come to the theatre, or open this book, and we’ll lie to you.
Ian Leslie writes this in this neat little article titled “Are Artists Liars?” The answer is, yes. An imaginative flight of fantasy is, if we look at its bare bones, a lie. The arts are a “a safe space into which our lies can be corralled”, as Leslie puts it, and these untruths are redeemed by the assumption that “Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth” (Leslie’s words, again). There is one similarity though: neither liars nor fiction writers, whether they write plays or books or films, are readily trusted with the truth. That’s why critics invariably applaud writers upon creating credible characters and plots. A performance or a text should be true to the world it is invoking. Are the tears and the laughter spontaneous when an actor acts? Do the characters speak like real people in a book or play or film? We question if the accents are sound, whether the sets and costumes are historically accurate, if the setting and social attitudes are correct. Almost every work of fiction is compared to a bedrock of fact and if that comparison holds, only then is it considered a good book/play/film/acting performance.
But what do you, as a reader/audience, do when that bedrock has cracks in it? How do you process what’s been presented before you?
I just finished reading “The Convert” by Deborah Baker. You can read an excerpt of the book here. The book is about a woman who was born Margaret Marcus in New York, to a Jewish family, and who now lives in Lahore as Maryam Jameelah. She’s been Maryam Jameelah for more than 40 years now and since she moved to Pakistan in 1962, she’s never come back to America. Maryam Jameelah is also the author of many West-bashing books and essays, which makes her all the more intriguing as a subject. Here’s a woman who had access to all the freedom and liberalism of the West but actively chose to upchuck it all to wear a burqa and root for Islamic fundamentalism. Most of “The Convert” is made up of letters written by Maryam Jameelah. Baker came across them in the New York Public Library.
Ever since I finished reading the book, I’ve been thinking about writing this post but I’ve hesitated. To talk about what bugged me in “The Convert”, which is a fantastic book, requires me to reveal spoilers. This is particularly uncool in case of “The Convert” because Baker has plotted the book very, very cleverly. But I’m going to bite the bullet and write this post anyway. Since it’s already almost 500 words, chances are, no one is going to have the patience to read all of it. Please do read the book, for those so inclined to read entire books and not just the blurbs on the cover (my mother does that and then calls me and says, “Achchha, tell me what happens in this book? The blurb sounded interesting.”)
“The Convert” is classified as non-fiction. Having written a non-fiction book, I can tell you rather authoritatively that it can be a bloody frustrating genre. There are some advantages. More often than not, your subject already has a beginning, middle and end, so a very basic structure is there for the taking. But non-fiction demands you don’t doodle over the facts before you. As an author of non-fiction, you don’t imagine as much as make connections between various facts. Yours is not to conjure, but to reveal. And here’s my problem with “The Convert”. Brilliant as the book is, it’s a magic trick. By the time you reach the end and read the last page titled “A Note on the Methodology”, you realise that everything that you held as fact in “The Convert” is not what it seemed. Cinderella’s coach turned into a pumpkin at that last stroke of midnight. In “The Convert”, what’s left at the end is neither coach, nor pumpkin but a shadowy mix of the two that’s neither.
Repeatedly in the book, Baker undercuts her narrator’s credibility. Initially as you read the letters in Baker’s book, Maryam Jameelah comes across as an odd but sweet little thing. She’s chirpy and full of cheer, not dwelling on negatives and generally seeming like she’s got a nice, stable head on her shoulders. Which is why it comes as a bit of a shock that she used to take Compazine in America, a drug prescribed for schizophrenics. Baker slips this in, at the end of a paragraph, when you’re about a third into the book. You’re supposed to feel the shock that Baker did when she came across the letter in which Maryam wrote that she didn’t need her Compazine any more, which was a good thing because the drug wasn’t available in Lahore. So that’s twist no. 1. All those lovely, lucid, detailed letters you’ve been reading? They’re written by a delusional lunatic. Curiously, Baker doesn’t dwell on Maryam’s psychiatric condition much. Perhaps she doesn’t want readers to think that Margaret turned to Islam and became Maryam because she was crazy. It’s an understandable concern but the fact is, when you have a schizophrenic writing letters, taking them as cast-iron truth is, well, dodgy.
Then, another bulk of pages later, comes another revelation. Baker realises that a large number of the letters in the New York Public Library are fabricated. They’re post-dated letters, written by Maryam. These include letters to her sister and perhaps even some of the letters exchanged between Mawdudi and Maryam. So essentially, what Maryam handed over the the New York Public Library as her archives are letters that tell her story the way she’d like to tell it and the way she wants to be remembered. Not as it actually happened. This isn’t the act of the mad woman in the attic. Well, it might be but it’s not something that’s been done in a fit. The letters are a careful, structured attempt at plotting a story that reveals the callous and evil West that tries to crush Margaret/Maryam and how she eventually finds a fairy tale ending in Pakistan. This grand façade is exposed when Baker notices an inconsistency between what Margaret/Maryam has written to her sister about a public incident and what was reported of the same in the local newspaper. Interviews with people in Pakistan also make Baker wonder whether she’s been tweaking facts. And thus we have twist no. 2. The letters that we’ve been reading as true accounts of Margaret Marcus/Maryam Jameelah’s life are accounts of life as imagined by Maryam Jameelah. Despite being from the horse’s mouth, they are factually inaccurate.
The final twist comes at the end of the book. Baker has rewritten chunks of Maryam Jameelah’s letters; the letters written by a schizophrenic who hadn’t been taking her medication, as well as the postdated letters Maryam wrote about her past life in New York while sitting in Pakistan. Here’s an excerpt from Baker’s note on her methodology:
However, unless her words are accompanied b y quotation marks and a specific citation, the actual and imaginary letters of Maryam Jameelah do not appear here as she wrote them. As I make clear at the close of the book, I have rewritten and greatly condensed these letters. I have also moved an anecdote or thought from one letter to another, or taken an anecdote or thought from an essay and put it into a letter.
Throughout these reconstituted letters, I have tried to retain Maryam’s distinctive voice, one that often came more easily to me than my own. I do not ascribe to her feelings or thoughts that she did not have. I do not make anything up. Some readers might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled. In my defense I can only say that faced with the particular puzzle the letters presented and the moment in history when I found them, I tried to use them, as Maryam Jameelah herself often used them, as a way of making sense of her life and my response to it.”
Of course it’s unorthodox but that isn’t the issue as far as I’m concerned. My problem with “The Convert” is its claim of being non-fiction. By re-writing and re-ordering anecdotes and placing thoughts out of one piece of writing and into another, Baker has made things up. Once again, let me stress that the book is excellent, superbly written and highly recommended. But, no matter how spontaneously Maryam Jameelah’s voice came to Baker and whether or not Maryam fiddled around with the telling of her own life, is it ok for Baker to rewrite and swoosh anecdotes around, and then call it non-fiction?
I have no doubt that the secret ingredient of Baker’s literary lies in “The Convert” is the truth but I feel a prickle of discomfort at the fact that a writer can take the kind of liberties that Baker has with Maryam’s writing and then glibly call it non-fiction. My unease is heightened by how little of the book is about Baker’s meetings with Maryam Jameelah in Lahore. When Baker is faced with Maryam, she has an opportunity to beef up the non-fiction aspect of “The Convert” but Baker, by her own admission, wants to get the hell out of there. The number of quotes from Baker’s interview of Maryam Jameelah are appallingly low. As failed interviews go, the Baker-Maryam ones seem to be of epic proportions. But when an interviewee gives an interviewer nothing, at least some — many would say all — of the blame lies with the interviewer. Baker failed to even probe for the truth, seemingly. Maryam was not a comforting presence. She was awkward, nervy and weird. Baker felt unsettled and wanted the sessions to leave almost as soon as they had started. Perhaps this was why she was compelled to rewrite Maryam Jameelah’s tale. Because she hadn’t been able to get the facts from Maryam. Baker decided what facts she’d keep, what she’d let go and how she’d reveal what she’d kept. This is what fiction writers do: blur the lines between truth and lies, between fact and the imaginary.
But does classification really matter if it’s a good book, like “The Convert” is? Does it really matter if fact and fiction brush up against each other? What massive difference would it have made if “The Convert” had “fiction” written in tiny caps near the spot where price is printed? It matters because there is so much masquerade in our society; because we’re so good at lying. The idea of something being rooted in and faithful to fact is important because there are so many interpretations and “reconstitutions” flying around. Baker may have recreated Maryam Jameelah’s life authentically but what other avatars of fabrication will now push their toe in past the non-fiction door? And will we be able to see through their disguises and recognise when the only thing at the heart of a lie is yet another lie?