The Help: Nonfiction Problems in a Fictional Work

I devoured Kathryn Stockett's The Help this past weekend and while I liked it, (but didn't LOVE it) I loved all of the questions it brought up for me as both a reader and a writer. If you haven't read The Help I suggest you do and if you don't like to read novels, don't worry, the movie will be out this summer.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and told through three first-person povs (plus one chapter in third person). The narrators are Skeeter, a young coed just home from Ole Miss, and two black maids: Aibileen, and Minny. Skeeter wants to be a writer and hopes that a book of interviews of Jackson's Black help will put her establish a literary career. The book chronicles much of that journey.

Stockett writes the two black maids' voices in dialect which bothered me a little (spelling Lord "Law" doesn't seem necessary) but what these voices made me ask was: whose story is this to tell? As Skeeter transcribes the stories of maids, changes their names and surely captures their dialect, does she question if this is her story to tell? If we could see some of that moral dilemma in Skeeter, we could assume that dilemma exists for Stockett as well. But Skeeter never asks, "Is it my place to tell these stories?" She wonders if maids will talk to her. She fears the danger the book will create for them. She worries that no one will read the book, but she never considers that it might not be her place to tell these stories at all.

Then I read about the lawsuit. Stockett's brother's maid, Ablene Cooper, is suing Stockett for using her likeness to inform Aibileen Clark. I wonder if Stockett asked Cooper to read the manuscript just to make sure her character was fictionalized enough for her comfort. What was the L-shaped crack that made Cooper feel taken advantage of by the author?

As I work on my next memoir I'm making a list of all my middle school friends who will need to read this manuscript before I publish. It is my book, but it is a story we all share. I want them to tell me if they want names changed or details removed. I want them to be able to read the book and say, yes, this is true to those years and to my experiences with Nori. 

I enjoyed The Help and appreciate that Stockett decided to "go big or go home" as my friend Amy put it, but I also think writers are required to respect the people they characterize in whatever story they choose tell.


20 Works of Creative Nonfiction Worth Reading

I don't get why creative nonfiction has such a bad name. Maybe it's because the name itself is confusing and contradictory, but in a genre which encompasses so much, why the hate? While working on my mfa, I wrote both fiction and creative nonfiction. Many of my colleagues and mentors asked, why write memoirs or essays rather than novels and short stories? In a fiction workshop, the leader asked about my favorite books and when all my top picks were fiction he asked, "So, why are you studying creative nonfiction?" All I know is that cnf works for many of the stories I have to tell. Looking back at a previous post, 10 Books That Influenced Me... I mention several few works of creative nonfiction, but there are many others so, if you've turned your back on memoirs, or have been burned by a few bad essay collections, here are 20 works of creative nonfiction I recommend.
  1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  3. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences by Truman Capote
  4. A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers 
  5. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
  6. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
  7. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
  8. On Writing by Stephen King
  9. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  10. American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche
  11. Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck
  12. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt 
  13. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson
  14. Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barrack Obama
  15. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
  16. True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman
  17. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  18. Lucky by Alice Sebold
  19. The Complete Maus by Art Speigleman 
  20. Night by Elie Wiesel
What great nonfiction have I missed?


Neko Cats of Mar Vista

I've always loved how many of the neighborhood businesses in Mar Vista display a Neko cat. If you don't know much about these Japanese felines, they are good luck charms for businesses welcoming customers.  When I was a kid we had a troublesome cat named Neko but these ceramic ones are pretty low-maintenance.
Marilyn's Beauty Salon Nekos.
Venice Grind Neko.
Tattoo Lounge Nekos.
Mechie Neko.
L & R Barber Shop Neko.