For Oakland writer E. R. Ramzipoor, fake news is good news.
Set in Brussels in 1943, Ramzipoor's new novel, The Ventriloquists, recounts the story of a motley band of journalists and resistance fighters who conspire to create a fake, satirical, anti-Nazi version of Belgium's most popular newspaper, Le Soir.
Ramzipoor unearthed the story of Le Faux Soir while studying political science as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.
Reached by phone, she said, "We talk a lot about how military operatives survive under occupation and conduct rebellions. But we don't talk a lot about what the nerds — the people like me — do."
Raised in Fremont, Ramzipoor, 26, skipped high school, attending Ohlone College before transferring to Cal. She wrote her thesis on how underground media is weaponized by resistance groups preparing for rebellion.
While doing archival research into underground literature, Ramzipoor discovered a document written by five women who worked for the Office of War. It addressed counterfeit news and read in part: "The patriots seem to take delight in including the Germans on their distribution routes. To get a wider public among the Germans, the patriots insert articles in the German-controlled press or manage to fake a whole edition."
Further research revealed that it took only 18 days for one band of resisters to write, print and distribute their fake Le Soir edition that made fun of Hitler and other members of the Nazi high command. "The contrast between how matter-of-fact (the description) was and how extraordinary the scheme seemed to me just really stood out," Ramzipoor said. "I had to know who these people were."
She presented her thesis to her adviser, who said, "This is amazing. You should turn this into a book."
The participants in the real Faux Soir program included rogue journalist Marc Aubrion; Front de L'Indendance leader Rene Noel; printer and businessman Ferdinand Wellins; infiltrator of Nazi-controlled factories Theo Mullier; and Andree Grandjeans, an influential barrister.
Ramzipoor adds to the mix various fictional characters: a Jewish homosexual who produces pitch-perfect phony copy; a prostitute who excels at smuggling; and a journalist haunted by his visit to Auschwitz.
The whole tale is narrated by a character named Gamin, a female teen partisan, disguised as a boy, who gathers information when not setting off fiery explosives.
In the novel, Aubrion's friends and associates are conscripted by high-ranking Nazi official August Wolff to produce a newspaper that denigrates the Allies. Knowing that refusal will be met with execution, the cohort decided to have the last laugh by actually satirizing the Nazis and their allies.
Although she could verify some details, Ramzipoor had to rely on her imagination for some of the plot points of The Ventriloquists.
"This took place in only 18 days, so the architects of this scheme didn't have a lot of time to create documentation as they were putting together the newspaper." Ramzipoor said. "The plan was also unfolding in secret, so it wouldn't have been in their interest to do so."
Artifacts relating to Faux Soir are not abundant, but some exist, thanks to the Belgian's recognition that the daring scheme was something unique.
"The records I've been able to find suggest that when they put out the original 50 or 60 thousand copies of the newspaper, a lot of people actually ended up holding on to them. They knew this was something really special, monumental and important. These people were able to print a dissident newspaper in this environment where typewriters and printing presses were so tightly regulated and controlled by the Nazis."
Ramzipoor said that she wanted write an alternative to the standard Second World War thriller. "A lot of these stories are focused on the military aspects of World War II. And the heroes of these stories tend to be men performing heroic deeds on the battlefield. The only time we get to see the people we would consider 'the oppressed' — LGBT people, disabled people, women or children — is when they're suffering at the hands of their oppressors."
"I was excited to tell the story where the oppressed get to be the heroes and the masters of their own stories."
Ramzipoor continued, "I think it's important for people to know what exactly the resistance looked like during World War II. It wasn't straight white men with guns all the time. It was a lot more colorful than most people believed."
Episodes in The Ventriloquists that seem the most far-fetched turn out to true. In order to create a distraction, the characters did persuade the Royal Air Force to bomb Belgium. Too bad they arrived a day later than planned.
At a time when the truth is harder than ever to nail down," Ramzipoor's novel raises questions of how media can manipulate public consciousness.
"I think The Ventriloquists complicates our narrative about fake content. Typically we perceive fake content as a weapon of the bad guys. But in countries where the media is state-controlled, the 'fake news' is (often) actually the real news."
Ramzipoor writes about cybersecurity and online fraud for HackerOne, a vulnerability coordination and bug bounty platform that connects businesses with penetration testers and cybersecurity researchers. "It turned out to be a really great fit for me," she said. "As I was writing a novel about a fake newspaper, I was learning about contemporary forms of fake content. My day job was able to inform my work on The Vetriloquists, and vice versa."
Ramzipoor noted that groups in Germany and Sweden today are using humor to oppose Neo-Nazism.
"There's a fight against ignorance and oppression that's being waged through satire. This was interesting and compelling to me, and drove home the fact that this is a story we're still telling."
With The Ventriloquists, Ramzipoor said, "I'm inviting the reader to interrogate what they think propaganda is and how that matches up with reality."
The Ventriloquists is published by Park Row Books. Ramzipoor will read and sign her novel at Moe's Books on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.