I’m reaching the last few pages of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I’m slowing right down, as I always do when I know that I’ll soon have to let go of a story and characters I’ve come to love.
In 2010, when my lovely student, Izzy Stopford, gave me this book, it was very much in vogue. So, I am coming late to the party, but that’s not always a bad thing: I’ve been able to approach it in more personal way, to discover it for myself, undisturbed by the cacophony of views from the chattering classes.
One of the things that has thrilled me most has been to see a white, middle-class woman writing from such different points of view. She communicates the story through three sets of eyes: those of Skeeter, a young white girl and journalist (so far so uncontroversial) and through those of Aibileen and Minny, two African American maids working in the white households of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi – and there’s the rub.
My writing buddy, Helen Dahlke, told me that Stockett came in for quite some criticism for daring to write from an African American point of view. Surely (I hear the critics say), that is the prerogative of writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou et al. And sure, those authors have ‘the right’ to write from the point of view of their ancestors, and they are wonderful, wonderful writers, amongst my very favourite. But just as they would argue that they do not want to be defined as ‘black writers’ or ‘female writers’ but simply as ‘writers’, crafts(wo)men who take the brave step, every day, of adopting all sorts of different points of view – male, female, old, young, black white – so I defend Stockett’s courage to write from the point of view of women whose skin colour and history is different from her own.
Walking around the skin of others is one of the greatest acts of compassion, of suffering (passion) with (com) those who are different from us, a process that is magically handed from writer to reader. It is a process that lies at the heart of my life as a writer. In What Milo Saw, I write from the point of view of a nine year old boy with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a 93 year old woman suffering from dementia, a working class mum and a Syrian refugee. I have no particular right to adopt their points of view (I’m 32, white, female and middle-class – in that sense, not so different from Kathryn Stockett), but as I wrote my novel, as I researched and created and inhabited these characters, I sought to write about them and their story with truth and integrity, and that is what matters. I do not doubt that I have made some mistakes, sins both of omissions and commission, but I will never apologise for having dared to step into Milo, Gran, Sandy or Tripi’s skin. It’s what gives me joy and a sense of purpose, it’s what helps me to get closer to my fellow human beings.
I applaud Stockett and hope that, as we evolve as writers and as a society, we all become more courageous about seeing the world from points of view thoroughly different from our own, about undertaking that wonderful act of compassion.