Friday, July 30, 2004

Norma Khouri

Almost ten years ago, when the Helen Demidenko/Darville scandal was in full flight, I weighed-in, on the anti-“Demidenko” side, in public debate on the Internet. The mid-90s being a pre-blog era, ground zero of this debate was an email list-server thingummy called “austlit”.

Although the Demidenko/Darville scandal has some strong overlap with the current Norma Khouri/Forbidden Love one – assumed, or at least grossly exaggerated, ethnicity as a convenient vehicle for sowing racial/religious hatred, by coupling it with the cushioning protection of a first-person, “true story” narrative – I’m not nearly as offended by Khouri’s fraud.

Mostly this is because, at the time, I saw Demidenko/Darville as very much shitting in my own nest. A uni-educated, Australian, Gen X writer was given a break very few others were. In return for this misplaced trust she ungraciously trashed the joint, so making a publisher’s “slush pile” – comprised mainly of young, “unknown” writers – exponentially more slushy, overnight. In contrast, Norma Khouri was a self-styled outsider, writing prurient femo-grist for a niche – albeit numerically substantial – market: middle-class female book groups*.

One thing comparison of the two scandals does reveal is how bad the current state of Australian journalism is. Given that the innards of Khouri’s book were part and parcel of her migration to Australia, I would have thought that the retrospective bona-fides of her migration would be a large part of the current story. Instead, journo Rory Callinan seems more concerned with whether the good ladies of Turramurra (et al) are going to get a refund on their books.

Rory’s blitheness is all the more startling as wildly divergent versions of Khouri’s migration status have been floated, without reference to each other, in the print media. One widely-cited line of thought is that she’s here under the auspices of a temporary protection visa, while today’s Oz has her visa status in the altogether different category of “distinguished talent”.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that latter, “distinguished talent” theory. This is not so much because it is a sweet and fitting gong for a cynical literary shonk like Khouri. Rather, a little nugget buried away in Rory Callinan’s story makes it clear why Khouri – and husband John Toliopoulos – were surely such immigration “must-haves” for Australia. Quite stunningly, the Jordanian-Greek-American couple have become assimilated white trash faster than you could say “runner-up” in a reality real-estate TV show:

“[Toliopoulos] told me once that he had plenty of money and that his wife was a best-selling author and he had made a lot of money from real estate deals," one local revealed. "He said they were going to buy five or six houses in Bribie Island and do them up."

* An “ABAF Awards” supplement in today’s Oz, obviously compiled some time ago, waxes on about book clubs thus:

So far the most popular literary event was last June, when a talk by Jordanian-Australian author Norma Khouri, who wrote the bestseller Forbidden Love, attracted 300 people to debate the role of women in Muslim countries.

Update 4 August 2004

Khouri’s migration status has finally been authoratively stated; she is “distinguished talent”, after all. Don’t hold your breath waiting for prominent “We Were Wrong” statements by the many media outlets who ran with the “temporary protection visa” line, though.

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