The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Book Group

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?

the-help

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).

Welcome Home

Today is going to be the end of a very social and productive week, before the start of a very busy week to follow (which will also include a bit of socialising). I’m going to my friend Jo’s house for her housemate’s birthday, and I’ve also managed to see my friend Natalie who’s moved to Coventry and Hannah who’s about to move to York! What I wanted to write about is Tuesday. I viewed a gallery space called The Showcase, which is part of Craft Central, as this is where I will be holding an event later this year, on 22nd August. Afterwards I went with Siobhan Belingy to see Gillian Wearing’s exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery.

I’m really glad that we went as it was so interesting. We started catching up with each other but the exhibition was so engrossing and all-consuming. We both have had the experience that the stories expressed through Wearing’s work was so strong that we couldn’t get them out of our head.

As a writer, I found it inspiring in terms of presenting a narrative and the ideas explored between fiction and reality. This was extended further to the concept of public verses private personas.

Wearing’s most well known work is probably Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1997)shown above. As I didn’t know that much else of her work, it was interesting to see everything else – each piece of work stood out and made an imprint on my mind.

In 10–16 (1997) adults lip-sync to the voice-overs of children expressing their fears and insecurities. This results in a disturbing yet sometimes comic effect (I witnessed one woman have to escape the room in a fit of laughter) which shows the strange way emotions can sometimes work in response to tragic events. Her videos depicting familial relationships deal with the ‘expression of both love and conflict so common to most families,’ and sometimes touches on metaphor, asking the viewer to interpret the implied meaning.

In the same room as the sign photographs are three sculptural maquettes of uncelebrated modern-day heroes, which was thought-provoking in regard to the way we put historical figures on both literal and metaphorical pedestals. Her self-portraits were intriguing as the prosthetics looked so real that you could only tell it was a facade from looking at the eyes.

Lastly, the confession booths presented the result of an advert Wearing posted Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian….(1994) Like the grip of reality television, it was difficult to pull away from this seemingly never-ending reel of different true stories. It was tragic but thought provoking, and made me wonder how much we really know about the people that surround our daily lives.

Although at Sainsbury’s I’m quite aware that nobody knows me that well and I like it that way because I don’t want to enter into the petty problems that can occur in environments like that. I tend to distance myself from others and talk on a superficial level, and back away from questions asking how my long-distance relationship is and how my Valentine’s day was (err… weird, mind your own business cheers). I use the time to focus on the task in hand and sometimes zone out and spend time in my head due to the physical nature of the job.

However, the idea of everyone thinking you’re a great guy at work is turned sinister in the confessions booth as one man reveals his dark past as a murderer. The stories told elicit a response in you, ranging from sadness and sympathy to anger and disgust.

You can catch the Gillian Wearing exhibition until 17th June 2012.