series of poems is from Jane: A Murder, the book that Nelson wrote after becoming consumed by the unsolved murder of her aunt Jane (which took place in Michigan in 1969). In the poem "Figment," Nelson, using a dictionary, traces the seeming decline in our respect for the imagination.
When I tell my grandfather
I am writing about Jane, he says,

What will it be, a figment
of your imagination?

We are eating awful little pizzas
and my mother is into

the boxed wine. I don’t know
what to say. I wish

I could show him: between
figling (a little fig)

and figure lies
figment, from fingere, meaning

to form. As used in 1592:
The excellencie, dilicatnes, and perfection of this figment
cannot be suffi[ci]entlie expressed

But he doesn’t want to see.
Besides, that meaning

is obsolete. By 1639:
It is a sin to lie, even in God’s cause, and to defend his justice

with false tales and figments.
And by 1875:

We must not conceive that this logical figment
ever had a real existence.
If only all these memoir-fabulists had thought so deeply about fact, fiction, memory, and form. But best-sellerdom beckoned, I suppose.

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