The Help & the Assigning of Authority in Literature

I haven’t yet been able to read The Help, nor have I seen the movie, but I’ve definitely seen and heard the backlash from everyone from bloggers to the Black Women Historians. What people say most often, alongside the inaccuracy of what the consequences of these women telling their stories seems to be, is that here is this white woman telling our story…as if she could ever know what it was like. How dare she?

This topic is a touchy one for most writers, I would imagine, as it speaks to our rights as writers: who gave us the authority to write about people who belong to cultures and races other than our own? Can I ever write a story with all white characters as an African-American, historical stories that portray racist characters or characters who I would never interact with? What about rich people or people in extreme poverty? Where can I get permission to write about an experience that is not my own?

This issue of who has the right to tell a story of a shared past is part of my one literary novel attempt, the Southern Gothic Novel.  I wanted to write about the power of voice and who has authority to tell history, and should they have that right. I write about people who, on the surface, aren’t likke me: some are white, some are affluent African-Americans, some are addicts. But I choose to focus on things I believe are universal to all of us.

I don’t know if Kathryn S. did her research thoroughly, or if she wanted to be historically accurate. I don’t know if she expected this backlash at all. I know she had a story she wanted to tell and kept trying to sell rejection after rejection. I hear the book is well written. Just because many of the characters are African¡American and depicted in a time of segregation doesn’t mean I should have been the one to tell the story. Just because a white character publishes the thoughts of Black women doesn’t mean she stole their voice.

As an English Literature degree holder, I’ve read pieces by both women and African-Americans in which an introduction by a reputable white male had to be inserted to vouch for their veracity, that the author actually wrote it, and that the author has the authority to tell the story. I heard how Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography may have been changed to suit white publishers. There’s no doubt that as women and African-Americans, our voices have been stolen, regulated and co-opted throughout history. However, as a writer and an African-American woman who knows this legacy, I can’t authorize or take part in an effort to strip anyone of their right to try to write and explore the world from a different perspective, especially one that doesn’t seem to be demeaning or disrespectful.

I’m interested to hear all of your perspectives on this issue of voice, authority, and writing across the racial divide. Leave me your thoughts.

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New Books: Optimism & Disappointment

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Bal...

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Image via Wikipedia

I’m nearing the end of the editing process on my dad’s book, after many exchanges of emails, drafts, corrections and etc. In celebration, I went out and bought a few books, even though I have a quite a few books in the to be read pile already. I walked away with some that called for optimism, and one that turned out to be a disappointment.

First, the disappointment. I bought a book of intimate letters between lovers. What I was hoping to find were actually the letters between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and I did find a few in this book. However, I was also hoping to find other love letters that I had heard of and perhaps find some passages I may like to quote for the marriage kit book. The problem is, this book was totally wrong for that. Most of the letters weren’t from the nineteen hundreds. Secondly, many of the letters were to mistresses and extramarital lovers, not between actual spouses, and I don’t want to promote extramarital affairs in a book about what it takes to stay married! Not only were they letters between lovers, but there was one woman who was in there writing letters to three different lovers, both male and female! She really spread the love around. Another set of lovers met because they both loved the same woman, whom one of them was married to. It is not at all suitable for the work I’m trying to create, and the letters between Simone and Jean-Paul are skimpy. *Sigh*

The second book is one I think will come in handy. It’s called Woe is I. It’s a grammar book for a grammarphobe. I’m not a grammar phobe, but I’d like to keep my editing skills sharp, and I’m one of those geeky English people who gets excited reading about subject-verb agreement and when to use that or which. I also want to acquire Eats Shoots and Leaves (this was an independent book reseller, and I didn’t see it there), which I hear is phenomenal.

The third and final book was a book that I’ve heard praised from the rafters and is being made into a movie. No, not Water for Elephants (someone already gave me a copy of that one…and it’s in the to be read  pile). This one is a little debut novel called The Help. I want this type of buzz for my debut, and I can’t wait to read it.

Even though I had to leave a copy of The Known World behind, as well as some other books I would like to own, I’m proud of my restraint, and think 2/3 I chose were really good picks. I have to find the friends of the library bookseller here. I need cheaper Harlequin’s at a good price, and I love supporting the libraries!

What’s on your to be read list? Has your writing taken presidence over reading lately? Are you researching? If so, what are you reading? Just don’t make it sound too good; I just may have to add it to an already full list of my own!