Set in the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, in the 1930s, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is simply about black and white. It is a gentle portrayal of the extremes of racism suffered by black people, and the way that white liberals like lawyer Atticus Finch negotiate the criss-cross of fine lines through their society. Scout and Jem, the children of Finch, episodically live through three years during which their father takes on the case of his lifetime: defending Tom Robinson against a rape charge brought by Mayella Ewell.
The story is the children's daily lives: their fascination for the people on their street, particularly the hermit Boo Radley, their relationships with their neighbours and their schoolfriends as it slowly dawns on the town that Atticus is not only going to take on the case of a black man accused of rape, but is actively going to defend him.
What was it about the Southern politeness, the heat, the black and whiteness of the book, that went to my core? It was a society I recognised, in England and in Sri Lanka. I first read the book in 1977. That summer, I had witnessed the National Front march down Lewisham High Street. I was told I couldn't be the Princess, or, come to that, any of the Charlie's Angels, in the playground, because brown was ugly. My parents were teachers, Methodists, socialists. They did not acknowledge racism, or talk about it. They were above that: my father was training to be a local preacher, and had a good line in Atticus-style aphorisms.
My parents built our lives for us through our community: Forest Hill in the 1970s was in many ways similar to Maycomb. But also the heat, the niceties, the ways in which people did things in the Alabama of the book, reminded me of the Sri Lanka my grandmother introduced us to when our parents took us for rare visits. Reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' gave me a taste of a place I belonged to on the other side of the world, but translated from a language I barely understood to a Deep South English.
The walking around in another person's shoes is the famous quote, but it is Atticus's definition of real courage which is the most important message for me: "It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." That is what writing is about; it is what life is about.
As a writer, I appreciate 'To Kill a Mockingbird' a little more every time I read it: the way in which Lee weaves the book into its whole is magical and effortless. I read the book to my daughters last year, when they were the same age as Scout and Jem, and they fell in love with it, as I did before them. Today, my ten-year-old has gone to Youth Club with a printout of her heroes: Obama, her brother, and Harper Lee.
Roshi Fernando's 'Homesick' is published by Bloomsbury
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