Sunday, 14 August 2011

Pause the sofa search: Let's talk about Kathryn Stockett

It's not just the finding of the sofa, it's the agreeing on a perfect sofa with your significant other. This, I think, is impossible.There are things such as design, fabric vs suede vs leather vs faux suede, low back or high, reclining or not, how wide it is, how deep it is, and then color. And on top of all of that then there is the matching chair - do we want this to be reclining? Stationary? Twisting? The questions of cushions comes up. This, like the topic of shoes, should never be broached with one's significant other because, you know, divorces have resulted from this typical schoolboy (or schoolgirl) error.

I type this as a means of catharsis. There are so many different possibilities for new sofas swirling around in my brain that can't even think.

Which brings me to my original blog-worthy topic: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

It took her sixty tries, but she finally got an agent for this.

I came across this story from February of this year. Apparently Kathryn's brother, Mr. Stockett III, agrees with the nanny of his children in her legal fight against Kathryn Stockett. I guess the nanny, Ablene Cooper, took action in a $75,000 lawsuit against Stockett for her supposed portrayal of herself, but named Aibileen Clark, in The Help. I guess she found the book, and this character, humiliating, as maid Aibileen speaks in African-American Southern dialect and, at one point in the text, compares her black skin to a cockroach.

"That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor," Aibileen says in the book. "He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me."
Cooper has said the portrayal of Aibileen -- an almost saintly figure who is subjected to the racial prejudices of the period -- is "embarrassing."  ((From this site.)

To which Stockett replies,

"Stockett says she hardly knows the woman and did not base the soft-spokenly proud Aibileen on her." (From this story.)

I haven't read The Help yet, but I do know how much authors take from their own life to make a story. Be it fictional or otherwise, sometimes the most important parts of a narrative are based on real life. It is always important not to just assume that a person, or people, that you are basing your character (or characters) on is okay with that. You just never know how a person might feel about their identity, whether rendered factual or fictional, being printed on a page in millions of books.

I have written stories with elements and some moments very closely related to my own life, with characters based on people in my life. There can be nothing wrong with that unless you piss someone off. So I guess, you must cover your own ass: get permission first.

From my writerly perspective, if a person will accuse Stockett of being a crass and horrible and racist slanderer of nannies, then a person could also say that Stephen King is an animal abuser and general psychotic. And I won't even start on James Dickey. Or William Faulkner. Or Anna Sewell. If a person will take one line of dialogue from a 300+ page book and use that to sum up an author, well. I guess all writers are in trouble then, aren't they?

But I don't want this to detract from how successful Stockett now is. She is a person who doesn't like to talk much and is now answering questions by the media and fans and critics about slavery and cultural anthropology and society in general. For this woman who wouldn't give up, who wouldn't shove her manuscript in a drawer to forget about it as a lost cause just because of fifty-nine rejections, well, I think even with all this controversy (and isn't bad publicity good publicity?) she will continue to rise in the booksellers' charts as an author to be remembered.

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