Harper Lee is releasing a sequel and I am incredibly skeptical.

3 Feb

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the command of my 8th grade required reading list. It was the summer of female heroines in all their near-diversity: I met Francie from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Scout from the aforementioned Mockingbird, and the host of Chinese mothers and daughters from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. I had mixed feelings about Tan’s and Smith’s work, but Lee’s opus I immediately and thoroughly fell in love with.

But to be honest, I haven’t really returned to Mockingbird since 8th grade. I’ve kept it on my shelf, smiling at its cracked spine and yellowing pages (I’d gotten my book second-hand to begin with) and thought fondly of Scout and Boo Radley and Atticus Finch and the fight all of them wages against the war of their time. Yeah, I’ve got some major nostalgia going on, but I remember that the book discussed the themes of racial injustice in its time in a nuanced and direct and honest way. It pointed out the injustice of its time and made the world stare very, very hard at it. It is a good book. It is a book about lost innocence and learning hard lessons about a hard world. It is a book with meaning and worth and challenge. It is a book I dearly hope people continue to read.

But it’s a book I am… uneasy, I suppose, about giving a sequel.

Haper Lee recently announced that yes, she is releasing a sequel, presumably to be titled Go Set a Watchman. The book, apparently, was written in the 1950’s and features events contemporaneous to the time. Watchmen was in fact Lee’s intended first book, featuring an adult Scout who looks upon the events of her time through the lens of childhood flashbacks. Lee’s editor, however, liked the flashbacks so much that he advised Lee to turn those into a book instead. Enter Mockingbird.

I don’t know Lee’s motivations for wanting to publish that original attempt about adult Scout now, half a century later, after her “dear friend and lawyer” Tonja Carter discovered the old manuscript. I can guess at the motivations of Lee’s publishers.

But, I mean, whatever. It is Lee’s right as an author to publish a sequel – or anything else – if she wants to. The woman has already proven herself. She’s witty and smart and eloquent and endearing and ballsy. Her first published attempt at a novel became a classic, and it even did so during her lifetime. That’s impressive. The woman can publish whatever she damn well pleases.

But distancing Watchmen from the force of a woman that is the individual Harper Lee, I… worry.

Mockingbird was revolutionary for its time as a social commentary. It was a book that looked at the engrained, systemic injustice of a society and said that no, this is wrong. This is bad. What we, the whites, are doing is bad. We are bad to everyone who does not conform to us, even other whites. This is not okay. This is not working. And through its characters, the book got angry about it. It got confused about it. And this was good and necessary and meaningful.

But… it was a white’s awakening. Scout is white. Atticus Finch is white. There are white defenders and white villains and white protagonists and whites saving the world from other whites for the poor black people who were suffering because of what the whites did to them. And all of this was narrated by a white woman.

Again, by the standards of the time for when Mockingbird was published, this was a step forward. A woman author challenging those around her to step up and check their racism and rape charge duality? Sweet.

But… it’s still pretty damn white-washed.

I want to trust Lee. I want to believe that Watchman will be as grand a masterpiece as Mockingbird. But honestly, if it’s another book full of white main characters about a history where things happen to black people instead of through them, I’m not sure I want it. Remember all those hashtags that’ve been floating about saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseAuthors? Yeah, those aren’t just trends, for the moment. Those are desperate truths. The publishing landscape throughout fiction is starving for color of every kind. Race. Disability. Gender. Sexuality. All those other identity markers.

Lee wrote a book about the white experience amidst black oppression. And she did it well, the first time. I don’t really think we need a second iteration.

I worry that Watchman just won’t be able to stand up to Mockingbird. I’m afraid that if Watchman falls short, it will taint the work done through its predecessor. I don’t want what was a really good thing warped by an inept follow-up. And I don’t want a movement that’s fighting really hard to become a reality, a movement of variety of voice and eyes that can tell you what they see from a first-hand perspective, to be overhauled, however momentarily, by the excitement that this famous white woman wrote another book commenting on black people. It’s good that a book by an author of any particular race include characters of not-the-author’s-race, yes, but they shouldn’t just be caricatures and they should be more than just plot props. They should be real goddamn people. Not just historical background noise.

And I’m just not sure that’s going to happen in Watchman.

Maybe Watchman will be great! I don’t really know yet, do I? I haven’t read the book. I’ve barely had a synopsis available for perusal. I could totally see Harper Lee completely blowing us all away yet again. And that would be a good thing.

But until then, I’m going to sit here amidst all this white washing and be pretty damn skeptical.

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