By MARGARET DWIGGINS
Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, “The Help,” has been translated into at least 40 languages worldwide and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 2011, accomplishments most authors can only dream of. But one of the things that Stockett is happiest about is that her book seems to have incited healthy discussion about race relations.
“I’m just grateful people are talking about the topic,” she said, noting that it’s still a sensitive topic nearly 60 years after the African-American civil rights movement began.
Stockett will visit Findlay on Friday to discuss her book at the 12th annual CommunityRead, to be held at 7 p.m. at the University of Findlay’s Koehler Center.
“The Help,” set in 1962, is about a young white woman, Skeeter, who begins talking to two black women, Aibileen and Minny, about their experiences of working as maids for white families in Jackson, Miss. Skeeter turns the interviews into a book which exposes how the women are often treated as being inferior, despite the fact that the children they’ve been entrusted to raise come to love them as family.
Stockett, reached by phone as she took her daily walk around her neighborhood in Atlanta on what she described as a perfect spring day, said she knows that racism still lingers, but she hopes her book has contributed to changing attitudes.
“I think more and more, maybe the problems are getting better, maybe they’re working out, then at other times I think they’re not,” she said.
Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Miss., and earned a degree in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama. She said her alma mater made news in the fall when several sorority members claimed that black women were being denied membership because of their race.
Stockett said the sorority system at University of Alabama has been segregated since it started, despite the advancements in attitudes about race in the South. The sorority case was detailed in a September article in The Crimson White, the university’s student newspaper, where several white women charged that black women who had all the qualities the sororities desired in its members were dropped from consideration because of pressure put on the chapters by alumnae members who wanted to maintain the tradition of a segregated system.
Stockett said she recently participated in a literary event with James Meredith, the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, and was struck by something Meredith said.
“He had a really good point, (that) we’re still celebrating the progress we made in 1963, everyone pats themselves on the shoulder because of what happened back then, but no one’s making any effort to do things now,” Stockett said.
Asked if she has any suggestions for how to change the minds of people who still hold old-fashioned attitudes about race, Stockett said, “I have no advice, except bring it up, talk about it.”
Bringing people together to talk about a common subject is exactly the purpose of a community read.
Jeff Winkle, director of the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library, which sponsors Findlay’s CommunityRead, said the library made over 200 copies of “The Help” available, most of which were checked out at any given time.
The library ran several ads for the CommunityRead which included discussion questions. It also sponsored several reading groups to discuss the book, Winkle said, and he knows that private book clubs also read the book and talked about it. Although he has no way of knowing how many or what types of discussions were held, he suspects that Stockett’s hope that readers would discuss race relations was achieved.
“I’m not sure how you read this book and discuss it without race being a part of it,” he said.
In addition to “The Help,” three books were selected for youths to engage in the topic, including “Back of the Bus” by Aaron Reynolds, “Child of the Civil Rights Movement,” by Paula Young and “Lions of Little Rock,” by Kristen Levine.
Winkle said the library hosted Nina Parker, director of the Black Heritage Library and Multicultural Center, who gave a presentation for children as Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Mobile, Ala. in 1955.
Stockett said she is speaking at about five community read events around the country this year. She uses the fees she collects to donate to organizations she believes in, such as public libraries and schools.
She said she doesn’t try to impart a moral lesson on her audiences and said her discussions aren’t as serious as people might expect.
“It’s no fun if they’re not laughing,” she said.
Stockett said her next book, set in the 1930s during the Depression in Mississippi, will be lighter in nature than “The Help.”
Whatever the project, she said her goal is always the same.
“I just want to write a good story, one that people think is funny, that unnerves them or entertains them. I feel humble that they’d even read it,” she said.
Although she loves to read and has several favorite authors (Eudora Welty and Kaye Gibbons among them), Stockett said she doesn’t read a lot when she’s working on a project of her own as it’s too easy to mimic another’s style.
“I pick up what they’re saying and pretty soon I’m writing a chapter of their book instead of my own,” she said.
Winkle said that in addition to bringing the community together on a common subject, another purpose of the CommunityRead is to gain appreciation for literature and the skill it takes to be an author. It is not a fundraiser, he said.
Past CommunityReads have attracted audiences of 1,000-2,000 and Winkle expects that much and probably more for Stockett’s appearance. Fliers have been posted in libraries throughout northwestern Ohio, he said, and if what he is hearing from other library directors holds true, many people from outside Findlay will be attending.
Tickets for the CommunityRead are $5 and are available at the library’s check-out desk and at the door.
Online: http://kathrynstockett.com/ http://cw.ua.edu/2013/09/11/the-final-barrier-50-years-later-segregation-still-exists/ Dwiggins: 419-427-8477 Send an E-mail to Margaret Dwiggins
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