‘Gay Girl In Damascus’: When Fiction Goes Too Far

Image used under Creative Commons courtesy zenobia_joy.

Obviously I’m on the record in favor of on political and politicized art. But I think part of that stance is accepting and understanding that sometimes art will go too far, and will have genuinely deleterious effects on political struggles. Such is the case with the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog, which turns out to be a hoax written by dude in Edinburgh that began as a fictional project and that went badly wrong. As Tom MacMaster writes in his apology for perpetrating the belief that a lesbian blogger had been disappeared by the regime:

I betrayed the trust of a great many people, the friendship that was honestly and openly offered to me, and played with the emotions of others unfairly. I have distracted the world’s attention from important issues of real people in real places. I have potentially compromised the safety of real people. I have helped lend credence to the lies of the regimes. I am sorry.

I have hurt people with whom I share a side and a struggle. That matters. I have hurt causes I believe in sincerely. That is wrong.

Those are the lines in the post that will get the most attention, but I think it’s worth considering what comes after as part of a discussion about how to ethically practice and perfect the craft of fiction:

Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to write fiction but, when my first attempts met with universal rejection, I took a more serious look at my own work and I realized that I could not write conversation in a natural way nor could I convincingly write characters who weren’t me. I tried to get better and did various exercises (such as simply copying overheard conversations). Eventually, I would set up a number of profiles on dating sites with identities that were not my own as ways of interacting with real people in conversation but with a different personality than my own. […] First, she was just a name. Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news-sites. Eventually, I set up an email for her. She joined the same lists I was already on and posted responses in her name. And, almost immediately, friendly and solicitous comments on mine appeared. It was intriguing. That likely would have been the end of it; I’d just keep her as a nearly anonymous handle for commenting on issues that mattered to me but…

Amina came alive. I could hear her ‘voice’ and that voice and personality were clear and strong. Amina was funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious. She struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality, wondered about living in America as an Arab; she wanted to find a way to balance her religion and her sexuality, her desire to be both a patriotic American and a patriotic Arab. Amina was clever and fun and had a story and a voice and I started writing it, almost as though she were dictating to me. Some of her details were mine, some were those of a dozen other friends borrowed liberally, others were purely ‘her’ from the get go.

So long before he created Gay Girl In Damascus, MacMaster was doing fairly obviously unethical things to improve his writing. Misleading people on dating sites in the name of honing his craft is the artistic equivalent of doing scientific experiments on people without their consent. And it seems like he enjoyed the feedback he got from pretending to be someone else as much as the actual writing, the actual improvement of his product.

Look, being a writer of any kind is hard work, especially the bits before you get an audience or a book contract. It’s solitary. It’s lonely. Writers’ block can make you feel like your whole life is a failure, like you’re just too narrow and small and limited to express the things you’re reaching for because you haven’t really lived properly. But the solution to that isn’t to fabricate a life—it’s to go out and actually have one. You don’t have a right to audience. You get what you earn, what you work for.

That’s not to say that immersive media itself is immoral—you can intend to entertain without intending to actively mislead. We live in a moment when it’s possible for stories to get bigger, to be delivered by more media, and more specifically, to live outside the forms that we identify as creations rather than part of the real world: characters live on Twitter, marketers build impressive viral virtual websites, graffiti pops up on streets. The possibilities make for very, very powerful story delivery. But with great power comes great responsibility. MacMaster probably could have used an intervention, maybe by someone like Andrea Phillips, whose presentation on the history of and how to ethically create “pervasive media” at SXSW is a really useful primer on the subject.