Kevin Young was near the end of writing “Bunk” in June 2015 when Rachel Dolezal reared her permed head. The white president of Spokane’s NAACP, who insisted she was black, owned the news cycle and set social media ablaze.
Young makes vital room for Dolezal in his cultural-historical reckoning of fakery. And “Bunk” is as jam-packed and timely, as compelling and cautionary as its full title promises: “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” (Graywolf, 560 pp., $30).
The author of 10 books of poetry and the erudite, electric “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” Young is having quite a year. In November, he began his gig as The New Yorker’s poetry editor. We reached him by phone in his office at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where he is director.
Young’s fluid comfort with poetry and research is on full display in a book that builds a case — from showman P.T. Barnum to American Indian charlatan Grey Owl and literary sham JT LeRoy — that the hoax, so American, has a long-standing relationship to race and often gender. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did this project begin?
Six years ago I was very curious about fake memoirs and the way people talked about them, often as if there was some blurry line between fact and fiction, when there really isn’t. At the same time, those memoirs seemed to be about something more profound and in many ways more painful. What did the authors actually say that seemed believable and why? You see all these incidences of resorting to cliché, resorting to stereotypes, really, as I say, “plagiarizing the pain of others.”
“Bunk” argues that American hoaxes have moved from a kind of pleasure to pain, to horror even.
At the turn of the 20th century, you see hoaxes become much more about trauma and these large social divisions that were always there. The hoax increasingly makes use of race.
In addition to James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” and Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea,” you look at journalist fabricators Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Did these writers help set the table for so-called “fake news”?
One of the most troubling things about the term “fake news” is that it has become a force field against accusations you don’t like. That’s much more troubling than the fakery in these few cases — who were all caught.
There’s a tension throughout the book between real bodies and appropriated ones.
The harm of the hoax isn’t just the making up of these stories, which is bad enough, but they distract us from what’s really important. I also think they detach us from empathy. They’re substitutes for empathy. Or they say that the only way we can really be empathetic is to imagine a made-up black person in jeopardy. When Rachel Dolezal gets more TV time than real folks creating solutions to real problems, you start to wonder. At the same time, my other contention is that the hoax doesn’t just damage facts, it also damages the imagination. We start to lose the sense of what creativity is like, what invention is like.
In a section on murderer Susan Smith — the South Carolina mother who claimed a “black male” had stolen the car with her two sons in it — you quote Cornelius Eady’s poems. Is poetry less vulnerable to hoaxing?
There are two ways I think poetry is kind of immune to this. One, with poems there’s not a lot of money necessarily in it. So there’s that. And then there’s also a broader, more interesting thing, which is there aren’t really fiction and nonfiction poems. There’s really just poetry, which relies on the force of language. Even if it’s a true tale, it’s obviously crafted and has imagination behind it.
You write about spirit photography — photos with alleged ghosts in them — as a way of introducing “pseudospirituality” What other examples fall under that rubric?
The idea of a fake mythology of Native American people. People pretending to be them and invoking made-up ideas about them — which are stereotypical and often involve their extinction. Someone like Grey Owl, who was a British guy who came to the Americas, pretended to be native and became a famous environmentalist. I went to his archives and read his letters to his publisher, which were troubling because he’d say, “Oh, I can barely write because I’m native.” There are all these assumptions he’s playing on.