First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21st August 1995
A fraction too much faction: how Helen took us for a ride
Helen Demidenko, the 24-year-old darling of the literary bestsellers and winner of this year’s Miles Franklin award, falsified her family history in what her brother last night described as a daring “marketing exercise”.
Demidenko, who claimed to have an Irish mother and a Ukrainian father, won the award for her first novel, The Hand That Signed The Paper, which she said was based on family history. (She told the Herald that her father would be getting vodka out of the fridge to celebrate).
Now it has been revealed that Demidenko grew up in Brisbane under the name Helen Darville, the daughter of northern English immigrants Harry and Grace Darville. She had once claimed that her father was an illiterate Ukrainian taxi-driver called Markov Demidenko.
Demidenko’s older brother, Mr Iain Darville, who lives in Cairns, described her imaginary family history as a “great marketing exercise” that gave the novel credibility.
“It made the story (of the book) seem more real,” he said.
“She did it to protect her family and, let’s face it, nobody, not even I, had any idea that the book was going to be as good as it was.
“Helen is a storyteller. She was always good at telling crammers (fibs) as a kid, as my very English grandmother would say.”
Mr Darville said his sister knew that her novel, which dealt with wartime atrocities in the concentration camp at Treblinka in Ukraine, would upset people and she wanted to protect her family.
“Helen is a smart cookie; she was there when the brains were handed out. I think this will blow her credibility as a person fractionally but it doesn’t alter the fact that the book stands on its own two feet.”
The writer and broadcaster David Marr, who presented Demidenko with the Australian/Vogel award for the same book in 1993, described the revelations as “the most intriguing and fabulous story”.
“It is deeply sad. The only impact it has on the book is her strong suggestion that the book grew out of family stories.
“So while it does not alter a single thing about the quality of the story, it knocks completely out of the water her answers to critics who said it was not historically accurate, that she knows because of direct family experience, which appears to be complete bull—-.”
It remains to be seen how the literary world will respond to being taken for a ride by the young woman they smothered with awards.
The allegations have certainly revived memories of the humiliating Ern Malley affair, when the literary world was fooled by the falsified poems of a “poet/motor mechanic”.
Demidenko has stressed her poor, working-class, migrant background, saying she won a scholarship to a private school but was mortified when her parents poured vodka over her head when she became dux. She was also embarrassed by her father’s car, “an old Valiant with fluffy dice suspended from the rear-vision mirror”.
Her story appeared to become increasingly elaborate.
She told the Herald in January that winning the Vogel meant her mother, who left school at 12 to work as a domestic, read her first book and her father, a Ukrainian migrant who could not read English, had his first plane trip.
She told a journalist last year that her father missed out on being drafted into the SS only because he had flat feet and polio.
Ms Demidenko’s novel has already brought her public vilification and private death threats over claims that it was seen as anti-Semitic. The Miles Franklin judges said it displayed a “powerful literary imagination”.
Ms Demidenko’s created ethnic past has also revived allegations that the Australian literary world fawns more favourably on ethnic minorities, with echoes of “B. Wongar”, the respected Serbian writer who was feted when he was believed to be Aboriginal.
Yesterday, the broadcaster and Miles Franklin judge Ms Jill Kitson was brusque. She dismissed the importance of Ms Demidenko’s name change (“So?”), and said her ethnic surname had no bearing on the award.
“That isn’t how literary prizes work,” she said. “You’re mad if you think we sit around discussing people’s surnames.”
However, in the current Australian Book Review, Mr Robert Manne, editor of Quadrant, said: “Perhaps Demidenko’s youth or gender or unfashionable ethnic identity weighed with the judges
more heavily than they should have.”
The writer Thomas Shapcott, who is also director of the National Book Council, speculated in the same issue: “What do we make of Demidenko’s win in 1995? Another affirmation of ‘support for the young’? A curtsy to multiculturalism?”
“The problem is that she is a naive young writer who has suddenly been thrown into a whirl of publicity and said things she undoubtedly later regretted, such as the book being ‘faction’, so a certain amount of tolerance is necessary.”
The Hand That Signed The Paper has sold more than 10,000 copies and is in its fifth reprint. Demidenko is now working on her second novel, which she says is about the “forgotten people of Australian letters” – those who live in the suburbs just as she (or Helen Darville) did.
Helen Demidenko could not be reached for comment last night. Her mother declined to talk to the Herald.
FACT AND FICTION: THE AUTHOR WHO SPARKED THE CONTROVERSY
THE BOOK: Winner of the 1995 Miles Franklin Award. Set in a WWII concentration camp. Critics say it is anti-Semitic: supporters say it demonstrates an “astonishing talent”.
THE FICTION: Claims to be the daughter of Ukrainian taxi driver, Markov Demidenko and Irish mother who migrated here in the 1950s. “People in my family had lived through the famine and the German occupation. My father had had polio and flat feet as a kid and had managed to miss out on getting drafted to the SS.”
THE FACT: Parents Harry and Grace Darville from Rochedale, Brisbane, are both migrants from England’s north. Helen has a sister and a number of brothers, including Iain, who holds a British passport.
THE AUTHOR: At 24, Brisbane-based Demidenko is equal youngest winner if Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award. She is currently writing her second novel, set in an outer suburban Brisbane high school.