Fact and Fiction

Today on the NPR radio program This American Life, they devoted an entire hour to a retraction of a story they aired in January about working conditions in Apple factories in China.  It wasn’t that the claims made on the original program were false. The claims– of overcrowding in dorms, long working hours, the Hexane poisoning of some workers, some underage workers– have all been documented even by Apple in public reports.

However, it didn’t happen as presented on the radio program. The program, based on a theater performance by writer/artist Mike Daisey in which he told a story about visiting factories that make ipods and iphones in China, was more a combination of activism, theater and reporting than it was straight up reporting. Mike Daisey took great liberties with what he actually experienced in China, in order to write a very moving stage monologue.

At first I wondered why TAL felt the need to do such a retraction. I have always thought that this radio program presents a variety of types of stories, not all of them what I would consider straight reportage. Early pieces by Scott Carrier that were among my favorites on the show verged on magical realism.

Which reminds me of a time I heard Rick Bass read a story at an Environmental Literature conference once that was “about” the desecration of the wilderness where he lives in Montana and that was completely surreal. And yet, as he read it, he started to cry. People in the audience cried. We were caught up in how it felt for him, a witness to logging and clearcutting. What he was reading had happened to him in the deepest sense, but it was not factually, literally true.

Mike Daisey had an anecdote in his piece about a man with a mangled hand that was injured while making ipod. In the anecdote, Daisey gives him an ipod and he uses the hand to flip through the menus on the screen. The story moves people in his audience to tears. It turns out, this incident didn’t actually happen. But there is a truth to it that cannot be ignored.

For me the most interesting moments of theTALretraction was listening to host Ira Glass tell Mike Daisey that his piece “wasn’t true” and to Daisey dispute the meaning of truth– literary truth is not the same as literal accuracy. Ira Glass says something like: “But I think I have the normal worldview of what truth is. When you stand up on stage and say ‘this happened to me,’ I think it actually happened to you.”

Ira has a point. But so does Mike Daisey. In the end, there’s no disputing that Daisey deceived TAL and misrepresented himself and his story. He knew they were treating his story as actual, literal fact. He was being fact-checked in detail. Certain factual information like the populations of towns and numbers of employees were being altered and he was being sent long lists of queries. He hid the name and contact information of his translator because, he says, he was “terrified” his story would start to unravel. (This, Glass says, is when the story should have been killed. This was the red flag that all was not right and they couldn’t actually check the facts as they wanted to and get confirmation about the story’s veracity in detail.) He says he regrets putting the story on TAL because it destroyed the context. Out of the theatrical context, he says, it somehow didn’t work. It became lie, because the conventions and expectations of the audience had changed.

Why did Mike Daisey not come clean? Why didn’t he just say that he had taken poetic license, that his story was more testimony than an actual story of what happened to him? Wouldn’t there be room for that kind of story on TAL? Even the translator doesn’t begrudge him changing his story for dramatic effect. She says she knew he was a writer from the beginning, not a businessman, and expected him to lie– that was his right as a writer, no?

This probelm is not new. I first became engaged by the issue in the case of Rigoberta Menchu, author of I, Rigoberta Menchu and winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for this testimonio that told stories of the revolution in Guatemala and stood up for the rights of indigenous people. A Stanford academic challenged the veracity of her account of events. It turns out she herself, and a brother in her story, were not heroic. The experiences she recounted were not her own. But Latin American testimonio is a specific genre. It is not the same as the American memoir. It is political witness, activist writing, the memory of a people, particularly an oppressed or fighting people. In that case it was a cultural misunderstanding. But Americans do seem unusually obsessed with the literal in a way that does not make sense.

Theater aside, Mike Daisey is also a political activist. His theater piece is meant to raise awareness about human rights issues related to American production and consumption of electronics. It is probably not fair to single out Apple in his critique, and by the end of the TAL retraction, it seems clear that Apple is aware and working on problems in their factories probably more diligently than other corporations. The political issues in his piece, however, are worth drawing attention to and are real.

I didn’t hear the original piece and I have not been to his theatrical show. I think he was wrong to mislead TAL and its listeners and misrepresent his story as reportage. I hope that he did it for reasons other than wanting to be on a major national radio program and the personal attention this has brought him. Unfortunately, in interviews since the show he’s repeated his stories as fact, as personal experience, and represented himself as witness to things he did not witness.

But does that make them less true? Does that make his testimonio less powerful? On whose behalf is he making his plea– to bring attention to himself or to Chinese workers? That I don’t know. Only Mike Daisey knows that. I suspect it’s a bit of both.

It was telling to me that Daisey put the script of his show online and allowed people to download it for free and perform it as a one-man show. The actors portraying him are not him, obviously, and they are not speaking of their own experience. But did that make their performance less moving and affecting?

And is the truth only affecting if we believe it happened exactly as he said it did?

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3 Responses to Fact and Fiction

  1. Joe Lerner says:

    What’s scandalous is that so much “fiction” has been passed off as fact . The last few years we, as readers, have had to endure so many scams perpetrated by the likes of Stephan Glass, James Frey, John D’Agata, and their ilk, that I am grateful to Ira Glass for holding to a higher standard of truth. Like you, I don’t don’t mind a mix of fact and fiction so long as it is labeled as such (i.e., testimonios). Daisy deceived Glass (and us) and lied, and he (and other writers) need to know that that no longer will be tolerated.

    • susansink says:

      I agree, Joe. In fact, it does a disservice not just to fact but to fiction. I don’t know why “fiction” of this kind seems to have lost credibility– we want everything to be true. But there’s so much power in fiction. It’s like the only “truth” that counts is literal truth. I felt that way about James Frey– why didn’t he think he had written a powerful book UNLESS he could claim it was actual fact? Have we lost the authority of the writer unless that writer is a memoirist or journalist?

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