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Two Truths and a Lie: What do Fiction Writers Take from Life?

BG-Banner-Essay-by-Adrienne-Celt2

In middle school we all played it – you did too, right? The game where each person tells three facts about themselves, except that one of those “facts” is made up, and it’s the responsibility of the other players to tell the difference between them. Think about a reverse form of Apples to Apples, in which you pin your hopes on the idea that no one knows you well enough to pick out the style of lie you prefer, which kind of world you’d embroider if given the right thread.

Back when I played this game regularly, I was a child, and easily shaken by misinformation. For example, I remember the shock I felt upon discovering that Christopher Columbus didn’t really discover America, per se. I must have been about eleven years old, in fifth grade; I was reading a magazine that happened to mention the pre-Columbian presence of Norsemen in North America, and got so upset that my fingers curled around the page, balling it up, almost tearing it free. I thought about the people who the Norse visitors met, how they were there even earlier, how “discovering” something didn’t really mean much when the thing already existed. I wanted to crumple the paper into a ball and tuck it into my mouth and chew.

Or did I?

Is that the kind of thing that a person can easily remember?

Now I write fiction, and am daily called upon to turn facts and ideas into more compelling versions of themselves – to make everything a story. (In an earlier draft of this essay, actually, I talked about Columbus without mentioning the page of the magazine, my horror at it, specifically, the way my fingertips skimmed the slight indentations where ink was pressed to paper. It was boring, so I decided to go deeper, and imagine how it might have been.) I know that some people think that working this way means lying pretty much all the time. I once asked a classroom full of composition students whether they preferred reading fiction or non-fiction, and why: the overwhelming majority chose non-fiction, saying that memoirists write from life, and that makes their work feel more intimate and true.

As if words on the page were ever reliable.

I don’t see it that way. Perhaps because I know that, when I write non-fiction, I’m compelled to embellish and take a point of view in order to make my stories more coherent and interesting to a reader (see: Columbus) – and as I learned way back in childhood, many historians do the same thing (see again: Columbus) even while claiming to be consummate truth-tellers. Although I often love reading both essays and memoir, I turn to them with a bit more skepticism than I do with fiction. Blame the childhood game, trotted out for fun at slumber parties and as an icebreaker in new classrooms and committee meetings, which taught me to exercise doubt when people insisted most earnestly that they were being honest.

columbus2

Sometimes, of course, I’d play Two Truths and a Lie with my friends and hear a fabrication so convincing that it seemed a shame to learn it wasn’t real. This led me to wonder: was there such a thing as a lie that’s truer than truth? Not just more shapely, but actually a better expression of a person’s heart and character than mundane reality. I do think so: I think that’s a story. Though it’s not the right tool in every situation (which is to say, I don’t want family/friends/scientists/journalists lying to me, most of the time), good fiction has the power to articulate human character and felt experience better than anything else I know. And it comes to you with such open arms: before even opening the book, you’re in on the joke: it’s a “novel,” it’s “stories,” you know it’s not “true.” So you’re free to step inside and let the book whisper its secrets, which may not line up with the world you live in, but (if the writing is good) will have their own ring of authenticity.

Now, my family history lends itself to the opposite Two Truths and a Lie problem: stories so fantastical they have a hard time passing as reality, even though that’s where they come from. Stories so chock with derring-do that to listen to them is to shake your head and say with a laugh: It couldn’t really have happened that way, could it? It’s a writerly double-edged sword. How can I use them? How can I not? In general, I’ve chosen to skirt around their edges, letting the strangeness of their reality make me brave enough to write strangely in my fiction. But maybe their time has come.

So let’s play. I’ll share three incidents from my family’s (and my own) past-to-near-present, and you decide, in the end, which are real and which I’ve made up.

he-walks-away

We’ll start in the light of the recent past. Imagine a girl who lives near the beach. Close enough to walk, though not fast: it takes an hour. The town is safe, and the girl sometimes walks at night with friends, laughing and eating fresh peaches. Though the beach is closed past sundown, the gate is a joke – you just duck right under, walk around, maybe try to balance on the edge of it if there’s someone there you’d like to impress.

Starting bonfires in the sand is dangerous because the cops do drive-bys, but the girl and her friend are more interested in darkness anyway, and what the darkness has to offer. Limbs bare, though the wind still bites sometimes in July, they jump into the sea. They scream at the chill. They trail green threads of phosphorescence behind their arms and legs in the cold salt waves.

Bad things can happen to a girl at night. It’s not that they do, but they could, and so the girl’s parents forbid her to go to the beach anymore at night; they beg her not to slip outside while they’re sleeping. The girl leaves instead in the early morning, when her mother and father are awake, though barely. Just past six, the grass still cool, the air still wet. When she arrives the tide is strange, long and low, and she tears off her clothes and runs into the water and sees dozens of crabs, more than she’s ever seen before in one place. Long-legged and blue, they walk slowly through the water, pinching through sand and kelp.

On the way home the girl is eating blackberries from one hand; her shoes dangle from two fingers on the other. A car pulls up beside her on a long hill and she stops – she doesn’t recognize the car, but she assumes they’ll ask her for directions, as sometimes happens; the back roads can twist on you. Inside the car is a man and a woman and a child – she thinks, A family.

“Do you need help?”

This is the question the girl intended to ask, and so she’s disconcerted to have it asked of her instead. But she smiles back at the man and says no, she’s just walking home.

“But your shoes?” the man asks. He frowns, and she notices his strange accent. “You’d better get in. We’ll take you.” It will be years before she recognizes the accent as Russian, years before the words that the child says make sense: that they will take her В лес – it sounds like less with a bit of a v, and he says it as they grab her arm, as they pull on her wrist, and she thinks, They will make less of me, though she thinks it in a desperate, stupid way. Not knowing then that it means: They will take you to the forest, though it wouldn’t have been any comfort if she had.

Imagine that girl. Imagine she makes one last pull, and her hand comes free. Imagine she runs. She’s never sure what would have happened: after all, it was just the child talking, a boy no more than six or seven. Maybe they were just anxious to help, and would have sung songs with her on the short drive home. But her wrists are bruised, for days and days.

One down: a girl walks home, and is accosted by mysterious foreigners. What do you think? Don’t tell me yet. Here comes the next story.

tadeusz and bela varga

To understand this one, you must start in Poland: Drohobycz, 1916, just two years shy of the nation’s declaration of independence, the very year of my paternal grandfather’s birth. When you look at a time-lapse image of Poland’s borders over the centuries, the nation seems to pulse, growing to magnificent proportions only to sink down to literal nothing – open, close, open, close, shuddering along with the vicissitudes of history. When my grandfather was a baby, the nation had been partitioned since 1795.

His entry into the world coincided with the jubilance of national freedom: he was a man born with the feeling that he is his country and his country is him, a thing as worthy of fighting and dying for as the blood beating beneath his own skin. And of course, he wasn’t alone in that year – a whole nation of men and women were born the same way.

Then they grew up. And that freedom, that country, was taken away.

During World War II, the Polish government was exiled to London in the face of threats from both the east and the west (Russia and Germany, respectively). They kept in touch with events back home – and helped plan uprisings – through a system of couriers who traveled incognito across the fraught European landscape. My grandfather was one such courier – not just a vigilante and a spy, but a paratrooper: the only one of his kind to jump twice into occupied Warsaw and live to tell about it.

His unit was called the Cichociemni (tchi-ho-tchiemni), or “the dark and the silent.” (It can also translate to “the silent unseen.”) His two missions were Operation Jacket and Operation Salamander, during which he adopted the pseudonym that would later become my own surname. (His given name was Tadeusz Chciuk; my grandmother’s name was Eva Lovell. “Celt” is an anagram that uses the first letters from each of those names.)

Part of my grandfather’s mission was to aid and take stock of the Polish Underground, and help them plan the Warsaw Uprising – an event that eventually led to the utter flattening of the city by German bombardment. If you visit Warsaw today, you can stroll through a brand new Old Town, meticulously reconstructed from memory and art. The cheerful façade of the city is both impressive and haunting: stoic, beautiful, resurrected.

To his lasting dismay, my grandfather was called away from Warsaw just weeks before the uprising took place. The story could end there, but it doesn’t: his very escape was a work of art.

Knowing that German border patrols would never let a Polish citizen – particularly one with known ties to the exiled government – travel by train back to the unoccupied territory, my grandfather hatched a plan. Unable to leave aside the difficulties of moving by train, he left aside the difficulties of his identity. With the help of a Hungarian priest named Andor Varga, my grandfather frocked himself and acquired a fake Hungarian passport – the only trouble being, he didn’t speak Hungarian.

So what’s a man to do?

He pretended to have laryngitis.

Coughing, rasping, playing the holy fool, he made it all the way to Spain before being captured near Gerona and transferred to a concentration camp, where they didn’t look kindly on him. But just when things looked bleakest, a wave of yellow fever swept through the camp, killing many prisoners – including one who had qualified for release. No stranger to deception, my grandfather assumed his identity, and was free.

Nazis? Check. Spies? Check. A revolution in foment? Check. Alright, last story. It better be a good one.

gmm canon

There were people who stayed in Poland during the war, and many who left. My maternal grandmother was one of the latter category, spirited away by her mother to a Russian neighborhood in China years before the war even began. The plan was to jump from there to the US, but it was a long time before they saved up enough money. So there are photographs: my grandmother on the beach in Indonesia. My grandmother leaning up against a cannon in Harbin. My grandmother an explorer, a bombshell, brilliant.

What was it like for her? Always a good Catholic, she went to church with a dusty old priest who leered. She learned to make pierogi stuffed with Chinese herbs and rice noodles, topped with soy sauce. She went to teahouses and made friends with a girl who worked there pouring tea and racing around on roller skates. Most importantly, she fell in love.

Now, it wasn’t much after this that my grandmother met the man who would become my grandfather, a venerable Russian whose family was delighted to welcome a beautiful and bilingual girl into their fold. But that’s not the man I’m talking about. Before him came a shy boy, a quiet boy with dark hair and dark eyes. He wore a funny little hat – that’s how they met. What do you call it? she asked. They were sitting on the steps outside the teahouse. She felt the pull of him, batted her eyelashes, still somehow didn’t think he’d answer. But he did. He said: A yarmulke.

The two of them knew they could never marry: he was devoted to the Jewish faith, she the Catholic Church. So they decided instead to live in sin. Not a good time for it, not a good place. Still, they found a little flat above a noodle shop, which they could just afford if they both got jobs. His family despised her for pulling him away, but she couldn’t help herself. They made plans to move in after his family’s vacation, during which, she knew, they’d make their final plea to keep him.

She trusted him, though. She let him go.

A week went by, then two, then three. It was possible, then, for a trip to go long simply due to weather, or trade routes – things he couldn’t control. But still it was strange to get no letter. My grandmother stayed home, and her mother was pleased. My grandmother went to church, and listened to the wizened priest chant prayers. One day, at last, she ventured out to the teahouse, where she ran into her friend with the roller skates. The girl immediately flung her arms around her

“I’m so sorry,” the girl said.

“What for?” my grandmother asked. She assumed the girl was sorry that her beau hadn’t written, had left her to wonder. “How do you know?”

“We all know.” The girl blinked. “The funeral was yesterday.”

As it turned out, the boy had not left her at the non-alter or succumbed to his family’s pleas for propriety. He had, more simply, gone to the beach. Their vacation was on the island of Java, and they spent plenty of time getting sun. While they were there, a small earthquake hit – not much damage or cause for concern, until a wall of water appeared on the horizon. My grandmother’s boyfriend died in a tsunami, and his family didn’t bother to tell her.

A secret love, a tidal wave, and a stone cold fox. Thus ends story number three.

So there you have it: two truths, and a lie. Have you decided which you think is which? The girl and her kidnap, the man and his laryngitis, the woman and her tragic lover, swallowed by the sea? Each a bit over-the-top, wouldn’t you say? But which is the lie? If they were written in a book, could you tell then? Or would they all seem real, because of the paper they were printed on?

I won’t leave you hanging – though there’s a bit of a twist. Every one of those stories has a bit of truth in it. The first story is the closest thing to a “lie,” in keeping with the rules of the game. I did walk to the beach, and I did get stopped by a car asking me if I needed help because (I assume) I was walking home barefoot. But the kidnappers who wanted to take a girl “to the forest” actually belong to a friend, and it happened while she was studying abroad in Moscow. (I studied in St. Petersburg, where I was drugged in a bar and later woke up with a broken tooth – but that’s another story.)

The other two stories are, as close as I can tell you, true, though I’ve added in details to make them feel complete. Who told my grandmother that her boyfriend had died? It might have been a teahouse girl on roller skates – I don’t know that it wasn’t. I don’t even know if the specific island where he died was Java. But my grandmother was prone to big statements and exaggeration, so I like to think she’d approve of my little embellishments, too. (This being the same grandmother who would threaten that, if we were late for dinner, she’d “heet us weeth a beeg steeck” – i.e. “hit us with a big stick.” For my wedding present, she gave me a rolling pin tied up with a golden ribbon.)

As for my grandfather’s story, I’ve added little, if anything. In fact, I’ve left a great deal out. I said from the beginning that his stories defy belief, and it’s true; my grandmother (paternal; not the tsunami bombshell) is the same way. I often ask her and my father for clarification: Am I making this up? Am I adding this on? In every case, I’m forgetting the very best detail. I know, though, that if I ever wanted to write about them, I’d have to make up a great deal indeed: in fiction (and non-fiction, really) the verisimilitude of a character or story depends on more than the big timber of plot, and it’s the little details that I don’t know. What color was the sky? What was my grandfather thinking as he floated through the air, comrades lighting up around him like jellyfish blinking in the sea?

I can only guess. I can only imagine.

Tiny-House

Adrienne Celt’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Carve Magazine, The Southeast Review Puerto del Sol, and Gargoyle, and her translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Cerise Press, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. Adrienne has an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and has taught writing at ASU, the National University of Singapore, and Story Studio Chicago.  She was a finalist in the 2013 story South Million Writers Award and Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Ragdale. 

Her debut novel, The Daughters, is now available from W.W. Norton/Liveright Publishing.

* Photo 3 is of Tadeusz with Bela Varga, the real Hungarian priest who helped him escape. Photo 4 is my maternal grandmother, Constance (Spirydowicz) Dayton

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