Mockingbird: language, taboo and history

As well as a literary close-reading, last night's Wheeler Centre tribute to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird opened into wider conversation around themes present in the book – themes such as justice, race and how we approach the politics of old books (set in even older times).

In this transcript, our panellists – Nicola Roxon, Bruce Gladwin, Lex Lasry, Tony Birch, Virginia Gay and host Jennifer Byrne – discuss some of the issues around the racially-charged and now taboo language used by some of the book's characters.

Mockingbird, at the Athenaeum Theatre

Mockingbird: Jennifer Byrne, Nicola Roxon, Bruce Gladwin, Lex Lasry, Tony Birch and Virginia Gay in front of a full Athenaeum Theatre

'Atticus, what exactly is a nigger lover?'

Atticus' face was grave. 'Scout,' Atticus said, 'nigger-lover is one of those terms that don't mean anything. Like snot nose. It's hard to explain. Ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favouring negroes over and above themselves.'

'But, you aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you?'

'I certainly am, and I do my best to love everybody. Baby, it's never an insult to be called a bad name. It just shows how poor that person is.'

– Extract from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, as read at last night's Wheeler Centre event

Jennifer Byrne: How hard is it to use…to actually say 'nigger', how hard is it…because it goes against everything we know, it's just a word that is…it's very…did you find it difficult?

Bruce Gladwin: I'd rather say 'the "n" word', that would make me feel a little bit more comfortable, it feels–

Jennifer Byrne: –it wouldn't sound very Harper Lee, then!

Podcast: Mockingbird

Listen to the full discussion

Bruce Gladwin: No! I don't think it would be appropriate here, but it does feel quite uncomfortable. Yeah.

Virginia Gay: I suppose the useful thing, of course, about that entire scene is that Scout doesn't know it to be a dreadful word. I mean, she knows that it's not the greatest word in the world, but… again, we're talking about an unreliable narrator and about the idea of us reading this now, as opposed to 1960 – and 1935 when it's set. We've got layers of knowledge about how incendiary those words are, and the words have of course changed, but for Scout, she recognises that that's… something that she wants explored, and she's trying to use the words that get the answers. Sort of what you were talking about before, like, she just asks the questions.

I think to do other than to use that word in this context, in an Alabama town in the 1930s, would be to deny the reality.

Lex Lasry

Tony Birch: It's also interesting that Flannery O'Connor, who dismissed the book as a children's book, used the word 'nigger' quite liberally in her own writing – and she's a great writer. And when I re-read commentary about this book, and thinking of O'Connor dismissing the book, I think, again, for Harper Lee to put those words into the mouth of a child when she wrote the book, it's uncomfortable for us now – and I think it would have caused great discomfort then. Not because it was… whether it was given language of the '30s, but when she was writing this book, that word was very much part of public discourse about racism in America and the growing civil rights movement. So to use it in the time she wrote the book, I think it would have caused great anxiety.

Jennifer Byrne: Very charged, isn't it?

Tony Birch: Yes, yes, yes. And it is… I take the point about using 'the "n" word' but, again, when I read O'Connor in particular, to read the words … although that language, with characters from the South in the time that she's writing, it just gives you a greater sense of the depth of racism that those characters are expressing. So you need to hear the word.

Lex Lasry: That's right. I think to do other than to use that word in this context, in an Alabama town in the 1930s, would be to deny the reality – and the reality was that this sort of racism was absolutely entrenched, was part of everybody's life. Some people resisted it, others simply accepted it.

Jennifer Byrne: And you know, it's taken as read, of course, we don't use those words any more, but it's interesting isn't it, Lex, that in 2015 we can't use the word… but… the Southern churches are burning, and they can shoot them in the back–

Lex Lasry: That's right.

When people can locate racism in the verbal utterances of, you know, the poor, and absolve themselves… I think that's one of the real tensions in the book.

Tony Birch

Jennifer Byrne: –black men in the back, with multiple bullets.

Lex Lasry: The injustice continues.

Jennifer Byrne: But we worry about the word.

Lex Lasry: Yeah. And I think you'd find, if you went to those towns now even, there's plenty of people still using the word 'nigger'.

Jennifer Byrne: I'm surprised, though… what was the phrase in the opening of scene when Atticus said… 'it's trashy, it's cheap'?

Lex Lasry: Yeah.

Virginia Gay: 'Common'?

Jennifer Byrne: Common.

Lex Lasry: Common.

Jennifer Byrne: That seems to be the least of the problems with that word, doesn't it? Compared to the idea of calling people 'niggers'.

The panel on stage

Nicola Roxon: But I also think it's, again, the device with Scout is that dawning of it being different if an adult is using it as a term to abuse. So, when the nasty neighbour is actually saying Atticus is a 'nigger-lover', Scout – although she is imperfect in her understanding of other things – and Jem, know that is some more serious thing than kids in the playground doing it, and that there's a bigger problem here which I think is also interesting.

Tony Birch: I mean, it also goes to an issue of class, which is a central issue to the book. That… it's interesting the way that racism is located, so that verbal racism is located in the poor white trash of the town – who, you know, criticise Atticus – but in the end, the depth of racism in the book is in the law. It's in the law that actually allows this case to progress in the way that it does. So when people can locate racism in the verbal utterances of, you know, the poor, and absolve themselves… I think that's one of the real tensions in the book.

Portrait of Jon Tjhia

Jon Tjhia was the Wheeler Centre’s Senior Digital Editor.

He worked on the Wheeler Centre's multimedia, editorial and digital projects from 2010–2020, including #discuss, the short-form multimedia series Housekeeping, and long-form podcast series Better Off Dead and The Messenger, which won several awards. He's a co-editor and co-founder of the Australian Audio Guide, and has been a member of Audiocraft's programming committee, the Walkley Awards' Radio/Audio Feature judging panel, the New York Festivals Radio Awards Grand Jury and ABC RN's Ian Reed Foundation committee for audio fiction/drama.

Elsewhere, Jon produces the Paper Radio literary fiction and creative non-fiction podcast, makes the occasional radio thing, writes essays and plays music with Speed Painters. In 2016, he was a top-ten finalist in Radiotopia's Podquest competition.

Better Off Dead was named Finalist at New York Festivals Radio Awards 2016. The Messenger was awarded the Grand Trophy and two Gold Medals at New York Festivals Radio Awards 2017; the 2017 UNAA Media Award for Best Radio Documentary; the 2017 Walkley Award for Radio/Audio Feature; and (with Behind the Wire's They Cannot Take the Sky), the 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission Media Award. It was also a finalist at the 2017 Quill Awards, and runner-up for the 2018 Whicker's Documentary Audio Recognition Award.

Previously, as a digital producer at ABC Radio Australia, Jon developed websites in seven languages, interviewed musicians from around the Pacific Islands, and provided multi-platform coverage of that region’s largest music festival, Fest'napuan. He’s occasionally involved in art and sound projects (including a collaborative residency in Wiluna, Western Australia, Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, and the Soundhouse programme at London's Barbican Centre) and has presented, suggested and advised on sound design and audio storytelling at an armful of festivals, conferences and email threads.

He holds a BA (Cultural Studies) and MMm. The latter is an actual postnominal, although your cooking is indeed good.