The Truth About Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Aminatta Forna, from Reporter to Novelist, and Everything in Between

By  Aminatta Forna

Some years ago I was invited to judge a literature prize. The prize was awarded on the basis of a writer’s body of work, but the prize organizers had limited the scope to works of fiction. Works of non-fiction by the same writer were not included. This made no sense to me and I said so. As a novelist and essayist I see the two forms as conjoined twins, sharing themes and concerns, which all come out of the same brain, but flow into two separate entities. The same is true of every writer I can think of who writes both fiction and non-fiction. Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home and Housekeeping and her powerful essays examine her reflections on Christanity and morality. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and News of a Kidnapping tell of the history and making of modern Colombia. Michael Ondaatje says he wrote first his memoir Running in the Family about growing up in Sri Lanka, but felt the need to turn to fiction to write about the Sri Lankan civil war. Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man and his collection of essays The Book of My Lives excavate themes of loss and displacement from his hometown of Sarajevo.

Twelve years ago I was being interviewed on the radio about my debut novel Ancestor Stones, the first thing I had published following a memoir which had garnered a fair bit of attention. The novel told the stories of four women, each sisters growing up in a different era of a country’s history. The interviewer asked me a question that confounded me. Why I hadn’t written it as a work of nonfiction, she wanted to know. I replied that it would have been difficult, the people didn’t exist and the events I described in their lives hadn’t happened. Later I spent a little time pondering that question. Did the interviewer, who had spoken to hundreds of writers in her career as a critic and radio host, really have so little understanding of the process? I wondered if she thought, as I discovered a good many people lazily assumed, that the family described in the story was nothing more than a lightly disguised version of my own. The historical background to the stories was true, sure, but the stories themselves, the people, I had made all that up.

A while later I was guest lecturer at a British university giving a talk and reading from my memoir to a group of students of creative nonfiction. My publishers had described the book as a “story of a father, a family, a country and a continent.” I had grown up in Sierra Leone, the daughter of a political activist and dissident. The story I told was of my search to uncover events surrounding my father’s murder in the 1970s when I was eleven years old. Back then the kind of political upheaval that was played out in Sierra Leone was being played out all over the continent as nascent democracies of newly independent nations were hijacked by authoritarian regimes.

At the end of the session a middle-aged woman raised her hand: “Why,” she asked “had I gone to all the bother of writing a work of nonfiction when I could just as easily have written a novel.” To write the truest account I could mattered, I answered, a little testily, because these things actually happened. It mattered to my family, to the participants, the witnesses, and the people of the country. This was a book about how oppression unchecked causes a country to implode 25 years later, part of an unveiling of the things that had happened and never been spoken about.

“Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with all the people who buy their book.”

I began my working career as a journalist, because having grown up in a country where the state controlled the newspapers and the narrative and fed misinformation to the public, truth telling was important to me. In this era of “fake news” my background as a journalist has turned out to be a useful one. I was trained to fact check and to question the reliability of each and every source, and hence these days I’m astonished to discover the credulity of the public, including some friends and Facebook acquaintances, who take apparently at face value stories which would not withstand a few moments scrutiny. “Fake news” has been around a long time from Joseph Goebbels to the British tabloids and the American entertainment magazines. What has changed thanks to social media is the mode and speed of delivery, also the messenger, from basement trolls, to Russian bots all the way to the leader of a Western superpower, who according to various sources lies publicly roughly five or six times a day, whilst at the same time condemning the output of the mainstream media as fake.

A decade after I joined the BBC however, I was done. I was never content as a reporter for a large organization. The problem, I gradually came to realize, was that I was obliged to speak with a voice not my own but another voice belonging to another kind of person. It was the voice of the BBC, a reflection of the broadcaster’s viewers and listeners, people who had on the whole lived lives quite unlike my own, who took for granted a shared knowledge, shared levels of experience, of familiarity and unfamiliarity with their world and the world beyond. They were the great middle class of middle England, and I was not one of them. The voice stuck in my craw. Everyone writes for their own reasons and if there is one thing that moves me to set out my thoughts on paper it is this: that ever since the years of my childhood I have never seen the world the way I am constantly being told it is and I could only do so in my own voice.

In the time I have been writing there have been huge shifts in the sphere of the realm we now call creative nonfiction. Where once most first person nonfiction was generally confined to travel writing, narrative journalism and essays, the late 20th century has seen a huge explosion in personal memoir, from Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr’s tales of family dysfunction to Jung Chang’s “memoir as narrative history,” Wild Swans, set against the historical back-sweep of the Chinese cultural revolution. In nature writing, Annie Dillard’s self-described “theodyssey,” which sees creation in tiny Tinker’s Creek, Helen Macdonald’s exploration of grief and falconry, the expanses of Barry Lopez Arctic Dreams. There are hybrids of every kind: William Fiennes’s account of his brother’s epilepsy combined with the history of the science of the brain in The Music Room, the magic and myth of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, and again Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family which moves beyond the very idea of form.

The writer of creative nonfiction and the writer of fiction have much in common. Both employ the techniques of narrative, plot, pace, mood and tone, considerations of tense and person, the depiction of character, the nuance of dialogue. Where the difference lies is that the primary source of the fiction writer is first and foremost their imagination, followed by their powers of observation and maybe a certain amount of research. The primary resource of the writer of creative nonfiction is lived experience, above and beyond all, memory, add to that observation and research.

Another difference lies in what I call the contract with the reader. Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with all the people who buy their book. If the book is a work of fiction the contract is pretty vague, essentially saying: “Commit your time and patience to me and I will tell you a story.” There may be a sub-clause about the effort to entertain or to thrill, or some such. In my contract for each of my novels I have promised to try to show my readers the world in a way they have not seen before, or perhaps show it to them in a way they had not considered before. A contract for a work of nonfiction is a more precise affair. The writer says, I am telling you, and to the best of my ability, what I believe to be true. This is a contract not to be broken lightly.

“Where once most first person nonfiction was generally confined to travel writing, narrative journalism and essays, the late 20th century has seen a huge explosion in personal memoir.”

There are those writers of what is published under the heading nonfiction who freely confess to inventing some of their material. Clearly they have a different kind of contract with the reader from mine, or perhaps no contract at all. Whenever I am on stage with memoirists who do this, they start by explaining how the story was improved by those additions and that none of it mattered much anyway. In the words of the British writer Geoff Dyer: “The contrivances in my nonfiction are so factually trivial that their inclusion takes no skin off even the most inquisitorial nose.” And then there are writers such as W.G. Sebald and more recently Karl Ove Knausgaard who deliberately place their work in the twilight zone between fact and fiction. I won’t argue these writers case for them here, they know what they are doing.

For the memoirist who purports to be telling only the truth and then is caught lying a special kind of fury is reserved. In 2003, at a book festival in Auckland I met a woman named Norma Khouri who had written a memoir called Forbidden Love which told the story of the honor killing of her childhood best friend in their native Jordan at the hand of the friend’s own brother. The girl’s supposed crime was to have fallen in love with a Christian. The book sold half a million copies and at the time we met Khouri had founded and was raising money for an organization to save Jordanian women in danger of being killed for “honor.” We appeared on the same panel, afterwards we drank at the bar. Norma was fun, she seemed to have survived her ordeal well, too well some said later, but I know many people who have faced extreme situations and they are often perfectly cheerful. I didn’t think too much about her American accent either, she told me, or perhaps I assumed, that she had been to the International School in Jordan. All in all I spent maybe two hours in her company.

I flew back to the UK and a month or two later I received an email from the panel chair David Leser, a well known Australian journalist and feature writer. He wrote that he had stayed up with Khouri late into the night after we had left the bar, had been deeply moved by her fragility and courage, even, he admitted later in an article, fallen a little in love with her.

“I began my working career as a journalist, because having grown up in a country where the state controlled the newspapers and the narrative and fed misinformation to the public, truth telling was important to me.”

Khouri was a fraud. She had left Jordan for Chicago at the age of three and had not set foot in her homeland since. The whole story had been a hoax. No best friend, no Christian lover, no honor killing. The rage at Khouri lasted for months. A decade later a filmmaker made a documentary about her: Forbidden Lie$, in which Khouri continues to try to vindicate herself, despite the mountain of seemingly irrefutable evidence including accusations of financial misconduct and her inability to provide evidence to prove the existence of her dead friend and her friend’s family. To Leser she admitted she had lied but, she said, for the right reasons. Those who met her including Leser (and me) never could decide whether she was a trickster, a fantasist or even a woman with some hidden trauma of her own.

Everyone, even Norma Khouri, has their own reasons to write, their own justifications for the choices they make, their contract with their readers, their contract with themselves. I ask my students of both fiction and nonfiction, but most of all those who wish to write personal memoirs (perhaps because of all the forms of writing it is the one most often confused with therapy): Why do people need to hear this story? Not, Why do you want to write this story? i.e Not what’s in it for you. What’s in it for them?

When I come to a begin a book it is usually with a question in mind, something I have been thinking about and I want to ask the reader to think about too. What turns the book into a novel is the arrival of a character. Elias Cole, the ambitious, morally equivocating coward in The Memory of Love came to me through a chance remark by a friend about her father, a successful academic who had somehow survived a villainous regime where his colleagues had not. I hired a man to paint my house who I discovered (on the last day) was a thrice imprisoned violent offender. Out of that encounter came Duro, the handyman Laura unthinkingly allows into her holiday home in The Hired Man.

My nonfiction begins with a question too. The difference, if I can pinpoint it, is that with nonfiction when I start to write I believe I may have come up with an answer, an answer of sorts at least. Don DeLillo once quipped that a fiction writer starts with meaning and manufactures events to represent it; the writer of creative nonfiction starts with events, then derives meaning from them. Gillian Slovo, both a novelist and memoirist, once told me that with nonfiction you always know what your story is, with fiction that isn’t necessarily the case. I think there is truth in both statements. It’s easy to lose sight of your story, meaning the deeper truth you are reaching for in fiction, the more it can be a slippery process. When it comes to nonfiction I discard or store numbers of stories, sometimes because I can’t think of the right way to tell them, but more often because although I know the story in narrative terms, I have not yet arrived at its meaning.

The best stories can arrive quite by chance, replete with meaning and maybe even with a great character through whom to tell them. Some years ago a stray dog I had adopted in Sierra Leone and given to a friend was hit by a car. The story of the effort to save her life, which involved many ordinary people in a country still on its knees after ten years of civil war, introduced me to Dr. Gudush Jalloh who was then the only working vet in the country (the others having all fled or been killed). Here was a man who devoted himself to the lives of the city’s street dogs, who, in the face of an announced cull, had stood up to represent the dogs before the City Council, who had driven around at night rousing the local people into action to save the lives of dogs. I wrote an essay for Granta, “The Last Vet,” about Gudush Jalloh, for to me everything about him represented something to which I had been giving a great deal of recent thought, the gap between Western and West African modes of thought. By writing about him I could reveal something to West Africans about their own culture and reverse the gaze on Western culture.

“The conversation,” I later wrote after spending two weeks in his company, will range over days: “African pragmatism and reality, Western sentiment, the schism between the values of the two and the West’s own conflicted treatment of animals. Of Jalloh’s lot in trying to embrace, negotiate and reconcile so many ways of thinking.”

Sometimes meaning comes later. I lived in Tehran when I was 14. The year was 1979, my mother was married to a diplomat who headed the UN’s development projects in the country. I found myself a teenage witness to one the great revolutions of all time, from its heady flowering in the hands of writers and artists, to the crushing of new found freedoms by the mullahs a year later. The events, their sequence and consequence, made no real sense to me at the time.

In the essay 1979 I wrote: “I was, at that time, an ardent revolutionary. I had a poster of Che Guevara on my wall and a sweatshirt bearing his image. I read his speeches and admitted to no one that I found them impenetrable. I was ardent—all I lacked was a revolution. And now here was a revolution [between the progressive authoritarian Shah and the defiant yet regressive Khomeini] and I had no idea whose side I was on.”

Decades later, watching the hopes and disappointment of the Arab Spring those months in Iran came back to me, this time with a fresh understanding, of the ways, the stepping stones, by which freedoms can also be hijacked and subverted. Of never believing it can be that easy.

At other times a thought process, which has been going on for months or even years, might begin to arrange itself into a sort of pattern. Like a pebble in my pocket I carry the notion around, collecting other pebbles which look similar, until I have a pocketful. I’ll spread them out on the table, these notes and observations, looking for the points of connection. Then there comes the moment, hopefully, when I see it. In that way fiction and nonfiction are not so different, that part of the process is the same. With fiction, though, I will begin to search for a narrative with which to veil those ideas.

Here’s Zadie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”

And therein lies the difference. In nonfiction the writer seeks to remove the veils, to strip away and to reveal what is really there. On my noticeboard in my office in London I had pinned the lines: “Nonfiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.” I don’t know who said it, I’m afraid. I think it was Nadine Gordimer, but I’ve quoted it so many times that on the internet it is now ascribed to me. The quotation seems to me to be intended to elevate fiction as the higher form, and I agree that fiction allows me to reach for another less literal kind of truth. But there is something about stripping away the myths that veil the lies that is vitally satisfying. There, says the writer of nonfiction, I said it! I said it! And so is thus spared the lifelong sadness of never being satisfied.

After a long spell writing fiction I find I inevitably seek recourse in the clarity, the exactitude of nonfiction, a flight from the coyness of fiction. Then comes a time when I have said what needs to be said, facts become constraining and it’s time to revel in the boundless freedoms of the imagination once more. A novel begins with the thought: What if? A work of creative nonfiction begins with words: What is. The writer says to the reader: Wake up, smell the coffee and look at what is there.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna
Aminatta Forna is the author of a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and four novels. Her newest novel, Happiness, is out now from Grove Atlantic.





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