Over at Bomb magazine (photo by Teju Cole):
Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.
In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”
You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?
Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.
Writers know this too, but I think they knew it a lot better before the market took such a hold. Would Miguel de Cervantes have considered himself a writer of fiction? Would François Rabelais? Would Robert Burton consider his activity (let’s telescope the eras here) essentially dissimilar to Rabelais’s? They all pretty much understood themselves to be spinning narratives out of whatever was at hand. And let’s not even get into Daniel Defoe, who played devious games with the emerging genres.