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EXPLAINED: One Donated A Kidney, The Other Wrote A Story, How The Two Became 'Bad Art Friends'

#BadArtFriend has been trending on social media

#BadArtFriend has been trending on social media

From plagiarism to racial privilege, the 'bad art friend' saga has set off intense online debates and brought attention to the two characters at its centre

#BadArtFriend last week became one of the top trending items on Twitter, sparking online debates, and a bunch of media articles, on the themes of racial privilege and artistic integrity. The central characters in the story are two writers who may or may not have been friends, or as a piece by writer Robert Kolker in the New York Times puts it, were a ‘bad art friend’ to the other. Here’s taking you through all the twists and turns.

Who Are The Two ‘Friends’?

One of them is Dawn Dorland, an aspiring writer who, in 2015, when she was in her 30s, made a donation of one of her kidneys. But where most donations are done for somebody known to the donor, a family member or acquaintance, what Dorland did was to make what is known as a non-directed donation. She gave her kidney not to anybody in particular but through a donation chain that would see the organ go to somebody who may otherwise may not have found a living donor.

The second is Sonya Larson, a published writer of mixed Asian American heritage — her work has appeared in the Best American Short Stories, among other publications — and a prominent figure at a Boston-based writing centre called GrubStreet, where she had met Dorland circa 2007. The duo had met at GrubStreet, where Dorland had attended writing workshops before she moved to Los Angeles.

In 2016, exactly a year to the day she had donated her kidney, Dorland found out that Larson had written a story about a white woman who donates her kidney to a person of colour. That story, entitled ‘The Kindest’, seemed to explain a lot to Dorland, who had been perplexed by Larson’s seeming lack of acknowledgement of her act of charity even after she had reached out to her and pointedly asked her what she thought about it.

How Did The Controversy Start Between The Duo?

As she went through the process of donating her kidney, Dorland had started a private Facebook group where she had invited her family and friends, including people she had met at GrubStreet, to join. On this group, she also posted a letter that she had penned for the unknown and would-be receiver of her kidney explaining her act. This letter would eventually become the centrepiece of the entire controversy that has now seen the two women go to court, pursuing damages against each other to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

After she had completed her organ donation, Dorland saw that many of the people whom she had included in her private Facebook group had not commented or responded on her act. One of them was Larson, and so Dorland decided to reach out to her. When she asked in a mail whether she was aware of her kidney donation, Larson is said to have replied that she had learnt of it on Facebook and that it was a “tremendous thing!"

To Dorland it all appeared a little too distant and strange. That is, before she found out — through a common friend — that Larson had, in fact, done a book reading at a Boston bookstore of a story in which a woman donates her kidney. When she asked Larson about it, she was told that Larson was “working on" such a story, meaning that her draft had yet to be finalised. But, then, a month later Dorland stumbled upon an audiobook for the short story. That told her that Larson had been evasive about her story and, given how she had failed to even acknowledge the kidney donation, it excited Dorland’s suspicion.

But as she told Kolker, she chose not to actually read the story even when it was available for her to do so. Though not for long. In 2018, she finally decided to read the story, a little less than a year after the print magazine American Short Fiction published it. And then she saw it, Larson’s story had a letter that the white woman kidney donor writes to the recipient and to Dorland, the words of the letter in the story echoed closely the letter she had posted on the Facebook group for the would-be recipient of her kidney.

When she had confronted Larson about her story right after learning about the Boston book-reading, Dorland had been politely told off by her that even if the story may have been inspired by her act, it was not a story about Dorland and that it is perfectly alright for writer’s and artists to draw from real life and actual people in writing fiction and making art. That she was being a “bad art friend" for questioning her inspiration behind the story. But the letter in Larson’s story to Dorland was an act of plagiarism. She decided to go on the warpath.

How Has The Dispute Unfolded?

While her own literary career had been moving along in low gear, Larson’s story had been going places. After its publication in American Short Fiction, the story — which in Larson’s telling deals with the theme of “white saviourism", in that its white organ donor comes across as somebody who did not really give up her kidney only as a selfless act but sought praise and validation for her donation — was selected in 2018 for the One City One Story programme, which would have seen 30,000 copies of being distributed free across Boston.

She got in touch with both American Short Fiction and the Boston Book Festival to tell them that Larson’s story contained matter that had been plagiarised from her. She also reached out to GrubStreet functionaries about it. Next, she contacted the newspaper The Boston Globe regarding her charge that Larson’s story was plagiarised.

Finally, through her lawyer, Dorland sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Boston Book Festival, threatening them with a USD 150,000 lawsuit if they distributed Larson’s story. In response, Larson hired a lawyer, raising acharge of harassment and defamation, among other things, against Dorland.

Larson’s push-back saw her alleging that Dorland was using her white privilege to stifle a work by a writer of colour and that anybody who was siding with Dorland in this matter was partaking in a racially charged act.

As the matter moved to court, it brought out all the mails and personal communications relevant to the suit and these have taken on a life of their own, involving as they do gossipy and not-so-politically-correct views and remarks, especially in message groups Larson was a part of, her friends and acquaintances being of the view that Dorland’s pursuit of the case was excessive and improper.

It is now up to the court to decide if the letter in Larson’s story — much reworked, revised and updated, even though she had said in a text message that Dorland’s original was “just too damn good" — is an example of plagiarism even as the two characters, the NYT piece says, try to move on from the controversy.

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first published:October 12, 2021, 12:00 IST