Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Invention of Wings, follows in the footsteps of her other two bestselling novels, The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees, bringing to life strong southern women discovering their true power and purpose in life. Inspired in part by the abolitionist and feminist Sarah Grimkë, Kidd explores the relationship between an urban slave in early-nineteenth-century Charleston and her young owner, both struggling to be free of the religious dogma of the time. Here more from this spiritual and thought-provoking author on the latest Oprah 2.0 Book Club pick:
Jennifer Haupt: Religion is a heavy theme in this novel. Tell us about that.
Sue Monk Kidd: In the early 1800s, religion was often used as a way to keep slavery in place. Slaves were forced to attend the church of their owners, listen to selective dogma that kept them obedient and subservient. I wanted to portray that misuse of religious dogma and how evil can lurk in plain sight and we don’t see it. It becomes so familiar that we can even use religion to promote it and sustain it. I feel like we need to be aware of the ways we use and misuse religious dogma, whether it takes us deeper into love and inclusion or it separates us.
JH: Would you say that the two main characters, a slave named Handful and her owner Sarah Grimkë, were both struggling with faith?
SMK: Sarah was a deeply religious person, and she searched for a way to relate to God and find a church that didn’t condone slavery. She was always butting up against the confines of organized religion, trying to find her voice within that construct and create change.
Handful and her mother Charlotte made were also rebelling against the world that Christianity imposed on them, but they went about their search for something larger than themselves in a very different way than Sarah. They had the spirit tree in the yard, where they kept their souls safe. They had the story quilt that Charlotte made that patched together pieces of their family history and their struggles to become free. They had the story of the invention of wings, the belief that something spiritual — magical — could uplift them and carry them away from slavery.
Neither Handful or Sarah was right or wrong, it’s just that we have these different lenses through which we can approach these mysteries.
JH: Which character came to you most clearly?
SMK: Handful came to me quite clearly, while Sarah was more difficult because of all of the historical documentation about her. Handful would talk and talk to me, and I had a very strong sense of who she was. I have to say that I fell in love with this slave girl who was never allowed to say to her owner all of the things that she said to me.
JH: What’s the significance of the spirit tree?
SMK: I’m a big believer in the way ritual can put us in connection with our spirituality.
In The Secret Life of Bees, I created a wall based on the wailing wall in Jerusalem in which people tuck their prayers, as a ritual, a way to put their sufferings and deepest desires into these rocks that would hold them. I gave that to my character, May, as somewhere sacred to keep her thoughts. The spirit tree is like May’s wall. It centers Handful and her mother, gives them a sense of belonging to one another, as well as to the earth and the divine. It gives them a portal into somewhere that transcends where they are, a sense of faith.
JH: Do you have rituals that connect you with the creativity it takes to create a believable story world?
SMK: Every writer has their rituals. For me, it’s morning walks along the beach. And then, in my study I have a huge painting of the Black Madonna hung over my desk, and quite a few pictures of Mary around me for inspiration.
JH: What’s the significance of the Black Madonna?
SMK: A while back, I studied archetypal feminine images of the divine and grew fascinated with how the Virgin Mary has been a Divine Mother for millions of people across the centuries. The rare black-skinned Madonnas captivated me immediately. They are among the oldest Madonna images in the world, and their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses.
Jennifer Haupt contributes stories and book reviews to a wide variety of magazines. Haupt’s new e-book Will you be my Mother? The quest to answer yes, includes three stories from her journey to love better and connect more deeply with her children, her mother, and the world. Author profits from this mini-memoir through May 2014 will be donated to mothers2mothers, which trains, employs, and empowers mothers living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. For more information about Jennifer, visit her website or Facebook page.
Parts of this interview first appeared in Spirituality & Health Magazine.