Sue Monk Kidd tackles race in ‘The Invention of Wings’

The New York Times News ServiceJanuary 12, 2014 

The writer Sue Monk Kidd found the voice that her new book needed when she became smitten with an enslaved girl who is only a footnote to history.

“I could hear Hetty in my head quite clearly,” Kidd said. “She would talk and talk and talk and talk to me.”

In that novel, “The Invention of Wings” (Viking), Kidd gives Hetty what she never had in life: powerfully eloquent words that receive a weight equal to those of her owner, Sarah Grimk, who became a prominent abolitionist and advocate for women. The novel, the third pick of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2.0, weaves fact and fiction as it considers 35 years of the women’s lives, beginning in Charleston, in 1803, with their alternating first-person accounts. Hetty goes first.

“As much as I revere Sarah Grimk and her sister, Angelina, I fell in love with my character Handful,” Kidd said in a recent interview at the cozy Midtown Manhattan office of her agent. Handful is the nickname for Hetty, who historical records show was given to Sarah Grimk by her parents, when Handful was 10 and Sarah 11.

That gift of one child to another is how Kidd begins her novel, which also features Angelina, the wealthy, slaveholding Grimk family’s younger daughter, a fighter for the same causes as Sarah. Other historical figures play roles, too, including Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in Charleston, and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Kidd discovered that the real Hetty died young for reasons unknown, but, in the novel, she has a different sort of life.

“I remember reading an interview with Alice Walker: She said, ‘My mother was all over my heart, and why shouldn’t she be in literature?’” Kidd said. “And when I read that, I thought, ‘That’s how I feel about Hetty.’”

“Sarah was harder to hear,” Kidd said, because of the big historical script that accompanied her. “It took me a while to find her in my imagination and free her voice up to speak with a modern sensibility.”

Kidd, 65, speaks with a soft Southern accent, at a relaxed pace, though when she talks about race, history and women’s rights, it is with a youthful intensity. She lives in Florida but was in New York ahead of a multicity book tour for “Wings,” her third novel, which picked up some high-frequency buzz when it was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club in December. In a video announcing the choice, Winfrey called the novel “layered” and “gripping.”

Winfrey’s picks over the years (first those on her talk show and, more recently, those made for the club on her new network) have often been best-sellers. Kidd, while happy to have the attention, was already a best-selling author back in 2002, with her first novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” about a troubled white teenager embraced by black beekeeping women in the 1960s South.

In 2008, it became a feature film starring Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning. “The Mermaid Chair” (2005), her second novel, was also a best-seller and was turned into a Lifetime network movie.

“The Invention of Wings,” she said, was born of her desire to go to “ground zero” to wrestle with the racial issues that loomed large in her life as a child of the ’50s and ’60s, growing up white in the South.

“It seemed to me that we have had 246 years of slavery, and we could still barely look at it,” she said. “When I wrote ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ I was writing about civil rights. This time, I thought I wanted to go to the very roots of racism. It’s as much a part of our history as any victory and war, or anything else we like to celebrate in this country. We’ve had slavery as a nation longer than we’ve had abolition.”

Though Kidd had lived for 13 years in Charleston and had frequently driven by the Grimk sisters’ (unmarked) historical home, she said she had not heard of them until 2007, when she saw their names inscribed in Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” a feminist art installation at the Brooklyn Museum. A deliberate writer, she said she quickly decided, as she did research for “Wings,” that the novel would flow better with the voice of only one Grimk sister.

“I picked Sarah because I think I identified with her more,” she said. “I, like Sarah, had to learn how to question and come to understand my own truth, separate from the culture that raised me.” She recalled sitting in a home economics class “learning how to make a man’s home into a castle,” in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” came out.

Kidd did not burn any bras in her time. She had long harbored a wish to be a writer, she said, but married young, went to nursing school and had two children first, just because that was what women did back then. Reading Thomas Merton in her 20s, she said, made her realize that she was in search of her interior life.

“In that sense, I see creativity as a spiritual act,” she wrote in an email message. Her first books were nonfiction explorations of religion, feminine consciousness and the search for self.

“There’s a spiritual component to her work,” said Marjory Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina and a friend of Kidd’s. “I mean spiritual in the sense of exploring what keeps us going, what motivates us. What fascinates me about ‘The Invention of Wings’ is this question of how does someone from a rich, white, slaveholding home grow up to become a significant abolitionist?” she said. “This book explains that beautifully.”

Growing up, Kidd said, the stories that resonated with her came from the black female domestics in her parents’ and grandparents’ homes.

“My social consciousness, my own tiny little moral compass developing as a girl in Georgia in the ’50s and ’60s was seeded in many ways by them, because of the stories they told, just witnessing their lives,” she said.

It can be “a big risk” for a white novelist to write in the voice of a black character, said Kathryn McKee, an associate professor of Southern studies and English at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford.

“It’s the risk of never being able to stop telling the white girl’s story,” said McKee, who had not read Monk’s novel. “By putting the stories together, perhaps we get closer to the truth, whatever that might be,” she said.

Kidd, though, said she was less concerned “about appropriation” than “about inclusion.”

“It was through fighting for the rights of others that these women discovered they were oppressed,” she said, returning to the past and the Grimks. “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

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