Thursday, 10 January 2013

Playing 'Helen Demidenko'

Reading and thinking about Tom Waits and the art of being someone else made me think of Helen Demidenko.
Demidenko burst onto the Australian literary scene at the age of 22 in 1994 with her novel The Hand That Signed The Paper.  Prior to its publication the novel won the Australian/Vogel award for a manuscript by a young author.  After publication in 1995 it won the Miles Franklin, Australia's most prestigious literary gong.
The novel, purporting to be drawn from stories told to the author by her Ukrainian refugee family, dealt with the cycle of violence between Ukrainians and Jews  It blamed Jews for the Ukrainian famine of the late 1930s (for which, incidentally, the Russian Communist Party was actually responsible) and subsequent Ukrainian involvement in the holocaust was portrayed as a consequence of this prior crime.
The book's reception at the hands of Australia's literary establishment can't have been hindered by its charismatic author.  A tall, striking young woman with bleached hair, she appeared at literary events in Ukrainian peasant costume and told stories about her Ukrainian family, heavy vodka drinking and growing up in the outer Brisbane public housing estate of Woodridge with its teenage single mothers, rampant drug addiction and burnt out cars littering the footpaths.  Her success was seen as a sign that "ethnic" literature was coming of age in Australia.
Controversy swirled around the book from the first.  Was it anti-semitic, or simply presenting a literary point of view?  Was it a brilliant work of literature or a turgid, plotless excuse for gratuitous sex and violence?  Were parts of it plagiarised, or is it legitimate post-modern practice to appropriate phrases and sentences from other writers without attribution?
All this was swept aside when Brisbane's Courier-Mail dropped the big bombshell.  'Helen Demidenko' was in fact an Anglo-Australian woman called Helen Darville, with no Ukrainian forebears.  Furthermore, she grew up not in Woodridge but in a nearby middle-class suburb, where no doubt she learned how to stereotype her poorer neighbours for literary consumption. 
The vultures swooped.  Darville went into hiding before emerging to justify her actions with a dubious alternative story involving a Ukrainian former Waffen-SS officer living in her neighbourhood.  She was contrite in a limited kind of way and attempted to relaunch her literary career via a column in the Courier Mail, only to be cut short by another plagiarism controversy.  The column was axed and she disappeared off the radar.
Of course, once her cover was blown it was all over.  Darville/Demidenko's art was not really in her rather mediocre book.  It was in the whole package, the idea and personality of 'Helen Demidenko', this faux-Ukrainian young woman of immense talent and somewhat disturbing political views.  She provided us, for that 18 months, with a fascinating multi-media performance that outshone all the more talented wordsmiths who claimed the Miles Franklin before and after her.  As Helen Darville she was a lot more real, but a lot less interesting.  Without the mesmerising public performances and imaginary illiterate baba attending her festival lectures, there was not a great deal left.
Tom Waits could have told her a thing or two about how to sustain a misleading identity for an extended period.  For a start, Waits has taken care to mix fact with fiction.  His character shares not only a name but a number of biographical details with himself.  At the same time he often lies extravagantly, so you know not to trust him.  This has allowed him to sustain the ambiguity for 40 years.  It gives us permission to enjoy the illusion, to fall in love with the character and let go of the comparatively boring question of  factuality.
Another author who could have taught Darville a thing or two about the imposture game, had he still been alive, was John O'Grady.  O'Grady's first book, the light-hearted They're a Weird Mob, was published in 1957 under the name Nino Culotta.  It purported to be an Italian immigrant's account of his arrival and settlement in Australia.  Unlike Darville he made no attempt to appear in public, and when he was exposed he played the whole thing for laughs.  He even published further books as Culotta, making his alter-ego protest that he could not possibly be his good friend John O'Grady because O'Grady was not Italian. 
Darville's main mistake was not to have a Plan B.  If Waits is caught in a lie he can tell either the truth or an even bigger lie.  His audience will happily accept either.  If all else fails he can always sing them a song.  O'Grady was willing to have a laugh at his own expense and then carry on the joke - as well as following up with other jokes in his successful subsequent career as a humourist. 
Darville, by contrast, had no gift for either self-deprecation or candour.  Nor was she able to modulate her performance once its initial season had run its course.  If you are a one-trick pony, once that trick no longer amuses it's the knackery for you.  Or a career in the law.
Of course she is still alive and now 40 years old.  She has changed her name again and practices law as Helen Dale.  Despite claiming to have given up writing she blogs as SkepticLawyerIn a 2005 interview with the ABC she was strangely ambivalent and largely unrepentant about her time as 'Helen Demidenko' and the main thing she seems to have learned from the experience is a scorn for the literary establishment. 

It is always wise, from a psychological viewpoint, to reject that which has rejected you.  But in the light of history what are we to make of her tale of her father dying while 'on the job' with a prostitute?  Perhaps there is a further performance still to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dale/Demidenko and friend stole my title and used it for her book. This should be made known. It devastated me.It was blatant theft. The title was not relevant to her book at all and swiped my history from me as I was preparing an autobiography.