He's back: Gay Girl blogger turns author
In Spring 2011, “Amina Arraf,” the blogger behind A Gay Girl in Damascus, was testing the waters for a book deal. Arraf sent chapters of a draft autobiography to the writer Minal Hajratwala and asked if she could pass it on to publishers. Amid vast amounts of attention from the Western media, Arraf had become the archetype of a liberal, anti-regime figure as Damascus witnessed some of its first protests. A book deal seemed inevitable.
Then, in June, Arraf was kidnapped by Syrian pro-government forces. As a campaign was launched to Free Amina, some journalists began to question if anyone had actually met her. Nobody had. We now know that Arraf was not a lesbian in Damascus, but actually 40-year-old American Tom MacMaster living in Scotland.
He muses, “If I could convince people of an invented identity, I would be able to hone my literary skills.”MacMaster didn’t admit this freely. The process of his unraveling was like pulling teeth. Then, when he finally came clean, he unleashed a tide of equivocations for his despicable actions: the blog was just him developing characters for his fiction writing; it was to “illuminate” events in Syria for a “western audience,” etc. It would’ve seemed that, ethically speaking, any potential book deal was dead.
Yet on 25 August 2012, MacMaster revived – and then quickly retracted – those book plans. Tom MacMaster is now T.J. MacMaster, author of A Gay Girl in Damascus. The e-book was temporarily available for a whopping $19.99 as an Amazon e-book purchase (a price that tops even reputable authors’ new e-book releases by a few dollars). The e-book, as well as the blog post announcing its arrival, has since been removed, with MacMaster claiming on his personal blog that he is waiting for the “clear from my legal counsel.”
Until its removal, the blurb for A Gay Girl in Damascus on Amazon featured praise from the Guardian that described the blog as “brutally honest, poking at subjects long considered taboo in Arab culture.” This was an assessment before the hoax was exposed, but MacMaster didn’t bother to clarify that in the description. It continued:
Given MacMaster’s tone on his blog, the only thing that stands in the way of him profiting off A Gay Girl in Damascus is his lawyer. If MacMaster had a sense of decency, or was even mildly apologetic, he’d shelve his publishing plans, but this seems unlikely; like defamed celebrities and outmoded reality TV stars, once their personas become synonymous with public disgust and outcry, profiting off that disgrace is really the only thing they have left.
MacMaster has no qualms using the Gay Girl hoax as a launching point for a career in fiction. He now has two self-published e-books available on Amazon. One is a fantasy novel, The Conspiracy of the Gods, which he “jokingly” describes as “more Tolstoy than Tolkien.” His second novel is Children of Nowhere, a spy novel set in the Middle East and Russia. The protagonist of the latter is also named Tom, leading MacMaster to write on his blog that there “are quite a few similarities between the narrator and myself,” but that he “won’t pretend that it is anything like autobiographical.”
On his blog, he’s simultaneously deprecating and congratulatory about his attempts at fiction. He writes that some of his fiction is “at least readable and might capture the interest of a reader or two,” but that in the past he has been “too vain to think that my writings should be submitted anywhere except to the most prestigious publications and the biggest publishing houses.”
Most are probably not up to the task of reading the fiction of someone widely regarded as a fraud, nor allowing him to profit from it. Others might say that MacMaster should quietly sink back into his hole, that even continuing to talk about him is feeding his ego and giving him publicity for his books. But, nevertheless, curiosity won out – it’s hard to look away from a train wreck. I signed up for a trial of Amazon Prime to get access to the e-books for free, but unfortunately, a minor confusion led to my accidental purchase of Children of Nowhere for $9.99.
The only thing I could take from the book is that, as intimated by the Gay Girl blog, MacMaster is desperate to inhabit other lives that are more interesting than his own.The book begins by introducing the child Tom Jarvis, son of a NY Times journalist and AUB professor who have settled in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (“Snow-ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon, just like a dream”). Tom is torn between his “Arab” upbringing when his mother and father split and he is forced to move to Ohio with the former. This gives way to a line that underscores the desperately worldly sentiments of the book: “We were Beirutis first.”
The rest of the book centers around Tom’s father’s mysterious “death” in Peshawar, setting Tom on an eventual mission to track him down and discover his true identity, which, surely is more interesting than being a mere American.
Tom resents his “Middle American life” and daydreams about his “Beiruti” roots, imagining that “one of the militias was about to come, maybe Jebha or Amal or PSP...They’d blow up my school, kill my stepbrother and sister and free me from my oppressors. Then, we’d hijack a plane together and fly ourselves home.”
When Tom is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he responds, “I would be a mujahedeen and go rescue my father before I became a Martyr.” When Tom is taken to a psychologist, they tell him that he has PTSD, but nevertheless is a “genius.” Surprise.
Tom goes from being a rebellious teen who longs to be a part of Khomeini’s revolution to a college student determined to be a “a literary star.” He works at a convenience store where he takes on the personality of “Tomas Ivanevitch Kasparov” to “test ideas for fiction.” He muses, “If I could convince people of an invented identity, I would be able to hone my literary skills.”
The set-up at this point is transparent. MacMaster inserts numerous hints that protagonist Tom will give insight into the “real” MacMaster, specifically that he’s a compulsive liar who takes on other identities to help his “fiction.” Sprinkling fiction with autobiographical details is nothing new, but coming from MacMaster it seems a sad act of narcissism – a way to suggest that deep down he’s a conflicted “genius” like his protagonist. Yet in the course of the narrative, the details of the protagonist Tom’s inner world point to neither a tortured, nor compelling character, but someone hopelessly bent on appearing world-weary.
What – until this point – had been an intelligible yet boring narrative begins to get confusing. When Tom travels to Russia to track his father down, his character does an about-face and mutates into some cosmopolitan hard-ass: “I am a spiteful man, bitter beyond my years. I am an unpleasant man and my liver is probably diseased. I don’t know anything about it and I don’t care.”
He announces that this book is an “indictment of the Moral Bankruptcy of Post-Cold War Western Capitalism,” then recants, “But that would be a load of shit. Actually, the main point of the book is that you buy it and make me rich.” There are countless instances in the book where MacMaster writes one thing and then immediately disavows it. Unlike other interesting “unreliable” narrators in good works of fiction, this character fumbles through the complicated characteristics assigned to him.
As MacMaster peddles his Gay Girl book, he’s sadly reinserting his voice into a sphere where the actual voices of gays, lesbians, and transgendered are consistently shut out.It deteriorates from here when he goes on for, literally, several pages talking about cocaine: “And if you, dear reader, have got a problem drinking jack or smoking crack or shooting smack, hey, get it in line. I do feel sorry for you. But, shut the fuck up about it already.”
And on: “Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever done coke; I haven’t done a lot but enough to know I like it…But I know it’s really damn good…”
And on: “Just two things (and one woman) did I love from first sight. One was cigarettes. The other was coke.”
What follows is tedious descriptions of plane flights, baggage terminals, security checkpoints, and even a stopover in Germany to buy a coffee at McDonald’s. The rest of the book can be summarized as follows: Tom finds out that his father is actually Russian and a KGB agent. That this means that he’s Russian too (Tom Jarvis becomes Thomas Arkady Vasilievich Vorontsov). That the KGB controls the American right wing. And, lastly, that the woman he loves and beds is his sister.
Then, in the final chapter, a final, confusing sign-off:
He then signs off with a variation of James Joyce’s ending for Ulysses: “Paris-Zurich-Trieste, 1914, 1921.”
The only thing I could take from the book is that, as intimated by the Gay Girl blog, MacMaster is desperate to inhabit other lives that are more interesting than his own – and probably not for reasons related to more authentic fiction writing. Protagonist Tom is fluent in Arabic and moves seamlessly between cultures. He converses with strippers and spies in Russian and French and is loved by Arabs. He feels most at home in war zones and considers himself a Beiruti. He’s a revolutionary genius, but he just wants to get high. He believes River Phoenix (though dead) should be cast as him in a movie. An entire sub-chapter was written in Cyrillic script with no explanation as to what it was about except, “And it really was like that!”
I was reminded of Hajratwala’s original description of Amina’s memoirs to the NY Times: “The faked lesbian sex scenes turn my stomach. The narcissistic writing, the sprinkling of quotations from the Koran and tidbits from Syrian history, the stock stories compiled from a thousand news clippings — it all seems painfully obvious.”
Painfully obvious that Amina was not who she claimed given that the blog was composed of half-truths and sloppy clichés. As MacMaster peddles his Gay Girl book, he’s sadly reinserting his voice into a sphere where the actual voices of gays, lesbians, and transgendered are consistently shut out. As Daniel Nassar wrote on Gay Middle East, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know...I’m outraged, and if I lived in a country where I can sue you, I would.”
by Leah Caldwell
Do you think Tom MacMaster should be allowed to release 'A Gay Girl in Damascus' the book? Leave us your comments!