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Whose story is it?

Times Staff Writer

Whatever you might think about Margaret B. Jones (nee Seltzer) -- liar, poseur, misguided, subject of a cautionary tale -- one thing is certain: She stumbled upon the jackpot equation when it comes to the publishing world.

Her recipe -- half-white, “half-Native American” foster child living in gritty South-Central Los Angeles who gang-banged and ran drugs and lived to tell about it -- not only got the literary world’s attention but its salivary glands going. And the key was presenting this concoction as nonfiction. That’s what made it edgy, sexy, cinematic.

Dubious? Just flip the script:

Would Seltzer have been able to convince agents, editors, readers that she really knew this world if she submitted this chain of stories as fiction -- particularly from her privileged perch as an upper-middle-class girl from the Valley? Unlikely.

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Would an African American woman (or man) peddling the same tale as memoir have garnered the same thrilled reaction? Doubtful.

In the wreckage of the revelation about Seltzer and her fabricated book, “Love and Consequences,” which publisher Riverhead Books has withdrawn, there is a piece of this story that has pricked at a sensitive spot -- particularly among writers of color long toiling in these genres and the world of double standards they encounter. Why would this inauthentic tale be so appealing? Just what is behind the impulse of appropriation? And why does the publishing world get duped time and again when it comes to worlds that are outside Manhattan -- not only geographically but psychically?

Ultimately, the most disconcerting part is that this, of course, hasn’t been the first time someone has decided to don the costume of “Other” to masquerade a truth. There’s a long, baleful tradition of appropriated life stories, “histories,” “a walk in someone else’s shoes,” dating back as far as slave narratives of the 1840s and ‘50s.

One of the more famous (and still in print) of these pseudo slave narratives, “The Autobiography of a Female Slave,” was written around 1850, in the first person voice of “Ann” and was first thought to be a true-life accounting. However, says Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and African American studies at UCLA, “It’s now known to be written by a white abolitionist, Mattie Griffith, who was hoping to help the cause.” Browne, who had inherited slaves she hoped to emancipate, thought she might be able to use the proceeds from the book to help expedite the process.

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What’s behind the impulse often implicitly assumes something impertinent. “What’s so interesting is Margaret Seltzer’s reason for writing that memoir . . . was that she felt that this was a story that needed to be told so she had to tell it in a, quote unquote, authentic way,” says Laura Browder, professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities.” “That’s precisely the same reason many abolitionists wrote. They didn’t trust the slaves to write their own story competently. A lot of ethnic impersonators think that true authenticity came from having darker skin and being poor.”

Case in point: “Grace Halsell was a speechwriter during the Johnson administration. She wrote a book, ‘Soul Sister,’ where she talked about ‘becoming black’ by taking melanin treatments,” says Browder. “She talked about moving to Harlem and her ‘disappointment’ in the black people she found there whom she felt were not as authentic as she was. They weren’t being ‘real’ and she, by contrast, was being ‘real.’ ”

Outsiders’ heavy handedness

For all of the “good intentions,” many writers of color mining the territory of truth and viewing this repeated scenario find the impulse not just appalling but deeply insulting. “It’s like a horror movie,” says Ruben Martinez, who writes about the intersection of race and class. “It’s like messing around in the attic, rewiring stuff -- telling me what I can be. But when I step back from the visceral reaction, I realize appropriation can run all kinds of different directions.

“We do construct our ideas of self by experimenting with others. That’s an essential part of being human. But the power of representation can be a terrible one. What the difference is is where the power is coming from. It’s no longer in the realm of imagination. Now it’s being sold, and it is part of the collective discourse. That’s the part where I lose sympathy, when it becomes political.”

Defining oneself -- for oneself -- and to the world -- has been complicated historically for ethnic writers, hindered by all manner of hurdles including acceptance and access. Though this is changing, with more writers of varying ethnic groups and points of view adding to and deepening the conversation, there has been a grave problem with the gatekeepers: book publishing and Hollywood, which serve as filters determining what is (or isn’t) an “authentic story.”

“It’s frustrating,” says writer Jervey Tervalon, author of “Understand This” (a novel set in South L.A.), who has long been trying to publish a memoir dealing with similar subject matter -- the rise of gangs, of crack cocaine and how the community fell in on itself. But, says Tervalon, his story is “also about flying bottle rockets and reading comic books. Not just pathology. They told my agent that there was no market.” Seltzer’s story, predictably, got him riled: “It’s not that she is white; that’s not the problem. But I do become wildly offended when New York seems to have fundamental contempt for what we are doing [here in Los Angeles] and real life here. It just seems that publishing is getting whiter as the world is getting browner.”

Things have shifted some in the last few years, says Johnny Temple, who heads Akashic Books, an independent publisher based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that publishes a diverse list of writers. “More and more I see great books being published by big publishing houses,” says Temple. “I do think it’s easier to get published if you streamline instead of fill in the full complexity of human experience -- telling the establishment what it wants to hear.”

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For many who have lived and worked in and written about South L.A., what was most egregious about Seltzer’s performance was the publishing world’s tin ear for it. “Just think about it. For one second. How can a white girl, I’m sorry, half-Native American white girl, be running drugs for the Bloods? What nitwit would think that that is possible?” asks novelist Gary Phillips, who has set many of his stories deep in L.A.'s complicated neighborhoods. “I mean, they didn’t even ask the right questions: Do the Bloods have a reading program?” Not only has L.A. largely remained unknown territory to New York, “I think that they got captivated by the exoticism of the idea. If a black girl wrote this, there’s no movie, she’d be just another ‘hood rat.”

For publishers, it seems, there is something about these “experiences” told from the fish-out-of-water perspective that creates an invisible bond between the author and the editor-reader, says writer Sherman Alexie. “I think readers are always looking for surrogates. So I think it’s a way for a white reader -- or a white publisher or editor -- to reward their own sympathy: ‘If I were in the same situation, this is the character I would be.’ It’s the sensitive doppelganger.”

Voices waiting to be heard

THE time is long past to have need for a surrogate, but it seems what is “authentic” is often defined and controlled outside of the true experience. “It’s almost as if my word doesn’t weigh as much,” says Luis J. Rodriguez, poet, novelist and author of the memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” “Even though we’ve lived it and we know it intimately, our expertise just isn’t enough. It’s invalidated somehow. Like you don’t have the right degree.”

Indeed, while Seltzer wasn’t “ventriloquizing racial identity,” says UCLA’s Yarborough, “she was building on an affinity to a certain kind of racialized association. It authenticates her claims of suffering because she is affiliated with those who do.”

Those are dangerous territories to tread. For so long, these urban worlds have remained a vague parade of types, hazy shadows, that people think they know. So books such as Jones’, filled with drugs and guns and stock characters such as “Big Mom,” confirm rather than elucidate. And that is the most fundamental problem.

“It’s disrespectful,” says author Susan Straight, who is white and has for decades written extensively and elegantly about race, class and the ever-shifting idea of community both in fiction and in essays. “How could you disrespect people like that? How could you disrespect the idea of a woman like Big Mom when Big Mom exists all over Los Angeles? How could you disrespect her by making her up?”

It’s not just one person, one street, one neighborhood, it’s an entire legacy: Whether it’s the prism of nonfiction or fact funneled through fiction, it’s about protecting the story, its essence. It’s about protecting truth. “Because what I think we’ve learned from all of this,” says Rodriguez, is that even though it might feel real, “even authenticity can be fabricated.”

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lynell.george@latimes.com


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