Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not in My Baltimore

I, too, read this story in the October 9th issue of the New Yorker, but was unaware of its real-life basis. What struck me, instead, were various aspects of setting I found specious. I am from poor Hector's hometown; only by dint of a transfer did I avoid attending Southfied High School, his alma mater. There is no MSU Grand Rapids campus. Nor do the estates where Hector's parents reside actually exist. Nor, at least when I lived there, were there any Hispanics, Latinos, or Mexicans. African-American, Russians, and Iraqis--called "Arabs"--constituted the diversity of my child and young adulthood.

Yes, of course, "Landfill" is a story--invented. At least, some of it was. Upon finishing it I chided myself for bridling at Oates' liberties. Feeling she "lied" about Southfield--or, by extension, Michigan--is to make one of the worst errors a reader can make, that of taking a fiction and attempting to fit it with a personal version of "truth". I am reminded of an interview I read with Anne Tyler, whose characters inhabit a fictionalized Baltimore: a reader contacted her regarding the location of a cemetary in one of her novels. Didn't Tyler know the actual cemetary existed on a certain street? "Not in my Baltimore," she replied.

Thus a satellite campus of Michigan State in Grand Rapids, thus the Campos family, hopelessly out of place in the city of my childhood. Very well.

But to take an actual event and enrobe it fiction is something else entirely. Certainly all writers borrow from life--for what is our stuff but the amazing behaviors of our fellow humans? In taking this material, we must act responsibly--turning the identifying detail into something utterly other, unrecognizable, new. For a writer as seasoned as Oates, this would appear to be little more than a morning's effort at her desk. I sincerely believe Oates intended no harm. But maybe somebody needs to tell her it's okay to slow down.


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