Sue Monk Kidd Shares Insight on The Invention of Wings

Marco Island’s celebrated author Sue Monk Kidd is featured in our January issue. Below is a Q&A with the award-winning novelist that was released by her publisher, where Kidd talks about her latest work, The Invention of Wings (Viking, 2014).

Related: Sue Monk Kidd Describes Her Lifelong Journey to Becoming a Writer

Photo by Roland Scarpa.
Photo by Roland Scarpa.

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 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?

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.


Sue Monk Kidd - The Invention of WingsThe relationships between mothers and daughters are a common thread in your work. In The Invention of Wings, you present two parallel mother/daughter narratives, as well as a sister narrative. Did you have this in mind from the start or did it develop as you wrote?

I intended from the outset to write a story about sisters. I never had a sister; I have three brothers. I once heard novelist Lee Smith say, tongue-in-cheek, that writers don’t write autobiographically, they write about things they want to try out. Maybe that’s what I was doing. Sarah and Angelina’s sisterhood was remarkable from the start. Sarah, twelve years older than Angelina, was also her godmother. She acted as both a mother and a sister to the child, creating an exceptionally complex relationship. The two were alike in thought, but different in nature. Sarah was the introvert, the writer, the thinker, a brilliant theoretician, and the plainer looking. Angelina was the extrovert, the orator, the doer, the dazzler, leading the charge. “Nina was one wing, I was the other,” Sarah says in the novel.

As for the parallel mother-daughter relationships in the story, I didn’t plan them at all. I seem to end up writing about mothers and daughters, perhaps because the relationships between them are seeded with so much potential for intimacy, separation, love, and conflict. They are rarely casual, irrelevant, or finished. In the novel, there’s a vivid contrast between the relationship Sarah has with her mother and the one Handful has with hers. From historical accounts, Mrs. Grimké was a stern, distant mother, though she clearly loved all of her children, eleven of whom survived, all cared for by a slave known as the nursery mauma. Sarah and Angelina were her two “foreign” children, as she called them. They didn’t see eye to eye with their mother on much of anything. Handful, however, slept in the same bed with her mother, Charlotte, a metaphor, perhaps, for the closeness that sustained them in a place that was filled with the threat of separation. Handful took her solace, her shelter, and her strength from her mother.

I might add that developing Sarah’s relationship to her father and to her brother, Thomas, was just as important to me as creating the one she had with her mother, perhaps even more so. Her father was a judge on South Carolina’s Supreme Court and her brother was an esteemed lawyer, and I wanted to show the enormity of their presence in her life as she grew up. I tried to portray what a father’s daughter Sarah truly was, emulating him and identifying with both him and her brother over and against her mother.


Storytelling happens in many ways in your new novel. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, tells her story through a quilt. What inspired you to portray her story in this way?

I was inspired by the magnificent quilts of Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery in 1837 in Georgia. She used West African appliqué technique and designs to tell stories, mostly about Biblical events, legends, and astronomical occurrences. One of her two surviving quilts resides at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. A textile specialist at the museum graciously led me back into the labyrinth of the Smithsonian archives to view it. Gazing at the fifteen squares on Power’s quilt struck me like looking at the pages of an ancient, illumined book. They were each a masterpiece of art and narration.

It seemed more than plausible to me that many enslaved women, forbidden to read and write, would have devised subversive ways to voice themselves, to keep their memories alive, and to preserve their African heritage. In my novel, Charlotte is the Grimké’s rebellious and accomplished seamstress, and I envisioned her using needle and cloth the way others use paper and pen, attempting to set down the events of her life in a single quilt. She appliqués it with strange, beautiful images—slaves flying through the air, spirit trees with their trunks wrapped in red thread—but she also sews violent and painful images of her punishments and loss. The quilt in the novel is meant to be more than a warm blanket or an artful piece of handiwork. It is Charlotte’s story. As she tells her daughter, Handful, the quilt squares are pieces of her, the same as the meat on her bones.


You’ve managed to capture the voice of the period. How did you find the voices of your two narrators?

The voice of Sarah turned out to be one of my biggest challenges. I rewrote her chapters in the early part of the book over and over before I felt like I found her voice. I’d read the real life Grimké sisters’ diaries and essays, and they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, but their writing was rendered in nineteenth century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety and stilted phrases. I wanted Sarah’s voice in my novel to feel authentic and carry some of the vernacular of the time, but I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it. Writing her voice was all about loosening it. I decided that my task was to tap into her inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless place, as well as from the time in which she lived.

By comparison, Handful’s voice came with considerable more ease. I was certain only that I didn’t want it to be weighed heavily with dialect, and that it must have traces of humor. I read a great many first person slave narratives from the nineteenth century, as well as the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s, and they gave me a lot of valuable insights. And I think Handful’s voice must surely carry traces of the African-American women from my own childhood whose voices go on resonating in me, and also of the quilting women of Gee’s Bend, whose voices I read and reread. But in the end, what I most wanted was for Handful’s voice to be all her own—the voice of a slave who has learned to read and write, one marked with Handful’s particular idiosyncrasies and formed from the workings of her character.


Sarah and Handful’s relationship begins when they are children. How did you go about writing the relationship between these two characters?

It’s hard to come up with a relationship between characters more troubling to write about than that of an owner and a slave. Even if the owner is an unwilling one, even if she has an abolitionist’s heart beating in her chest, as Sarah does, it’s still a problematic situation. It was the thing that kept me up at nights—Handful and Sarah’s complicated connection and whether I was getting it right. In the novel, their relationship spans three and half decades, many of which they spend as constant companions. To a large extent, they mold one another’s lives and shape each other’s destinies. There’s an undeniable caring between them, but also the built-in gulf of slavery. Their relationship is disfigured by so many things: guilt, shame, pity, resentment, defiance, estrangement… I tried to create a relationship that allows for all of that, yet also has room for surprise, redemption, and even love. Someone who read an early copy of the novel commented that the two women create a sisterhood against all odds. Perhaps they do—an uneasy, but saving sisterhood.


Sarah and Handful battle for different kinds of freedom. Handful remarks to Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.” How did you develop the issue of freedom in these two characters?

Handful and Sarah are both imprisoned in their own particular way. As a white woman in South Carolina in the early 1800s, Sarah’s life was vastly curtailed. Women then had few rights, not to property or even to their own children. They couldn’t vote, testify in court, or make a will. Essentially, they were the property of their husbands. Their singular purpose in life was to marry, have children, and live their lives in the domestic sphere. And yet, their lack of freedom could not compare to the horrific subjugation of enslaved women, whose entire lives were determined by their owners and whose suffering was far worse. I felt like the main thing in developing Handful’s and Sarah’s quests for freedom was to never lose sight of that.

As I wrote, I came to see that freedom has all sorts of nuances and dimensions. Handful’s assertion that her body is a slave, but not her mind, and that for Sarah it’s the other way around, comes at a certain looming moment in the story, as Sarah struggles with the dictates of her family, her society, and her religion. Handful is trying to tell Sarah a truth she knows only too well herself, that one’s mind can become a cage, too. There’s an earlier scene in the novel in which Handful willfully locks the door and takes a bath in the Grimké’s majestic copper bathtub. I can’t tell you how much sheer pleasure I derived from writing this scene. Handful’s bath is tinged with defiance, but it becomes a baptism into her own worth, a kind of coming to herself. She begins to understand that even though her body is trapped in slavery, her mind is her own. Finding one’s sense of self, and the boldness to express that self, is one form of freedom that needed to be developed in both characters. Handful just found it much sooner than Sarah.


Without revealing too much, what does the title The Invention of Wings symbolize?

I’m one of those writers who likes to have a title before I begin to write. A title helps me to shape my intention and my understanding of what I’m doing. It provides a focus, as well as giving me something concrete and visual I can play with. For me, the most important thing to keep in mind about the imagination is that it wants to play. I will spend an inordinate amount of time writing down possible titles until I find one my imagination seizes upon. When The Invention of Wings popped into my head, my imagination sort of lit up. Wings, of course, symbolize flight and freedom, and they became a central metaphor in the story. I discovered an American black folktale about people in Africa being able to fly and then losing their wings when captured into slavery, and that notion began to slip into the story in different ways. Sometimes, while writing, I listened to songs the slaves sang: “Now let me fly… now let me fly, now let me fly way up high.” The title, The Invention of Wings, suggests the sweeping social movements toward freedom that began erupting at the time—abolition and women’s rights—but the real essence of the title for me is the individual and personal ways my characters invented their wings.


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.”

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