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Fact or Fiction?

Fact or Fiction—or Both?

Perle Besserman

I’m a writer who has never held back from mixing fiction and life experience. Remarkably, this only got me into trouble once, when a cousin was offended by my description of her father as lame, in a story about our family. She wouldn’t talk to me for a year, until I apologized for hurting her feelings. The truth is that her father was lame, but that didn’t stop me from skewing the chronology of events as his character’s role in my story demanded. Though I usually don’t go as far as Karl Ove Knausgaard (one of my favorite authors), indistinguishably blending “fiction” and “fact”, or using the real names of my characters. I pretty much rely on sensory memories of times, people, and places in the past that remain as real to me today as the feel of my fingers on the keys of the computer on which I write. I have always been extremely sensitive to my immediate surroundings. Someone once referred to it as having a “strong sense of place.” But as far as I’m concerned, that’s an understatement. The sheer physicality of an experience like walking through a market with its smells, sounds, and sights is so powerful that I sometimes am overwhelmed, completely taken over by it. And when I write about that experience of walking through the market afterward, I am just as immersed, just as fully “there.” It’s the same with dreams. When I wake up, I am still so deeply at one with the scenery accompanying the action of the dream, that it takes me several minutes to exit back into the world of not dreaming. Jerusalem, Kyoto, Brooklyn, Melbourne, Shanghai . . . where I’ve been (and even some places I’ve only imagined) . . . are all part of me. Each one calls up its own unique set of images and feelings. Depending on the time and place, any aspect of an event or person or place can be seen as something that “really happened” or “existed,” or was “made up.” This is not to say that everything is relative—just that, from a certain perspective, life itself is continuously “storying” forth in all its brilliant diversity.
One of my AGNI short fiction pieces, “The Sackman Street Boys”, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, was based on childhood memories of growing up on the tough Brooklyn streets of the fifties and later made its way into a linked collection called Yeshiva Girl Stories. The narrator is a girl whose name, age, and perspective change with each story. When we first meet her, she is eight years old; in the next story, she might be a pre-teen, and, doubling back in the next, nine or ten, or even eight again. Characters appear and reappear in different times and places, according to the zigzag pattern of the narrator’s memory. Actions overlap, time is inconsistent—though not, I hope, incoherent. For example, one story was set at the end of the Second World War and another in the Vietnam era, the protagonist’s uncle appearing to her as the same twenty-eight-year-old soldier in both. I’ve been told that, instead of disorienting readers, this fluid approach to telling a story seems to engage them ever more deeply as they travel the back-and-forth, up-and-down-road with the “unreliable,” no less beguiling, narrator.
I agree with Freud that there is no time in the unconscious, so the fluctuations between past and present narratives in my stories and novels, and even the characters’ projections into the future, emerge organically. Each of my characters comes with a living “history” of real or imagined or reinterpreted events, and his or her reflections on those events, or memories, are one with the very stuff of the story. Interestingly, being “taken over” by my characters leaves me so deeply identified with them that there is no longer an author present to experience their emotions as separate from my own. When you occupy another person like this (or that person occupies you) there’s no gap between you. In fact, there are times, when writing, when I lose touch with the person I think of as myself and start thinking and talking and even moving like the character in whose voice I’ve been narrating. So that, at the end of the day, my husband has to remind me to come back to myself, as it were, by commenting on my facial expressions or humorously referring to me by the name of the character I happen to be “living” at the time. It may sound complicated, but it’s really no different from experiencing water by letting go of thoughts about water and simply immersing yourself in it.
Our lives are in a continuous state of flux: every cell in our body is constantly changing; thoughts come and go faster than we can keep up with them. “Stream-of-consciousness” writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Pynchon have captured the poetic complexities of these ongoing physical and psychological processes. I admire their virtuosity and their genius, but I find that any attempt to consciously craft the processes that interface between a character’s thoughts, emotions, and actions sacrifices the story. And, for me, the story is all.
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