The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko

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The Demidenko affair is an old story now but still a relevant one as we continue to struggle with the idea that white and male authors crowd out minorities, people of colour, women who wish to tell their own stories, tying ourselves in knots in the process.

For the benefit of non-Australians, the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award to Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper, the story of a Ukrainian family collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The granting of the Award to an anti-semitic work was justified on the grounds that Demidenko was telling the story of her people, until Demidenko, who would  attend speaking engagements dressed in the costume of a Ukrainian peasant girl, was finally unmasked as Helen Darville, a University of Queensland student of entirely English background.

I have reprised here a university essay I wrote on the topic 15 years ago, cut down from its original 5,000 words, as you might tell from its unusually, for me, formal language.

The plot concerns a young Australian woman of Ukranian descent, Fiona Kovalenko, who attempts to understand how her father and his brother came to take part in the mass murder of Jews at Babi Yar and Treblinka during the Second World War. The retelling of their experiences uses theirs and many other voices, including at times, an omniscient narrator whose viewpoint is also that of a Ukranian anti-semite. The tone of the writing, generally described as cool, flat or amoral, infuriated many readers but earned the praise of others.

The attacks on The Hand took four major phases –

1.The previous year, 1994, three, arguably much better written, works by important Australian writers were listed for the Miles Franklin and explicitly rejected on the grounds that their content was not Australian; a judgement which, if carried forward, might also have encompassed The Hand.

2.All the major characters in The Hand, except for Fiona, are grotesquely anti-semitic.

3.Despite Demidenko defending The Hand as a work of ‘faction’ derived from the authentic experiences of her relatives, she was eventually forced to acknowledge that she was really the daughter of British migrants.

4.There were some issues relating to phrases and passages derived from other texts which may have been plagiarism.

The literary establishment’s initial concern seems to have been that The Hand, which has some raw power but is of very uneven quality, had been successful where the far more substantial work of Moorhouse (Grand Days) in particular had been explicitly rejected on what now seemed to be spurious grounds; and the conclusion naturally drawn from this was that Demidenko was the MF judges’ token ethnic.

On the other hand, the concern of the reading public seems to have been with The Hand’s anti-semitism. Louise Adler’s anguished response was typical: “If one wants to understand the psychopathology of evil the literature is plentiful … [but] for the rest of us this novel’s representation of a community of individuals as simple, rutting and drunk peasants and their victims as fucking Jews or roasted meat must be condemned.”

Demidenko took to the road, but then so do most authors with a newly published book. The public want to know the face, the person, behind the name, or, at least, they want the ‘name’ to put on a performance, to ‘be’ an author for their entertainment. “Helen Demidenko performed as a stage Ukranian … by wearing embroidered peasant blouses, dancing Ukranian dances, drinking vodka and mumbling Ukranian phrases.”

I don’t think even postmodernists believe that passages by other authors should be used without attribution. Sampling in modern music, referencing in movies, quotation in literature are all acts of respect, acknowledgements of a shared or derived textuality, and are designed to be noticed. Demidenko references Dylan Thomas and Thomas Keneally in her title and opening lines; her use of sources is appropriate for a historical novel – and her critics cannot consistently accuse her of both historical inaccuracy and of borrowing from Holocaust sources; and after all that, there appears to remain some plagiarism, an area in which she had form.

[An interesting discussion about the death of the author, Barthes, Foucault, post-structuralism, must, sadly, be deleted]

What Demidenko intended with either her novel or her masquerade we cannot be sure, least of all from what she herself has said, but both may be judged/consumed as ‘art’. Her writing is clumsy, but often urgent and expressive; her use of multiple voices following, she says, Faulkner, is interesting; and her subject matter, the participation in the Holocaust by people who are now Australian, is new. But the greater work of art – which, judging by her subsequent grudging apologies, was unintended or, at least, not fully carried through – was the masquerade, sustained in public for more than two years, of Helen Darville as Helen Demidenko, the reaction to which demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that not just ‘readers’ but critics and theorists were reading through the text to the author; were reading the text through the prism of their reading of the author; that their reading of The Hand was entirely dependent on their reading of Demidenko as Ukranian/Australian.

Following her ‘unmasking’, Demidenko’s defenders in the Literary Establishment, who had previously praised her bravery and authenticity, were now reduced to lauding her ‘imaginative genius’, a SMH editorial argued that “fiction has to be accepted as fiction”, but does it? Does historical fiction have a ‘duty’ to be historically accurate? More importantly, why do we constantly read through the text to the author? Because, whatever is going on in the romantic plot in the foreground, we depend on the author for the authenticity of the detail. The use by authors of ‘counterfeit identities’ breaches “that fiduciary contract between author and reader which justifies our assumption that what we are reading is genuine”[Foucault, What is an Author?].

Late in 1995, Helen Daniel, editor of Australian Book Review, wrote:

“I believe Demidenko/Darville merited neither the ASAL award nor the Miles Franklin. I believe she has since brought shame and outrage to the literary community and done immense disservice to the literary credibility of this country. On what grounds should she be allowed to keep these awards?”

Why is she outraged? Not because the author’s name has changed from Demidenko to Darville, but because The Hand is revealed to be entirely imagined. What an astonishing position for the editor of a literary magazine!

So the literary community is brought to acknowledge what the ordinary reader has always believed, that the author matters. Not that our reading is determined by the intention of the author, but that the authenticity of the text depends first and foremost on the ‘lived experience’ of the author.

 

Helen Demidenko, The Hand that Signed the Paper, Allen & Unwin, 1994


*ASAL. Association for the Study of Australian Literature. Their 1995 Gold Medal was awarded to Helen Darville AFTER she was revealed as the author.

 

 

14 thoughts on “The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko

  1. In 1995 I was living in Brisbane and doing my Masters in Journalism at UQ. My flat mate went to boarding school with Helen whom she called a serial liar. When Helen won the MF my flat mate was livid. She knew it was all a fabrication. I remember thinking surely someone will cop on but it took a long time for Helen’s real story to be exposed. I have never read the book, purely out of support for my flat mate who had many horrendous stories to tell about Helen from both school, university and social circles. She sounded like quite a troubled individual.

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    • As T*#$%* shows in the US, if you lie confidently enough people don’t bother pulling you up on it, it’s mostly not worth the effort. Apparently her real bio was easily discoverable but I guess the publisher and then the judges just didn’t want to know,

      Winning the MF at 21 should have put her on the path to writerly success but it seems instead to have got in the way. A troubled individual indeed.

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  2. Gosh, what a shocking story. Yes, the text should stand on its own and the thing that matters is the reader’s response to the text BUT there is a prerequisite that the author, however much ignored in the reading, is decent and honourable in the writing and the presentation of the piece.

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    • My opinion is that our reading of the author’s life is part of the intertext which informs our reading of the novel. As is our reading of the author’s previous works, of the works which precede the author’s, and if we are not careful to avoid it, the author’s own commentary about the work – the dreaded author’s intentions. Helen Darville obviously intended The Hand to be read in conjunction with her assumed identity as Helen Demidenko. And this is exactly what the judges did. Though why they assumed the author being Ukrainian excused the work’s clear anti-semitism I cannot imagine.

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  3. The content of this blog post reminds me so much of Rachel Dolezal, a woman born in Montana to two white parents who later changed her looks to pass for African American. She hid her white identity and became the president of a local NAACP chapter and did lots of great work in the Black community. The whole story is a mess. She’s not a Black woman, and she’ll never experience life as a Black woman no matter how hard she tries, no matter the fact that her parents adopted four Black children with whom Dolezal was raised, no matter the fact that Dolezan later had two children of her own, both biracial. However, people also applaud the activist work she’s done in the community — and it was a lot. I’ve seen a documentary of Dolezal, and all I can think is she is highly intelligent but has a lot of something that needs to be worked out in therapy.

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  4. Yes, it’s an old story but one I think about surprisingly frequently, mainly because I read so much memoir. When I read memoir, my starting point is that it’s ‘authentic’ (on the basis that memoir isn’t necessarily accurate but it must be authentic)… and this book messed with that trust that we automatically give an author that we have chosen to read.

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    • Because I argue so often about ‘who should tell the story’ I often think of Demidenko too. In my original essay I cited a few other examples, in particular the British woman whose (invented) account of being forced into a marriage in Iran (I think, or Saudi Arabia) made her famous for a time. That is always the point, when we read we expect to be able to trust the author.

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      • Just laughed to myself because as soon as I read your reply I was reminded of a (stupid) debate I had with someone a few years ago – they were trashing Tim Winton and saying ‘he only writes one character’ and that that didn’t show ‘talent’. I won’t bore you with the detail because I think you can guess my response…

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  5. Oh my. Thanks for sharing your work on this. It’s not an incident with which I was familiar and we seem to need to be reminded periodically that there are always layers to uncover, that we need to always be prepared to ask questions.

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    • Perhaps entrants in prizes should sign a declaration “I am who I seem to be”. That would cut through a few literary theories. Easier perhaps just to not give prizes to racist books, until of course our attitudes changed, as they did quite obviously in the C20th.

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