Before leaving my place of work last Friday, I wanted to share a piece on what happened when we had a book group on The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The demographic of the group was mainly British-Bangladeshi students in Year 10 and 12, with maybe one or two white students, and four white members of staff. I feel this added an important dynamic to the group, with a book centred around race. There was no passionate argument asserted with regard to the book, perhaps because, although about race, the students were able to distance themselves from the plight of the African-American characters rather than see white supremacy as an obvious oppressor.
It is also true that the white members of staff, despite wanting to encourage an open discussion on race relations, would have had an influence on the discussion merely by being present as figures of authority. Within that position, I created a Power Point that brought up questions to challenge their initial gushing positive comments. Nobody doubted that Stockett is a talented writer – I read it over the Christmas holiday period (2015), and also agreed that I felt engaged throughout it. Hence it was a best seller at the time of publication, and was made into a film, which I had seen prior to reading the book. However, when it comes to authenticity, did Stockett have the right to publish such a work of fiction?
Through the discussion, students reacted at first that the characters were realistic, but were able to consider this thought when asked to think further on which characters were fully developed, who was driving the narrative etc. We didn’t touch on the fact that Stockett had also been in the middle of a lawsuit on just how real her characters were. A tale of a coming together of black maids and one white outcasted woman, I would say that the target audience is white women. That is to whom the feel-good factor appeals. As we went on, we gradually began to touch on deeper issues in terms of Stockett’s benefiting financially from writing of the oppression of a group that is not her own.
The students gave a balanced view and were comfortable with the greyness of enjoying a book, yet being able to critique it. We connected it with another successful book depicting a similar “white saviour” narrative, written in the 1960s – that is, of course, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. So, overall, yes, we can enjoy reading such books, but we must remain critical of them too. I haven’t read the sequel Lee wrote, though am interested in the perspective that Atticus turned into a racist. Because over 50 years on, surely we should know more about those such as Anne Moody and her autobiography written before and during the Civil Rights Movement, and stories should move beyond the depiction of black people as subservient to white people, and authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie should be the kinds of writers we read when book groups meet to discuss works of fiction (whose Americanah I suggested before my departure).