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The Charlotte Observer talks about The Help

Pam Kelley, Reading Life Editor of the Charlotte Observer (oh, that every newspaper still had a ‘reading life editor’), has written a fascinating article on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help.

Stockett will speak at Queens University of Charlotte’s 39th annual Friends of the Library Book and Author luncheon on March 9 (sorry, the event is already sold out).  Her novel, set in Mississippi in the 1960s, is about “relationships between African-American maids and their white employers.”

Kelley’s article isn’t a review; rather, she looks at two broad discussions the novel provokes.  One involves the many Southerners – both white and African-American – who can remember that era, and how the book is prompting them to re-examine those memories.

The second is more contentious, and of more interest to a Network of writers.  As Kelley puts it, “Stockett is white. Her black characters speak in dialect. Some readers don’t believe the novel’s story is Stockett’s to tell.”

Hoo, boy.

As a writer, I can only speak from my own experience.  My first (and, so far, only published) work of fiction, Parlous Angels, charts a small piece of North Carolina’s path through the twentieth century, but except for a couple of characters, I largely ignored the African-American experience. For one thing, the African-American experience in the 20th-century South is such a momentous theme, I worried that telling it fully and fairly would swamp everything else I wanted to say.

For another, I didn’t quite trust myself to tell it fully, fairly, and artfully.  I didn’t (still don’t) have much confidence in my ability to write, well and at any length, in the voice of an African-American.  Or in the voice of a southern Californian, a New Yorker, a 12th-century English serf, for that matter.

My decision, though, had very little to do with sensitivity, and everything to do with my limitations as a writer.  If a writer feels comfortable writing in the voice of someone very different from themselves, should they refrain?  Is there such a thing as a story that should be off-limits to a writer who wants to tell it?  Or should writers be restricted only by their abilities?

One Comment

  1. Jan Rider wrote:

    Dialects are a part of great fiction writing. Folks gets so wrapped up in what they think may or may not be politically correct, that they loose sight of the importance of story telling and creativity. Good writing is about shedding barriers and unleashing creativity; it can not be about limiting the creative processes.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

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