Hasan Minhaj, writers, and the fabrication of truth
Comedian Hasan Minhaj has been accused of fabricating incidents from his life on his shows, leading to questions about the morality of his actions
Hasan Minhaj, the Indian American comedian, has been outed by The New Yorker for fabricating incidents from his life on his shows. Commentators are implying that he is a cheat and questioning the morality of his actions. Such doubts can be raised about writers, too.
Minhaj spoke about rushing his daughter to the hospital after he received a letter containing a white powder that he thought was anthrax. He was provided with security. But, none of this was true, although at the time he was indeed receiving threats following his Patriot Act series. The comedian explained the falsifications in his script as conveying “seventy per cent emotional truth — this happened — and then thirty per cent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction” and that, “The punch line is worth the fictionalized premise”.
Punch line or no punch line, we are living in dire times and nothing seems like an overstatement, even if it might not have happened to the person relating it. Minhaj’s afterthought, “Holy shit. What if this was anthrax?” has more truth in it than some facts. As Trevor Noah had written, “We’ve needed Hasan’s voice since Donald Trump came down that golden escalator and turned immigrants and Muslims into his targets.”
How authentic can, and must, a writer be when experiences are not universal, to begin with? At the most, to be genuine creative people can be themselves. It is unlikely that all viewers and readers will see through any fabrication, especially if the essence echoes their own concerns. Artistes can only reflect the truth as they see it, which is why they come to represent the angst of the silenced despite the privilege of expression they themselves may enjoy.
Margaret Seltzer, a white woman, claimed she was raised in poverty by a black foster mother and sold drugs for a gang in a tough Los Angeles neighbourhood. Her memoir, Love and Consequences, written under the pseudonym Margaret B Jones, turned out to be pure fiction. She admitted that she used the experiences of friends she had met while doing anti-gang outreach work. As she said, “For whatever reason, I was really torn, and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.”
In A Million Little Pieces, James Frey had “exaggerated details of his memoir of drug addiction”. It is impossible to verify over-dramatised instances for, as in this case, there would be no standard yardstick for drug abuse.
Misha Defonseca’s autobiography, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, chronicled her escape from the Nazis and living with wolves. It was make-believe. In Fragments; Memories of a Wartime Childhood, Binjamin Wilkomirski wrote about surviving as a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp. It was discovered that the author was a Swiss man who grew up far from any camp.
In 2008, Polish-American writer Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence had to be recalled. It was a love story about how he met his future wife when she would throw apples over the Nazi concentration camp’s fence where he was imprisoned as a child. They met a decade later and rekindled the romance. The lie was not about his time in prison, but the girl chucking apples for him. Why did he fake it? “I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people. I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream,” he was quoted as saying.
Should cynicism then be the standard to judge personal tales? Readers have consumed fairytales and feel-good stories for generations, be it epics or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. We seem to trust the unverifiable more than accounts that can be investigated and corroborated.
With Defonseca and Rosenblat’s works, people were concerned about how such lies could raise doubts about the Holocaust. According to Deborah E Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies, “There’s no need to embellish, no need to aggrandize. The facts are horrible, and when you’re teaching about horrible stuff you just have to lay out the facts.”
In each of the cases mentioned earlier, the exposed authors were “cancelled”. However, that hasn’t curbed the general enthusiasm for a good tale. This tendency is evident in journalism too with even reputed international media companies amplifying sensational stories that collapse under sustained scrutiny. After US journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS, his grieving brother Michael was pressured by New York Times’ foreign correspondent and Pulitzer-nominee Rukmini Callimachi to give a false account of his torture and conversion to Islam. Earlier, on the podcast Caliphate, the same journalist had carried a lengthy interview with a Canadian claiming to be from ISIS that was found to be untrue. In an interview with NPR, NYT’s executive editor admitted, “I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough.”
What prevents writers from labelling their work as fiction where they can create characters we can empathise with? Perhaps because, as Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Gregory Roberts did call his bestselling Shantaram a work of fiction, and ironically became the toast of Mumbai high society for his veiled account of drug abuse in the streets of Mumbai. The charmed circle was living an alien life much in the manner of consuming poverty porn.
Lying to an audience appears to be a narcissistic act. Dr Ronald Schouten, associate professor of Psychiatry, believes there are two types of fakers: those who want to be seen as a beacon and the other as entertainers to hold attention.
However, consider this: In 19th Century USA, white audiences wouldn’t even accept black entertainers on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup. Who was the fabricator here? Aficionados often decide on how art must be delineated. They should, therefore, not judge and cancel what they themselves perpetuate.
Lying about real people and events is problematic – but that moral dilemma has to be addressed by the person/s a writer exploits for storytelling purposes. Hasan Minhaj saying that his words should “make it feel the way it felt” or a writer penning a memoir based on personal pain aren’t out to deceive, or at least not in the manner of someone who presents dodgy “facts” to aggrandize themselves or spread propaganda. Minhaj’s words are not only about himself, but a mirror to and catharsis of the fears of many.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey.