White author, black voices

Staff writerJanuary 19, 2010 

  • What: Discussion of "The Help"

    Where: The Regulator Bookshop, Durham

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday

    Contact: 286-2700, www.regulator bookshop.com

— Why do white authors garner so much attention for writing black characters?

It's happening for author Kathryn Stockett in her novel, "The Help."

The book - No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list this week - is about Southern white socialites and their black maids, how their lives converged yet were completely separate.

Set in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 during the tumultuous civil rights era, the book is one critics and readers find moving and easy to like, while also finding it uncomfortable and easy to pick apart.

Duke University law professors Karla Holloway and Kate Bartlett will discuss that issue and others in "The Help" at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Thursday.

Stockett, a white woman and a native of Mississippi, wrote the book in part to honor the black woman, named Demetrie, who raised her.

She wrote the novel in New York, appreciating the distance away from Mississippi and perspective it gave her, but she often wondered how her family and Demetrie would react to the book.

"I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible, line, writing in the voice of a black person," Stockett wrote.

The New York Times called "The Help" a "problematic but ultimately winning novel."

The California Literary Review mused, "We're happy to let writers play around with being a Roman slave of the first century or a prostitute of the 18th, but when it comes to depicting a person who has lived through the Holocaust or the civil rights era, ah, then I think we hesitate. Does an author, even in the services of fiction, have a right to appropriate these stories?"

Part of a course at Duke

Holloway, who is black, loved the book. She and Bartlett, who is white, found the book interesting enough to use it as fodder for their "Law and Literature: Race and Gender" course at Duke University Law School this semester.

"We haven't talked at all about how to do it," Bartlett says, "but we're going to be talking about authorship, voice and perspective and how to relate legal regimes to hierarchies among women."

Other class readings will come from authors like Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood. With Stockett's book, their students will examine the role of law in conflict, personal relationships and social arrangements as well as more defined legal issues relating to segregationist laws and employment.

"We want to teach them how to read more towards the legal underpinnings of a story," Bartlett says. "I hope they come out of the course better readers of literature and the unspoken legal assumptions."

luciana.chavez@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4864

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