Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee is certainly no mockingbird. Unfortunately, she has no stake in the matter as fans, critics and the media appear to have hijacked the debate surrounding her currently and dressed it up to serve a narrow interest. The much-awaited prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has once again brought the 88-year-old author into the global spotlight. In the long years since her debut novel hit the shelves, Lee steered clear of the public eye and decided against publishing another book. It is only befitting that her inclination to see Go set a Watchman in print has set the rumour mills turning.
Sceptics insist Lee is being manipulated by her publishers and lacks the soundness of mind to give informed consent to release the book. However, if the testimony of Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter is to be believed, the rumours may have been fuelled by a lapse of judgment. This isn’t the first time we may have gone wrong about the author. Until a few years ago, people were under the impression that Lee had died as swiftly and silently as she embraced the life of a hermit. Ironically, her desire for privacy deceived us as much then as it does now. As a result, we have created a false narrative of victimhood around her which reinforces, rather than defies, modern discourse on ageism.
For many, Lee is just another senile octogenarian living at a nursing home, who is incapable of making any decisions. However, these are merely stereotypical depictions of old age and do not represent the assortment of challenges faced by elderly adults. Using these indicators to gauge whether Lee has been exploited will only provide us with a skewed picture and distance us further from the crux of the problem. Mrs Dubose, one of the characters in the novel, is a morphine addict who eventually overcomes her addiction and dies “beholden to nothing and nobody”. Those who claim Lee is of unsound mind are inadvertently depriving her of the dignity which Mrs Dubose took to the grave.
The reaction is not entirely out of place. Perhaps Lee would find it reassuring to see people putting into practice a lesson Atticus Finch taught his Scout. However, we must realise that climbing into a people’s skin to understand their point of view can only work if our own vision isn’t blurred by prejudice and misconceptions.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2015.
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