Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Help and the Writer

As I mentioned in comments to Lynn's last post, the controversy surrounding "The Help" novel (which showed up on most people's radar only after the movie deal because, let's face it, only about 1% of the movie-going public even noticed there was a book) had gotten me thinking about race and writing and who's allowed to write what. Again. Long time members may recall this was a hot topic with me two years ago. Wrote four or five essays on variations of the theme. Today I might change, or at least rephrase, some of what I said then. You grow, you learn. Two of the better pieces from that series are: Writing True and Who You Are.

Lex Atreus, AKA my wife Valerie at age 24 (there's a Hellenic pun in there), the physical model for my most popular series character. Keep kicking myself I gave her to a media franchise. (Yes, that's her H&K P7, and, yes, she can & will use it. I'll tell you the Metro story one day.)

I had written a couple of thousand words on the topic of culture and race and the rights and responsibilities of the writer. Had a few links, which you'll find as a postscript at the bottom of this post. What you won't find is the 2000 words. Not because I was suddenly struck with common sense -- I've proven immune to that malady far too long to succumb this late in life -- but because the world conspired to convince me one more essay on the topic wasn't really needed. Not here.

For one thing, racism as it's practiced in the USofA is a peculiarly American institution, and the discussion would be irrelevant to many if not most of our members and readers.

More importantly, no way on earth I could legitimately follow Lynn's excellent essay and add anything meaningful to the conversation.

Third, Arielle Loren hit most of the notes I was going for in 2k words in less than thirty ten days ago when she wrote: "Stockett is a white woman, she can only write fantasies of black women’s truth. She owes us nothing. She’s a writer, and she can write as she sees fit." (She went on to discuss the futility of wasting energy on criticism that would be better invested in empowerment in her article 10 Black Women Making Moves in Film over at Clutch.) (That same article also led to me becoming a fan of Issa Rae's The Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl. Except for the cursing, of course, I am a fossilized prude after all.)

And finally, my spirit was lifted by a story that illustrates my take on the artist, her craft, and her obligation to herself and her world on NPR's All Things Considered. There's a new album that's taking country music fans and radio stations by, well, surprise: Reggae Goes Country. As one artist explained it to NPR, in Jamaica music is divided into "local" and "foreign" -- meaning they don't differentiate between rock, blues, folk, or country. The underlying assumption of Jamaican musicians is that all foreign music is white, no matter what color the artist, and that all music, regardless of origin, is legitimate grist for the the musician/singer/songwriter's mill. (I've been hunting cuts from that album -- a phrase that certainly dates me -- and highly recommend Tessanne Chin singing "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue?," Busy Signal's "The Gambler," Freddy McGregor's "King of the Road," and a group called L.U.S.T. having a lot of fun with "Flowers on the Wall." Gonna have to buy the album. Or 8-track. Or tape. Or whatever it is these kids put music on today.)

Going back to the third conspirator, I'm going to disagree with Ms. Loren on one point. She says that as a writer, Kathryn Stockett doesn't owe us anything (yes, I know she meant people of color when she said 'us,' I'm wittingly spreading the umbrella; bear with me). It is my fundamental tenet that we as writers, whether writing humor or horror or romance or mystery or fantasy or any genre or any nongenre, owe ourselves and our readers our best. It's our obligation to wield our craft to the best of our ability, to write honestly and with integrity the stories that are within us. This is our authenticity. Even though we know going in that often we're going to fail ourselves or the story we're trying to tell, because getting to where we want to be in our craft is a trial and error process. And it's a given that every piece we write will in some way fail at least one of our readers. But we're going to keep writing, keep telling stories, because we have no choice.
And, frankly, because we love it.

[As promised, a postscript of links cited in my now vaporized treatise:
Samuel R. Delaney's article on racism in science fiction written in 1998 resonates today as it did thirteen years ago.
Mary Ann Mohanraj's guest articles on John Scalzi's blog 18 months ago: Part One and
Part Two. Pretty strong medicine. While I disagree with the philosophies expressed in a couple of the sites she links to, I think her words are 99 & 44/100s% pure wisdom.]


Charles Gramlich said...

clearly you've given a lot more thought to the issue than I have. In Cold in the Light, one of my protagonists was black. I thought long and hard about creating him that way because I'm not black, but in the end I thought I would learn some stuff as I developed that character, and I would also stretch myself as a writer. I certainly agree that we do owe our readers, and ourselves, our best.

Lynn Emery said...

Excellent point about owing readers and ourselves the best. That is what we as authors should always do.

Like you I fell in love with the Awkward Black Girl series. The party episode - the best! :o)

Now I gotta find those books with the character you mentioned (modeled on your wife). Cause I love me some kick-butt heroines!

Liane Spicer said...

Thanks for the links, Kevin. I too am now a fan of the Awkward Black Girl videos.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I'm afraid I have to question that statement about Jamaicans' view of all foreign music as white. In all my associations with Jamaicans I have never heard one express such an opinion. But then, maybe I'm ignorant to the culture.

KeVin K. said...

Jewel -- I was paraphrasing (running together two statements that were a couple of paragraphs apart) Colin Channer, a Jamaican musician interviewed on NPR. I have no idea how representative his views are of the culture as a whole.