Now, to what I wanted to talk about today. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
In the author's note for that book, Kathryn Stockett wrote:
I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.
and further on
What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.
Reading this book had me thinking about voice, and what it is made up of. Firstly, when you are reading a book where there are different types of voices, there could be differentiation in terms of the words that are used, the spelling and grammar which could be used to indicate race or ethnicity or level of education, but other factors that go into giving a character voice, and in particular in giving the reader a sense of authentic voice can also include attitude. As much as we like 21st century attitudes is it realistic to expect to see that attitude in a 19th century woman. Usually not. This is an area that does tend to crop up particularly in relation to those feisty women who defy convention in fiction, but in reality there were so few women who did act against societies norms. The ones who did are exceptional and it is fantastic to read about them, but the numbers of those type of women portrayed compared to the number of women who would have actually acted in this way is definitely disproportionate.
Often times some of the biggest pitfalls relating to voice can come from trying to write a nationality other than your own. There may be certain words that people from certain places are expected to say as a result of cultural stereotypes, but in reality that could be something that isn't every day for every person. Seeing that mentioned several times could be jarring to the reader.
Let me give you an example. One of the things that have been used to promote Australia and that we have a kind of stereotyping about is that we all call everyone mate, as in 'G'Day Mate'. I can't remember the last time I said that to someone. Even just using the word mate is not something that I would use regularly. I remember having a conversation with Heather from Tales of a Capricious Reader not too long ago where we talked about this, and she used the example of the word Y'all, as in 'howdy y'all' and having a similar reaction. Now to be fair, there are some Aussies for whom calling someone mate is a part of everyday idiom. I used to work with a man who called everyone mate. The interesting thing is that he had immigrated to Australia as a teenager, and had lived in a couple of other cities, so maybe it is something that he had more exposure to than I did. So if I read a book where there is an Australian who constantly calls everyone mate to me it doesn't feel genuine at all.
Another example is accent. For example, when I hear that famous line from the Meryl Streep movie Evil Angels/A Cry in the Dark, where she proclaims that 'a dingo took my baby', every time I hear that it is jarring and I think that so does not sound like a genuine Australian (see the video below). Having said that, if you can find audio of Lindy Chamberlain talking, she has a much broader accent than I do so maybe regional differences account for at least some of this difference of opinions.
My point about all this in relation to The Help in particular is that I thought that Kathryn Stockett did a really good job in giving the white and black characters in distinctive voice by using different spelling, grammar, intonation and and in conveying their attitude. The thing is though, my impression is based on what I have seen in movies, in what I have read in other books, and not from personal experience. A quick glance at Amazon shows a small minority of one and two star reviews, and a lot of them talk about not liking the dialect and so obviously their personal experiences have obviously bought influence to bear upon their reading experience.
For me it felt authentic, and I thought it was an excellent read.