Co-opting pain for profit

I’m usually a political blogger in this space, but something has happened that aggravates me to no end and so I feel the need to share my anger with a wider audience. So, this woman writes a memoir about her life as a poor, half white, half NDN foster kid running drugs for the Bloods in South Central. High drama right? Right. Except, she’s a pretendian that grew up in a two parent household and went to private school who made up the story and kept her lies going for 3 years. She got a $100,000 advance with a story that was so full of holes it boggles the mind. The level of mind boggling stupidity just gets higher when you read this ridiculous interview where she actually refers to her friend OG Homie, living with Big Mom and other fun bits of random stereotypes used to bolster her claims of being “real”. I find myself angry beyond all reason to know that even if she (as she claims) was somehow affiliated with an organization devoted to ending gang violence she chose to steal the experiences of others and to co-opt their trauma in order to make a buck rather than actually focus on the work she was ostensibly there to do for the the good of the community.

It gets even worse when you see the picture of her looking “hood” with her daughter and her dog. Not only is she a thief, she’s played off a host of racial stereotypes to make herself successful and she’ll more than likely wind up with another book deal out of this mess. She’s busy making herself out to be someone with good intentions that made a bad decision and there are people busily trying to defend her in comments to the various news stories outing her as a fraud. Somehow the fact that she’s betrayed the very people she claims she wanted to help doesn’t matter as much as being nice to the “poor misguided soul” after she’s been busted. And she’s not the only one to pull this crap and get published. It happens relatively often and generally the consequences are fairly minor.

Meanwhile the legitimate work of POC writers that have survived adversity like Felicia “Snoop” Pearson barely rates a mention from the critics and certainly doesn’t get the author a $100,000 advance and a book tour. Just once I’d like the acclaimed voice of the poor inner city kids to be a poor inner city kid, and not some white person looking to make a buck off the community. Is that so much to ask? Can the fabulous writers that come from our communities be the voices of our communities? Or does White America really need appropriation in order to connect with the reality of life as a POC? We’re here, we can speak for ourselves and if you can’t manage to listen? That’s your problem. Our work might not feed into all those comfortable stereotypes that this book did, but then there’s a reason this book is little more than the fantasies of a privileged white woman looking to for bigger and better ways to stroke her own ego.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America.” Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.

33 comments to Co-opting pain for profit

  • Delux

    Your tone makes it difficult to understand what you are saying here…

  • Delux, what is wrong with you? I totally get what she’s saying, and mentioning “tone” is a lame racist thing. What kind of “tone” should she take on something that is this wrong???

    Karnythia, you are so right on.

    “she chose to steal the experiences of others and to co-opt their trauma in order to make a buck rather than actually focus on the work”

    Let me add, not just to make a buck, but to make alot of bucks that could have gone to one of the subjects of her organization’s work! I mean, it’s basically STOLEN money!

    And as a writer, I find it loathesome the way some writers will write anything to make money. It makes me ashamed of my colleagues!

    The stereotypes employed are astounding and if the publishing industry wasn’t so jacked up and dominated by non-PoC, they might have caught on to all the “warning signs” that the book might not be legit.

    But look at James Frey… he was a liar and fraud too and the publisher acted all innocent about it, and he came out of it with harsh words from Oprah but further book deals!

  • thewayoftheid

    LOL@Delux. Because you KNOW that’s what they’re gonna say, if they haven’t already.

  • My apologies to Delux if that was tongue-in-cheek and I misunderstood. :)

  • Delux

    No problem Aaminah, Karnythia knows I was just pulling her shapely leg!

  • Abydosangel

    Excellent article. It makes me wonder how far I’d get if I said I was a long lost Romanov relative and that the Czar was killed because of Nubian blood ties. You know – the Czarevitch didn’t have hemophilia – it was The Sickle Cell.

    What’s glaringly obvious is that people believe that the experience of being a PoC can be gleaned from watching Boyz In The Hood and maybe Soul Food and it’s nothing more than that.

  • Delux

    You know K, I think its time for a larger conversation on what it is that outsiders think they know about us, or want to believe about us, and how they can go to great lengths to have those assumptions reaffirmed, no matter how untruthful they are.

  • Delux

    Abydos- at the same time, so many people just have no clue how to cope when POC speak in standard english, have formal education, etc.

  • nojojojo

    I find myself angry beyond all reason to know that even if she (as she claims) was somehow affiliated with an organization devoted to ending gang violence she chose to steal the experiences of others and to co-opt their trauma in order to make a buck rather than actually focus on the work she was ostensibly there to do for the the good of the community.

    A-FUCKING-MEN. I’ve been so furious about this — incandescent — that I just couldn’t find the words to articulate my rage. I’m so tired of this happening. And the sole cause of it can be laid at the feet of a publishing industry and reading public which validates the appearance of authenticity over its actuality. If you look “hood” and toss out enough stereotypes so that your work has the feel of truth (to people who think “truth” = racist, classist, etc. stereotypes), they’re so much quicker to accept that than if you actually are from the hood, yet defy their expectations. As most people actually from the hood do.

    Thank you. This articulates what I’ve been feeling perfectly.

  • Aim

    This makes me sick. This IS my partner’s story, and I sent the links on to my partner to see if this person was an old friend or acquaintance. It’s the lowest thing to take someone else’s story as one’s own, and I won’t even start on the racism… Karnythia and others said it perfectly already.

  • Y’know, it’s funny. They had a piece in the Times about this woman’s ‘story’ before the real story broke. Looking at the picture and reading a bit of it, I was instantly like ‘yeah, right’ — not because she’s white-looking or anything, but I just got this whole vibe of fakeness from it…

    The only thing I half-enjoy about this is watching Times readers get snowed. For years I’ve been griping about the Times (and the NYC middlebrow lit. establishment in general) and their deep fascination with white (or ‘seemingly white’) experiences of hood-ness. See Mark Naison, Danny Hoch, Jonathan Lethem, etc. But at least these guys are decent writers. Certain segments of the Lit Fic community are willing to celebrate crap due simply to an obsession with white ostensible hood denizens. A few years back there was the awful book ‘Honky’ by Dalton Conley (the previous champon of spoiled white kid memoirist pretending to be a ghetto roughneck). And in his heyday mediocre-ass Eminem recieved more fascinated NYTimes coverage than any rapper before or after.

    Don’t even get me started on who they ‘let’ talk about Islam….

  • Jackie

    What gets me about these fakes is that they have obvious good writing skills. Why not make it fiction? Why the need to lie about who they are? In this particular instance, did the woman really think she was going to get away with this? She allowed her pic to appear in the media. Didn’t she consider that people who knew her, like her FRIENDS and FAMILY would notice? Also, that picture with her daughter is kind of funny. Her daughter is dressed like a suburban princess with her mary janes and all. And the Beware of the Pit Bull sign looks like something out of a Martha Stewart Catalog for the urban wannabes.

  • This woman should donate all monies made from this book to the cause of ending gang violence. That’s the least she can do.

  • “What gets me about these fakes is that they have obvious good writing skills.”

    I wouldn’t go that far… even in fiction we expect to not have so many holes in a story and we expect it to “sound” true. I haven’t read this woman’s book, but I know I sure don’t think James Frey has “good writing skills”. And that’s just the thing, stupid white people with mediocre writing skills get book deals all the freakin’ time while brilliant PoC writers can’t get anyone to give them the time of day.

  • BlueSteel

    If she tries to sell the book as “fiction” everyone immediately yells racism (and rightly so) for collecting a bunch of old, tired stereotypes and passing it off as a story.

    However, if she tries to sell the book as a “memoir” she can say “I’m not racist, these things actually happened” and she gets praised for being “honest” and “daring”.

    Looks like her plan didn’t work so well either way.

  • stankerbell

    From what I keep reading, it seems like these people do submit their stories as fiction, but no one picks it up…. but the bar for “memoirs” are lower and if the story is authentic or “rings true” than allowances are made for bad writing….

    However, I don’t work or know anything about publishing to know whether or not that’s true…

    Did anyone see the website she had up for her “foundation” before it was pulled down…?

    She had to have known that she was going to be outed at some point….

  • Veronica

    There is a memoir obsession in this country, but this woman had a perfectly legitimate way to write if she had wanted to. She could have chosen fiction, or, given that she claims that a lot of these are “true” experiences that happened to other people, she could have written a non-fiction book about other people. Writers do that all the goddamned time. Philip Gourevitch didn’t experience the Rwandan genocide–he did research and conducted interviews and then he wrote about it, all the while acknowledging that it had happened to other people.

    This makes my head hurt from the stupidity. I know I should be focusing on the racist exploitation, but I keep coming back to the part where she was going to be going on a national reading tour, with her actual face being publicized, and she somehow didn’t think she was going to be recognized by friends and family. She’s just so…dumb.

  • I am so tired of these stories. The state of the publishing industry is a sad and pathetic thing.

    “Our work might not feed into all those comfortable stereotypes that this book did, but then there’s a reason this book is little more than the fantasies of a privileged white woman looking to for bigger and better ways to stroke her own ego.”

    That is exactly what is wrong with the whole memoir machine. Too much ego stroking and not enough truth. It’s asinine.

  • joankelly6000

    Thanks for this post, Karnythia.

  • Saladin, did you even read Honky? Nowhere did Conley, now a sociologist, pretend to be a “ghetto roughneck.” He stressed throughout the book that his parents chose to live in the ghetto because it allowed them to pay a small amount of rent and, thus, pursue their artistic goals. Conley streses how his parents’ middle-class connections helped them make it out of the ghetto and how his white skin alone resulted in him not being arrested, mistreated in school, etc. I’m not sure how Conley was being pretentious when the whole point of his book was to outline how even whites in the ghetto continue to have more privilege than their PoC counterparts.

  • Nadra –

    When Conley’s book came out a number of folks called him to task for describing what was a culturally thiving if economically troubled, socioeconomically and racially mixed segment of LES as if it were a war zone. The claim to roughneck-itude comes in when one describes a complex building/neighborhood as if it were an apocolyptic gangland If one has survived to writre a “gripping” memoir…

    This exaggeration is flashed like hood credentials all over the book. When it came out I read the cover blurb and about five pages and found it patronizing and self-centered. My point is that the white literary establishment (as represented, say, by the Times and New Yorker) is depressingly, perpetually, disproportionately fascinated with the ‘white in the hood’ experience. Conley contributes to the idea that this statistically infintesimal set of stories should get as much page time as — well, the other 99.9999% of folks living in rough neighborhoods.

  • BTW, before someone scolds me, my percentage is of course meant to be hyperbolic. Of course there are good numbers of white people living in rough neighborhoods and good numbers of nonwhite people living in nice neighborhoods. But the question of which ‘hood stories’ are found ‘fascinating’ by the literati remains.

  • I once had a white colleague and writer share a story she’d written about her Black housekeeper and how the housekeeper loved her. (She was more present in this colleague’s life than was her mother.)

    I asked her why didn’t she write about her feelings about her mother’s neglect instead of writing about how the Black housekeeper loved her.

    Long story short – it was too painful to write what was real she could rather write was unreal.

    Several years ago, people found out that the writer of The Education of Little Tree was not Native American but was a white man, and, if I remember correctly, known to be racist.

    Some white people don’t want to confront the truth about their lives and don’t see their lives as having flavor and so they will make up experiences or consider themselves the experts on whatever experience they’re co-opting.

    My husband recently attended a hip-hop conference and damn near all the expert authors were white so…it’s nothing new.

    What we have to do is spread the word whenever we read something authentically written rather than giving press to these wannabees. Speaking of Bees, I hear that The Secret Lives of Bees, a novel written by a white woman is being made into the movie and I think Queen Latifah is one of the stars. The thing about the book is that this little white girl shows up in these Black women beekeepers lives “back in the day” and basically ruins everything. Yet it gets recommended as a wonderful story.

    Fiction writers have license to write whatever they can imagine, I just think the best books come out of authenticity some where. There are writers of color who write books that are inauthentic and miss the mark, too.

    Angry on…

  • Veronica

    Wait wait wait–Conley’s memoir was about growing up on the Lower East Side in the 1970s? And how rough it was? Seriously?

    Because I grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, across the street from the first housing projects in NYC (First Houses, a success story). Now I’ve just mapped Baruch projects, and it’s about half a mile from where I grew up, but even prior to the massive gentrification waves that the LES has suffered…well…let’s just say that I would never in a million years portray my childhood as some kind of tooth-and-nail fight for survival.

    The thing is, there’s a whole slew of false memoirs–The Education of Little Tree, like Candelaria says, Famous all Over Town, which in my opinion is utterly dreadful but won awards until it was revealed that the author was not a Chicano teen but an older white man, this holocaust memoir where the author has turned out not, in fact, to be a Jewish woman who, as a four-year-old girl, escaped from Nazis and was brought up by a pack of wolves in the woods (!) who helped her track her parents, taken away by Nazis, 1900 miles across Europe (and nobody thought that might not be true? really?), but in fact a Belgian gentile who, because her parents were arrested by the Nazis as part of the resistance and she was condemned by the extended family who brought her up as the daughter of “traitors,” claims that she “felt Jewish” (really, one suspects that her real story would have been quite compelling enough, thank you).

    It feels to me like too many writers are missing the point of fiction. The wolf-memoir-writer says that “This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” But that’s what fiction is for. It’s for conveying emotional truths that better represent reality than facts. If she had written a novel about a little girl caught up in the Holocaust who did all that, this wouldn’t be an issue. If Seltzer had written a novel, she would still be co-opting people of color’s sufferings, but she wouldn’t be doing it in such a damn stupid way. So in some ways Candelaria’s elegant formation of why white people write about non-whites in this particular kind of “woo, look at my hard-knock life” way–that too many white people somehow think that non-white people are somehow “realer”–doesn’t for me address the issue of why those white people would co-opt the experiences in the form of fake memoirs. And why do they continue to do it when they routinely get caught? And how stupid are they?

  • Veronica

    That’s…so relevant to a discussion of race and fake memoirs. Well done.

  • Legible Susan

    It’s also the identical rant he posted on the “About” thread (or if it’s different, I’m not reading it closely enough to spot it). A fast track to disemvowelling, perhaps?

  • nojojojo

    Nope, fast track to spamdom, since that’s what it is.

  • I really loved this post. I referenced this post in a small film project I did about the fem blogosphere. If you have a moment – check it out. It’s on my blog (a link to it, anyway!). Thanks for this amazing site.

  • This is so fucked up. So so so so so fucked up. She committed a criminal act as fare as I’m concerned. What she did says that she basically believes real people (people who actually lived this) are too stupid to tell their own stories. This is modern day colonialism and it’s fucking criminal. She stole space that belonged to someone else. What is with rich people just assuming that they KNOW what other people go through without actually going through it? What is that psychological mechanism that tells them its ok to do that? It is stealing from the poor. This girl is a rich white colonialist piece of shit.

    Argh. this makes me so angry.

    It’s like that “Candy Girl” book about stripping- some upper middle class white girl decides to strip for a year and gets a book deal. Forget the thousands of hard working strippers who dance to survive, this girl is white and that’s what’s interesting! The audacity to say a story that isn’t yours is criminal. There is no good intention behind it. Never. It shouldn’t be treated lightly. It isn’t a little mistake- it’s a criminal act of appropriation born of the same sick twisted desire in the brain that caused the rape of the new world by white Europeans. Don’t think for one second it isn’t that serious.

    fuck that. her book deal reinforces the invisibility of thousands of people who need *NEED* to be heard!

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