My writer-friend Sylvia, after reading a short story of mine, said, “I hate it when someone asks me this, but I’m going to ask anyway: is it autobiographical?” What fuels the seemingly irresistible urge to make this inquiry? The need to distinguish between real and unreal? Wanting to know just how inventive a writer truly is? Curiosity as to the author’s life? Most likely a combination of these factors. My response to The Question ranges from a perfunctory “Yes” to a long-winded exegesis on the Nature of Fiction, which borders on the defensive. My answer depends upon the tone of the query; asked in a certain way, I can feel as if my effort is being impugned—that once I admit/confess that a particular piece of fiction has its origin in “true life,” then it will be assumed that I am a mere transcriber. For me it is much more difficult (and troubling) to write from “life” than from “imagination.” Alternatively, some inquiries can engender a sense of being flattered that a reader experiences my writing as “real enough” for them to feel as if it could have (and probably did) actually happen. Fiction does, no matter how fantastic, ask us to believe in its truth, at least during the moments we read it. Oughtn’t I to feel complimented when my writing has fostered belief beyond the page? I endeavor here to answer The Question, once and for all, allowing myself wiggle-room for future revisions and alterations, as well as outright denials and reversals.
When my sister Lily read my short story “Trifles” she commented, “It’s very autobiographical.” I was confused. The story follows the life of a nameless character from his privileged childhood to overburdened adulthood. He is married with two children and runs a multi-million dollar business. Not one detail of my character’s history ran parallel to my life—thus I was startled that Lily, who knew my life so well, was identifying my story as autobiographical. I finally realized, after cross-firing every available neuron in my brain, that what she meant was that it was psychologically autobiographical. Certain aspects of my protagonist’s attitudes and viewpoints were similar to my own, as was his developmental process. Given this litmus test I believe every work of fiction can be considered autobiographical, for whatever we put on the page is imbued with some portion of our essence, else it would be meaningless to assign our names to it. That Lily felt the connection between author and story so strongly is testament to her facility as a reader and, perhaps, mine as a writer.
My poem “Heredity” contained an unanticipated challenge. While I envisioned it as being about my mother and me, the last third of the poem intimates that the narrator (identified as "I") has AIDS, and this proved to be the focal point for my readership.
After reading the poem, my brother Dave sent a heartfelt letter. “I never knew that being positive could be so negative,” he wrote about my supposed HIV status. My mother called to say, “Here I was in my little world, thinking that because you were with Jonathan you’d be safe from this.” Gladys, my mother-out-law, called to offer her condolences. She was an accomplished poet, and I said to her, as I did to Dave and Mom, “I feel I have to remind you that poetry can be fiction too. I’m not sick. I used AIDS to make a point.” Gladys was relieved and relayed the news to her husband Marvin. In the background I heard him say, “What do you mean it’s not true? It has to be true, he wrote it down!” Never was the power of the written word more clear to me.
My friend Marcus, himself HIV positive, after reading “Heredity” asked if I also had HIV. I wouldn’t answer him immediately; I was more interested in what difference this new “fact” would make to our friendship. Marcus said, “Well, if anyone would write a poem pretending to be HIV positive it would be you.”
I offered “Heredity” at a poetry reading and another poet approached me. “That was a really powerful poem. Thanks. I have AIDS too.” I didn’t, in that intimate moment, feel it advisable to say, “Oh, I don’t have AIDS, I was just using it as a literary device.” He might think my “posing” an affront to his reality, and that I took the subject lightly. I didn’t, but I also didn’t have the guts to tell him the “truth.”
“Heredity” was published in the queer literary journal QUACK and reviewed in Downtown newspaper. The reviewer wrote “Vincent Collazo's 'Heredity' is a hard packed, tightly woven poem about his sudden descent into the hell of AIDS.” She assumed. Everyone did. This has to do with the manner in which the poem was written—no one would assume that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” really happened.
My novel, Sanity’s Bane, begs for the autobiographicality question to be asked. A reader completely unfamiliar with me can be aware from the cover of the book that I share my protagonist Victor Cruise’s initials, that we both were born in the South Bronx and relocated at an early age to Long Island. The book invites the inquiry and playfully stymies all but the most knowledgeable from obtaining an answer.
When asked how much of Sanity’s Bane is autobiographical I sometimes say, “Sixty-three per cent.” Or, “Only the parts about Harcus.” (Harcus is a planet from an intraplanular dimension, which has its origins in the mind of the possibly psychotic six-year-old Janice.) Sanity’s Bane is a fun-house mirror version of my life—some parts distorted beyond recognition, some relatively intact. More importantly, it’s an invitation to explore the inner workings of my mind, and if the question of what is real and what is not tends to baffle, this is an intentional correlation to Victor’s confusion about reality—my attempt to evoke literary empathy.
A new friend, Carl, after reading Sanity’s Bane, assumed that I’ve known my beloved Heather since childhood, mistakenly thinking that she was the model for Victor’s true love, Janice Cooley. Even a great deal of knowledge of my life doesn’t necessarily prevent such errors. There is a scene in the first chapter in which Victor steals his mother’s wedding ring. My father, upon reading this, thought it possible I had taken my Mom’s ring years before. My sister reminded him of the actual circumstances, that her ring had gone down the kitchen sink drain and that he himself had dug it out. Nevertheless, he thought that this did not preclude my having taken it. I was amazed to hear Lily relate this exchange: my father was bending reality to fit fiction.
Martín, a writer friend, critiqued the scene in Sanity’s Bane in which Janice plots revenge against little Garee, intending to perform a horrifically sadistic act upon him. Martín found it implausible that a six-year-old would do this, and encouraged me to increase her age. “It would help if she were around eight because at that age you are really starting to be mean on purpose. Before that it seems more instinctive, less conscious.” I had to inform Martín that not only was this frightful incident based on real life, but that Denise (the model for Janice), had created her plan not at age six, but at age five! Knowing this allows me to feel justified in presenting the incident, attributable to Janice’s precocity (and disturbance), but the “truth” of the event doesn’t really help my readership if it isn’t believable.
In reading J.D. Salinger’s brilliant stories about the Glass family, with its precocious children regularly appearing on a national radio show called “It’s a Wise Child,” I could tell that he’d based them on his own life and family. Salinger had done a masterful job of converting his life into literature, and I was duly impressed. Later, I found out that Salinger’s life was nothing like the Glass family. I had an epiphany: It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not—that’s what fiction is, it makes us believe. Regardless of how closely a novel corresponds to an author’s life, if we don’t believe it, it isn’t true, and thus doesn’t succeed as fiction.
In high school I wrote an assignment for Sociology, in which I’d written about graduating college students having to enter “the real world.” Professor Muratore wrote in the margin: “All the world is real.” I sat at my desk staring at his red-inked words. For a teenager who spent a lot of time exploring inner worlds having little to do with the senses, this was a daunting and liberating thought. Those five words—All the World is Real—became my mantra, and if I used that as a springboard to my future, I hope Professor Muratore isn’t disappointed or aghast at the fruit of his inspiration. I have learned, through my long companionship with fiction, that all the world is real, but some parts feel more real than others.
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