Writing about race can be a tricky undertaking in the best of circumstances. But now, with the Oscar nominations for 12 Years a Slave and a National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s comic novel about John Brown, Sue Monk Kidd thinks the time may be right — finally.
“There seems to be something in the air,” says the author of The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair and now The Invention of Wings, who appears Thursday at Temple Beth Am in Miami. “I hope it means we’re beginning to come to terms with our history as Americans. I don’t think we’ve resolved our racial problems by any means. This is one reason I wanted to go back to the roots of racism, to where the legacy of racism began. It’s our original sin, and we have not resolved that sin at all. ... The confluence of these things coming right now, maybe we’re in a mood to look at this great wound in our history.”
Kidd, who lives in Marco Island but is speaking from bitterly cold Milwaukee on her book tour, has opened up the conversation further with The Invention of Wings (Viking, $27.95). The book, perched atop the New York Times bestseller list and the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, follows the lives of two women: Sarah Grimké, based on the real-life Charleston native who become an ardent abolitionist and suffragist, and Hetty, nicknamed Handful, the slave Sarah is given on her 11th birthday.
From childhood, neither Sarah nor Handful holds any illusions about “the peculiar institution,” as the white Charlestonians call slavery. Sarah’s earliest memory is of a whipping: “Her dress is cotton, a pale yellow color. I stare transfixed as the back of it sprouts blood, blooms of red that open like petals.” Handful was born to a defiant slave (“Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy”), but she has always been skeptical of her mother’s stories about African people who can fly: “Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere.”
But in Kidd’s hands, Sarah and Handful — a mostly fictional character, though Sarah did have a slave as a girl and was punished for teaching her how to read, Kidd says — will undertake two separate but remarkable journeys, leading different lives but unable to ever quite break free from each other.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Sarah Grimké, who was joined in her crusade by her younger sister Angelina, don’t feel bad. Kidd was equally in the dark. She first learned of the Grimkés at the Brooklyn Museum, where she’d gone to see Judy Chicago's exhibition, “The Dinner Party.” She spotted the Grimké name on a list of women who had contributed to history.
“I couldn’t believe I didn’t know them,” says Kidd, 65, also author of the memoir Traveling With Pomegranates with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. “Ironically, I was living in Charleston at the time. ... I came home and tried to discover everything I could about them. Turns out I’d been driving by their house for more than a year. What drew me was not just the magnitude of what they accomplished but by how much they overcame to do what they did. I was awed by their misbehavior.”
Women behaving bravely has always drawn the attention of Kidd, whose bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees, about a family of honey-makers who take in a young white girl during the civil rights era, was made into a film starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning.
“I think she has uncanny ability to really see the inner workings of the human heart, and she does so unflinchingly,” says novelist Connie May Fowler, author of How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly and The Problem With Murmur Lee. “It’s something I try to teach my students all the time, how to write about the complexity of the human condition. We’re flawed but beautiful.”
Those complexities, especially in relationships between women, have always intrigued Kidd, and they fuel much of the action of The Invention of Wings. Sarah becomes something of a mother to the significantly younger Angelina; their own mother, a harsh, disapproving woman bound by Charleston conventions, sees them both as troublemakers. Handful adores her own bold mother, Charlotte, who finds a way to tell her life story on the panels of a quilt, and is devastated when she disappears.
“I grew up with three brothers,” Kidd says. “I just loved writing about the sisters in The Secret Lives of Bees. ... When I saw the story of Sarah and Angelina I seized on it. I’m captivated by mother/daughter relationships as well, the bonds they have, the potential of feminine communities to affect and transform us. These are just primal relationships. There’s so much potential for things to go haywire. That’s good fodder for a novelist.”
The challenge of writing fiction based on real people and events — Handful finds herself involved with Denmark Vesey, a real-life free black man planning a slave insurrection — proved a bit daunting.
“I knew from the beginning I couldn’t write the story of Sarah Grimké and her sister without the story of an enslaved character, and I didn’t know if I could pull that off,” Kidd says. “Both worlds had to be there to tell the whole picture.”
Fortunately, seeing the world through Handful’s observant eyes turned out to be easier than she expected.
“I can’t fully explain why Handful’s voice came to me with more ease than Sarah’s. I think because Sarah came with this historical script, and I revered it. I was reluctant to veer off it initially. Handful had free rein of my imagination, and she had a lot to say, and she said it to me.”
A novelist’s responsibility to the truth weighed heavily on Kidd, who spent four years working on The Invention of Wings. She had a historical blueprint of Sarah Grimké’s life but found herself embellishing the story. For example, she gave Sarah a speech impediment she never had, although she was reportedly an unpolished public speaker. “I took a bad situation and made it worse,” she jokes. “Any time you can ratchet up the problems, you do.
“I spent an inordinate amount of trying to figure out how to write from that intersection of history and imagination. I think my responsibility is to offer up the foundation of her history, that actual contours of it. That was important to me, to stay true to her. I wanted people to come away with a sense of what she did. There’s a lot of factual detail in this story. But I suddenly realized: I’m not a biographer. There are other people who can do that. ... I began to allow her to veer off script, and that’s when she came alive for me.”
As for the difficulties of writing about race, Kidd has a theory about why she does it.
“I think it probably emerges out of my history, my childhood in the South, growing up in a small town in Georgia pre-Civil Rights,” she says. “What I witnessed as a child and adolescent against a big backdrop of civil rights marches and black and white water fountains, it had a significant impact on me. I felt the injustice of all of this and didn’t know what to do about it. It marked me somehow. Maybe that’s why I would want to tell stories about that. Maybe it’s an act of redemption.”