Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

We Just Can’t Avoid The Help

June 28th, 2011

The Help UK Cover

This book will not just quietly die.

We first were notified about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help back in 2010. A few readers asked us if we had read it. If we had heard the NPR interview. One blogger, Onyx M, started a critique blog. We’ve been silent for a while on the book world – outside of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, we haven’t reviewed a book in a long time. Probably because the stack of books that people have sent in still teeters on my desk. And all of the books are good, so they deserve a thorough discussion. But stealing time away to read a book, analyze it, and write about it doesn’t come easy.

And that process is even harder when one enters a book with as much trepidation as I enter The Help. Now that ads for the movie adaptation are all over TV, it’s time to go ahead and put this to rights. I have a new book review format that may help with timeliness. Now, if I can only get over my reluctance.

Even skimming the reviews makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit.

The Huffington Post checks out the controversy, noting:

Writing for Ms. Magazine, Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” The Christian Science Monitor notes the same problem, wondering about the “decision to convey only black voices in dialect, with nary a dropped ‘g’ among her generally less sympathetic Southern white characters.”

Still, the Monitor and others generally seem to find that the novel rises above these flaws, and others don’t see them as flaws at all. In The Washington Post, Sybil Steinberg finds that one of “Stockett’s accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue.”

Why do I get the feeling that Steinberg’s idea of African American vernacular and a linguist’s opinion on the matter would be two entirely different things?

Over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, Trisha R. Thomas puts up a review of The Help noting:

It’s true that readers are a narcissistic bunch. We find the characters who most resemble us and our thoughts to agree with, cheer for, and feel for in their deepest pain. We celebrate their victories as our own. The Help tells an honest story of women taking a chance and stepping out of old beliefs. You can’t help but love a story when the ones you care about win in the end. Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now. Would a black author have experienced living with a maid all her life and know the life of Skeeter, Abilene, or Minny? I don’t know about you, but my only care giver was my mother and the public school system. I’m black, an author, and could not have written The Help. We are who we are. This novel struck the nerves of both black and white readers. It especially hit mine remembering my first novel and being judged as not “black enough” What did I know about nappy? How dare I write on the subject at all? I soldiered on, ignoring the critics. I wrote what I knew to be true from my experiences. We write what we know. If we’re lucky, we do it well. Judging a book by it’s color has to end somewhere. We have to be the change we want to see in others. Open minds mean open pages. The door needs to stay unlocked for all of us. Freedom to write whatever we want. Freedom to read whatever, whomever we want.

Thomas brings up a good point – of empathy and honest storytelling. One does not need to have the same experience as a character to be able to identify with them. There are many books I love, stories of people I am not. I loved Oscar Wao, though I am not Dominican-American or from Jersey. It spoke to me anyway. I loved Free Food for Millionaires, though I am not Korean-American, nor did I go to college, nor do I work in finance. Spoke to me anyway.

But there is a difference, I think, between allowing yourself to embrace lives and experiences not ones own and being forced through what is essentially literary waterboarding. Thomas mentions the Secret Life of Bees as a book she enjoyed – I didn’t make it all the way through the book. There was something about being repeatedly plunged into the character of Lily, but being kept arm’s length from August, June, and May was aggravating for me. This didn’t happen when I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird – but perhaps it is because Scout’s world started white and stayed white. She merely observed what was happening most of the book, and did not act as an agent, until far later. In some ways, I found that less condescending. Mockingbird is still problematic, but in some ways, for the same reason I enjoyed it – it used scenes to describe what was happening to the black characters, instead of trying to recreate their voices in an extended, intimate narrative. I remember that my thoughts kept straying while reading the Secret Life of Bees – how Lily’s actions were dangerous, why she was so reckless when the lives of others could be on the line, what was going on in the minds of the other women? I kept drifting away from the character, my own experiences, past readings, and thoughts keeping me from sinking into her. So in that way, Lily’s narrative was like a straight-jacket I couldn’t escape from.

I think that’s my hesitancy about The Help. I have read stories where white authors can convincingly craft characters of color. When they do it well, I forget who is writing. But I generally that is not the case. I used to hate reading Patricia Cornwell writing black characters in her narrative. They were generally jerky side characters, and did things that were inexplicable to me, like “unraveling [their] long dreadlocks.” After I read that line, I spent hours trying to figure out what the hell she was trying to say. Did she mean braids? Unraveling was a weird word. Did she even know the difference between dreads, braids, and twists? It’s these little jarring moments that remind me that a writer is creating a world, and that world may not actually include me. James Patterson is better with Alex Cross. His portrayals were a bit lopsided at times – I remember the whole “blood and bones of my ancestors” speech in one of the early Cross novels that had me also perplexed. The way many white writers discuss and interpret racism is just straight up different – and it’s rarely ever subtle. Whereas reading Benilde Little’s Good Hair, the protagonist is trying to confront her white boss about favoring less seasoned white reporters over her without setting off the angry black woman alarm. Needless to say, she presses her boss, but race doesn’t come up in the actual conversation. Too risky. Just like in real life. Your boss may be racist, but you are the one dealing with the consequences.

This isn’t to say The Help does any of this – I can’t judge a book I haven’t read, full stop.

But I am not really looking forward to the experience. I hope I’m wrong, and we’ve come to a point in America where a white woman can write in a real authentic way about race, and other white women will love it, not because it’s been “properly translated” but because it allows them to access their thoughts and memories of a time in the not-too-distant past. Maybe this is a way of healing. To admit that things were fucked up and white women did their share in perpetuating that while still being oppressed by white men, and as we acknowledge this part of our pasts, we can start shaping our present and correcting for the future.

Then I read “Ten Issues that Tarnish the Help” (complete with citations from the text) and realize that I’m going to need a big bottle of wine for this one.

Leave a Comment

Categories: authenticity, books, everyday racism, history, Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Leave a Reply