Based on the story of an aspiring author during the civil rights movement who decides to write a book looking into the African American maid’s point of view on the white families they work for, The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett has been renowned the world over.
Having been awarded New York Times bestseller and making it onto the Orange Prize Longlist (as well as a multitude of other awards), it is also one of my favourite books.
Currently in Doha, Qatar, for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival I was therefore very excited to learn that Kathryn Stockett herself was also here to attend the Middle Eastern premiere of the feature length film which was written and directed by her best friend Tate Taylor.
Earlier in the day Kathryn also held a book club, which I was fortunate to attend. Attempting to hide the groupie love, we made ourselves comfortable in the spacious room, only to find ourselves more in awe with the woman who was all at once supremely endearing, witty and honest.
Revealing the tense race relations that are at times apparent even today, Kathryn reveals how the books existence took five years and sixty rejection letters. “I started out as naïve as Skeeter did,” she says, in terms of how the book would be received.
Out of uniform only in her casket.
But it was a story she felt she had to tell. Based partially on her own relationship with the help, her grandmothers’ maid, Dimitri, Kathryn reveals how she considered Dimitri her best friend. “When she died was the only time I ever saw her out of her uniform” her voice softens as she speaks, “when she was in her casket.”
“It seemed like no one had explored the perspective of both points of view simultaneously,” she says, on how a story burns inside you. That being said, she reveals that she is aware that she will never actually know how it felt to be Dimitri. To this respect, she had doubts on the final product. Revealing how until today she sometimes questions herself on if she broke too many rules by speaking in the voice of black women, she speaks on Jackson, Mississsipi’s reaction to the book, stating that for the most part, they are proud.
Little to no human rights.
Aside from getting an insight into the facets behind the book, one of the most important conclusions that was reached is that this story does not only tell the tale of the relations between African American maids and white families. Sat in deep, comfortable couches, being waited on by maids of all colours, all dressed in white uniforms, the fact that this story is supremely true even today, and even half way around the world resonated deeply in every single one of the women present.
This fact may be especially true in Arab countries where it is even more rare for a household to be without ‘help’ than to have maids, drivers and cooks. Although the stories in the book may not always hold true in these scenarios, the help in these countries also often suffer many injustices, the likes of having their passport taken away so they cant leave, pay docked and basic human rights little to none. For this reason a campaign (which I took part in) was launched by the Human Rights Watch in a variety of Arab countries, entitled ‘Put Yourself in her shoes.’
Love and hate and how they can co-exist.
Talking about how the movie came about, she revealed that she did not immediately want to give the film rights to her best friend and filmmaker, Tate Taylor. “I wanted them [the film maker] to understand love and hate and how they can coexist” she says, of why and how she finally gave in. “I knew he would stay true to the original story and take it home and film it in Mississippi.”
And after watching the film, anxiety palpable in a facet that usually tends to ruin my favourite books, I can safely say that she made the right decision. Staying true to the novel in a way no film that has been based on one has ever done before, the film was equally heart wrenching, heart warming and inspiring, and exactly what you envision when reading her hard earned best seller of a novel.
“People may never read anything I write again, but I have to write,” Kathryn says. We’ll be reading.