[Originally published June 16, 2006.]
I write today to defend myself against a literary offense of the highest degree: plagiarism.
In 1983, a 24-year-old Guatemalan Indian and human-rights activist named Rigoberta Menchu took part in a series of interviews with a Venezuelan-French woman whose name I cannot remember. The taped interviews were transcribed and I, Rigoberta Menchu was published. Menchu would later go on to receive the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of indigenous peoples. Her memoir is, quite simply, the tale of a luckless woman living under an abusive military dictatorship.
And if I might ask: is this really so different from my own story?
From then on, I was very depressed about life. I was afraid of life and I’d ask myself: “What will it be like when I’m older?”
This is a passage from my memoir. Several energetic critics have also found it in I, Rigoberta Menchu. Evidently, similar life experiences will inspire similar wordings.
“From then on” refers to the period directly following my AP U.S. history exam, on which I received a 2. I was very upset about this, because I had previously thought that I was pretty good at U.S. history and had planned to major in history or politics in college. It now seemed that the only avenues left open to me were English or sports therapy. My once sunny outlook on life took a decidedly devastating turn.
I can’t remember exactly what Rigoberta Menchu is referring to in the passage, but I believe that it has something to do with seeing her brother burn to death at the fincas.
We were going to ask for two days holiday and if they didn’t give it to us we’d go and spend Christmas somewhere else. But I was incapable of disobedience. And those employers exploited my obedience.
This is the part in I, Rigoberta Menchu where she and her friend Candelaria first begin working as peasant maids for a Spanish landowner. In an act of defiance, Candelaria kills and plucks the chickens for the Christmas feast but then refuses to dress them. For this, they are whipped by the Spanish landowner.
In my case, junior year of college I was an unpaid intern at Christie’s Auction House in New York City. We only had three days off for Christmas. The other interns made a request for two more vacation days, but I was too scared to approach Bendetta (the intern coordinator). And so there I was, December 23 and December 27 at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, fetching tuna rolls and skinny cappuccinos while everyone else was sledding.
I do not find it terribly strange that we described these events in similar fashions; they are similar stories.
“A revolutionary isn’t born out of something good,” said my sister. “He is born out of wretchedness and bitterness. We have to fight without measuring our suffering.”
I can see how this passage is misleading. It was my sister who said this—but it was not my biological sister. It was my Kappa Alpha Theta sister. The Mexican staff at our House wanted to deep-six Southern Strawberry from the fro-yo machine. This was unimaginable. As Kappa Alpha Theta relies heavily on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, our entire House staged a nonviolent bulimia strike until the matter was resolved in our favor.
A similar situation is described by Rigoberta Menchu, except that instead of a bulimia strike, Menchu and her 12-year-old sister go into hiding in Guatemala to avoid the government-friendly death squads.
Final passage that we will examine here:
I’m still keeping my Indian identity a secret. I’m still keeping secret what I think no one should know.
Menchu and I both close our books with these words, which—I agree—is eerie. This is not surprising in Menchu’s case, because throughout her book she says things like, “I am a Mayan Indian.”
I am sorry to spoil the ending of my memoir, but, yes, I too am an Indian (Native American). People are surprised at this since I have red, wavy hair, an abundance of freckles, and a plump, round face. None of this necessarily screams “Indian,” but, believe me, it is true. My grandfather’s great-grandfather was 100 percent Sioux.
I am neither a plagiarist, nor am I Irish. I am a woman with deep and emotional experiences in her past and who writes about them. Although Rigoberta Menchu communicated her experience in very similar words to mine, this only serves to reinforce the notion that ich bin ein Guatemalan Indian woman living under abusive military dictatorships.
Human suffering is universal, and timeless.