Today, you can read an extract from bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd‘s new novel The Invention of Wings, and enjoy an interview with her about the book…
The Invention of Wings is a work of historical fiction inspired by the real Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina. How did you discover them and what was it about them that you found to be interesting enough to create a story for a novel? You focus primarily on Sarah. How much of her story is fact and how much did you create?
The novel began with a vague notion that I wanted to write a story about two sisters. I didn’t know initially, who the sisters might be or when and where they lived. Then, while visiting Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I came upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimké on the Heritage Panels, which list women who’ve made important contributions to history. I discovered they were sisters from Charleston, the same city in which I was living. Embarrassingly enough, I’d never heard of them. Perhaps the most radical females to come out of the antebellum south, they were the first female abolition agents in the country and among the earliest pioneers for women’s rights, and yet they seemed only marginally known. As I began to read about Sarah’s and Angelina’s lives, I became certain they were the sisters I wanted to write about.
Gradually, I was drawn more to Sarah’s story. As dramatic as her life as a reformer was, I was even more compelled by what she overcame as a woman. She belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic, slave-holding family, and before stepping onto the public stage, she experienced intense longings for freedom, for a way to make a difference in the world, and to have a voice of her own, hopes that were repeatedly crushed. She experienced betrayal, unrequited love, self-doubts, ostracism, and suffocating silence. She pressed on anyway.
The novel is a blend of fact and fiction. There’s a great deal of factual detail in it, and I stayed true to the broad historical contours of Sarah’s life. Most, if not all, of her significant events are included. But it was apparent to me that in order to serve the story, I would need to go my own way, as well. I never wanted to write a thinly veiled history. I’m a novelist, and I wanted room to explore and invent. I probably veered off the record as much as I adhered to it, primarily in the scenes related to Sarah’s relationship with the fictional character of Handful. Sarah’s history and the inner life I gleaned of her from my research is the ground floor of her story, but the only way I could bring her fully to life as a character was to find her in my own imagination.
How did you approach writing an enslaved character? How did the character of Hetty Handful Grimké come about?
From the moment I decided to write about the historical figure of Sarah Grimké, I was compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character that could be entwined with Sarah’s. In fact, I felt that I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both worlds would have to be represented. Then I discovered that at the age of eleven, Sarah was given a ten-year-old slave named Hetty to be her handmaid. According to Sarah, they became close, and she defied the laws of South Carolina by teaching Hetty to read, for which they were both punished. Nothing further is known of Hetty except that she died of an unspecified disease a short while later. I knew immediately that this was the other half of the story. I wanted to try to bring Hetty to life again and imagine what might have been.
There’s an aphorism in writing that says you should write about what you know, and if I’d followed that rather bad piece of advice, I never would have attempted to write in the voice of a slave. That’s not to say I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect—it would take me further out on the writing limb than I’d ever been. It probably wasn’t arbitrary that in Sarah’s first chapter, I have her announce a little slogan she creates for herself that helps her over the hurdles in her world: “If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.” I could only hope that writing the character of Hetty Handful Grimké was not some audacious erring.
I’d written my other two novels in first person. I love the interiority of it, how intimate it feels, nevertheless, I started off by telling myself I would write Handful from a third person perspective, which seemed a little more removed. I think the word I’m looking for here is safer. I hadn’t written more than two pages, however, when Handful began talking in the first person. My need to inhabit her more fully kept breaking in. Finally, I just gave up and let her talk. While writing this novel, I read an interview with author Alice Walker, who, in speaking of her mother, said, “She was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature?” I felt that way about Handful.
With this novel, you join a tradition of depicting slavery in an open and unflinching way, though you’ve written about a form of it perhaps less known to most readers: urban slavery. Can you give us a glimpse of it?
When a person thinks of American slavery, probably what comes to mind are plantations, cotton fields, and slave cabins. Urban slavery, however, was quite different. In antebellum Charleston slaves worked in the city’s fine houses and mansions or in the walled work yards behind them. They lived in small rooms above the work yard structures—the kitchen house, the laundry, the carriage house, and the stables. Large numbers of slaves were hired out to work away from their residences, providing labor for the wharves, the lumber yards, and other places of business. Slaves ran stalls in the city market, peddled wares on the street, and crisscrossed the city, carrying messages and running errands for their owners. On Sundays, they were often required to show up at their owners’ churches and sit in the balcony. Slave auctions took place right on the street up until the late 1850s. Every day, the streets teemed with slaves, who nicked time to fraternize in alleys and on street corners. The city was alive with networks of information passed slave to slave and yard to yard, and watchful eyes were everywhere. Urban slavery was built on an intricate system of surveillance and control: curfews, passes, badges, searches, and ordinances that dictated how slaves should behave on the streets—all of it enforced by the presence of militia companies and the City Guard. Infractions could send slaves to an establishment known as the Work House, where they were whipped or otherwise punished. Even more disturbing, owners could arbitrarily send slaves to the Work House to be punished for a fee. Urban slavery might have looked and functioned differently from plantation slavery, but it was every bit as brutal.
The Invention of Wings takes place in the early part of the nineteenth century in Charleston. What was it like to write a novel set two hundred years ago? How is historical fiction relevant for readers today?
Basically, I sat down at my computer almost daily for three and half years and transported myself back in time. I would be in the grand Grimké house on East Bay Street in Charleston, or in the work yard where the Grimké slaves carried on behind hidden walls, or I might be on a ship sailing north, or in the attic room of an abolitionist home in Philadelphia. My husband joked that I spent more time in the nineteenth century than I did in the twenty-first. My aim was to create a “world” for the reader to enter, one as richly textured, tangible, and authentic as I could make it. Of course, the way into the nineteenth century is through an awful lot of research. I spent six months reading before I began writing, and I made lots of field trips to libraries, museums, historical societies, and historic houses, all of which I may have enjoyed a little too much because I finally had to make myself stop reading and traipsing about and start writing.
It was a revelation to me that two of the great movements of the twentieth century—Civil Rights and feminism— were fuelled by early nineteenth century innovations of thought about abolition and women’s rights, two major motifs in my novel. I was incredibly moved by that, by the far reaching power of what took place during the thirty-five years I was writing about. That we are the sum of our history has never seemed truer to me, and I think it’s why historical fiction has the potential to be sharply relevant. Sometimes the best way, even the only way, to see ourselves clearly in the present is to take a good look at where we came from. For instance, I like to imagine that people might read about the cruelties and oppressions in the 1800s and find that it opens their eyes wider to the cruelties and oppressions that exist today. As hard as it is to believe, the evils of slavery were often invisible to those who saw it as essential to their way of life. Something like that might just make us wonder about the way evil hides in plain sight today and gathers while no one is looking. Undoubtedly, the biggest revelation for me in writing this novel was that I was writing as much about the present as the past.
In both The Invention of Wings and The Secret Life of Bees you address issues of and explore racial relations. What inspires this interest?
During my childhood in the South in the fifties and sixties, I witnessed terrible racial injustices and divides. I grew up amid the backdrop of separate water fountains, black maids riding in the back seats of white ladies’ cars, Rosa Parks, and Civil Rights marches. One of my earliest memories is seeing the Ku Klux Klan on the street in my small hometown in Georgia and the absolute terror I felt. I was thirteen when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in the town where I was born, twenty miles from where I then lived. I graduated from the first integrated class at my high school, and I can still see the barrage of balled up notebook paper that was thrown at black students as they walked to class, a scene that ended up in the pages of The Secret Life of Bees. This is the stuff of my childhood and adolescence; it’s the stuff of my history.
I imagine there’s always some mystery involved in why novelists gravitate to certain subjects, but I believe I’ve been drawn to write about racial themes because they are part of me, and also because they matter deeply to me. I can’t help but feel a social responsibility about it as a writer. Racism is the great wound and sin of the South and indeed, the great wound and original sin of America. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust, and its legacy is racism. I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin. For all the great strides we’ve made, that legacy still lingers.
You have a theme of young girls and women asserting their voices and thinking beyond the time in which they live—like Lily in The Secret Life of Bees, and Sarah, Angelina, and Handful in The Invention of Wings. What stirs your interest in such forward thinking women?
Empowering girls and women feels very personal to me. Just as I grew up in a time and place of racial injustice and divides, I also came of age in pre-feminist America. In the South, that was saying a great deal. In 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and reignited the women’s revolution, I sat in a home economics class in high school, hemming skirts and learning how to make a home into a man’s castle. I still recall the list of occupations for women I copied off the blackboard: teacher, nurse, secretary, sales clerk, homemaker… There were less than twenty of them. I remember this moment quite well because I harbored a deep and formidable desire to be a writer, and it was nowhere on the roster. When I headed to college, I studied nursing. That was a colossal failure of courage on my part, mine alone. I hadn’t yet figured out how to think and act outside the confines of the world that shaped me. It took eight years after graduating from college for me to break out, pursue writing and find a voice of my own. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Friedan’s book that shook me. It was Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. Even though it’s set in the 19th century or maybe because it’s set there, the story of Edna Pontellier’s agonizing struggle against the limits her culture placed on women nearly leveled me. The lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké affected me in a similar way. I fell in love with their bravery. They started at ground zero with women’s rights. At twelve, Sarah, bless her, earnestly believed she could become the first female lawyer in America.
I know, the world is radically different now, but there is something global, resounding and even urgent about empowering girls and women. We seem to understand now that the world is going to hell in a hand basket without them, that there are still boundaries out there, whether poverty, or cultural expectations, or political and religious restrictions, or their own lack of selfhood and vision. I’m a believer that girls and women need all the stories of courage and daring they can get.
What do you want people to take away from reading The Invention of Wings?
I most want the reader to take away a felt experience of the story, of what slavery might have been like for someone or what it was like for a woman before she had any rights. I want the reader to feel as if he or she has participated in the interior lives of the characters and felt something of their yearnings, sufferings, joys, and braveries. That’s a large hope. Empathy—taking another’s experience and making it one’s own—is one of the most mysterious and noble transactions a human can have. It’s the real power of fiction. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, I quote some words by Professor Julius Lester, words I kept visible on my desk as I wrote: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”
Read an extract from The Invention of Wings
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