(Note: I was going to write about Japanese food and TV shows, but there was recently a scandal in the world of Spanish literature that I wanted to chat about. So, I'll be talking about the Japanese food stuff later!)
When I'm not writing, I teach college English. Usually, I teach the simple, practical stuff—English skills, composition, critical thinking—that a student needs to get by. People ask if I get bored with English 1 and 2, but we have great conversations, and it’s always fun to watch students write more powerful and compelling essays.
Besides, even basic lessons can inform the world in some very surprising ways.
In my critical thinking courses, I often use the poem “the mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks. It's an incredible poem, and here's an incredible video of Brooks reading it:
In this poem, Brooks discusses motherhood, as well as the concept and experience of abortion. Abortion is a difficult subject for any classroom—and poems such as this show how scholarship and critical thinking help us analyze even heart-wrenching poems on a topic that will likely be contentious forever.
During our discussions, often a student will suggest that Brooks was courageous to share her abortion. And here, it's important to stop the class, and explain that Brooks herself is not the speaker of the poem. Her biography mentions nothing of abortions, and even if she had had an abortion, there's no guarantee that what she wrote was directly reporting her experiences. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem, and writing poetry is a creative act.
If poetry had to be “real,” then it would not be art—it would be an affidavit.
However, just because something is art does not mean it lacks authenticity. People take meaning from a story or poem, or a movie, and if reading a poem such as “the mother” inspires one to become more compassionate, gives one comfort, or strength, or closure—then who’s to say that it is not “real?”
At this point, I mention Rocky Balboa.
Everyone knows that Rocky Balboa is a fiction—yet one occasionally encounters people discussing Rocky Balboa and Rocky Marciano, or if Apollo Creed would be able to out jab Muhammad Ali.
For the most part, these discussions are made in jest, but there's an undeniably honest love and affection there.
How many of us have been inspired by Balboa’s very fictional, yet very real examples of perseverance? How many of us have imagined running up the Rocky steps to the “Rocky” theme with 3 minutes left in our workout?
What is fiction and what is real? A 90-year-old William Shatner gets shot into space, and for some it’s a publicity stunt, for others it’s “OMG Captain Kirk in space!”
And for others, it’s a great way to thank an actor, and an entire franchise, whose work might have inspired them to pursue the stars—for real.
Perhaps what makes our stories, poems, memorable characters so magical is how they leave the nest and go out into the world. That they find audiences and readers who take them into their own homes and hearts.
And, if you're the creator, there's no guarantee that they will grow up in a way that you approve of, or even expect.
Rocky Balboa has become such a social phenomenon that it's fascinating (and beautiful) to see how Sylvester Stallone the writer has used the better part of his life to explain, contextualize, and finally make peace with his creation.
Even when the acclaim is largely respectful, even reverent—as it is for Gwendolyn Brooks—there are still those who might feel betrayed when they find that she was not “the mother.”
When you are known as the African-American woman poet, your very legacy gains a reality, a story, all its own. An icon like Gwendolyn Brooks becomes a de facto voice for an entire segment of the population. What do you do with that responsibility?
What do you do with your reality when an entire community so greatly needs one of its own?
I wonder how Gwendolyn Brooks found places and spaces to be Gwendolyn Brooks without being Gwendolyn Brooks.
So anyway, just a few days ago, there was a story about another female writer, this time a Spanish horror author named Carmen Mola. The reclusive, enigmatic Mola—who was also a university professor—had just won the prestigious Planeta Literary Award.
There was just one problem. Carmen Mola was more than a reclusive and enigmatic university professor. Or less. For, at the Planeta Award ceremony, it was revealed that Carmen Mola did not exist.
“Carmen Mola” was the creation of three men. Who they are (Antonio Mercero, Agustín Martínez and Jorge Díaz) is neither here nor there—what everyone is talking about is that Carmen Mola, an author of fiction, was, herself, fiction.
There are those who will argue that, unlike Gwendolyn Brooks or Sylvester Stallone, this was a clear case of deception. They will argue that Carmen Mola was an elaborate fraud whose truth was revealed only when it became impossible to continue the lie. And that is true.
There are also those who say that Carmen Mola’s work is still the same, and what harm was there if everybody reading enjoyed the stories? They may point out that Carmen Mola is far from alone—many authors of romance novels are men using female pseudonyms, and some genre novels are actually collaborations, with a stable of writers publishing under the same nom de plume.
And that is true, as well.
At what point is something a lie? At what point is it a betrayal?
At what point is it art?
These questions do not resolve easily. However, in all the passionate opinions and heated arguments and accusations of sexism and co-option and authenticity, and fraud—Carmen Mola has grown up.
And as for the Mercero, Martínez and Díaz? Like Sylvester Stallone or Gwendolyn Brooks, will they be able to contextualize and even grow from their creations, their reputations, and legacies? It may not be a simple task.
For, whatever else may be true, Carmen Mola, their child, has gone out into the world, and found audiences and readers who have taken her into their own homes and hearts.
And no matter how good a job they did—or perhaps precisely because they endowed their creation with such a spectacular notoriety—Carmen Mola will likely be remembered and discussed with a passion, vitality, and presence that eclipses and outlives them all.
* Rocky Balboa, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25375415
** LittleGun - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20352180