Other Writings

I have always regarded memoir as a legitimate form of fiction.


This literary form has been once again called into question by the allegation that Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, lied; that he may not have been saved by the villagers of Korphe, and he may have drunk only two cups of tea.

Montana’s attorney general is investigating possible “mismanagement of funds,” known in less literary circles (say, law courts) as fraud. He probably isn’t too concerned when or whether Mortenson went to the village of Korphe. Neither am I, really.

Memoirs are based on memory, which has been shown to be selective, fallible, and, when useful, inventive.

It is from memory that we create myths about ourselves. They are part of the personas or masks that we wear in public. And most of us are guilty of embellishing and exaggerating: we are smarter, kinder, braver, nobler than we, living behind the mask, know we are. Memoirists just do it on paper, the literary equivalent of padding one’s resume.

Many writers wrestle with this issue.

Dorothy Gallagher, author of How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories, admits to the tempting pull of a good story over the drab, humdrum facts of one’s life. “Storytelling insists on itself,” she writes.

“But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen. In their essence they are true. Or a shade of true,” reminding one of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.” Or, like Sally, a character in my Tales of Tokyo, confesses: “It was just too good of a story not to be true!”

Andre Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name, flatly accepts that “all memoirists lie.” He writes, “We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours.”

James Frey, author of the now “highly fictionalized memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, had to face the wrath of Oprah Winfrey because of the imaginative elements in his story. Given the choice, I think I would rather be investigated by Montana’s attorney general.

Some writers get around this tricky, sticky “truthiness” dilemma by projecting their personal myths into fiction. W. Somerset Maugham went so far as to declare that “All novels are autobiographical.” Gee, even Harry Potter?

An interviewer once commented to May Sarton, known for her journals as much as her novels and poetry, that he found the journals strangely impersonal. To which Sarton replied that she put the intimate, personal stuff into her novels.

The issue is complicated in Mortenson’s case in that he may have made money—lots!—from his exaggerations, a predicament most writers do not need to worry about.

Another claim is that people not only believed his story but also donated money because they believed an account that now turns out to be “a shade of true.” I suspect we donated our money not because he was cared for in the village of Korphe, but because his work—the building of schools and the education of girls—is something we believe in and want to support.

 Ultimately, it may come down to a matter of degree: where we embellish, Mortenson lied. Or perhaps, like most of us, he just came to believe in his own myth.

 

This article first appeared in The (Longview) Daily News, December 31, 2011.

 

 

The mountain rose up before us, taunting us, challenging us, making faces at us, daring us to scale its treacherous slopes.

We faced a grueling 4,500 foot elevation gain in less than five miles. Straight up into thin air.  Man pitting himself against mountain. Epic stuff. Each among us knew the risks; each had weighed his chances. We were up to the challenge. We laughed in the face of danger. Hahahahahahaha…

There were six on our climbing team: Nordquist, Hilary, Mallory, Whitaker, Shackleton, and myself (Note: names have been changed to protect the innocent—that, and to avoid messy lawsuits.)

Each of us was in top physical condition, the result of hours of rigorous training in preparation for this day. I myself had read three books on sports training. We were ready.

 

Nordquist is the leader of the expedition. The success and safety of the climb will rest on his cool head and clear thinking. The very epitome of the mountaineer, he inspires confidence in the rest of us. Dressed in his mountain boots and gaiters, his Kelty pack bedecked with ice axe, ropes, pitons, carabiners, oxygen canisters, and a dome tent that can comfortably sleep twenty, he carries enough food to have kept the Donner Party alive through the winter. I feel slightly under-prepared, dressed in only walking shorts, T-shirt and sneakers with a space blanket in my pocket.

Hilary is still laughing in the face of danger, and we realize the altitude is already getting to him. Since we haven’t left the parking lot yet, this is not a good sign. We may have discovered the weak link on our team.

It is a clear and cloudless morning as we set out, yet each of us knows how fickle the weather can be on the mountain. Certainly, not as fickle as last night’s date, but still…

It will be a race against time. We will have only a narrow eight-hour window to reach the summit and get back down off the peak before Happy Hour at Scandals.

Nordquist orders us to rope up. We appreciate his precaution and concern for our safety. Still, we feel a little foolish being the only ones roped up together as we leave the parking lot.

The climb soon becomes grueling. We break out of the trees into the vast and barren lava fields. We are on our own now, cut off from civilization—except for our three cell phones, one laptop computer, and Mallory’s hi-tech palm-size television/radio with satellite relay.

It is a warm day on these hazardous and unforgiving slopes, and Nordquist orders a halt for the expedition to rest and rehydrate. (Real mountaineers don’t drink water. We rehydrate.)

After a short break, we set out again and are soon scrambling over boulders and traversing steep scree slopes. Hilary is having a particularly difficult time. (Note for future expeditions: high heels should be strongly discouraged.)

Mallory keeps us informed of the altitude with his new razzle-dazzle hi-tech watch with built-in barometer, altimeter, pedometer, and can opener. With each foot of elevation gain, the mountain takes its toll on us. 5,000 feet: oxygen is becoming thinner. Breathing becomes more difficult. 5,500 feet: our bodies are overheating. 6,000 feet: Hilary’s mascara begins to run, reminding me of the raccoon we saw in the forest below.

At 7,000 feet, we come upon a sensitive geophysical seismic sensor, placed here by government scientists to monitor the mountain. We have great fun jumping up and down around it, wondering if there will be anything in tomorrow’s newspapers.

Finally, shortly before noon, we reach the summit. 8,363 feet. Against impossible odds, we had done it! O sweet triumph of the human spirit! Proudly, we plant our rainbow flag atop the peak and watch it unfurl and snap and wave in the wind--right next to the happy face banner of the group from the Goldendale Senior Center.

We stand on the thin, knife-narrow rim of the crater, gazing out into the vast grandeur and majesty of the North Cascades. Nordquist points out the surrounding peaks: Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. McKinley…Too late we realize Nordquist’s poor sense of geography.

There are few thrills that can match standing atop a mountain peak—I can only think of two or three and those are illegal. Looking thousands and thousands of feet down into that immense crater, beholding the rising lava dome with its fissures and steaming vents, I was momentarily overwhelmed by one, powerful realization: “DUDES, WE’RE STANDING ON A LIVE VOLCANO!”

Famished from the ascent, we break out our provisions. I share my orange with Hilary who had been under the mistaken impression that there would be vending machines at the summit. Nordquist offers a piece of beef jerky that was dried and cured last century. Mallory shares his hi-tech, high carbo-protein bar that contains enough energy to fuel a small city; while Shackleton is dining on his gazpacho soup with a crisp Caesar salad and barbecued lamb in tahini marinade as he lets his bottle of Merlot breathe. (Shackleton is also a member of the Rainbow Cooking Club.)

An hour later we began our descent, each of us quietly proud of our team’s achievement. We had risen to the challenge and we had triumphed. Forevermore, we would be counted among the courageous few (a mere 13,000 each year) who had reached the treacherous summit of Mt. St. Helens and returned to tell of it.


This article was first published in 1999 in Just Out magazine (Portland, Oregon.)

 

 

My grandfather came from Portugal. His father, a fisherman, had drowned, leaving a wife and nine children. As the oldest son, it became my grandfather’s responsibility to support the family.

Their village scrounged together the money to buy him passage to America. The plan was for him to go there and find work, sending money home to the family, until he had saved enough to return to his village.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1912. He came by himself; didn’t know anyone here; and couldn’t speak the language.

He was fifteen years old.

I am amazed at that boy’s courage, and feel humbled to be his grandson.

In order to find work, he pretended to understand English. His first job was for a farmer who directed him to dig around some young fruit trees in the orchard. My grandfather proceeded to cut them down. This could have been the end of our family’s saga in America.

But the farmer was kind and, now realizing that this boy didn’t understand English, kept him on and helped him learn the language and customs of this strange new country.

Through the years, my grandfather continued to work hard and faithfully sent money home to his mother and siblings. But he was never able to save enough to return to his village, and he never again saw his mother.

In time, he learned to speak English, as did his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren--although I have doubts about a couple of my cousins.

I stand in awe at the courage of immigrants, whether "legal" or not, and wonder at the dreams and desperation that compelled people to risk their lives to come here, starting with the Plymouth and Jamestown colonists. (The jury is still out whether they were legal or illegal immigrants.)

The issues in the current immigration debate are complex; but they always have been. Rarely have new immigrants been welcomed by those who preceded them.

And the arguments have remained pretty much the same; only the immigrants themselves change, be they Germans (the other side of my ancestry) or Irish or Italians or Hmong. I see no simple solution, and I’m made nervous by those who do.

We are a nation of immigrants—and of immigrants’ stories. We always have been, and I think we are at our best as a people, at our noblest and most compassionate, when we remember our families’ origins and how we got here.

When I listen and weigh the current debate on “illegals,” and about walls to keep people out, and in what language we should sing the national anthem (I find our national anthem impossible for me to sing in any language), and as tempers flare and these complex issues are reduced to simplistic slogans, I think of a 15-year-old boy, coming alone to America to seek a better life for his family, and I am still amazed at his courage, and I am still humbled to be his grandson.


First published in The Daily News (Longview, Washington), July 9, 2006.

 

 

I suppose it should be expected. If I had written a cookbook, people would be sending me recipes.
But I wrote a book about ghosts.

To the day she died, Mom insisted she saw Dad standing there in the kitchen in broad daylight. He had been dead for ten years.

Along with those skeletons hidden away in family closets, it seems that most families have one or two ghost stories stuck in there as well. In almost every public reading I’ve given, or in meetings with book discussion groups, someone has shared a story with me.

I was fifteen, and my brother was away fighting in the Pacific when I saw him outside my bedroom window. He was grinning, like he was joshing with me again. I never told my ma. And I didn’t need to wait for the telegram. I knew what it meant.

These stories were not told in a sensationalistic way, but more like a confidence shared.

During his final hours, my husband would ask who was that standing by the door. I would say there’s no one else in the room. Just me. And soon he would ask again. There’s no one there, I’d tell him. Now, I’m thinking, maybe there was.

Some spoke even matter-of-factly about their experiences.

There was a ghost upstairs in our house when we were kids. I don’t remember any of us ever being scared. We just got used to the noises and took it for granted.

This was true of my German grandmother. For her the paranormal was...well, normal. She dreamt things before they happened—what’s called precognition. It was nothing special to her. She accepted these experiences without needing to understand them. My mother, too, had experiences, but she didn’t like to talk about them. They frightened her.

Near the end of her days, as my grandmother was lying in the hospital, she said to my mother, “Ah, Lili, don’t worry. When I die, I will come back and tell you that I am okay.”

I’m sure she meant that to be reassuring.

But Mom would have none of it. “No, Ma, when you’re gone, you’re gone. Don’t come back.” What’s telling is that neither of them doubted that, had she wanted, my grandmother could indeed have “come back.”

I wish I’d been there. I’d have told Grandma that I would love to receive a postcard from the other side— Having a wonderful time. Wish you here (or maybe not that). Don’t forget to water the delphiniums. Unfortunately, my mother’s and grandmother’s “gift” did not extend down to me. I apparently possess all the psychic sensitivity of a potato.

What has also struck me about these accounts is that not one of them was frightening or even spooky, as in all those lurid horror films and novels (Okay, I have a couple of lurid scenes in mine, too.) Mostly, the stories speak of tenderness and love that momentarily reaches from beyond the grave.

I was ironing, and suddenly I felt my son kiss me on the cheek, just like he did when he was living.

How do we (the Potato People) begin to understand these accounts? One’s imagination playing with itself? A wish masquerading as a hallucination? Perhaps an exaggeration of something that “kind of happened”?

Or just maybe these people did see, hear, and feel what they said they did.

I am asked whether I believe in the supernatural. I answer like Frank, the therapist in my novel, that I neither believe nor disbelieve. I’m not even sure what I’m being asked to believe in. Like him, I’m pretty sure the final word on reality isn’t in yet.

Ultimately, what paranormal experiences may mean is that we are living in a much different universe than we think are. Confined to our three-dimensional reality in a multi-dimensional world may be like believing the room we inhabit is the whole house, whereas it’s just one room in a vast mansion of rooms.

To paraphrase the evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, the universe is not only stranger than we think; it’s stranger than we can think.

So, like the character in my story, I’ll continue neither to believe nor disbelieve until the final word on reality is in.

And I still wish that my grandmother had come back to tell me she was okay.


This article first appeared in The (Longview) Daily News, July 27, 2008.