Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Help – by Kathryn Stockett , Penguin/Fig Tree, London, 2009

I have to admit, when I first started this book – many months ago – I had my doubts. (I have to also admit that most of my reading takes place, these days, on aeroplanes, or at airports waiting for them). The doubts were about the voices which are used throughout the book, predominantly of Southern black (African-American) women.

It takes some getting used to. But after not too long, I found it starts to read perfectly naturally. We have all, after all, been thoroughly attuned to that voice through the medium of television and movies. It is nothing unfamiliar. It is just that one doesn’t see it written very often. The first time I did encounter it was in The Colour Purple. (I have to admit it took me one hell of a long time to work out what “Shug” might be!)

But it really is a voice we know, albeit in this unfamiliar form. And once you start getting into the book, it becomes a really exciting and different experience. Through the device, you are suddenly projected into this unfamiliar world.

The author herself, (she reveals in her afterword) had doubts about this decision. Of course she did! The chances of sounding patronising, or of sliding into some really offensive “white” take on African-Americans, were pretty good. But she doesn’t – well not from my perspective anyway. African-Americans will obviously have their own opinions on the matter.

I tried to imagine what the effect would be, if a white person in South African were to write a novel in the black voice – recording the details and mannerisms of accent. The likelihood of misunderstanding and/or real offense would be very high indeed. Does anyone remember that ghastly programme which used to run on Springbok radio called the “Pip Freedman Show”? He had a number of personae – all of whom were racially defined. A “Cape Coloured” man called Ghatipi (I am not sure of the spelling here) sticks in my mind. It was demeaning and offensive – though of course, no-one white thought so for a moment.

When I was writing my novel, “Remittance Man” (UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg,1997) I started by putting one of the characters in accent. But it really did come across forced and painful – so I dropped it.

But there is none of that here. The voices seem to be to be as clear as a bell and as practised and authentic as you can get. It is beautiful. I read the book in awe of her art and her ability. It is quite spectacular.

The stories she tells, of the relationship between maids and their employers, is by no means an unfamiliar one to any South African. The assumptions are all the same. The fear is kept firmly in check. Some of the conditions are indeed vicious and uncaring. But there are a number of vital differences.

Firstly, the African- American “Helps” drive their own cars. They talk on the telephone to each other and there seems to be very little restriction on them doing so by their employers. They own their own houses. Their children go to school and sometimes to University. They seem to be poor, but they are not living in the kind of abject poverty that we have all around us. The same insane racial sense of superiority pervades the parallel world which the whites are living in. They talk about “Nigras” to each other, in the presence of the Help, as if they are not there. To be human is, nonetheless, to be white.

The story is about several of the people living in Jackson, Mississippi (only one white amongst them) who start making the journey to find each other. It is a truly inspiring and magnificent tale. What is so remarkable about it, is that it gives the reader a glimpse into the world as it was then – on the brink of irrevocable change.
Read through the eyes of a 50 year old South African, it is so easy to simply flip the switch of translation and to remember one’s own youth, with “the Maid” and the kind of complex relationships which developed. The story made me think about a woman who looked after me when I was a child of 6 or7. Her name was Bertha. She taught me my first words in Sesotho. She loved me and looked after me.

One day, she was gone. I was told that she had gone home and wasn’t coming back. S few days later, she appeared, nervously at the gate with a gift for me. It was a vest, wrapped in giftwrap. She said I should take it, and not tell my mother she had given it to me. And when I wore it, I should think of her.

I found out many years later, that our lodger, a certain “Mr Page” had raped Bertha, while we all on holiday. Bertha had laid a change – and that is what got her fired.
My mother and father were good people. Simple people. They were also deeply racist. That was all they really could be, with relatively little education and exposure and living in a system designed to make them so. When the chips were down they would protect their own, no matter what the morality of the issue, no matter consequences.

That is what this book is about. The many consequences.

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