Monday, February 4, 2008

Discussion on Love of Lula

This morning, we had an interesting discussion about Benham's Love of Lula. Here are some highlights, in no particular order:
* The story is a wonderful vignette of an ordinary woman's life. By using the oral history technique (Lula's own speech), Benham gives the reader a sense of Lula's personality and quirky character.
* Being a bathroom attendant in the United States is tied to the segregated South, where many bathroom attendants were African-American. Benham does not mention this in the story, but the inherent racism and classism that was part of these jobs looms in the background. The choice not to mention it limits the reader's ability to understand Lula.
* Benham chose not to mention much about Lula's life outside of her job (outside the bathroom, that is). She did not write about her real family, her neighborhood, her church, her wages, her aspirations, or anything else about her. Because Lula is isolated in the bathroom, we don't really get to know who the REAL, full-bodied Lula is.
* The story purports to give the reader Lula's story. But it's really the story of this woman coming to terms with her rotten life as a bathroom attendant. Benham makes the job sound good. "She protected the secrets of thousands of women," she writes of Lula. "Her bathroom was a vault." So Lula's work is painted as beautiful and important... but was it really? Is being a bathroom attendant for 50 years really that great? The story, some felt, made us want to hear that the least of us is happy. But is that really true?
* The story lacks truth and authenticity. It's patronizing. It says Lula was part of the restaurant owners' family. But it doesn't mention much about Lula's family, about the context of her life. There are a lot of nuances in the story that are left unsaid.
* Lula is a certain way in that bathroom. Because that's the easiest way for her, because that's how she chose to adapt to this unglamorous job. Lula has a rap, a way of talking about herself. But she probably has told the same story over and over again to many people. Is Lula's rap her real story? If the reporter interviewed her somewhere else, would Lula say something different? In a way, Benham has created a fictional persona of Lula, which includes only a sliver of the real Lula's life.
* But then, aren't many stories/profiles we write fictional? By focusing on only a part of a person's life, aren't we creating a fictional character?
* On the other hand, since this piece is an obit and was written after Lula died, the reporter was stuck with the notes she already had and could not interview Lula again. She did create a beautiful story with what she had.
* Benham is a very skilled writer. The way she handled Lula's speech, as an oral history, was very skillful. She interrupted it briefly with action in the parenthesis, which made Lula's speech lively and moved the story along.
* Benham did not choose to be transparent about where she was in the story. She did not tell the reader that she spent the day sitting in Lula's bathroom on the tile floor. She did not disclose the questions she asked. She did not mention the wider context of how she decided to focus on Lula. Mentioning these might have given more structure to the readers.
* It's important to tell the reader where "I" (the reporter) am in the story. The question each reporter should ask is, How do I let the reader know where "I" am in order to be honest with them.

Note: Kelley Benham is deputy Floridian editor and a former feature writer at the St. Petersburg Times. In a former life, she taught journalism. She joined the Times in 2002 as a reporter in a small bureau, and became an editor in 2006.


casey said...

This is so interesting, Gosia. I'm sorry I missed class today, but this really helps!

George said...

FYI, everyone: I'm going to bring a guest next week. She is Lillian Mongeau, one of our Community Writers. Lives in Hood River, works across the river in Bingen, moved here not long ago from the East Coast. An archive of her blog posts: