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.”
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?