Hazel McHaffie

prejudice

Words words words

Cartoonists, journalists, feminists, politicians, the world and his wife, are pitching in to the incident on the tennis courts this week, where Serena Williams took exception to her treatment by the umpire in the women’s final of the US Open Tennis tournament. She smashed an expensive racket in public in her frustration, and accused the umpire of being a thief. She was heavily penalised. The rights and wrongs of her tirade, the whole issue of gender equality, are not the topics I want to home in on here; what has got me thinking in all the fallout from this, though, is the power of words and the baggage that comes with them. Serena clearly read much more about discrimination into what happened than I saw.

Also this week the media spotlight has also been on death by one’s own hand: National Suicide Prevention Week 2018. The importance of taking care with the words used has been highlighted – not saying ‘commit’ suicide, for example; not ignoring subtle cries for help. Such deaths are a tragedy whichever way you look at them, but understood with much more sympathy today than they were in the past. When I was growing up, we were told to ignore taunts and bullying. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me‘ was the response to childish angst. But of course, we now know this is patently not true. Words DO hurt. Far more deeply that a swift slap or punch. They can seriously, sometimes irrevocably, damage your health. Mental stress can be every bit as debilitating as physical ailments, perhaps even more so. Certainly my own scars from psychological onslaught are much deeper and recurrently painful than those from any bodily trauma.

So words are powerful beasts. As the Biblical writer James says in a poetic description on control and careful speech: ‘… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ and he concedes, no one has completely mastered his own tongue. And that adage IS still true. Who hasn’t regretted something they’ve said; and felt the burden of not being able to recall or erase those words? Salutary lessons all.

Which brings me to the written word. Authors do at least know the importance of the right word in the right place. I have a row of lexicons on my desk, as well as everything the internet has to offer, to help me choose wisely. Like Oscar Wilde and his famous busy day taking out and putting back a comma, I can sometimes agonise for ages about a word or phrase, take it out, put it back, tweak it, change it, before I can move on. But who can factor in the inferences and prejudices of the reader for whom those very same words can be laden with meanings and accusations and slurs and judgements unseen by me? To minimise the danger of being inadvertently (sometimes it’s deliberate, of course!) misunderstood or causing offence, I draft in a range of experts and readers to examine the text for inaccuracies or infelicities which have escaped me. Invaluable allies.

But hey, I must get back to my serious editing – I’m working to a tight deadline this week. Third draft and a further 13,000 words to lose, so a way to go yet. I find a specific target helps to concentrate the mind, making me focus on every word to see if it’s pulling its weight; actually hunting for as many as possible that are just coming along for the ride. Which again highlights the issue I started with. Words count.

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Martin Luther King: ‘I can do small things in a great way.’

As regular visitors to my blog will know I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books (the single authored ones at least) and I was delighted when her style changed from being rather formulaic to more varied. Her twentieth one, The Storyteller, was an absolute triumph, as I wrote three years ago.

So I simply had to read her latest offering: Small Great Things. I confess, I’m not much enamoured of her title, but she had a very valid reason for choosing it. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr once said: ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way‘, and this book is all about the things Dr King fought for. A fair defence.

As ever Picoult combines a compelling storyline with an important and challenging issue, in this case racial discrimination and prejudice, still, it seems, a major problem in the US. And as usual it’s well-researched, cleverly constructed and both thought-provoking and insightful.

Ruth Jefferson is a law-abiding, hard-working, academically able midwife (known as a labor and delivery nurse in the US) and widowed mum. It’s racial discrimination that brings her before the courts indicted for murder. The opening chapters lead gently into the scenario. When Ruth comes on shift and takes over from a colleague, part of her caseload includes a new mother, Brittany Bauer, and her newborn baby son, Davis. She sets about doing routine tests on the baby boy but his father, Turk, registers a strong objection to a woman of colour touching his child. Ruth’s boss, Marie, who has half her years of experience but has been promoted over her, makes a snap decision to stick a hot-pink Post-it on the baby’s notes: NO AFRICAN AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT. So when the child collapses in front of her what is Ruth to do? At the time of his death she is one of several people in attendance, nevertheless she is the one the parents blame; the only black member of staff.

Picoult portrays the Bauers as ugly characters, aggressive white supremicists who think nothing of beating up Jews or homosexuals or black people. Humiliating others, hounding them, oppressing anyone who disagrees with their take on the world – that’s their modus operandi. It makes quite shocking reading.

By contrast Ruth and her son are peaceable God-fearing Christians with strong moral values. And her lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie, is a sympathetic happily married mother-of-one who has devoted her life to helping the downtrodden and under-privileged. I think my editors would advise blurring the lines between good and evil rather more but that’s a literary quibble. And unseen unexpected characteristics do emerge towards the end.

Picoult’s trademark multiple-points-of-view are useful for opening the eyes of the reader to the nuances of language and the many ways in which society can discriminate, and I loved the way Ruth took her lawyer on an ordinary shopping trip to show her what it felt like to be a black woman in a white society. And Kennedy’s own deliberate exposure of herself to the scary experience of being in a minority.

But best of all, this time Picoult adds a lengthy note saying how much she herself was chastened by what she learned while researching and reading for this book. Her career as a novelist has been driven by outrage and a desire to make people aware of injustice, inequality and victims’ stories. This time it’s particularly powerful because it has touched her personally. She was ‘exploring my past, my upbringing, my biases, and I was discovering that I was not as blameless and progressive as I had imagined.

‘So what have I learned that is useful? Well, if you are white, like I am, you can’t get rid of the privilege you have, but you can use it for good. Don’t say I don’t even notice race! like it’s a positive thing. Instead, recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross a finish line, and create fair paths to success for everyone that accommodate those differences. Educate yourself. If you think someone’s voice is being ignored, tell others to listen. If your friend makes a racist joke, call him out on it, instead of just going along with it. … I didn’t write this novel because I thought it would be fun or easy. I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know. As Roxana Robinson said, “A writer is like a tuning fork: we respond when we’re struck by something … If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us.”‘ There speaks honest conviction.

And of course, she teaches us in a most engaging way, which is why she is rightfully an ongoing best-seller. Small Great Things is a real page-turner. The author makes no claim to literary pretensions but she does drop in her customary occasional delightful turns of phrase.

The prosecutor is ‘about as jolly as the death penalty‘.

Ruth’s mother was a strict parent: ‘I remember how once, she put out a place setting at the dinner table for my attitude, and she told me, Girl, when you leave the table, that can stay behind.’

The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but think there’s a dash of miracle involved, too.‘ (I’ve delivered countless babies myself and I never lost this sense of wonder and awe either.)

The lawyer asks her junior: ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Twenty-four.’
‘I have sweaters older than you.’

An author who always has something important to say and a way of leaving her characters tucked into your consciousness long after you’ve closed her covers.

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