I grew up with people who believed unquestioningly in the spirits. This was of great benefit to me. Simply to walk through the groves where I lived as a child was to enter a magical realm of taboos, spells and curses.
On the small island of Moloka’i, a haunted place of cowboys, sorcerers, and fishermen, a neighborhood story teller, Harriet Ne, saw the spirits known as the Night Marchers as recently as fifty years ago: “It is in the season called October and November,” she would say, ‘that they come, walking, walking, and chanting as they walk. That night, the first man was of the chiefs’ class, tall and strong. As we watched, the marchers continued down the hill to the house, and disappeared inside.” I sat at Harriet Ne’s feet as a girl and listened to her stories — all of them fanciful to the point of implausibility with magic and myth; stories that were, literally, incredible. After each of Auntie Harriet’s stories, one more chilling than the next, she would say: “I myself have seen it.” And I believed her, succumbing perhaps not so innocently to what Coleridge called the suspension of disbelief. Years later, myself a storyteller, I used her injunction as title for one of my books.
Which is not to say that I am as literal, as inspired as Aunt Harriet. Or as truthful. With maturity, or shall I say time, a certain shyness, a certain reticence has overtaken me. It is almost a feeling of shame. The revelation of infantile fears and wishes, even in the form of metaphor, is no longer so compelling to me. My earliest work seems excruciatingly puerile, even vainglorious in its revelation. I have come to accept that when the public reads fiction, the public likes to believe that what it is reading is true. I don’t mean true in the sense that all fiction is true — but the literal truth. The reader wishes —- more than wishes —- requires for his well being that fiction represent the real.
The worse way to read a book is in the expectation, the assumption that the characters are real. The good reader understands that this need for real life, this instinct and craving for veracity is not only impossible to gratify, but is beside the point — the reality of a character or a situation depends solely on the writer’s ability to convincingly create a world of his own, and if he succeeds, no matter how preposterous or strange his world may be, we are convinced of its authenticity. Like other writers, I have had a most difficult time convincing readers that my books are not real. And despite my injunction that I myself have seen it. To quote Nabokov: “The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Emma Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”
And this despite V. S. Naipaul’s warning that fiction never lies — it is autobiography that lies. I have been trying for the last few months to write a memoir; that is, I have been struggling not to lie, or at the very least, not to exaggerate or ameliorate my haphazard collection of memories. For the moment, however, I have put it aside in defeat, and am reading thrillers instead.