In a recent blog post from Harper’s Magazine, author Julie Hecht reflects on struggling to write her novel May I Touch Your Hair? inspired by a childhood photograph. The picture features Hecht as young white girl on the beach, curiously touching the hair of her black friend, Shirley. While writing the story, she decided to track down the family of her childhood friend, only to find that often, truth falls flat to fiction while past and present cannot be reconciled. Realizing this, she finds herself hoping that her audience will still be able to ” understand some part about this family and how Shirley and [she] came to be there, standing on that beach that way.” Frustrated that the family’s present lives did not seem to mirror the romanticized ones her nostalgia had dreamed up, she chalks her disappointment up to a simple issue of medium;
But it’s hard for people to read. People don’t like to read. They’d rather look at a photograph. When you look at Shirley’s face, and what’s going on — that’s why they’d rather see a photograph than read. Her face, our hands, the way I’m touching her hair. So I guess I understand why.
Perhaps. Or maybe people want to read for the same reason they want to look at a photograph- to share an experience with other human beings. It seems to me that Hecht’s true dilemma is a matter of of choice; it’s a matter of deciding which is the story that needs to be told and just telling it. Which story is more “True” with a capital “T”? As a photograph, the story told is a powerful casement that eliminates extraneous socioeconomic details and pulls the viewer into the simple and profound moment during which two young girls cross a threshold- Hecht, recognizing and genuinely intrigued by her friend’s “otherness,” timidly reaches out to hold the girl’s hair in her hands. Nevertheless, as a work of literature, this casement (depicted through text), lends itself to theme, artfully weaving these formerly “extraneous socioeconomic details” into a story that allows the reader to see a bigger picture and consider the “why’s” and “how’s” of the two girls’ moment on the beach. This moment then, just as in its visual form- becomes bigger than itself.
And so we’re left to consider. Which is the story that should be told? Which story is more True? And the answer is both.