Writing The Self: On Memoir And The Autobiographical Novel: Ru Freeman, Ved Mehta, Joseph O’Neill And Philip Hensher, Moderated By William Sutcliffe

Prolific novelist William Sutcliffe opened today’s session at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival on memoir and truth by quoting Geoff Dyer, who yesterday proactively implied that there was roughly the same amount of made up material in both fiction and non-fiction. The diverse panel used this fascinating session to “tease away at that thread,” and explore the running themes of truth, verisimilitude and accuracy in literature.

Ved Mehta, author of 27 fiction and non-fiction works and himself a memoirist, asked for the term ‘memoir’ to be banned! Mehta distinguished between facts and truth, saying that although there was immense importance in facts, embellishment was also necessary in order to deepen the facts into truth. Ru Freeman, a fiction and political writer, argued that the aim of writing fiction is to reveal the “overall emotional truth” not conveyable in a work of non-fiction, and Joseph O’Neill agreed, astutely adding that the “page has its own area of truth”.

O’Neill claimed that through writing fiction, one actually abolishes the connection between the author and the facts, but that paradoxically, it is always possible to tell when a text is ‘pressured’ by accuracy. Ms Freeman revealed that when she is writing about her country Sri Lanka, it is not just her book but also the story of her nation.

Novelist Philip Hensher described the unique situation of writing an autobiographical novel about his husband’s life, which though not autobiographical in the traditional sense, was not fiction either. It was written in the first person and the stories were his husband’s, though he himself was the writer. In this way, he challenged the genre stereotypes which try to delineate fiction, non-fiction and autobiography, and distinguish fact from truth.

Hensher claimed that genres merged because there is “no such thing as an incontrovertible truth,” it all depends on what the author is trying to convey, O’Neill agreed, adding that there is “no rule of thumb” and every case is different.

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