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When the memoir "Love and Consequences" was pulled from bookstore shelves this month, it caused a lot of introspection in the literary world. Margaret P. Jones wrote about life as a half-white, half-Native American girl in black Los Angeles. But she was soon outed as all-white Peggy Seltzer from an affluent L.A. suburb. Some of the people most disgusted with Seltzer's deception are writers who have lived a lot closer to the life she only pretended to lead, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Margaret Seltzer almost made it onto NPR to discuss why it's tempting to deal drugs in south L.A.
Ms. MARGARET SELTZER (Writer): You look around and everybody's doing dirt bad and you have hand-me-down shoes and clothes and the kids at school are making fun of you and you have a chance to get some little money and some nice clothes.
BATES: Riveting stuff, except it never happened to her. That interview never made air and Seltzer's appropriation of someone else's life really angers writer Susan Straight. Like Seltzer, Straight is white. Unlike Seltzer, Straight has always lived around black folks.
Ms. Susan Straight (Writer): I've written fiction about African-American characters for 20 years, but I was married for many, many, many years into a large African-American family and never pretended to be anyone but what I am. I'm a short blonde woman. I have three African-American mixed race daughters. And I still live three blocks from where I was born.
BATES: Straight remains an integral part of her black family in Riverside, California. She says when Peggy Seltzer claims that she slept with a gun nightly and bought herself a burial plot with some of her first drug profits, she's doing more than ripping of Straight's neighborhood. She's insulting Straight's friends, her children, and former in-laws.
Ms. STRAIGHT: In the black community, I think there's this incredible sense of despair about the fact that if you're a mom with black children you can't send them walking down the street to the grocery store because you're afraid they'll be shot. So to have someone who didn't live like that pretend to have a gun and to get a burial plot is a huge amount of disrespect.
BATES: Especially when there are real-life examples, like 17-year-old Jamil Shaw. A college-bound high school athlete, Jamil was shot steps away from his parent's Los Angeles home. His mother returned from active duty in Iraq to bury him last week. The only gun she's ever carried was in service to her country.
Forty minutes away in Pasadena on a patio facing a busy street, author Jervey Tervalon says Seltzer's memoir struck him as false immediately. Tervalon taught for years in L.A.'s inner city high schools. He says the life Peggy Seltzer described didn't jibe with his experiences.
Mr. JERVEY TERVALON (Author): Because there is no nuances of the life that's there. You see the kid that's the black skateboarder at the inner city school. Or like myself, I flew model rockets. So there's a diversity of interests. But usually the commonalty is everybody's trying not to get shot.
BATES: Tervalon believes Peggy Seltzer and her urban affectations could only have existed because so much of the publishing world finds black life incomprehensible.
Mr. TERVALON: And so it seems like there's a constant search for the white person that can be the interpreter for black life.
BATES: Television writer David Mills agrees. Mills has written for several urban-themed series like "Homicide," "ER," and "The Wire."
Stretched out on a park bench in Glendale, Mills voices frustration that white editors and producers often make assumptions about what's authentically black based on stereotypes.
Mr. DAVID MILLS (Writer): All they know about the black world is what they've read in other media.
BATES: Mills is convinced Seltzer's editors found her believable because her book reflected pathological images of ghetto life they'd seen in popular films and rap videos.
Mr. MILLS: Everything I saw in that first chapter, she could have gotten from seeing "Boyz In Da Hood" or "There Are No Children Here" or - do you know what I'm saying?
BATES: Mills is most offended by Seltzer's posturing. Photos of her show her a small, stern-faced woman flashing gang signs, her fist wrapped in the red bandana of the Bloods, a very real gang to which she claimed membership.
Mr. MILLS: That's almost scary dangerous. You don't mess with that reality. You don't mess with that degree of pain and death that is real. You could pay a hell of a lot more price than the embarrassment she's facing now.
BATES: To avoid future embarrassment of faux memoirs like Seltzer's, publishers will need to figure out how to choose books that speak truthfully about black urban life without exploiting or stereotyping it. And do a little fact checking.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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