“I wanted to write you a story about magic. I wanted rabbits appearing from hats. I wanted balloons lifting you into the sky. It turned out to be nothing but sadness, war, heartbreak. You never saw it, but there’s a garden inside me.”
I found this magical quote on the wall of a Facebook friend who thought it might be from Rumi, the extraordinary 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, & Sufi mystic who wrote in four languages & is still the most popular poet in the US.
The quote turns out to be from “Light Boxes: A Novel” published in 2009 by Shane Jones, a writer from Albany, NY. It’s a novella & sustained metaphor about creativity where a malignant godlike figure named February punishes a town for their love of flying kites, balloons, even birds & bees by sentencing them eternally to the frigid days of February. The children begin to disappear, attempts at revolt turn disastrous, & the town is overwhelmed with despondence. (A lot like cabin fever if you’ve ever spent a winter in Minnesota.)
Now here’s where the plot sickens. According to numerous reviewers, “Light Boxes” is outright mimicry of “The People of Paper,” published in 2005 by Salvador Plascencia, an American writer who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico & moved with his family to California as migrant workers. The book, which in form is experimental fiction drawing on the magical realism of Latin American writers, is about migrant workers. According to one reviewer, “There is not one jot or tittle on the page that does not pay some unspoken, uncredited homage (or, as we in the literary & academic communities call it, “plagiarism”) to People of Paper.” The only thing that changes is the ethnicity of the townspeople.
Plascencia himself has made this accusation since Jones emailed his praise of the book before his own was published & said he was recommending it to everybody at the bookstore where he worked. Plascencia called it freeloading & piggybacking on “The People of Paper” without any formal acknowledgement. Jones is laughing all the way to the bank. He wouldn’t be the first to freeload or plagiarize from Black & Latino artists. The attorneys for Jone’s publisher have notified Plascencia that there are at least sixteen legal precedents for why “Light Boxes” does not infringe on his rights. But as Plascencia says, “this is also a serious question about originality, the problems of influence, & what it means to be a writer.”
(PS: I’ve read neither book but now intend to read both. And I still think the quote magical. I just wish Rumi had said it.)
(Photo is cover from first edition of “The People of Paper”)