UW professors discuss To Kill a Mockingbird sequel

It&rsquo;s official: Harper Lee is releasing a sequel to <em>To Kill a Mockingbird</em>. The sequel, entitled <em>Go Set a Watchman</em>, will be set 20 years after the events of its predecessor.</p>

Over the past few weeks, this news has been met with quite a bit of controversy. Many people have expressed concern about the release of this novel, questioning whether or not Lee is competent enough to make decisions about the book, and whether or not she is being exploited.

To see different perspectives on the sequel, I met up with Prof. Frankie Condon of the English department and Prof. Vershawn Young of the drama and speech communication department to discuss the novel.

According to Condon, we should be careful about voicing opinions regarding the controversy that has diverted attention from the novel itself. 

“We live in a world of 24-hour news cycles, so the happy discovery of a new novel by a new author might not be sufficient for crisis entertainment,” said Condon. “There is quite a bit of speculation but not much concrete knowledge, and we should not be driving the entertainment news cycle.”

In terms of the novel itself, both professors are interested the representation of American racism in the novel. 

“It’s hard for an author to represent the degree of difficulty, violence, and conflict around American racism in uncomplicated and unproblematic ways,” said Condon. “The problem in To Kill a Mockingbird is that the representation of the possibility of being a ‘good white person’ preserves the idea that whiteness itself can be redeemed.”

Young offered a different perspective on the problematic elements in the novel: “The novel allows for the expectation that whites will speak on behalf of people of colour, and that people of colour cannot speak for themselves and be heard. Our culture paints a picture that the voices of people of colour are best heard when promoted through the bodies of non-black people, excited for the conversation to happen.”

Since it is so difficult to portray American racism in a way that is not problematic, it is likely that the sequel can be misrepresentative in one way or another, but this is not a bad thing. Both professors agree that To Kill a Mockingbird allowed for rigorous engagement on questions of racism in the United States, and that this need for engagement has not disappeared over time, especially in light of recent events. Although it is unknown if the novel will serve as a symbol for American racism, the conversation that it is catalyzing is important.

As an academic, Young is excited for the novel, but not for the reasons that one might think. 

“Academics are interested in the literary artifact itself, and the discourse and acts surrounding the novel — not necessarily the novel in and of itself, like someone reading it on the train,” said Young. “The novel opens doors for questions by academics, like ‘Has this novel gone through certain drafts? How has it changed since the agent revisited it?’ Don’t take it as leisure reading or an inspirational text, take it as an artifact to study our history and our culture.”

Go Set a Watchman is set to be released July 14, 2015.