Truth in fiction

It’s been ages since I’ve posted and there are a number of reasons for that, namely writers block! More on that later but in a bid to get my head back into the right space and try to stir up the embers of creativity I’ve decided to share part of my exegesis on my blog. I wrote Not Like My Mother as part of my Masters degree for which I was also required to write an exegesis. Suffice to say it was a challenging experience assessing my creative work while trying to write it. For me the biggest challenge was to determine whose ‘truth’ I should write. The excerpt below explains in more detail.

Cheers,

Azra

***

As a journalist I have been taught to report the facts accurately and objectively. I was encouraged to approach a story with a degree of scepticism, to research and uncover the truth and report it without any use of literary devices. Certainly, I had an opinion about each story that I covered, but I was not personally invested in the story. Readers were not interested in what I thought, as I was not a voice of authority.

However, when it came to writing Not Like My Mother my personal connection to the story provided me with some authorial credibility. I quickly realised that the story I wanted to tell would be subjective. Because of this personal connection to the story I could not distance myself and be objective. In any case, given the reaction of readers to authors such as Frey and Khouri, I did not feel that readers would be willing to accept my work as fact, but I wanted to report the story as truthfully as possible. There were a lot of holes within the narrative, which needed to be filled, but the basis of the story, I felt, was an important one that needed to be told.

In Searching for the Secret River Kate Grenville explains why she chose the genre of Creative Nonfiction for The Secret River:

I wanted to tell the story of what I’d learned about the frontier, to explore that sad history of fear, misunderstanding and violence. It was a tale that drew its power from the fact that it was real. Interposing a layer of invention would defeat my aim: to tell the unvarnished story as truthfully as I could (Grenville 2006, 146).

For nearly the same reasons that Grenville identifies, I opted to write Not Like My Mother as Creative Nonfiction. I also had a frontier (years of Balkan civil wars), misunderstanding (Serbians, Croatian, Bosniaks and Albanians, all of whom struggled to understand each other and seemed unable to effectively communicate their needs), and violence (war, and family violence). All this was composed out of a collection of facts, both historical and familial, which I had to juggle and incorporate within the narrative. It was a mammoth task. The Balkan situation is a complex one. Toss into the mix my family’s personal experiences: my grandparents living and trying to survive World War II; my parents fleeing a communist-driven, oppressed Yugoslavia; and me, growing up in a religiously and culturally mixed family.

What I hoped to achieve in my work was a fusion of multiple truths, which would represent the Balkan people and their plight. I hoped to show many truths, not just a Bosniak truth, but also a Serbian and Croatian truth. Mindful that Creative Nonfiction did not have a credible modern history, it seemed, however, the only genre in which I could effectively deal with facts and the larger truth.

Through Creative Nonfiction I hoped to give a voice to the ordinary people caught up in the Balkan conflict, and while the story is based on some facts, such as the history of various Balkan wars, geographic locations, familial accounts, historical facts, socio-economic facts and cultural problems, I felt the story needed to be assisted by literary techniques commonly used by novelists: multiple points of view, composite characters, metaphorical devices and so on, to draw on fact through imagination (Simpson 2003). I felt this would result in a richer text, which would achieve greater narrative satisfaction. I wanted to explore the relationship between mother and daughter in a culture of conflict; to explore the notions of identity, displacement, unconditional love, pride, loss, and infidelity. I would have been unable to do this if I had simply reported the facts, as Garner had in Joe Cinque’s Consolation. It is the inner nuances of each character, which helped craft a story in which conflict existed not only on the surface, through civil wars, but also through interpersonal conflicts an aspect of history not easily reported in traditional modes of journalism. By exploring the text through Creative Nonfiction I was able to incorporate the inner working of the characters’ minds and show how the social and political changes and religious upheaval in which they were caught up, moulded the characters’ personalities.

This need to embellish the facts came about from gaps within the factual story that my family told. They are uneducated people. Their stories live on only in their memories and not through the written word. Relatives had died and so, too, had their stories, their truth. An alternate truth had been passed on, but it was unreliable.

With this eclectic palate of truths and facts I began to weave a story which depicts the lives of three generations of women who struggle through their individual battles. Though I attempted to remain objective in what I wrote, I struggled to detach my personal connection with the stories of these women. To ignore this connection would be to lie, in the same way that VS Naipaul perceived his representation of his childhood memories in his collection of stories Miguel Street. He felt he could not disassociate himself from what he knew was outside his ‘ childhood view’. His adult knowledge coloured his work (Jack 2007, 5), and so, too, does my truth colour my work.

One of the main themes that surfaced in the Balkan conflict was the disharmony between Serbians, Bosniaks and Croatians. As my father is a Bosniak and my mother is a Serbian Catholic, I was able to create characters for my story based on their personal experiences. It is through my parents’ stories that I was able to create a plot through which I explored the relative cultural disconnection that resurfaced between these Balkan cultures after 35 years of peaceful Communist rule. By doing so, I was also able to explore the dichotomous relationship between Muslims and Christians in a modern historical context. Throughout Not Like My Mother, I have tried to establish a framework that highlights the differences and similarities between the two religious cultures and how those differences and similarities are passed on to the next generation. This is reflected in the repetitive cycle of abuse the three female characters are exposed to. It is also reflected in how all sides in the Balkan conflict killed those they perceived to be the enemy. Both Anika and Muhammed abuse their children. These similarities cross cultural truths, but also individual truths based on the perceptions and individual morals of each character.

To my mind, one of the reasons the Balkan conflict escalated into genocide, was the inability of generations to let go of past hurts and acknowledge the veracity of their competing individual truths. Each culture has retained stories of past conflicts from when the region was first settled, and then invaded by the Turkish Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The maintenance of these narratives reflects our need to connect with the past and our ancestors, and our desire for a concrete cultural identity that can be lived whether through the accumulation of land lost to previous invasions or through the ability to freely practise one’s chosen religion. I suggest that it is this connection with our identity that determines our truth. In Not Like My Mother, Ivo’s knowledge of previous Balkan conflicts informs his opinion of the Serbians; it is through his stories that he passes on this perception or individual truth to his nephews. Similarly, Azis, while acknowledging all the Balkan cultures are at fault, fails to realise he too passes on the culture of conflict through abusing his own son, Muhammed.

(a) Finding my authorial voice

It was unlikely that I would be able to remain objective in writing Not Like My Mother. I cared too much about the politics in the Balkans, was outraged by the genocide that had occurred and the lack of response by the rest of the world.

The novel began years ago when my parents and grandparents told me stories about their pasts. These stories remained vivid in my mind for years. I began drafting the stories from my memory. In revising the work it was evident that my memory did not provide the detail necessary to make the narratives fuse. I needed more facts, so I researched the history of the Balkans, the eruption of World War II, the period of peace under Tito’s 35-year rule, and, finally, the downfall of Yugoslavia under the reign of Milosevic. But there were still gaps.

I conducted a series of interviews with my parents who relayed, in more detail, their life stories and those of their parents. In comparing the transcripts, discrepancies became evident. While subsequent interviews with my maternal grandparents helped to fill in the gaps, their memories were vague. Time had sucked their anecdotes from their minds. My paternal grandparents had died many years before I started the project and I relied heavily on mine and my father’s memories of them. I attempted to emulate Garner’s technique in representing a variety of truths through direct transcripts from the interviews I conducted and on researching the former Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. However, as Frey found, relying on memories left me vulnerable to my perception of those memories and interpreting them within the narrative as such.

This compilation of truths moulded the person I have become and influenced the identity of my characters. Anika and Muhammed fled the oppression of Tito’s rule, seeking a freer world in Australia, fearing conflict would eventually rise again from the tainted Balkan soil. The paradox of their need to escape the conflict of their world only to carry it into their personal lives reflects the personal and private impact of being exposed to abuse and conflict; how culture and identity are passed on through generations.

In my research, I also drew on statements made by victims brought forward as witnesses at the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague: horrific accounts of rape and abuse. It was important to me not to soften these accounts and dishonour the reality of the victims’ experiences, but I also became aware of the need to present the details in a way, which would not deter the reader from continuing on the journey of the story. Professional analysis of my draft provided the feedback that my graphic recounting of the horrors which occurred in the Balkan wars—information sourced from transcripts from the tribunal, refugee letters and stories recounted by refugees—would scare readers away and I needed to tone the facts down in order to tell the story.

Unlike Frey, I do not present my work as an example of pure memoir or non- fiction. It is Creative Nonfiction, a genre in which fact and fiction can be mixed to varying degrees. While I have tried to emulate Garner’s technique of providing clear demarcation lines between fact and fiction, I found it often detracted from the narrative and read as journalism, or sounded didactic. As a result, I attempted to weave facts into the characters’ dialogues. I found this technique was more subtle and did not interrupt the narrative flow, such as in the following example:

She looked at the plaque that had been erected in honour of the Duke and those killed during World War I. My God, she thought, it was my people who started the First World War. Guilt welled up inside her.

“Why did he kill them?”

“The same reason they are stirring up trouble now. The Black Hand is a nationalist group intent on recovering land the Serbians lost to Turkey during the Ottoman Empire invasion. When the Turks lost control of Bosnia and Herzegovina during their war with Russia, control of the area was handed to Austria. The Serbs weren’t happy; they felt the land should have been handed back to them.” (Alagic 297, 2008)

The authorial framework that I have established is a relationship with the truths portrayed in the text. I do not profess it to be everyone’s truth, as this can never be achieved due to different individual perceptions, but what I do propose is that my direct cultural link can provide a more truthful insight into the working minds of the characters within Not Like My Mother than perhaps a novelist. I understand the Balkan people; I have come to understand why my parents were abusive. My personal connection and living experiences within these truths provide a degree of authority. However, I am under no illusions that a reader will also perceive this information as being a universal truth. In the end, a writer can present their perception of the truth, but has no control over the reader’s interpretation of that truth.

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