I was at a literary festival this past week and had the opportunity to meet Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, and hear her speak about her blockbuster book about three Southern women–a young, white, recent college graduate and two African-American housekeepers–set in 1960s Mississippi.
It’s difficult not to like Stockett. She is nice, cute, perky and well-polished, and had the mostly well-to-do audience in Aspen wrapped around her little finger for most of her humorous lecture, which she delivered with a two-beats-per-vowel Southern drawl.
She told stories about having lived in New York for over a decade, about how hard she worked at a New York magazine, how she lived downtown after 9/11, how she was sometimes condescended to for being a Southerner.
She did a reading from her book—the part of one of the black maids—because Octavia, her friend who travels with her during her book tour to read the part of the African-American housekeepers, is off filming the movie being made based on the book. She did a pretty good job. Her book has been a New York Times bestseller for over a year and I assume she has the spiel down pat.
Many of the writers at the festival had read her book already and most endorsed it enthusiastically. I picked it up and read a few lines, written in the voice of one of the black maids, but then closed it quickly and put it back down.
Will I be reading the book? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It makes me uncomfortable. I wasn’t born in the States and wasn’t around for any of the racial trauma of the 1960s and 1970s, but I do know my American history—both the past and the present—and I must say that the idea of a young white Southern woman giving voice to Black women in the particular way that Stockett did leaves me supremely wary. I admit that it could be my own hang-up. And as a writer, I don’t believe in censorship unless what’s at issue is something extreme, like hate speech inciting violence.
My discomfort has sat with me for days now, since I saw her. Most of the reviews I’ve read claim that she has handled the nuances of the characters well, some going so far as to say that her representation of both the white and black characters are “pitch perfect.”
I will leave you with something interesting that I myself didn’t notice but that was pointed out to me by another one of the attendees–a brilliant young writer. Toward the end of her talk, Stockett held up the picture which will be used for the cover of the British version of The Help. It’s a picture she said was found at the Library of Congress of two black women caring for a white child in an old-style stroller. The photograph was said to have been taken in Mississippi in the 1960s. Stockett told the story of how she saw the photo and then called someone in her town to find out who the people in the photo were. Why, that’s just so and so, the person told her, describing exactly who the baby was. Well, my friend wondered, what about the black women? Who were they? And why were they invisible and only relevant in reference to the white baby? It was odd and off-putting to my friend–and to me, once it was pointed out.
I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the book. Anyone care to throw in their two cents?