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What fiction can do: or, a word on Mike Daisey from someone who’s met him

I met Mike Daisey after his performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, during the spring of 2011. At the time, Steve Jobs was still alive, and the theatre served free apple-tinis to patrons who came in cosplaying him. Black turtlenecks were in abundance. One of my oldest friends wore one, and shared his drink with me. (It was surprisingly strong.) This same friend then shook hands with Daisey and thanked him for the show, and I followed suit. I even recall asking him when he would be on The Daily Show or Colbert Report. He was that good, and, I thought, that relevant.

Like Daisey, I’d written about Foxconn before. I did it as a science fiction writer, and at the time I thought he’d done it as a professional storyteller — a performance artist whose work was nevertheless rooted in his research of a time, place, and people. Of course, now we all know that this was not true, and Daisey embellished and fabricated much of the “true” stories contained in his performance, not unlike James Frey did in his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. How I feel about this personally is best summed up by Adrien Chen at Gawker, who has since described how he was duped by Mike Daisey’s lies. But how I feel about it aesthetically is another, more complicated matter.

Throughout this scandal, Daisey’s rationale for his artistic choices has been to say that the issue of Foxconn’s human rights abuses — and Apple’s complicity in them — desperately needed attention, and attention could only come from embellishment. So what if he lied about the man with claw for a hand, or the pre-pubescent girls spinning filaments into LEDs? Just because he didn’t see those things doesn’t mean they couldn’t happen.

Daisey has a point. Many of us don’t experience racism, sexism, or other abuses, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Many of us don’t know where our technology (or our food, or medicine, or lodging) comes from, but we know that migrant farming, mercury fumes, and animal testing aren’t exactly pleasant experiences. We know that bad things happen to make us feel good. Learning that truth is part of growing up.

But where Daisey screwed up in relaying that simple truth was in trying to pass off his stories as true in the first place. Artistically, he didn’t have to place himself at the centre of the story. He could have written a one-man show about another traveler, or group of travelers, or Chinese workers, or workplace evaluators. He could have performed those roles as fictional characters, and nobody would have called him out for it, because using fiction to illuminate truth has a long and noble tradition in American literature.

The best example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe was an abolitionist, and decided to write a novel from the perspective of a slave, after being inspired by a genuine slave narrative by Josiah Henson. Stowe’s novel was more popular, and is now credited with helping to sway public opinion in favour of freeing American slaves — as well as perpetuating stereotypes about people of colour. The same could be said of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a novel about a book about the lives of black maids working in white households during the early 1960s. Stockett’s novel has also come under fire for appropriating someone else’s narrative — Stockett’s brother’s maid, Abilene Cooper, sued Stockett for basing the character Aibileen Clark on her.

Perhaps a better example is Upton Sinclair. Before writing The Jungle in 1906, Sinclair spent seven weeks at a meatpacking plant in Chicago. Then he wrote a novel about an immigrant family working at just such a plant. He didn’t write about himself, or his friends. He wrote about fictional people inhabiting a place where he had visited. Did he see the exact same things that he wrote about? Probably not. He probably embellished. But that’s okay, because it’s fiction. Sinclair never claimed to be relaying facts, or doing journalism. Wisely, he understood that good art might have a greater impact than bad news. After the novel’s publication, an outcry arose for greater regulation in the food industry. We have Sinclair and his fiction to thank, in part, for American meat inspection and pure food laws.

That’s what fiction can do, when we tell the truth about our lies. The stories don’t have to be true, in themselves. But that doesn’t mean we get to be dishonest when we tell them.