April begins with fools, as we know, because we’ve all been pranked on April 1st; but did you know it ends with honesty? That’s right, April 30th is Honesty Day. I always wonder: Who sets these special days? That would be a cool job. Whoever’s responsible, Honesty Day is a good one. It’s meant to encourage sincere dealings in politics, relationships, consumer relations, and education. We could all use more of that! Yet, we know that truth-telling is not straightforward. When does frankness become too cruel? I remember an incident from teen years when my sisters and I attended a girl’s club that taught, among other things, etiquette. We were doing role-plays and my older sister was given the part of someone who is asked for feedback on something she thinks is awful. Here’s how the role-play went:
“I got new shoes, I’m so excited! Look, don’t you just love them?!”
“ . . . I . . . like the soles. . . ”
The instructors hooted at my sister’s response; but I think it wasn’t so bad. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to be kind if you’re really going to be honest. And my sister, in real life as in the role-play, just can’t be unkind or dishonest. This can put a person in a real bind. Honesty, more deeply, is about integrity and so is kindness. But, somehow, acting with integrity can get you into a veridical fix.
I wanted to learn more about honesty and deceit by examining them from different angles through storytelling. So, I wrote my novel, Mendacities. In it, nine characters are thrown together into a roil of farcical mishaps that are caused by the secrets they harbour and the lies they tell. They all (except one) have things to hide and a history of duping others—from perpetrating hoaxes to impersonations to fraud, hoodwinking, and outright betrayal—especially our heroine, Felicity Faux. She has gained a certain amount of fame and a very comfortable, well-to-do life through the unethical practice of stealing others’ dreams. It’s not something anyone ever imagined, so it's not forbidden. She’s not breaking the law and she’s not hurting anyone. So she thinks, so she tells herself; so she lies to herself. Deep down, surely, she must know that what she’s doing is unethical.
The more I got into the characters' stories, the more I uncovered shades and layers of duplicity. And the more the lies piled up, the more damage was done to relationships of all kinds. The story was teaching me, in spades, what I already knew: secrets and lies will almost always cause trouble.
And yet, is there a place for obfuscation? We highly value privacy, and on the flip side, we also don’t want to hear every last detail of, say, a co-worker’s life. There’s a reason we have TMI in our social media lexicon. Keeping one’s own counsel is a prized virtue. There are secrets and then there are confidences. They’re not quite the same.
In Mendacities, it’s pretty clear that telling the truth and integrity is essential if the characters are going to make their lives better—even though it will require sacrifice. But telling the truth isn’t always easy or even for the best. I am currently reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. In this story, nearly everyone is hiding something—some for selfish gain, yes, but most out of fear, for shame, or to protect themselves or others. The eponymous golem and jinni are called into being without being asked and in a time and place they did not choose. They would be feared and persecuted if their true natures were known. I have never before read a sympathetic portrayal of a golem, but Wecker portrays her with a sensitivity that makes you feel heartbroken for her. Her very nature makes it painful to live in the world of humans and threatens to undo her, moment by moment.
We can easily think of this as a metaphor for newcomers of all kinds, especially those, like refugees, who have been forced to flee their homes—the places where they felt comfortable and fit easily. Subterfuge can be malign, but often we resort to it because of unjust social prejudices or cultural constraints or or simply because we fear judgement. Think of the teen who hides her nerdy intelligence in order to fit in with the cool kids; of the work we put into arranging ourselves just so for the camera, so that we can project what we want others to see; of the things we know we should say to co-workers, but don’t, because we’re afraid we’ll be seen as a squeaky wheel.
Fiction stories, of course, are not truth; but they can convey truths. I hope Mendacities, though lighthearted, explores the human dilemmas of transparency and connection, of hiding things and dissimulation, in a meaningful way.
I headed this blogpost with a photo I took in Vancouver, because that is where our protagonist, Felicity Faux, begins her reckoning with her own mendacity. . .
So, not being fools, we will end April on a note of truth: honesty is good and oh-so-necessary, and like most things human, it is also complex, tough, often ambiguous, and always in need of curiosity and an open heart.