A few weeks ago I received an email from an unfamiliar sender. In the subject line was the title of a story I wrote five years ago. Sometimes, when you get published, this happens. Either a reader loves the story, or a reader hates the story, or you’ve won a prize. I have received all three kinds of communication for this particular story, so I braced myself, and opened the email. After some formal greetings, the sender identified himself as a journalist from Nairobi. He wanted to know if I was aware of the recent plagiarism scandal involving a young Nigerian author.
Apparently, the young author had written a wildly successful story that had won a reputable prize and was now shortlisted for a much more prestigious prize. Some people pointed out that the lauded story had more than a passing resemblance to my own. The journalist wanted to know if I had any comments for his article about the scandal. Formal outros ensued and the email ended with two links, one to my story and one to the story of the young writer. I clicked on the last link and read, rather quickly and with a dooming anxiety I will spend this essay exploring, a version of the story I’d written in which some of the sentences were verbatim copies of my own. Sometimes, when your writing goes out into the world, I guess this happens too.
Many years ago, I went to a party my mother threw for the Persian new year celebration, Noruz. These parties are a once-a-year chance to see extended family, meet the new babies, hang out with the matriarchs and patriarchs who no longer travel with their bodies but with story and recollection and gossip, and generally assess the state of our displaced tribe as it merges or isolates or assimilates to these new American lives. That year, amidst the lively mix of aunts and cousins and aged uncles, I met Yana, a young woman from Yekatrinberg, Russia, my second cousin’s new wife. In a group where new wives are often a bit too demure for my taste, Yana had a bold and curious personality and I gravitated to her, most specifically to her stories, to the narration of her self. Over endless courses of buttery rice and pomegranate stews and cup after cup of tea she told me the story of how she came to be at this party, married to my cousin and beginning a new life far from Yekatrinberg.
It was simple, she said, the Soviet Union collapsed and everyone, all the women, wanted out. There were no jobs, the men were mostly alcoholic brutes, there was crime and corruption, the situation was not good. And so she, her sister, her mother, many of her friends—and hundreds of thousands of women all over the country—used the newly ubiquitous internet dating sites to put up appealing profiles with the explicit hope of finding men abroad and endeavoring upon romances and thus escape an increasingly unstable and uncertain Russia. And now, here she was, eating Persian food every day and living the American dream.
In the version of my story by the young author, all manner of Nigerian men, equally desperate to get out of an unstable and uncertain Nigeria, use the internet to make profiles of themselves and to attract, at first, women from other parts of Africa, and later, women and men from all over the world. In his version, my sentences start exactly as I wrote and end with the Russian female names replaced by Nigerian male names. There were a few other appropriate tweaks: the variations of Christianity were now variations of African tribal and colonial religions, and the same was true for the names of languages and cities. But the arc of the drama had been precisely replicated: humans seeking escape, posting a profile, fielding the good and bad and ugly responses, migrating to marry and/or divorce, to live happily ever after or miserably ever after or somewhere in between. The tone and approach throughout mimicked the original. My story had been used like a blueprint or dress pattern, a set of instructions for how to tell a story of people using the internet’s romantic/sexual marketplace to permanently change the course of their lives. His version of the story was admittedly clever. So was mine. Who could claim the cleverness seemed, oddly, up for grabs. Hence the dooming anxiety that sat over me and my computer and my desk like a heavy cloud.
Had I plagiarized the Otsuka the way another writer plagiarized me? Was I guilty of what I had accused him of?
Here is a partial list of things stolen from me: Halloween candy, a prized pencil, two bikes, a skateboard, three backpacks, one purse, three wallets, a car, two necklaces, the registration sticker on my license plate, a stroller, a computer, a camera, my high school CD collection, my mail, a diaper bag. Each time I felt a combination of things at once: anger at the violation and a deep understanding that ownership is, in the end, a fallacy.
I wrote the journalist back and explained I was in shock and could offer no comment. I thanked him for making me aware of the situation and wished him luck with his article. I sat in my office with my many feelings and my increasingly divided mind and stared out the window. A student group was holding an orientation gathering on the lawn. They all wore the same t-shirt and formed a circle by linking arms to the person on either side of them. They swayed back and forth, chanting something positive and peppy I couldn’t make out. It had been a long time since I did anything with my body tied to other bodies like that, many selves in a single motion. I let the spectacle distract me and waited to feel a unified calm.
The internet rewards us—little heart, little thumbs up—for taking a side, confirming a belief, committing to an argument. We are, in our natural state, made of a far messier stuff. I had just been angry, and now, I was understanding. No one owns art. What claim did I have to this story? So what if it helps another writer get a leg up on their own story? Shouldn’t I stand aside and cheer them on?
This open source attitude was not a pose; for a moment I actually felt it and the great calm that accompanied it. But no matter how much I tried to push myself to let it go, my feelings scuttled back to furious.
I tried to go back to work but could not bypass the story left open on the screen and so I re-read the young author’s version, in which my exact sentences and chronology are used, with similar cadence and pacing, to tell the story of Nigerian men. Mind A kicked up dust like a petulant toddler. There was no way I could return to work and I went, with my single mind (having learned long ago that the internet is useless if you are of two minds about anything, since there is enough evidence for any side of any argument) to our great shared consciousness and typed his name. I found a picture of a man with a thoughtful expression set against a red backdrop. I read little bits of press about his success and stumbled upon an interview in which he was asked directly: This story is quite a departure from all of your other writing particularly in form and voice. Can you tell us how this story came about? His response, in essence: The voice just took over. I felt myself working for the voice. It was that it was a chaotic process, so many things and people poured onto the page. Really? I worked so hard for so long, in the end it just came out of nowhere.*
Nowhere indeed. The circuitry of Mind A spasmed. In the kind of instant only made possible by our hyper connected world, I found the website for the prestigious prize, selected a random name from their list of administrators and forwarded the journalist’s email to them with the heading: Have you seen this? There is nothing like the hunger of Mind A on the internet, unabashed and ravenous.
I searched around and read a few snippets about his nomination and awards in which he spoke frankly about how his creative process gave rise to a completely original creation. Annoyed, I read the four other stories nominated for the prestigious prize and marveled at how quickly they drew me in, each one more unique and powerful than the one before. They told wild and bracing stories, pulling together voice and setting and plot to draw readers close and thus make our vast and disparate world smaller and more knowing of itself, as only good fiction can. Plagiarism aside, the story of the young author did the same. And, five years ago when it was published, so did my story about Yana and her exodus from the Soviet Union. Mind B hummed quietly to herself.
A few days passed. Life went on. The director of the prize committee wrote me to say they were aware of the situation and that though the prize for that year had already been awarded they were deliberating whether or not to remove him from the short list and would announce their decision in a few days. I sat in front of the computer angry about the word deliberate. Deliberate what exactly? Did I have to show them the sentences side by side? My six-year-old son walked into the room and asked if I was writing another book. No, I replied. Then he looked at me with concern. I know what you can write about. What? Umm you can write about our neighborhood and the neighborhoods next to us and in Oakland and you can connect it to neighborhoods in San Francisco then you can write about all the things between here and there. That’s a good idea I said. He paused. If you do it, he said, you have to say I gave you the idea. Ok, I responded. Then he left.
He wanted credit for his idea. How early does the concept of credit come to us? When does it leave? Because he is six and I am his mother, I knew he really wanted what is at the root of credit, to be proud of oneself, the self that creates what no other self creates.
Books come from everything. Books also come from books. As in the natural world, art too has a genealogy.
The story of Yana, as she told it to me that afternoon and during our many encounters later, was not a new story. When we met I was writing a book about human migration, specifically the migration of millions of Iranians out of Iran. Some of them used marriage as a way to get out of the country, a hastily arranged union with a distant relative or family acquaintance already established in Germany or Italy or India or the US. These arrangements were not guaranteed but that didn’t stop women their mothers and fathers from hoping. As Yana explained, the dating sites changed everything. Now women were able to take migration into their own hands without relying on family or circumstance. With the Soviet Union crumbling around them, Yana and her mother did just that. As I listened to her story, I heard a version of the story I was telling, which is ultimately the singular migration story: leaving home, making home. In her telling, the female protagonists made the decisions; it was this historically significant empowerment that caught my breath again and again.
Over the next few years, Yana quickly became a beloved member of our extended clan and on one spring break visit to Southern California I asked Yana if she would share her story more broadly. She agreed and I interviewed her friends, spoke to her mother and sister and wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times. Yet the journalism did not capture the essence of my fascination—women in charge of their fate—and so, as I do, I turned to fiction. As I thought about Yana’s world and movements, and human migration in general, I struggled with how best to capture the movement of a flock without losing the stories of individuals within it. How to do it? How to do it? How to do it?
For a year I walked around staring at books and thinking of Yana’s story. I spent a lot of time on internet dating sites from other countries. I read newspaper articles about Russian mail-order brides. I stared at my bookshelves again and saw a brilliant book by Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic, which tells the story of the migration of Japanese picture brides promised to Japanese workmen living in the US in the period after WWI. Just like the Russian women, the Iranian women, all young and fertile female migrants travelling alone into an unknown geography, the picture brides were part of a reproductive migration that forever changed global demographics. I recalled the voice of the book, a powerful and totally effective first person plural. We. I saw the space this voice made, how it held many lives and still allowed for a variety of selves and fates and to emerge. Ecstasy ensued. I had the voice I needed to tell the fictional version of Yana’s story. As I began to hear it, the flock of Russian would-be brides told all their various versions—the good parts and bad parts and boring parts—in a single yet differentiated voice. With this voice I might have a chance to capture their reasons, their motives and fears and excitements that allowed them to leave the land of their birth to scatter like spores on winds that would take them all over Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia. A diaspora not unlike the diaspora of ideas around the globe, launched every second by the internet, without thought to borders, visas, or tax. Ideas, like people, have refused confinement.
I remembered that great ecstasy. In the artistic life, those moments are rare. Mind B considered the young author. Perhaps he too was stuck with the voices of Nigerian men trying to emigrate, trying to leave the country of their birth. Perhaps these voices begged to be let out, given the page, the imagination, freedom to roam. Maybe he saw my story on the magazine’s website and felt the ecstasy I felt before Otsuka and got down to business. The nature of my anxiety revealed itself. Had I plagiarized the Otsuka the way he plagiarized me? Was I guilty of what I had accused him of?
Books come from everything. Books also come from books. As in the natural world, art too has a genealogy. Writers descend from a lineage of storytellers, pastors, hucksters, and hustlers. Writers are also readers; why wouldn’t their writing reflect all they have ever read, reviled or obsessed over? How can we not marvel at literary inheritance, be it from the book, from the tribe, from history? After the recent passing of the great Toni Morrison I was reminded how she was in conversation with William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, among others, and how those two were in conversation with Joyce, and Shakespeare, and the Old Testament and the Greeks, and on and on. And yet we appreciate Morrison for her deeply singular voice; the voice that is born of some alchemical mix of literature, history, weather, architecture, landscape and circumstance. There is no blank slate; art is never born of the void, we keep inheriting and embodying.
In school in Iran, my parents did not engage with the idea of originality. They memorized the timeless poems of Hafiz and Rumi and Saadi and no one expected authorship and originality from school age children. Throughout my childhood my parents often stopped to emphatically recite a bit of this perfect poetry as was appropriate, or not, and in that moment the poem of the dead poet became something new and necessary.
Like many immigrant, refugee, hyphenated, post-colonial and trans-national writers, I live and work in a constant tension between old knowledge and new knowledge, old and new styles. This tension is what brought me to writing in the first place. All of my stories are also fed by the stories of my parents, my grandparents, their grandparents, photographs, maps, gossip, the patterns of rugs, hand knit sweaters, ancient recipes, and music. No one writes in isolation, but writers who cross cultural and geographic divides exist in a particularly exciting and constant stage of busy merger—past and present, traditional and future facing, old knowledge and new truths—and work in a crowded imaginal space that must bridge and mix and fuse to create stories so seductive that othering becomes impossible. So too does ownership.
The young author is not hyphenated, nor is he an immigrant or a refugee, but he is writing in English. What this does in terms of opening up your work to the lucrative worlds of publishing and prizes is a kind of trans-nationalism all its own. To enter into the global literary marketplace is a smart and necessary move. In some cases, it can be as life-changing as marrying someone you met on the internet. So then, what was my problem? He was acting artistically, strategically, in a forward-thinking manner. If there is no originality, and the young author acted under an influence I myself had felt, and everything belongs to everyone and I am not even Russian, what business do I have being bothered?
I picked my kids up from school, went home to make dinner and read them stories: children’s stories told year in and year out about making friends, defeating monsters, changing into more mature versions of themselves, tolerating frustration, overcoming all manner of adversity. Every generation these stories are encased in new covers, sometimes a steam shovel will stand in for the child, sometimes the mother is a green Martian. The dragon is always a dragon.
Perhaps there is no need for originality when humans continue to repeat themselves century after century.
I put them to bed and went back to the computer. The director of the prize wrote me to say they had made a public announcement removing the young author from the short list and sent me a copy of the press release. It was formal and sufficient and clear. I felt seen. In a subsequent email she explained she had also requested that the young author acknowledge the reasons for his removal from the list but he was unwilling to do so. I felt erased.
I looked at the two stories again. So many of my exact lines were in his story. So many paragraphs about Russian women creating themselves online with hopes of a new life elsewhere were replicated to fit the story of Nigerian men using the internet to leave their lives. I found my copy of Otsuka and read passages of women leaving their homes, some of them happy, some of them sad, the journey impossible and uncertain, the arrival nervous and the years that follow split into a million different fates and fortunes. The sentences were different, the attitude more modern and feminist. And yet, the stories were the same. The trajectory of the Russian women and Japanese brides and eager Nigerians is not that different, just like the story of marriage and mating can only go a certain number of ways. Perhaps there is no need for originality when humans continue to repeat themselves century after century.
I looked at my story and saw the atmosphere and attitude of Otsuka’s form tilted and turned to fit the story of desperate, hopeful, reckless Russian women. I wondered if my story would have existed without the Otsuka. I was confident it would have come about one way or another. I looked at the story by the young writer and saw the blueprint of my sentences tilted and turned to fit the story of desperate, hopeful, reckless Nigerian men. Would his story exist if mine had not emerged before it? I am not sure. I forced myself to read his story again. I was glad it existed.
The era of reproductive migration has been quite successful. By 2050 there will be 11 billion souls rambling around on this planet, and perhaps, beyond it. Inevitably, we will have more storytellers and thus more stories. Whether the subject of these stories will be much different than Shakespeare, or Leila and Majnoun, or Sei Shonegon, or the griots, I can’t say. Thus far we have, as a species, repeated ourselves: desire, hope, victory of the righteous over evil, belief and faithlessness, do unto others, defeat the dragon are retold in versions with the whorl of unique authorship that places the age-old in our time. The migration of bodies and ideas will continue in parallel and overlap and divergence and perhaps the idea of claiming a story is mine will be as silly as saying you can’t cross this line in the sand or ocean, this side is mine.
Like you, I am of many minds. My six-year-old mind is still shocked to find my sentences under someone else’s byline. My at-ease mind thinks authorship is irrelevant. My good-daughter mind feels I should write a letter to Julie Otsuka. This could go on and on, so many minds, until I am literally mindless. Isn’t that the way of our world? The way of our times? The internet, our great shared mind, handing us a million minds a second?
Lately, to calm my mind, I’ve been reading about forests, courtesy of Peter Wohlleben and Richard Powers and a few others. The powerful interconnectedness of a forest is not unlike to the powerful interconnectedness of humans on the internet. In both of these systems the individual exists only in relation to everything around it. Without the group, the system, there is no self. In the forest all trees, plants, insects, animals and fungi are in constant communication, both in life and death. When threatened by an oncoming disease or when a juvenile tree is vulnerable, the canopy and roots send out signals in the form of aerosol pheromones and microbial fungi to give warning and information on how best to resist and survive. No one tree owns this information, and the forest lives on because of it.
I can’t help but see stories are our signals to one another. On the internet, in libraries and bookstores and magazines we signal with the enchantment of story: Here is what is coming; this is how we are taking care of our lives; listen, this is what is happened to my sister yesterday; these are my dreams/terrors/fantasies; this is how I imagine the future without water; here is a silly thing I think will make you laugh; this is how I met your mother. We absorb these signals into our cellulose as medicine, as instruction, as warning, as species in communication in the imaginal space. Many signals came to Otsuka. Yana’s signal came to me, as did Otsuka’s. The young author was receiving signals of his own. Each of us told a story of migration, of departure and arrival, of the hope and darkness in those journeys. How we share these signals, how we acknowledge and recognize ourselves and those before us as storytellers in this space without borders or restrictions, this space of the ecstatic and creative, holds possibilities for how we might all live together in the coming reality.
*This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote.