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February 9, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Gotcha! Two of the best literary hoaxes

Published in Farrago in 2010

In October 1943, Australian Max Harris knew he’d struck gold. A plain-looking, unsolicited letter had brought him Ern Malley, poet extraordinaire. With his complex integration of ideas on life and death weaved into a dreamy use of word and structure, Harris was certain this was just the type of literature that would catapult his high-brow literary publication, Angry Penguins, into the literary world’s international spotlight.

Thrilled beyond normal editorial caution, Max Harris dedicated an entire issue of Angry Penguins to Ern Malley’s poems, with a Malley-inspired painting by Sidney Nolan adorning the cover. Much was expected to be gained from Malley’s auspicious debut. It might have been the issue that made Angry Penguins an international star, but it all ended in humiliation and ridicule. The tragic story of Ern Malley has remained an intriguing element of Australia’s literary history, but it’s not because of Malley’s writing. It’s not even because Malley, weakened by ongoing illness, died tragically in a bare room under the care of his poor uneducated sister. Ern Malley never existed, his entire life story fabricated by two men opposed to Harris’ superior interpretation of ‘good literature’. Rather than being representative of masterful manipulations of words and imagery, the Malley poems actively disdained Harris’ approach to literature, mocking modern poetry styles with a combination of random selections from the English dictionary and carefully masked sentences stolen from US Army reports. The crushing realisation that Ern Malley was, in fact, a tool for subversive disdain remains the defining element of a culture that has continued to bemuse and astonish the Australian reading public for decades.

Fortunately for the reading masses, the history of writers concocting a whopper has not died with the unfortunate Ern Malley. While there have been many other hoaxes following in the wake of Ern Malley, Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love is one of the few to have humiliated and enraged people on so many levels.

Becoming a huge bestseller in the early noughties, Khouri won the respect of thousands of readers with her tempestuous memoir of the honour killing of her best friend in Jordan. Carving out a niche as a respectable, been-there-seen-that writer highlighting the violence against women in her native country, Khouri spent book-signings bursting into tears while telling her story. The lucrative deals occasioned by her success, including American TV network appearances, apparently failed to undermine the fact that her entire story was a lie. Not only had she concocted the story, she had only lived in Jordan until she was three, instead living in Chicago from 1973 to 2000.

The elaborate storyline began to unravel when readers in Jordan began to post blogs questioning the factual accuracy of elements of her story. Khouri has continued to protest the veracity of her book, claiming that she only changed particular elements of the story to protect her children. Various other sensational aspects of her life have leaked out, including assertions the FBI are hot on her tail for defrauding old pensioners and the release of a documentary, Forbidden Lie$, which paints Khouri as a less-than-perfect individual.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Khouri’s deceit was the fact that she slipped past a major publisher, including the companies legal and editorial departments. Logically speaking, literary hoaxes should not cause such a sensation with a literature-reading public; after all, if the words were spellbinding before the truth was leaked, why can’t they remain so, regardless of their origin? But a true story is always more interesting than a fictional one, purely because the reader knows that such a story is possible. The lure of the real is, in many respects, more tantalising than the imagined, and it places the author or work on a pedestal that is tough to beat in fictional terms. It makes you wonder; if Ern Malley really had died his tragic death with poems in hand, what would Australian literature have made of him now?


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