Odd Words–Daughters of Domestics Edition October 17, 2011Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, novel, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Daughters of Domestics, The Help, Xavier University
I omitted this from last Thursday’s column (my apologies) so I’m giving it a post of it’s own. Tonight (Monday, Oct. 17) Xavier University will host Daughters of Domestics: Poets and Academics Respond to The Help, the recent novel and film cataloging the experience of Black domestics in the 20th Century South. Featured poets will be Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson and Kelly Harris-DeBerry. The academic panelists include Professor Theresa M. Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The moderator will be Dr. Kimberly J. Chandler.
Looking at the first few of over 43,000 reviews of the novel that inspired the recent film it is clear the book and movie had stirred up a great deal of controversy. Sorting to the one-start reviews I am told the book is insipid, that the characters (particularly the African American women are cliche-leaking stereotypes. One reviewer suggests the book was written to make white people feel better about themselves and claims that explains its best seller status. I think this particular reader comment of her experience with the book sums up the dialect problem: “Law, I never see such God awfa talk in a book. The end came when I say she be def as a doe-nob.” (Whoever said don’t write in dialect, go look that person up and take there advice. Outside of Roddy Doyle’s Irish brogue I can’t much stand it myself.
The five star reviews don’t offer much expository explanation, mostly Oprah Book of the Month Club gushing. It’s notable how many of them listened to the audiobook instead. I don’t have time today to explore over 117,000 five star reviews to except to find the book wildly popular with people across genders and races. It has clearly struck a cord.
Many of the complaints of the bad reviews were about the gall of a young white woman, born in 1969 and too late to have any real experience of what she writes about, taking on the voices of the Black domestics. Frankly, there are probably very few writers who could do true justice to a mix of domestics and their housewife employers and truly get deep inside the heads of both well.
My own feeling: I am very tempted to attend this one. I grew up in New Orleans in the 1960s, and a fixture of my life was Sylvia (I don’t to this day remember her last name), who I am told particularly raised me–particularly as an infant and very small child–and whom I mostly remember ironing my father’s shirts before the soap operas, the shaker bottle of water one used back them to help get the wrinkles out. I remember she was invited to my sisters’ weddings, but not the receptions. I recall she lived in Iberville because I rode with my mother once or twice to give her a ride home, rather than ride the Lake Vista NOPSI bus line. I often road that bus home from school, and at that time of day it was an exchange of a cargo of Catholic school kids for the domestics who stood at every corner, many in the starched white uniform of the time.
I have a feeling pale male children raised by these women will not be much in attendance, and I am intensely curious to hear these reactions against the overwhelming positives of Goodreads, most of which smack of Oprah Book of the Month Club noise. I haven’t read the book, and I’m not going to put it on my pile just yet as it is already too tall. I think this will be done to pull out of the library at some point. I feel as a child of Sylvia’s other family (she also served my grandmother,–who to this day I can clearly hear in memory’s ear voicing “nigrah” as a polite, to her mind, reference–and an aunt on a rotating basis). I feel I owe a debt to the woman who helped to raise me to attend this.
Daughters of Domestics: Poets and Academics Respond to The Help, Monday, Oct. 17 (tonight) at Xavier University’s Qatar Pharmancy Pavilion, 1 Drexel Drive.