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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Who’s Who?

Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

That is what 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert is reported to have replied when asked if the title character of his best known novel, Madame Bovary, was based on a real person. He himself was she, he said.

That seemed strange when I first heard it lo these many years ago in my student days. How could a 37-year-old bachelor writer, who was a frequent customer of prostitutes, base a young, sheltered, convent-educated female character obsessed with romantic novels on himself? Now, however, it makes perfect sense to me.

I once read or heard from a source that seemed authoritative that, when we dream, all the people in our dreams are versions of ourselves. We might think we dreamt about a friend or relative, but it was really us. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds like it might be. I suspect something similar goes on with creators of fiction. I find it plausible that the inner lives of every fictional character is essentially an extension of that of its creator.

These thoughts are prompted by my previous post in which I anticipated—and shot down—the question of whether the character Antonio, who features in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and its two sequels, was based on my longtime Peruvian friend Mañuco. If I think about it for very long, the real basis for Antonio becomes obvious. Antonio, c’est moi. Or more appropriately, Antonio soy yo.

No, of course, I’m not—and never have been—an abandoned Mexican street kid living by my wits on the streets of Los Angeles. But look past that. Antonio is an avid reader of comic books. He loves movies and the Spanish language. If you read Chapter 10 of Max & Carly carefully, you’ll even find circumstantial evidence that he’s a fan of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The case is open and shut.

A lot of readers, including those who personally know me well, have assumed that it is the narrator Dallas who is me, and to be sure I did make Dallas’s circumstances close to my own—even to the point of having him be born in the same month and year. That, however, was to make it easy for myself in terms of getting the history right and to minimize my own need for research. What can I say? I’m basically lazy. But why waste time denying whether or not I’m Dallas? I’ve already bought into the idea that all my characters are me.

If that’s true, this has interesting implications for a literary debate that raises its head from time to time. Is it some kind of inappropriate appropriation for a male writer to attempt conveying the female experience through a fictional character? For a white fiction writer to write at length about the African-American or Hispanic experience?

For that matter, what about a California-born, straight, Scandinavian-American, male writer attempting to portray in fiction a Japanese-Canadian bisexual woman who happens to be a Demon Hunter? Yes, I had to bring the conversation around to my latest book, Last of the Tuath Dé, lest anyone forget that it is still out there and available for purchase.

Basically, I feel about fiction-writing the way I feel about the acting profession. In principle, any artist should be able to portray any character in any medium. In practice, though, it doesn’t cost me or anyone else anything to try being sensitive to legitimate issues people may have when it comes their own experiences and to history. In the end, though, my philosophy in artistic matters is to err on the side of creative freedom.

If I have my own escape clause for slipping through the imagined tentacles of the so-called political-correctness police, it is that I am either writing fantasy or else focusing on what I know personally—and none of my characters are meant to emblematic or representative of an entire group of people. I’m just telling stories.

That is why I feel secure in proclaiming, Izanami et Sapphire, ils sont moi.

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