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Lies, Damned Lies and Memoirs

March 4, 2008 |  5:09 pm

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on … who? The author, and who else? Publishers? Readers?

Margaret Jones, white/native American foster child growing up with black family amid gangbangers in South LA, pens acclaimed memoir. Now she’s outed as a fake – not just any fake, but Margaret Seltzer, a privately schooled white girl from Sherman Oaks, who, as "Jones," even gave broadcast interviews about her book in tough-girl cadences.

Been there, done that, homegirl. Twenty-five years ago, East LA homeboy Danny Santiago wrote his own story, a novel called "Famous All Over Town," about his get-down life running with the wild boys. It was a very good book. It won awards; it was part of a song lyric; it was required reading in schools, literature from a real East LA life.

And it too, was fake. Danny Santiago was Daniel James, a once-blacklisted screenwriter who had worked on the Chaplin tour de force, "The Great Dictator." He had also done social work in the 1950s and ‘60s among Latinos, which is how he knew something of what he wrote. Margaret Seltzer says she did her research by listening to friends’ stories, and tapping out her book sitting among Black Panthers and just regular kids at a Starbucks in South LA.

Both authors were outed – Seltzer, after the glowing reviews for ``Love and Consequences’’ started coming out but before her book tour was to begin this week, but James, not for a long while, not until the novel had won awards and been acclaimed as an authentic new Latino voice.

We expect actors to make us think he is someone or something else. We don’t mind when female novelists write feelingly about male characters, and vice versa. Old writers create touching young characters, and sometimes vice versa. But we know the author’s age, and gender, and that it’s a novel we’re reading.

Only the memoir that sets itself and us up for hopes and disappointment. Would "Love and Consequences" have been published and praised if it had been called a novel? Especially one written by a privileged white woman? Does our hunger for "true stories" feed this phony memoir machine?

The judges who gave "Famous" a literary prize were to have considered only literary merit, but supposedly admitted that if they’d known the author was an old white guy and not a young Latino, they might have had second thoughts.

What’s the difference? And why does it matter to us?

You tell me.

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