In a 1986 documentary about pornography and drug fueled love affairs, a woman in a darkened theater—clothed only in the red glow of buzzing stage lights—answers questions from the audience.
The camera does not leave her.
It does not pan, it does not zoom.
It can barely focus through the strawberry-blood filter, but it has only one focus.
The woman on the stage.
So it stands perfectly still, like it’s holding its breath, waiting for whatever is moving in the bushed to drifts back into the shadows.
Then the disembodied voice of an audience member interrupts. It is barely audible in certain copies and one may need subtitles to read along and pretend to hear it clearly.
“What is your next movie gonna be?”
“Uh,” she is kneeling naked on the stage like a gargoyle on a ledge. “The movie that I’m filming right now,” she says “This very minute.” The one the film audience must watch to hear her say this (unless instead of watching, they are you reading this. In which case it is a lot like putting on subtitles.) “It’s called ‘Truth or Fiction’” She says while the film audience watches as invisibly as the disembodied voices speak. “That’s what I call it.” Because, I imagine, she understand that there is a distinction between what something is called, and what one calls it. The plural-public truth and the personal-singular one.
And still, the camera does not move.
The woman continues explaining, more or less, what this movie will be about. But this is less important—what the subject thinks of subjectivity—something about love, probably, less important. “There’s a microphone right there,” she points up, high above the invisible audience. “But don’t worry,” she reassures them, “You are not being filmed.” (Does the film audience, then, breathe a sigh of relief in unison with the barely audible 1980’s theater audience? Does the readers feel anonymously safe as they read in parentheses that neither are they being recorded and implicated in the nakedness and the confession? Or do they check their web cams and erase their search histories?)
Then the disembodied voices return. They want to know, “Is it more truth or more fiction?”
Red, naked, and staged. The woman obliges. She turns her head to face the sound—or the people, or the reader, which she probably cannot see through bleak red shadows. “I don’t know,” she says, “Because I don’t know whether I’m more truth or more fiction.”
In “Poignant Truth, Precarious You (and preparing for the Sriracha Apocalypse)” Frances Kai-Hwa Wang speaks in moments of tea. Teapots, tea cups, perfectly made Chai imperfectly remembered, and blue-pot part shattered across a kitchen floor. And she asks, “Or, did I imagine all that?” Not because—it is obvious—she doubts the edge of the shards on the floor, or the hands that made that perfect Chai, but all the subjective atoms between those facts. The magnetic fields and the bacteria and the gravity between them. The fictions we impose and depend upon to leap from nonfictional moment to nonfictional moment and maintain the semblance of a nonfictional self. She states, “I’m not sure,” because that’s what great nonfiction demands. Doubt.
In “Estar Roto” Julie Goodale confronts Post-traumatic stress and all the hearings and seeings of things that “are not there,” which post-traumatic stress leaves in its wrecked wake. And all this alongside the indisputable but often indescribable distinction of body and self as chemotherapy is deployed to “Kill [her] body without killing [her].”
And, as if on que, Nancy Wyland then responds in “Overlap,” that “Despite all our attempts to maintain equilibrium, it seems these connective imbalances are critical to the integrity of our lives.”
Creative nonfiction is not made of facts alone, but of all the doubting and doubtful parts in between them. How we choose to create grand or humble arcs from our verifiable pushpin details, and make sense of our sense making.
The scene immediately following the naked-red stage Q&A shows the woman with her girlfriend. Then she asks if they will die after the film. Which is a strange question, no doubt, but it does not sound strange coming from her. It sounds like she means it. Believes it, though perhaps only partly. Because she asks with a smile and quickly adds, “I hope not.” Which, of course, is true. (Doesn’t everyone? Despite fact, despite witness and science and cancer and childhood pets and grandmothers?) Of course she hopes they will not die, of course they will, and of course, her blond girlfriend reassures her that, “No, we are not gonna die.”
Because, this is not the question. It is not the flat fact she is looking for, but the endless magnetic fields between them. Though she does not know to call it so—I believe—she is looking for an essay. The blond girlfriend does not say, “Yes, we will die,” “Yes, we must die,” “Yes, this is the nature of organic things, my love, we are perishable and biodegradable.” The obscure fictions are as important as the evident facts.
“No, we will not die.” Which maybe means, “You don’t need to worry about that now,” or, “Not immediately,” or, “We don’t have to break up just yet. There is still time.”
Because death and birth are the irrefutable, unmistakable, final and first fact. Everything in between is essay.
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas