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Canada Reads caught in fact-fiction divide

Authors Marina Nemat (left) and Carmen Aguirre.

Kevin van Paassen and Fernando Morales / The Globe and Mail;

In extending Canada Reads to include works of non-fiction for the first time since the contest's inception 10 years ago, the CBC has inadvertently transformed a friendly, domestic literary debate into a geopolitical furor focused on volatile questions of truth and justice in distant totalitarian regimes.

Both books singled out for criticism by Canada Reads judge Anne-France Goldwater are first-person memoirs by immigrant women describing their struggles against oppressive governments abroad – the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran in the case of Marina Nemat's Prisoner of Tehran, and Augusto Pinochet's Chile in the case of Carmen Aguirre's Something Fierce. Both describe near-miraculous personal escapes from imminent execution. Despite one judge's opinion that Nemat's book was insufficiently Canadian, both fit comfortably within the most characteristic Canadian genre of immigrant literature.

And both, with their intensely personal, unverifiable narratives, challenge readers to re-imagine the clouded borderland between fact and fiction.

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The charge that Nemat invented many of the events she describes while incarcerated in Iran's infamous Evin prison as a girl first appeared with the book's publication five years ago. Twenty-six people identifying themselves as former political prisoners of the Iranian government signed a scathing open letter to its publisher, Penguin Canada.

"The publication of Ms. Nemat's book outraged us," they wrote, arguing that "the atmosphere and scenes are fictional." The former prisoners attacked the book's averted execution scene "as so impossible that it can only be a fiction of the writer's imagination," and condemned the book as "an insult to ourselves and the thousands of political prisoners that were executed in the prisons of the Islamic Republic."

But the controversy did not affect Nemat's reputation or sales of the book, which was subsequently praised by Iranian writer and former prisoner Shahrnoush Parsipour as "free from exaggeration" and "successful in conveying the terrifying and medieval conditions of the Islamic Republic's prisons."

Clearly, it was the open letter that Goldwater relied on in questioning the veracity of Nemat's highly detailed memoir. But like the letter writers, the Canada Reads judge offered no actual evidence to support her allegation, saying only, "you can tell it's not true when you read it."

Like the claim that Nemat lied about her experience, Goldwater's charge that Carmen Aguirre is a terrorist is impossible to prove – and likely to ignite furious efforts to do so on both sides.

Something Fierce tells the extraordinary story of the author's induction – as a teenaged girl and at the hands of her parents – from the safety of suburban Canada into the clandestine heart of the revolutionary struggle against the fascist government of Chile, the family's home country. At first resentful, Aguirre soon adopts the cause with zeal, living undercover in Bolivia while smuggling what she refers to as "items" and "goods" into Chile.

Something Fierce does little to evade charges such as those it recently attracted. "The book is a brave document, written by someone who is clearly no stranger to bravery," reviewer Mark Sampson wrote in Quill & Quire.

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If nothing else, it reminds readers that the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters is nowhere more fraught than it is here, in the polyglot haven of Canada.

And however dim or dubious they may appear, the images created by both writers are undeniably our own.

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