An ongoing concern of mine is trying to make sense of the phenomenon whereby the book by Linwood Custalow and Angela Daniel, The True Story of Pocahontas (2007; link).continues to appear in bibliographies and source lists despite the fact that it's a mix of history and fake "sacred oral history." I don't really have enough background and information to make a decent article on this topic yet, but I thought that if I studied historical theory, I might better understand how this book fits into the mix. Additionally, I have long been interested in the topic of literary hoaxes, and since I regard True Story as a variation of that, I need a place to post quotes and information that touch on this aspect of the book. For now, this page is just a wall of sticky notes on both of these topics.
The Surrogate Defense
"This is the theory that, although a particular event recounted in the book may not have happened to the author, it happened to someone. Such a book, then, is really the life story of a group. The memoirist should be understood as representing all African-American men in the era of Jim Crow, or all indigenous people in Guatemala. Experiences common to the group are therefore legitimately represented as happening to a single, quasi-allegorical figure." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: Menand is talking about an author of a memoir who claims to be writing about himself, but is actually writing as a kind of representative or surrogate for others who are unable to represent themselves. In the case of True Story, Custalow is obviously not claiming to be Pocahontas, but he is claiming to be a "quiakros" with special secret information passed down from 400 years ago. It's unlikely any such "quiakros" actually exists, but Custalow, by claiming to be one, can present the story he thinks happened to Pocahontas, and if it did not happen to her, probably happened to someone like her from among the Powhatans.
The Higher-Truth Defense
"Another strategy is the higher-truth defense. This is the argument that fabrications and exaggerations in books like these are in the service of more fully conveying “what it is really like” to be Guatemalan or in recovery or whatever the theme of the life story happens to be. “A Million Little Pieces” tries to capture the experience of recovering from addiction. Readers don’t care whether these things literally happened to James Frey, because they didn’t buy the book to find out about James Frey. They bought it to learn about addiction and recovery. James Frey’s job as a writer is only to convey that experience." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: With this line of thinking, Custalow and Daniel, though they may not be telling the truth, are engaged in an effort to reveal a higher truth, that the life of Pocahontas was not a Disney fairly tale, but a tale of abduction, rape and murder. Misrepresenting a source is a minor wrong, but this is more than balanced out by the spread of the "real story" as they see it, a story that few people would pay attention to without some validation by a convincing authority, which happens to be themselves.
"There is a whole taxonomy of authorial falsification, from ghostwriters and noms de plume to plagiarism and forgery, and within each species there are moral boundaries. No one feels betrayed by the revelation that the mystery writer Ellery Queen was really two people, neither of whom was named Queen, or that Franklin W. Dixon, whose name is on the cover of the Hardy Boys detective stories, did not exist, and that the books were written by a series of contract writers. ... Pen names are accepted in genre fiction: Saki, O. Henry, Amanda Cross. They are understood to belong to the package, to be part of the entertainment. Readers are not being tricked.
Mary Anne Evans was trying to trick readers by pretending to be a male author named George Eliot. But many women writers have adopted male names, and some still do, or use initials to go gender-neutral. It’s an accepted convention. J. K. Rowling’s publishers thought that she would sell more books to boys if they did not know her name was Joanne. On the other hand, people were upset when, in 2015, a writer named Michael Derrick Hudson got poems accepted for inclusion in “The Best American Poetry” under the name Yi-Fen Chou."
"There are literary impersonations, in which the author assumes the racial or ethnic identity of someone else. These are usually memoirs, autofictions, or books that pretend to speak for the group to which the fake author is assumed to belong." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: In the first quote, it is the example of Yi-Fen Chou that has a connection to True Story, as Angela Daniel adopted the pen name "Silver Star" as a promotional device to promote her own authority and to sell more books. Angela Daniel is not Mattaponi, not Powhatan, and may not be Indian. George Custalow, of the Mattaponi tribe, said he didn't regard her as Indian. Daniel claims to have traces of Indian ancestry, "most likely Cherokee."
"And there are hoaxes aimed at exposing the poor judgment of editors, critics, or readers." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: I include this because it's an interesting idea, but I don't actually think it applies in the case of Custalow and Daniel. However, I do think Custalow was partly motivated by his disdain for what he regarded as inaccurate reporting by historians, and there has certainly been much false history regarding Pocahontas. I have stated elsewhere on this site that Custalow and Daniel were interested in balancing out the story, hence the title of my article, "Meeting in the Middle."
Reference to The Education of Little Tree
"“The Education of Little Tree,” by Forrest Carter, a memoir of a young Cherokee orphan raised by his grandparents, came out in 1976 ... and became a Times best-seller. The book was praised by critics who knew something about Native American culture, sold at gift shops on Indian reservations, and taught in high schools and colleges. The author went on “Today,” where he was interviewed by Barbara Walters. Then, in 1991, a historian named Dan Carter (unrelated) revealed that the man who presented himself as Forrest Carter was really Asa Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan member and George Wallace speechwriter. By then, Asa Carter was dead, but his book had sold more than half a million copies. It seems that before Asa became Forrest Carter his career had fallen apart and he had developed a drinking problem. So he had decided to turn himself into a Cherokee. He performed a new identity." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: I love this because I have a personal connection to this book, and it was n the back of my mind not long after I encountered The True Story of Pocahontas. Briefly, when I lived in Hawaii, I had a job for a year as a junior high school librarian. There was a box of books that was labeled "re-categorize" (or something like that), and a note on the book that indicated it needed to be re-labeled and moved from the non-fiction to the fiction section of the library. This sparked my interest and I checked the entry on Wikipedia to see what was going on. It's a fascinating story, the gist of which is written above. The book is actually a fun read, though it apparently has little to do with actual Cherokee culture.
On the difficulty in spotting a hoax
"What may seem harder to account for is that the hoaxes are rarely detected by people who are from those communities or know something about them. But these readers, too, have a stake in the believability of the book’s authorship. They want quality works coming out of their cultures. And successful efforts at what Miller calls “forensic reading”—guessing the real identity of the writer from internal evidence—are exceedingly rare. Charles Dickens guessed that George Eliot was a woman, but no one else seems to have. Our cheater detectors don’t work very well on written documents." - Louis Menand, "Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship: What happens when we find out writers aren’t who they said they were." - The New Yorker, Dec. 03, 2018 (link)
My comment: This is an interesting paragraph, but it only partly applies in the case of True Story. The Powhatan Indians I have communicated with are among the most likely to dismiss True Story, whereas the book seems to have more traction among non-Powhatan Indians. Some historians and far too many children's book authors have been taken in by this hoax, and the historians, at least, should know better.