From The Chicago Tribune…
White novelist tackles truths of black life in ‘The Help’
The last time a white writer tried to give prolonged fictional voice to the thoughts and emotions of an oppressed black person in a major novel, the result was devastating — not for literature, which gained a profound and powerful novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), but for the life of William Styron, the man who wrote it.
“I was labeled ‘psychologically sick,’ ‘morally senile,’ and was accused of possessing ‘a vile racist imagination,’” Styron recalled in his introduction to the 1994 Modern Library edition of the book. “The major complaint was … how dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?”
Forty-two years later, “The Help” (2009), a novel narrated, in large part, by African-American maids in the Deep South of the early 1960s, was published. Instead of scorn and enmity, author Kathryn Stockett, who is white, has been greeted with rapturous reviews, spectacular sales and a movie deal.
What’s the difference?
Stockett isn’t certain, but she has been asked about it many times, she said in a phone interview from her Atlanta home.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I wish a black person had written this.’ Well, they didn’t,” she said, “but I feel that maybe I’ve started a dialogue that wouldn’t have been started otherwise.”
The success of “The Help” might signify that in the time that has passed since the attack on Styron, we have matured and evolved as a culture. We let many voices speak. We have grown more tolerant, perhaps, and more generous in our ideas about storytelling. We have elected an African-American to the presidency. And the hard truths explored in “The Help” — the fact that several generations of African-American women saw their gifts go unacknowledged, saw their humanity ignored — are a part of our national history with which we’re finally willing to reckon.
“The Help” is a huge hit, coming in at No. 3 on the Publishers Weekly list of top-selling novels of 2009 with some 1.1 million copies purchased in hardcover. And it continues to sell well, which is gratifying for those who long to see that rare correlation between quality and sales: Stockett writes with humor and grace, with a natural feel for the rhythms of Southern life and with — most crucially — an awareness of how social change, no matter how sweeping, always comes down to the changing of minds and hearts one at a time.
Asked if she’s been surprised by the book’s enormous success, Stockett said, “A better word is ‘stunned.’ I have no idea how to even think about this, so I just don’t.”
Her voice carries the delicate lilt and soft inflections of the Deep South, and no wonder: She was born and raised in Jackson, Miss. She graduated from the University of Alabama and then headed to New York to work in publishing — much like Skeeter, a character in “The Help.”
But here’s a word of caution: Don’t ask Stockett if she is Skeeter. You’ll be swatted down quicker than a mosquito at a barbecue.
“The very first thing I say at my talk,” said Stockett, who has been touring constantly on behalf of her book, “is, ‘Please don’t think I’m Skeeter.’”
During her 16 years in New York, Stockett met and married a technology salesman. And she wrote the book that eventually became “The Help.”
“I think New York was a better place to write a story like this. I missed the South, and I had perspective.” Now that she’s back in the South, Stockett wants to write about New York. But that will have to wait: Her next novel, set during the Great Depression, takes place once again in Mississippi.
Does she feel pressure to repeat the success of “The Help”?
“Every once in a while,” she admitted, “I’ll have a panic attack about it.”
Writing “The Help,” the author said, was “exhilarating and challenging and it made me think about things I’d never thought about before. I just think it’s important, as a writer, to make people feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.”