When I was about to publish my first novel, a writer tried to prepare me for what was to come. It doesn’t matter what novel you write, she said, you will be asked how true it is. If you write about a colony of rabbits, someone will ask, which rabbit are you? She was right, of course. I am asked the is-this-autobiography-in-disguise question all the time.
Nothing I write is true, I always reply. I write fiction. Even if I attempted to write an autobiography, I know it would not be true.
What can I say? I’m a liar.
The narrator of my new novel, The Hakawati, is a storyteller, a fibster, and so am I. The whole story is imaginary, untrue, fabulous in the word’s original sense. book is all lies, lies, lies. The book is all lies, lies, lies. You might blame my childhood, I suppose.
Ever since I was a young boy, I created imaginary worlds to inhabit. In these worlds I became a different person — to my mind a better, more interesting person. I became my own imaginary friend. I placed myself in all sorts of situations and the new me behaved accordingly. My life moved from quotidian to quotable, banal to bon mot. I had style, panache, grace, and most important, good looks. People viewed me with a mixture of awe and envy, wanted to be my friend or, failing that, at least bask in my sunshine. Now, I will admit that not everyone seemed cognizant of the transformation, but I was, and I have continued this self-soothing exercise, I hope in a somewhat mitigated form, to this day.
Some of my friends in this country gave me the nickname Hyperbolia. I embellish anecdotes into better narratives, transmogrify kernels of truth into mountainous tales. I become the protagonist of events in which I was only peripherally involved, even not involved at all. By the third or fourth telling, I can no longer distinguish the kernel from the tale. A spinner of tales, a ripper of yarns, a liar — that’s me.
Show me a storyteller who doesn’t embellish, and I’ll show you a dull one.
I come from the lands of Scheherazade, who could not afford to be dull. Had she not dressed her tales in fineries — oy, vey. In the Lebanese dialect, to embellish is to “salt and pepper” a story, to add spice, so to speak, to make less bland. Without it, one might as well eat Kraft Singles.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would one day become a writer of fiction, using the same silly techniques from my childhood. I became a dying man, and his hallucinations were mine. I became a woman who couldn’t write beyond the first chapter of her memoir (she lied throughout, of course.) In my new novel, I became a hakawati — a storyteller — but the teller of the stories isn’t really me. When I write, I fabricate. Art, after all, comes from “artifice.” I’ve always considered novelists to be grifters, charlatans, the greatest of them marvelously proficient liars.
We readers tend to ascribe to fiction a certain level of veracity. I assume that for most of us, the more involved we are with a novel, the more likely we are to think it’s real — so much so that something similar must have happened to the author. All of us do at some level, a few of us more than others: Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, tells a story of a fan at a reading asking if the picture of the geisha on the cover was he — he does have elegant features and fine skin, who knew? Susanne Pari, author of The Fortune Catcher, tells of the disappointment her readers experience when they discover that unlike her novel’s protagonist, she was never tortured. Right after the publication of Koolaids, my novel about the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war, a man, upon meeting me, exclaimed, “I thought you were dead!” He became a good friend, and it wasn’t because he was a necrophile. We may know it’s fiction — it says so on the front cover — but we get taken in by the lies.
So let me answer before I’m asked.
The Hakawati isn’t autobiographical. It isn’t true. The narrator is not me, the narrator’s family isn’t mine. The story is all lies, lies — well, not completely.
When I said it was all lies, I lied — just a little.
There are some similarities between the narrator and me: we’re approximately the same age; we’re both Lebanese men living in California. Details. In this case, I created similarities to simplify things. If the narrator is the same age then I know what was happening in Beirut or Los Angeles when he was, say, twenty, or thirty. I had the narrator’s father in the hospital at the same time as mine was because I knew what the weather was like then, what the skies looked like as we kept vigil in the room. Yet everything is fabricated. The protagonist plays the oud, and its modern-day incarnation, the guitar. I wouldn’t know how to hold either one, let alone play them. I have never known a hakawati, nor have I ever heard one perform. And unfortunately, I have not yet visited the underworld or coupled with jinn.
Lies. Fibs. Falsehoods. Fabrications.
Moreover, the narrator’s grandfather, the original hakawati of the novel, worked for a pigeon fancier as a young boy; the narrator’s uncle raised pigeons himself. And my family?
A few years ago, in a small plot of land behind her house in the mountains overlooking Beirut, next to the vegetable garden, my youngest sister placed a few chickens so that her children would be able to gather eggs, after picking vegetables. My sister wanted her kids to be able to understand where our food came from. Unfortunately, within a few months, a couple of cases of avian flu were reported in nearby Turkey, and as a precaution, the chickens ended up as family dinner. When her children (my nephew is five, my niece is two and a half) asked where that meal came from, my sister, ever calm and present, replied, McDonald’s, of course.
So no, trust me, my family didn’t raise pigeons. Chickens, interrupted, yes.
And none of us have encountered imps, as far as I know. Eight imps float in and out of The Hakawati: Ishmael, Isaac, Ezra, Jacob, Job, Noah, Elijah, and Adam. They are mischievous, wise, silly, greedy, generous, foolish, loyal, psychotic, powerful, magical, neurotic, intelligent, decent, wondrous, murderous, human, humane, violent, lively, klutzy, avaricious, and parrot-like (no avian flu in those days).
So if you ask me, Is the novel autobiographical, I can answer an honest no.
Yet I’d be stumped if you asked, Which imp are you?
In closing, let me add a confession: I lied when I said I was a liar.
Can you trust a hakawati?
D.H. Lawrence once said: Never trust an artist. Trust the tale.
In The Hakawati, the narrator’s uncle tells his nephew: Never trust the teller, trust the tale.
I lie. But what I say is true.
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