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Doubts raised about Indian memoirist

LA Weekly reports that a white writer may be impersonating a Navajo
/ Source: The Associated Press

Doubts were raised about yet another memoirist as the alternative publication LA Weekly reported Wednesday that the award-winning Nasdijj, who says he’s of Navajo descent, may be a white writer impersonating an Indian.

Citing documents and interviews with scholars, Indian authors and his acquaintances and colleagues, the magazine alleges that Nasdijj is really named Timothy Barrus, a writer of gay and pornographic literature.

E-mail messages sent to Nasdijj and wife Tina Giovanni were not immediately returned. No phone listings were found.

Andrew Stuart, his literary agent from 2001 to ’04, told The Associated Press that he would not comment on the allegations, but found the article “well researched and highly persuasive.”

“I will be curious to see if Nasdijj produces evidence to the contrary,” said Stuart, who split with the author but not over issues related to questions of his identity.

In a statement issued Wednesday by Ballantine, which released his last two books, the publisher said it was “looking carefully at these allegations. ... If in fact they are true, we would be very distressed to have published memoirs that may be deliberately inaccurate.”

Ballantine spokeswoman Carol Schneider said the publisher ended its relationship with Nasdijj in 2004, citing “issues” unrelated to his background.

The allegations about Nasdijj, winner of a PEN/Beyond Borders award for “The Boy and the Dog are Sleeping,” a memoir published in 2003, come soon after similar stories about memoirist James Frey and cult writer J.T. Leroy. Frey has acknowledged taking “liberties” with his best-selling “A Million Little Pieces.” Leroy, a novelist and Hollywood insider with a reportedly hard-luck past, is widely believed to be a kind of literary composite.

Stuart, who never met Nasdijj and communicated primarily through e-mail, said: “You assume the writers are presenting themselves to you as honestly and faithfully as they can.”

Nasdijj emerged in 1999 with an article in Esquire about his adopted son, a Najavo named Tommy Nothing Fancy, and the boy’s death from fetal alcohol syndrome. The article was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and led to a book contract with Houghton Mifflin, which in 2000 published “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams.” In 2004, the book was chosen for a citywide reading club in Salt Lake City.

Two more memoirs followed, published by Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, Inc.: “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” and “Geronimo’s Bones.”

Nasdijj has written that he was born in 1950 on a Navajo reservation in the Southwest, the son of a violent white cowboy and an alcoholic mother who died when he was 7. He lived in migrant camps around the country and himself suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. In one interview, he said as a child he was “hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields.”

Doubts raisedBut the LA Weekly spoke to numerous people who questioned Nasdijj’s background. Navajo scholar Irvin Morris doubted both the authenticity of Nasdijj’s work and even the origins of his name. According to the author, “Nasdijj” means “to become again” in the Navajo language. But Morris said there is no such word.

British film producer James Dowaliby dropped a planned adaptation of “The Boy” after learning of inconsistencies in the book and encountering strong resistance from the author over attempts to fact-check his story.

Sherman Alexie, known for such fiction as “Ten Little Indians” and “Indian Killer,” believes Nasdijj simply borrowed his material from Alexie and other writers.

“When I first read his work, I almost thought it was some kind of parody by a famous white writer, because he takes so many things from me and other writers,” Alexie told The Associated Press.

LA Weekly produced a number of similarities between Nasdijj and Timothy Barrus. They were born the same year, 1950, are both married to a woman named Tina Giovanni and both have a daughter named Kree.

The magazine quotes friends and acquaintances who remember him as a volatile man obsessed with getting ahead. No writings of Barrus have been published in recent years.

Nasdijj’s Web site is “under construction,” according to the home page.