Gay Girl in Damascus: blog storytelling

So, I invented her.

The blog A Gay Girl in Damascus just announced itself to be a work of historical fiction.  The authorial voice of Amina Arraf became “Amina Arraf”, a fictional character, created by a male grad student.

The purpose was political and historical, to urge popular action through documenting reality:

the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground…

I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in thıs year of revolutions. The events there are beıng shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.

The blog’s logo has changed, from

to

More explanation, defenses, and apologies appeared in today’s post.  This NPR blog post goes into some detail about how various people became suspicious of, then began investigating the identity behind “Amina Arraf” (h/t Jesse Walker).

It’s a fascinating example of digital storytelling from several angles.  First, storytelling by hoax predated the internet, of course, and lives on through digital formats.  Hoaxes are often used for political ends, as the Report from Iron Mountain (1967) pretended to government/think tank authorship as satirical critique, or when Alan Sokal pranked an academic journal to criticize some trends in humanities scholarship (1996) (I document some more of this kind of storytelling, plus others, on this wiki).

Pretending to be someone else raises all kinds of issues of appropriation, especially when ventriloquizing a politically marginalized voice from a position of relative privilege.

Second, “Gay Girl” shows how effective blog writing can be to create a sense of character.  When a new voice on the blog announced that “Amina” was arrested (actually a total fiction), readers mobilized for her release.  MacMaster had successfully evoked a voice, a person well enough to spur his audience into activism.

Read the second half of this apology post for a sense of his method.  Part of it is an arc through social media practice:

First, she was just a name. Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news-sites. Eventually, I set up an email for her. She joined the same lists I was already on and posted responses in her name. And, almost immediately, friendly and solicitous comments on mine appeared.

Amina came alive.

Other people’s blogs, news-sites (newspapers’ Web pages, apparently), email lists, then Facebook, and ultimately a character blog: a voyage through Web 2.0 and other social tech.  Blog post after post, comment after comment followed.  Finally the authorial reveal came about through the blog, appropriately.

Part of the MacMaster/”Arraf” story is just classic creative writing practice, independent of technology, as old as campfires and song:

I could hear her ‘voice’ and that voice and personality were clear and strong. Amina was funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious. She struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality, wondered about living in America as an Arab; she wanted to find a way to balance her religion and her sexuality, her desire to be both a patriotic American and a patriotic Arab. Amina was clever and fun and had a story and a voice and I started writing it, almost as though she were dictating to me. Some of her details were mine, some were those of a dozen other friends borrowed liberally, others were purely ‘her’ from the get go.

This story shows how far digital storytelling has become.  It’s in the mainstream, popularly accessible, and capable of being used for political ends.

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3 Responses to Gay Girl in Damascus: blog storytelling

  1. Who doesn’t love a good hoax? Messing with folks is the spice of life 😉

  2. John Detlefs says:

    Benjamin Franklin used this continuously throughout his life to be able to distance himself from his political commentary. Apparently it was a very popular way of getting your message across without getting too much crossfire from those who disagreed with you.

    By all accounts, the public were often in on the game and enjoyed the “real life” stories as much as actual accounts.

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