Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writing Is Theft: "The Help," Kathryn Stockett and Me

The other day, I went to see “The Help” with some other white feminists. On my own, I probably would have skipped it, because one, nothing I had heard made me think I would enjoy it much, and two, I might have felt it was politically incorrect to contribute even a teensy amount to the success of a film so many African American feminists find racist. But my friend wanted to see it so we could discuss it, I’ve already participated in some debates around it, and as another friend said, “It’s not like you’re breaking a cultural boycott.”

I decided if I was going to criticize something, it could be considered good intellectual practice to see it first.

Some of my white friends have been confused by the anger of African American feminists over the film and book. They point out that the white characters are unsympathetic, even the heroine, Skeeter, isn’t that heroic. The movie does make the point that Black children were left alone or with other relatives while their mothers cared for white kids who grew up to become racists. One friend said she felt the book did portray some of the complexities and missteps of white women doing antiracist work.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I have nothing much to say that hasn’t already been said very well. The best thing we as white women can do is listen to what our African American sisters are saying, and try to understand it. It's time to put into practice all those years of Unlearning Racism workshops – read the myriad commentaries and discuss them among ourselves. The blog that resonated the most for me is by Nicole Sconiers, who writes, “None of the black women seemed to have any agency, seemed to have a life outside of a white woman’s kitchen. Did Aibileen like to sing or dance? Did she like to pick flowers or make lemonade? If she or any of her fellow maids had an interior life, it was drowned out by the incessant drumbeat of despair.”

Kelly Sims says "Good inspiration here, whether you're in 2nd grade or well past grade school."
One thing I have been looking for and haven't found, except in a couple comments on blogs, was the reaction of African American who worked in white people’s homes, especially in the South. It’s not terribly surprising, perhaps, that working class women of my mom’s generation are not big in the blogosphere (my mom steadfastly refuses to allow a computer in her house), but I figure there must be some out there, and I’d really like to see what they have to say, so if anyone has seen something, please send it my way.

What I do have something to say about is writing and the question of fiction versus appropriation.

I obviously have no idea if Kathryn Stockett intentionally stole Ablene Cooper’s name and personal details for her book. The only thing I can say is that if she did, it’s hard to believe such an idiot could write a book. The theft – if there was one – is kind of like the theft that occurs in the movie: destined to be discovered. Ablene Cooper isn’t someone Stockett could imagine would forget they ever met. She’s Stockett’s brother’s long-time employee. If Stockett wanted to get away with using Cooper’s details, changing the character’s name and making the gold tooth a gap or mole would have been the ultimate in good sense.

But this I do know: Writers write. We also steal.

Occasionally someone says to me, “I wish I could write novels like you, but I don’t have enough imagination.” I used to say exactly that. I would read my favorite writers like Marge Piercy and think, “How did she get that idea?” And then I noticed those pages that I usually skip at the back of books, where the author thanks all the people who helped her. Piercy often gives pages and pages of books she read in the course of her research. Elizabeth George will thank dozens of experts in whatever arcane fields are involved in her intricately plotted mysteries. That’s when I realized that fiction writing is about two-fifths inspiration and three-fifths stealing from other people’s lives.

Be careful what you tell a writer. She will write it in her notebook and you never know when it might surface as the backstory or frontstory of some character of questionable virtue. If she doesn’t thank you in the acknowledgements, don’t feel too bad. There’s a fifty-fifty chance she doesn’t even remember who told it to her.

I write mysteries about Palestine. I’m not Palestinian. My series has two protagonists, a Jewish American lesbian peace activist (not like anyone I know) and a Palestinian policewoman. I don’t know any Palestinian policewomen, at least not well enough to milk them for their stories. If any actual Palestinian policewomen, or men, ever read my novels, they’ll probably find the description of their work life unrecognizable.

I started writing my first book in late 2004. I named my Palestinian protagonist Rania. I picked that name because I liked it, and because I thought – incorrectly, as it turns out – that it would be easy for non-Arabic speakers to pronounce. More than a year after I finished my first draft, my friend Marilyn sent me an article from the New York Times about a new women’s police force being formed in Gaza. The head of the squad was a young woman named Rania.

I know a number of women named Rania. I did not name Rania after any of them, and I don’t believe she bears any similarity to any of them except that she’s brave and so are many of them. But of course I don’t really know. She had a brother who was killed in the First Intifada, but who didn’t? I did not consciously model her after any specific person, but I based parts of her character and her history on a number of women I know and admire. She became an activist in her teens, like Intisar and Hanan and Amal; she went to college in Jerusalem like Fatima; she lives in Mas’ha like Munira; she grew up in Aida Camp where I have a number of friends.

I try to make my Palestinian characters authentic flesh and blood people, and in the service of that end, I steal biographical details, physical and psychological traits from Palestinians I know. I hope this is okay because my intentions are good; I am trying to further the Palestinian struggle for justice as I understand it. But I’m also writing fiction. Not all of my Palestinian characters are admirable. Some of the situations I have imagined have never, as far as I know, happened, though most of them have. I put words in my characters' mouths and I'm sure some of them are words no Palestinian would ever think.  How could they, when they think in Arabic and I think mostly in English?  My readers see Rania as a nonstereotypical Palestinian woman, but in fact, I think she is a stereotype - the brave, smart, feisty, idealistic Palestinian woman.  That just happens to be a stereotype we don’t see much.

I hope if any Palestinian women read my books, they’ll like them and think they accurately depict the situation and the people, or at least some of the people. But I think it’s very likely that some of them won’t feel that way at all. They might be very angry and feel like I appropriated their stories and did something with them they find frivolous or even offensive. (After all, my books also contain lesbian sex.) If people criticize me, I hope I can listen and hear what they’re saying and learn from it, which doesn't mean I'll agree or decide to change my writing. If I ever make any money off them, I believe I would share it with Palestinians or use it to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance, but that’s easy to say when the money’s all theoretical.

If my goal were only to do something good for Palestine, it would obviously be better to put my energy into helping Palestinian women writers get published in the U.S.  But ultimately, that’s not why I’m writing these books. I’m writing them for fun, and to express myself as an artist. I write about Palestine because I spent time a year and a half there, and those were by far the most exciting eighteen months of my life, and I came home with 1,000 pages of journals I wanted to do something with.  I am an activist for boycott of Israel because I care about Palestinian liberation, but I’m writing about Palestine because I’m a writer.

Kathryn Stockett did not, I imagine, set out to tell the stories of Ablene Cooper or the family maid, Demetrie, she says she wanted to honor. She set out to tell the part of her own story that involves Demetrie. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is really that Demetrie and Ablene and the many other women who shared their experiences do not have the opportunity to tell their own stories to a wide audience (well, Demetrie obviously doesn't, because she's dead, but you know what I mean).  If a woman who worked for decades as a maid and nanny decided, like Aibileen in “The Help,” to start writing late in life, it’s highly unlikely she would get a contract or end up with a best seller and a major motion picture.

That is also not Stockett’s fault. But this is the thing that white people who want to “do good” have so much trouble with. Understanding privilege isn’t about finding fault. It’s about recognizing that we didn’t create inequality, but we do benefit from it. Therefore, we can’t just say, “It’s not my fault.”  We have a responsibility to try to change it. Stockett told NPR that the criticism of her book “makes her cringe.”  I would suggest she stop cringing and start listening.


  1. Hi Kate, I still want to see the movie.
    Interesting Blog. I start Elaine's class again tonight.

  2. I would not discourage anyone from seeing it. I'll be interested in hearing what you think.

  3. No doubt, Kathryn Stockett is on her way to an award winning career in writing. With her first book, she has placed herself in a category that most writers can only dream about!
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