Bad Day For Memoirists

After revelations that crucial portions of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces were either fabricated or largely exaggerated, and after reports that the writer J.T. Leroy was a middle-aged mom, and not, as she had claimed, a transsexual teenage ex-prostitute, a third writer has found himself in hot waters, so to speak. The L.A. Weekly reports that the writer who goes by the name of Nasdijj, and whose account of a life spent on Navajo reservations, dealing with alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse, and other horrors, may not be Native American at all. Suspicions about him started as far back as 1999:

[A]s his successes and literary credentials grew in number so did his skeptics – particularly from within the Native American community. Sherman Alexie first heard of Nasdijj in 1999 after his former editor sent him a galley proof of The Blood for comment. At the time, Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, was one of the hottest authors in America and was widely considered the most prominent voice in Native American literature. His novel Indian Killer was a New York Times notable book, and his cinematic feature Smoke Signals was the previous year’s Sundance darling, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winner of the Audience Award. Alexie’s seal of approval would have provided The Blood with a virtual rubber stamp of native authenticity. But it took Alexie only a few pages before he realized he couldn’t vouch for the work. It wasn’t just that similar writing style and cadence that bothered Alexie.

“The whole time I was reading I was thinking, this doesn’t just sound like me, this is me,” he says.

Alexie was born hydrocephalic, a life-threatening condition characterized by water on the brain. At the age of 6 months he underwent brain surgery that saved his life but left him, much like Tommy Nothing Fancy, prone to chronic seizures throughout his childhood. Instead of identifying with Nasdijj’s story, however, Alexie became suspicious.

“At first I was flattered but as I kept reading I noticed he was borrowing from other Native writers too. I thought, this can’t be real.”

The L.A. Weekly article suggests that Nasdijj is in fact a white man from Lansing, Michigan named Tim Barrus. It’s easy enough to imagine that Barrus turned in a novel that he called a memoir, and since publishers do not fact-check memoirs, no one saw anything suspicious. But how could the public have been fooled for so long? Alexie provides a possible answer:

On many issues, preachy whites simply lack the political and cultural cachet of someone perceived to be Native American.

“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian,” says Sherman Alexie. “For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

Read the rest of the article here.