Sarah and Angelina Grimke caused a sensation in the antebellum South and beyond by not keeping their abolitionist and feminist views to themselves. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd weaves their true story into her latest work of fiction, “The Invention of Wings.” We talk with Kidd about the novel, her inspiration and her work.

Guests

  • Sue Monk Kidd author, 'The Invention of Wings'

Read An Excerpt

From “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Sue Monk Kidd Ltd., 2014.

Transcript

  • 13:06:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, speaking out against slavery in the South could be a dangerous deed. But, two sisters from Charleston did just that, refusing to be silent in the face of injustice by decrying the horrors of slavery and rejecting the way of life it supported. They sparked a dual controversy by virtue of their gender.

  • 13:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese sisters, Sarah and Nina Grimke, are central characters in the latest novel from bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd, in which their true stories are interwoven with the largely imagined lives of the Grimke family slaves. Including one named Hetty, gifted to Sarah in life and on the page on her 11th birthday. Here to tell us more about the sisters, the slaves and their lives, real and imagined, is Sue Monk Kidd. She is the bestselling author of several novels and memoirs.

  • 13:07:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis latest book is called "The Invention of Wings." Sue Monk Kidd, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:53

    MS. SUE MONK KIDDMy pleasure. Thank you for having me.

  • 13:07:57

    NNAMDISarah Grimke's life provided inspiration for this novel. Many may not be familiar with her work as an abolitionist and for women's rights well before the Suffrage movement coalesced. How did you come to know her?

  • 13:08:10

    MR. ALI LATIFII happened upon her in the Brooklyn Museum not so long ago, actually, in 2007. And it seemed like I should have known her, but somehow, I had missed learning about Sarah and her sister Angelina. And I was from Charleston. I was living there at the time. But I came upon them on the heritage walls of the Judy Chicago Dinner Party Exhibit. And there they were. These two sisters from Charleston, and I thought, how did I not know about them?

  • 13:08:44

    NNAMDIAnd so, you decided to immerse yourself in their history.

  • 13:08:48

    KIDDI did. I went home, determined to learn everything I could about them. And the more I learned, the more captivated I was. I was really swept away by their lives and what they accomplished and what they gave up.

  • 13:09:04

    NNAMDIYou've written memoirs and novels previously, and it's my understanding you enjoy reading historical fiction. Did you have any hesitation about diving into that genre as an author?

  • 13:09:15

    KIDDWell, I knew there would be a lot of research involved, and I wasn't too daunted by that. I was excited to write a historical novel, actually. What was daunting was trying -- well, there was a lot of things. But one of them was trying to weave history and imagination together. How do you do that? And then, how do I write in the voice of an enslaved character from so long ago? I mean, there were a lot of challenges, of course.

  • 13:09:45

    NNAMDIAnd frankly, Sue Monk Kidd met them all in "The Invention of Wings." You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments for her. Do you think it's sometimes easier to open a dialogue about race and talking about it through a historic lens? Tell us why you think so or why not. 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can also send us a tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Took four years for you to write this book. Why?

  • 13:10:20

    KIDDWell, part of it is because I'm a slow, meticulous writer, I think. I'm not the fastest kid on the block when it comes to writing. But this was a demanding book that I felt really needed time to age and grow. And I wanted to texture it with a lot of levels and layers and really have a conversation there that people could talk about race and gender and this daring and courage to find our voice in the world.

  • 13:10:52

    NNAMDISo you had to put yourself back in the 19th century where your husband was convinced that you were actually living. Is he now welcoming you back to the 21st century?

  • 13:11:01

    KIDDHe would tug me out every day. But, you do. You sort of time travel or something back to the 19th century, and try to create a really vivid, detailed world. And, yes, I hung out there for four years.

  • 13:11:14

    NNAMDIHad to send the dog to get you from time to time.

  • 13:11:16

    KIDDHe did. That's right.

  • 13:11:18

    NNAMDIEven as we mark the Civil War sesquicentennial, this nation's history with slavery is something we're still uncomfortable with, uneasy talking about. And yet, we're seeing novels like yours, films like "12 Years a Slave." Do you think we're in a particularly reflective moment or is that just a coincidence?

  • 13:11:38

    KIDDWell, I'm not sure, but I want to believe that we are coming to a particularly reflective moment. I like how you put that, actually. It does seem to me that we are more willing to look at this more unflinchingly than we have been, perhaps. And, frankly, it's high time, you know, for us to begin to do that, to look at slavery. I don't feel like it's been totally resolved. I think it's the great American wound. And it's time for us to think about talking about it and healing it and looking at it without having to look away and close our eyes.

  • 13:12:16

    NNAMDIYes, in "The Secret Life of Bees," you looked at the civil rights and you looked at racism, but this time you said you wanted to get to the roots of racism. Why?

  • 13:12:27

    KIDDWell, I'm very concerned with this whole matter of race and race relations. It matters to me very much, personally. And yes, I dealt with civil rights. I wanted to go back to ground zero, so to speak, because slavery has left a legacy in this country. And that legacy lingers still, and any way that we can think about race through the lens of history is usually very good. It allows us a way to have a conversation about it.

  • 13:12:56

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with author Sue Monk Kidd and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. She is the bestselling author of several novels and memoirs. Her latest book, the one we're talking about today mostly, is "The Invention of Wings." You can also shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. What challenges do you see in depicting the relationships between slaves and their owners in modern works? 800-433-8850. As with any work of historical fiction, you do take some liberties with the Grimke sisters story. Was it difficult to decide where to depart from what you had learned about them?

  • 13:13:36

    KIDDVery difficult. I was really awed by their story. And I think I revered it to the point that I had to pry myself loose from it, as a novelist, to find Sarah Grimke, one of the narrators of the novel, in my imagination as well as in history. And that was really crucial to be able to do. So yes, you know, it had to be, I had to set her free, so to speak.

  • 13:14:03

    NNAMDIIs it because you had the history in front of you? Is it because the historical record was there that that, in fact, seemed to, for a while, put a fence around your imagination?

  • 13:14:15

    KIDDYes. Exactly. She came with this great big historical script. And I was nervous about veering off of script with her, unlike my character Hetty, who I could give free reign in my imagination. So, she became a little more accessible to me. So it took me a little while to get Sarah's voice going from my imagination. And once I did that, I felt like, you know, she became alive.

  • 13:14:42

    NNAMDIIn a way, Hetty was real, though, in a way, imagined. The real part is that you found out that Sarah Grimke was actually given a slave as a gift for her 11th birthday.

  • 13:14:53

    KIDDYes. Well, we know she was given a slave as a girl. Probably around 11 to 12.

  • 13:14:58

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 13:14:58

    KIDDI think the birthday party was my invention.

  • 13:15:00

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 13:15:01

    KIDDBut yes, she received this child, who was an enslaved girl around her own age. We know that from Sarah's journal, and we know that she taught her to read, which was against the law in South Carolina. And then we know that Hetty died relatively young of some unknown disease. So that's all we really knew. She was kind of a footnote in this story, and the minute I read that, I thought, all right, here's the other half of this story. Here is what I want to tell. I want to give her a story and a life, an imagined life.

  • 13:15:36

    NNAMDIThe story is, in fact, told by Sarah and Hetty, the Grimke family's slave, also known as Handful. And I guess once you found out that she was not fenced in by a detailed historical record, you could allow your imagination to take over in the character of Hetty.

  • 13:15:56

    KIDDYes, and she really did from the beginning, I think. She had a lot to tell me, a lot to say. And she would talk and I tried to listen to this character. I wanted to really drop in to her mind and her heart and see the world through her eyes and limbs. And, you know, I did my best, and she just really had a lot to say.

  • 13:16:21

    NNAMDIWell, here's what the aspiring writers want to know. What do you mean when you say this character began to talk to you?

  • 13:16:27

    KIDDYes.

  • 13:16:28

    NNAMDIThis is a character largely of your own creation.

  • 13:16:31

    KIDDYes, I know. We sound like -- it sounds crazy, doesn't it? I know.

  • 13:16:34

    NNAMDIBut it isn't.

  • 13:16:36

    KIDDWell, the imagination of a novelist, I guess, is a kind of mulitverse. And there are just all sorts of voices in there when you start creating a story, and they feel autonomous in a weird way. And I think we have to just listen to these voices. I have no idea where they come from. But they're in there in all of us.

  • 13:16:58

    NNAMDIWhat's Hetty like?

  • 13:17:00

    KIDDHetty. I fell in love with this character, every bit as much as I did Sarah Grimke, and perhaps even more. Hetty had this incredibly wonderful heart full of feistiness and defiance and strength and humor, irony. She wanted desperately to have a free life and a voice. And she never gave up. She learned this, I think, largely from her mother.

  • 13:17:32

    NNAMDICharlotte. Did you struggle to find the words to depict and explain the relationship between Sarah and Hetty, because there's a great deal of nuance in their relationship that's sometimes missing in stories about how slaves and the families they belonged to regard one another.

  • 13:17:47

    KIDDWell, it's an incredibly delicate and complex relationship. And I very much wanted to get this right, if I possibly could. I feel like it's a relationship that is uneasy. It's disfigured by a lot of things. It's not an equal relationship at all. In fact, I think there's a line in the novel where Hetty says, you know, love gets fouled by a relationship, a friendship like ours. And I think they wanted a friendship, and yet, it was full of guilt and defiance and indifference. And they tried to reach across this place and find a commonality.

  • 13:18:31

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Let's start with Ron in Acakwan, Virginia. Ron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:40

    RONHello. Thank you for taking my call. Now, my call is not specifically about the book that she is writing. Although, I find that fascinating. My question is I was interested in having a historian such as herself comment on this. I'm an owner of a historic mansion in the town of Acakwan. It was built in 1758. But just before the Civil War, an event happened here that had a profound effect on the beginning of the Civil War, which most people are not really quite aware of. But we had a reenactment a few years ago called The Flag Event. What happened was the owner of this property at that time was a Quaker.

  • 13:19:29

    RONAnd there were a number of Quakers in the town of Acakwan, which as a side note, I'll tell you, the only people that voted for Lincoln during the first election from the state of Virginia, of course, since they didn't vote in the second election, but, were from the town of Acakwan. And most of them were Quakers. But at any rate, one of the towns members asked Mr. Janney if he could put up a flag promoting Lincoln, and he said yes. Well, the people in Prince William's County became very incensed at that thought. And they asked the governor -- they wrote the governor and asked him to take it down.

  • 13:20:12

    RONAnd so they sent the militia and the militia, which was a local militia, to do just that. While they were in the process, a man by the name of Jackson, no relation to Stonewall, but came up and interjected himself into the event and asked if he could chop the flag down, to which they said, certainly you do the work. And he did. And he took that flag back to Alexandria and put it up on top of what was called the Marshall Inn at that time. It's been torn down since then. I'm sure that the people of Alexandria don't want to be reminded of what happened there.

  • 13:20:49

    RONBut...

  • 13:20:51

    NNAMDIRon, you see a historical novel out of that real piece of history?

  • 13:20:56

    RONI would hope so. I hoped somebody that would ghostwrite that one or write it...

  • 13:21:00

    NNAMDIWell, there's a connection between that and what you can read in Sue Monk Kidd's "The Invention of Wings" and that's the Quakers.

  • 13:21:08

    KIDDWell, yeah. Yes, well, the Quakers of course were among the first -- maybe the first religion in America to have an antislavery doctrine. And for that they were I think amazing. And I have a great deal of respect and reverence for that. Of course there were conservative elements of it and liberal elements of it. But yes, they stood for that. And my character Sarah Grimke ended up in the north as an exile taking up with the Quakers. And it became a platform for her.

  • 13:21:41

    NNAMDIThat's the connection right there, Ron. Thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments. Do you think urban slavery has gotten the attention it deserves in historical works, 800-433-8850? We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Sue Monk Kidd. We're discussing her latest book "Invention of Wings." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:53

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Sue Monk Kidd. She's the Best Selling author of seven novels and memoirs. We're discussing her latest book. It's called "The Invention of Wings." But of course you can join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of historical fiction? Tell us why you enjoy it or if you don't, what bothers you, 800-433-8850. You can shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org.

  • 13:24:18

    NNAMDIHetty Handful is very close to her mother, Charlotte, from whom she learns the skills of being a seamstress. She also inherits a bravery, a kind of bravado that sustains her through very dark times. How crucial was it to you that these characters portray that sense of self worth despite their circumstances?

  • 13:24:37

    KIDDI thought it was very important in this instance. I mean, I wanted to portray Hetty with dignity, not as a passive victim. I feel this -- it was important to me to portray in the novel how the enslaved population resisted, how they rebelled and struggled. And I wanted to do this in these individual lives. Charlotte, her mother and Hetty, I mean, it was -- I wanted them to become as empowered as they possibly could and to subvert this system as much as they possibly could. And so that was definitely woven into the novel on purpose.

  • 13:25:16

    NNAMDII'd like you to read a little bit of that from "The Invention of Wings" about the aforementioned Hetty or Handful as her mother called her.

  • 13:25:24

    KIDDWell, this is in the voice of Hetty. "Already that morning Missus had taken her cane stick to me once cross my backside for falling asleep during her devotions. Every day, all us slaves, everyone but Rosetta, who was old and demented, jammed in the dining room before breakfast to fight off sleep while missus taught us short Bible verses like 'Jesus wept' and prayed out loud about God's favorite subject, obedience. If you nodded off, you got whacked right in the middle of God said this and God said that.

  • 13:25:59

    KIDDI was full of sass to Aunt-Sister about the whole miserable business. I'd say, 'Let this cup pass from me,' spouting one of Missus' verses. I'd say, 'Jesus wept cause he's trapped in there with missus, like us.' Aunt-Sister was the cook. She'd been with missus since missus was a girl, and next to Tomfry, the butler, she ran the whole show. She was the only one who could tell Missus what to do without getting smacked by the cane. Mauma said watch your tongue, but I never did. Aunt-Sister popped me backward three times a day.

  • 13:26:33

    KIDDI was a handful. That's not how I got my name, though. Handful was my basket name. The master and missus, they did all the proper naming, but a mauma would look on her baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her, something about what her baby looked like, what day of the week it was, what the weather was doing, or just how the world seemed on that day. My mauma's basket name was Summer, but her proper name was Charlotte. She had a brother whose basket name was Hardtime. People think I make that up, but it's true as it can be.

  • 13:27:09

    KIDDIf you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma. Master Grimké named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful."

  • 13:27:23

    NNAMDISue Monk Kidd reading about Hetty called Handful by a loving mother from the book "The Invention of Wings." Sue Monk Kidd joins us in studio. You too can join us. Just give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you've called, stay on the line, we will get to your calls. If you'd like to call or the lines are busy, you can shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. Though Charlotte, Hetty's mother, is literate, she records her history for posterity on the squares of a quilt. Was that a common practice that you found in your research?

  • 13:27:57

    KIDDI don't know how common it was but I suspect that a lot of enslaved women might have done this. There was a tradition in Africa that somehow came with them of course in which quilts were made that told stories. And how does an illiterate woman forbidden to read and write record her history or tell her story? And that was important to think about for me because I think in the power of story, the healing ability of story and I wanted her to have a means to do this.

  • 13:28:32

    KIDDSo I thought about these so-called slave quilts that I had heard about and actually have seen one at the Smithsonian. It belonged to Harriett Powers. And they're just masterpieces of art and narration. And so I gave Charlotte this ability to use her needle and thread to create her story, kind of a visual memoir in the quilt.

  • 13:28:58

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Lisa in Brunswick, Md. Lisa, your turn.

  • 13:29:05

    LISAHello. It's an honor and a pleasure to be able to speak with both of you today. Ms. Kidd, you have been a true inspiration to me not only as a writer and a historian, but also as a woman through your memoirs. And I was brought to your works by a customer I had at a bookstore one time who introduced me to "The Secret Life of Bees," which was just a transformational novel for me.

  • 13:29:31

    LISABut I'm wondering, as a writer myself and working with historical fiction, especially looking at the time period of your new book, how do you handle tackling controversial subjects such as slavery or discrimination or race, especially from the perspective of a white woman without touching any raw nerves or tiptoeing around those raw nerves? Because it always seems like you write so prolifically from the voices of the characters that you inhabit. And I'm just curious how you go about doing that because I find myself catching on those challenges from time to time.

  • 13:30:12

    NNAMDIIndeed, Sue Monk Kidd, for white authors writing central characters who are black can bring a fair amount of scrutiny. But it's something you've never shied away from in your fiction.

  • 13:30:22

    KIDDWell, I really appreciate that comment from you and that question. I want -- I can't say that I wasn't daunted by writing about something as big as American slavery or by writing in the voice of Hetty Handful. I didn't take this lightly, I assure you, but I was compelled -- deeply compelled to do it. And I think a novelist must listen to that place inside of them where they are compelled and where they are guided by their most authentic creative self, so to speak. And that's just what I try to do.

  • 13:30:56

    KIDDYou know, I'm thinking about a course I took in college on Ralph Waldo Emerson where he talked about something he called the common heart. And it's this -- he said it's this place inside of us where we share an intrinsic almost innate unity with all humanity. Well, all you can do is just try to go to that place. It's not where, you know, crossing these boundaries, culture and race and gender. I think we have to open those up and really become one another and get to that common heart that we all share.

  • 13:31:34

    KIDDAnd this is, you know, the best thing we can do as readers and writers. And you want your work to be a portal into that place for readers. But writers have to go there too and that's -- I guess the only thing I can say is that I was compelled to find the common heart. Race is a common history and we've got to find the commonality and dialogue in that.

  • 13:31:57

    NNAMDIAnd you should know, Lisa, that Sue Monk Kidd started to write the character Hetty in the third person.

  • 13:32:05

    LISAOh, wow.

  • 13:32:06

    NNAMDIBut she can tell you how and why that changed.

  • 13:32:09

    KIDDThat's right. I started off timidly, and letting Hetty talk in third person, and it just simply didn't work. She kept breaking into first person. I love the first person voice a lot because, you know, you're so intimate in the character and you can explore the inner world. But Hetty refused that distance. And so I just gave up and I thought, okay here we go. I kept a little sign on my desk that said, be fearless on the page. And I needed that message.

  • 13:32:44

    KIDDBut I think as authors we have to be fearless on the page and follow, you know, our best instinct about this. And that, what can I say, it's just I tired. I tried to do it.

  • 13:32:56

    NNAMDIHetty was fearless on her mind too so you had to write Hetty in the third person as Hetty kept coming through.

  • 13:33:02

    LISAWell, and everything that you've written has spoken to that, just how you're able to inhabit those characters and speak for them. And it's almost as though you give voice to historic events or people who may not have been real people at the time but those who represent certain events. And I just think of the work that you did in "The Secret Life of Bees" that just so perfectly captured a time period that I was never a witness to, but gave an impression of what that time period in that place, especially Tiberon was like. And it just blew me away.

  • 13:33:43

    NNAMDIWell, Lisa, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:33:46

    LISAThank you.

  • 13:33:47

    NNAMDIWe move on now to Shannon in Annapolis, Md. Shannon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:33:53

    SHANNONOh, great. Thanks very much. I am wondering as an historian and in writing historical fiction, at what point do you -- can you say to yourself, okay, I've done all of the research that I need to do. And I can free myself to allow the creative process to take over? Because as an historian, which I am myself, you know, it's -- there's that drive to make sure that you don't -- you know, that you don't sort of, for lack of a better word, kind of slime the period, if you will, and make up gross falsehoods about it. And that's what I'm curious about because for me that's a big struggle.

  • 13:34:43

    KIDDI think it is a real challenge, that inner section where history and imagination comes together. It was a little bit of a rocky beginning for me because I had not written an historical novel before, and I had to, you know, figure it out. I revered the history of Sarah Grimke so much once I discovered it, read her biographies, that I wouldn't let myself leave it easily. And finally one day, I said to myself, you know, Sue, you're a novelist. You have to invent. You have to use your imagination.

  • 13:35:21

    KIDDBut I'll say this, you know, I'm not a historian. I'm a novelist, a writer. And so I needed to make history foundational. And I think it is in this book, but I grafted on a lot of things. But the dates, the chronology, what happened in these sisters' lives ,their turning points? It's pretty much all there. And I worked hard to get it there so that I wanted a reader to be able to discover or rediscover these women and really feel they had a sense of their real history.

  • 13:35:56

    KIDDBut, you know, sometimes truth is different than facts in a novel. And we have to serve the story. So that's my primary need was to serve the story so that people could identify with these characters and take this journey with them.

  • 13:36:12

    NNAMDIAnd the distinction between researching and writing is not always that clear, because even though you spent the first six months or so exclusively on research before you started writing, it's my understanding reading what you have said in previous conversations and interviews, that even as you were doing this writing, you were always interrupting yourself and going back to check on the historical material.

  • 13:36:36

    KIDDYes, it never stops. Exactly. And there was a point where I had to say, okay enough research. You've got to write the story because you can get lost in that too. And one thing led to another but I wanted to render as authentic a world as I could full of rich details from that time and place so, you know, I did it six months. But then when I started writing the story, it was constantly needing to find out some detail here or there. So the research continues as the story's written too.

  • 13:37:08

    NNAMDIOn now to Tina in Washington, D.C. Tina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:37:13

    TINAHello. Yes. I wanted to ask you, through this journey, did you discover something you hadn't quite understood before? And also as a result, do you draw any parallels with the black human condition today with what you came up with for your story?

  • 13:37:45

    NNAMDISue Monk Kidd.

  • 13:37:46

    KIDDYeah, a wonderful question. And, well, there -- I learned so much. I discovered so much. Some of it was quite traumatic. You know, I learned about slavery in school like most people, what you do learn about it, and then through books and films. But I was completely unprepared to be plunged into the research I did. Emotionally I would sometimes have to get up and leave my desk. It was disturbing and yet important to face.

  • 13:38:19

    KIDDThere's, I think, a moment in our lives, certainly as collectively as a country where I think we have to come to terms with the trauma of slavery. And, I don't know, maybe this is our moment. But I remember in my research, I came upon this legally executed inventory or appraisal of the goods and chattel in the Grimke household at the time of the father's death in 1819. And as I'm reading along page after page of all of these, you now, harpsichords and chairs and tables, suddenly I came upon the names of 17 slaves. And it almost brought me to my knees.

  • 13:39:07

    KIDDThey were listed between a brussel carpet and so many yards -- I think it was 10 yards of cotton and flax. The casual cruelty of that, the banality of that, the invisibility of that was so shocking and so disturbing. I think there are just -- there are moments like that in the research and in the writing. But it only creates empathy, which is the best place for a writer to write from. And the best place for a reader to read from is that place of empathy.

  • 13:39:43

    KIDDYou know, today I think this legacy still lingers. We're in a highly racialized society it seems to me. There are still racial problems. They're not solved. There's still this invisibility of white privilege. And I just hope that the book can maybe raise these kinds of questions.

  • 13:40:05

    NNAMDIAnd in the book, Hetty comes across a list somewhat similar to that one, and her mother says, ain't nobody can't write down in a book what you worth.

  • 13:40:14

    KIDDThat's right. And that's the reason it's in the novel because I came upon it and this became my character's moment of confrontation with the trauma of slavery, too. And, you know, it's unassimiable (sic) . It's unspeakable when you find yourself confronting this, and she had to find her way to resolve it.

  • 13:40:37

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Sue Monk Kidd about her latest book. It's called "The Invention of Wings." You can call us, 800-433-8850. Got questions for Sue Monk Kidd, or you can send us an email to kojo@wamu.org. What lessons do you think we can learn about current race and gender issues by examining an reexamining the past? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:42:49

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is author Sue Monk Kidd, best-selling author of several novels and memoirs. We're discussing her latest book. It's called "The Invention of Wings." The mother of the Grimke girls is a very different kind of mother than Charlotte, Hetty's mother. She presides over the household, including the slaving, meting out punishment for all. Is she in any way a victim of her era, or would that be letting her off the hook?

  • 13:43:16

    KIDDYeah. She's difficult to let off the hook. She's a very harsh woman in a way in the novel. She is a woman of her time. She's totally enculturated. She buys into slavery just as almost everyone did at that time in the south, and it was strangely invisible to them, which is one of the most disturbing parts of it. But she didn't know what to do with these two girls of hers. She called her alien daughters and there was constant conflict. I think she was harsh in the way she managed the household slaves. There's evidence that this was historically true. She meted out common punishments to them.

  • 13:44:03

    NNAMDIAnd very physically too. You've written about your own experience questioning your faith and sexism you've encountered firsthand. Did that help you to understand or develop and write these characters?

  • 13:44:16

    KIDDWell, I think having gone through a time in my life where I had to free myself, so to speak, from my own enculturation, you know, to think for myself what is my voice in the world, how do I transcend the limits of my world, and begin to break out. I can identify with Sarah in that regard who went through a similar process, perhaps much more intense than mine, but I grew up in pre-feminist America, pre-civil rights America in the south, and -- as a white person. And, you know, I saw a great many things -- divides and injustices and cruelties and they stayed with me. And so I wanted very much to be able to tell a story that would touch on these things.

  • 13:45:10

    NNAMDIThe Grimkes were in a way suffragettes before the movement began in earnest. Was their dual pursuit of women's rights and abolition unusual at that time?

  • 13:45:22

    KIDDI think it was, actually, quite unusual at that time. In fact, the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina were the ones who linked abolition and women's rights in a very controversial way. I mean, abolitionists weren't totally happy about this, I must say, and it's not as if the sisters intended it. It was because they went out there on this public crusade, anti-slavery crusade. The first female abolition agents in America, and they took it on, but they were intended to talk to women in ladies' parlors in a kind of contained way.

  • 13:46:02

    KIDDThey weren't supposed to speak to men, and they weren't supposed to get too public with it, because to leave the domestic sphere was really unheard of. So they were already pushing the boundaries. But then, of course, men began to come to the audience. They became infamous. I mean they were -- they were very misbehaved women in a lot of ways, and so when men began to come it sparked this big controversy and backlash, and suddenly they were proponents of a woman's right to speak. So that's how it got linked, and they stood by it to the bitter end, you know.

  • 13:46:40

    NNAMDICould you read a little bit about that from the book?

  • 13:46:43

    KIDDYes. And I should say that this paragraph is -- comes in the novel when Sarah is on the cusp of stepping up onto this great big stage she's about to embark upon with her public crusade. "I stared at the blank plank of rafter over my head and it came to me that what I feared most was not speaking. That fear was old and tired. What I feared was the immensity of it all, a female abolition agent traveling the country with a national mandate. I wanted to say who am I do this, a woman?

  • 13:47:26

    KIDD"But that voice was not mine. It was father's voice. It was Thomas's. It belonged to Israel, to Katherine and to mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers in Philadelphia. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me."

  • 13:47:43

    NNAMDIAnd that's Sue Monk Kidd reading about Sarah from the book "The Invention of Wings." Speaking of the Grimke family, let's go to Jean in Washington DC for her question. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:59

    JEANI want to know if during your research you came across Archibald Grimke, the Reverend Archibald Grimke, who became the minister of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church here in Washington.

  • 13:48:18

    NNAMDIHere is Sue Monk Kidd.

  • 13:48:20

    KIDDI certainly did.

  • 13:48:21

    JEANGood.

  • 13:48:21

    KIDDI mean, the legacy of the Grimke family is quite extraordinary. I mean, right at the very beginnings of civil rights, I think we can attribute a lot of the thought of civil rights and innovations of civil rights to the Grimkes, to Archibald and, you know, his brother. You know, how that happened is a whole novel in itself of that line, but briefly, Sarah and Angelina had a brother Henry who had an illicit relationship with a slave woman that bore children, and no one really knew about them until later in life when suddenly Angelina's reading the newspaper one day and she comes upon the name of Grimke, and they take these nephews in and help them and are part of their lives.

  • 13:49:19

    KIDDAnd it's a most amazing thing, and their ancestors go on to do these extraordinary accomplishments.

  • 13:49:28

    NNAMDIJean, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:49:30

    JEANThank you.

  • 13:49:31

    NNAMDIYou too can call us at 800-433-8850. Here's Rob in Wheaton, Md. Rob, your turn.

  • 13:49:38

    ROBOh, thank you for taking my call. Interesting subject. And I just wanted to quickly relay, when I had read quite a bit through the slave narratives, a friend referred me to a -- the black slave owners book by Washington native, African-American, Larry Koger. It goes through primarily the 1840s and '50s and with great detail, and meticulous references and sources in the back to the varying degrees that the blacks that owned slaves in Charleston, their standings in the community, and a lot had to do with skin color, their resume so to speak, and then wondered if you had used that in any of your research, this particular book.

  • 13:50:29

    KIDDI'm aware of the book, but it was not one that I relied on enormously. I did read a great many slave narratives from the 19th century, as well as from the 1930s when they were interviewing the last of the slaves. And that was incredibly helpful to me to, you know, see the details of their lives and hear their voices.

  • 13:50:58

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rob. One of the things I especially enjoyed about this novel is that whenever one thought one knew what was coming next, that wasn't what happened. Do you consciously do that? Do you consciously push past the obvious option, or does that skill come naturally to you?

  • 13:51:19

    KIDDWell, I think that as a storyteller, you follow your instincts, and you always want the series of astonishments, and so I tried to create surprise. You lead the reader down one alley and then a la, you know, it goes somewhere else. So that's always part of, I think, a storyteller's instinct to do. But you know, the Grimke sisters' lives, Sarah Grimke, I followed their script historically, and they had one surprise after another in their lives. So my job was really to tell it, but also to create this kind of experience for Handful, too.

  • 13:52:00

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. By the way, if you're interested, the book that our caller Rob was referring to is called "Black Slave Owners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina 1790 to 1860." It's by Larry Koger K-O-G-E-R. We move on now to Maskila (sp?) in Washington DC. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:24

    MASKILAThank you so much for this opportunity. I do have a sample on my Kindle, and I look forward to reading it. Just wanted to say that the language around slavery has changed. When you say slaves, it sounds like it's just one party, but were enslaved. We were brought from Africa and made slaves. So people now are saying enslaved, and not just slaves, you know. So I hope that in the future that you will be able to use those terms.

  • 13:52:56

    NNAMDIYou think that by not saying enslaved one can get the impression that the slaves were home grown so to speak?

  • 13:53:04

    MASKILAI think so. I think you can say that they were just happy people, people who decided they wanted to do X, Y, and Z to help out their white masters. Very happy, and they did it willingly. And when you say enslaved, it brings about the terror, the horror of being made a slave, because it was horrible.

  • 13:53:25

    NNAMDISue Monk Kidd?

  • 13:53:25

    KIDDYeah. I couldn't agree with you more. I'm very aware of what you're saying, and I try very hard to say enslaved. It becomes very repetitious at times, you know, to continue saying it when you're in an interview, but I do agree with you. I think your point is extremely well taken.

  • 13:53:43

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Maskila. Your earlier novels have enjoyed long stays on best seller lists. You're in the early days of this book tour that will take you across the country over the next month or so. How do you reconcile the solitude, the solitary work you do as a writer with the very public work of being an author?

  • 13:54:04

    KIDDWell, I try to reconcile it. It's not always easy. I realized at one point that there are two aspects to this. There is my writing self, the one that shows up to work in her sweatpants and her t-shirt and her bedroom shoes, and writes alone all day long with my dog at my feet. And then there's this public persona that you have when you go out on a book tour and you meet your readers. I don't -- I always thought of my writing self as my true home, but I try very hard when I'm out meeting my readers to really listen, and it's a privilege actually, you know, to meet them and hear them and have the experience of being outside my study for a change.

  • 13:54:53

    KIDDBut it's not easy to always reconcile that, you know. It's two different aspects of myself, and I try to, you know, navigate back and forth.

  • 13:55:02

    NNAMDITruman Capote seemed to enjoy the public part more than he enjoyed the writing part. At least one got that impression at times. It was fascinating to see some of the historic figures who pop up in this novel, including Denmark Vesey, one of my own heroes.

  • 13:55:18

    KIDDDenmark Vesey was such a serendipity for me to find out that -- or to realize suddenly, oh he -- his slave plot happened during the chronology of this novel, and it's going to coincide very well, so I began to weave it into the story and entwine Handful's life with this slave plot. And I was so glad that I could do it, because I wanted to give some recognition to him because I don't know that everyone is aware of what would have been the largest, and it is probably the least known slave insurrection in America.

  • 13:55:55

    NNAMDIYeah.

  • 13:55:57

    KIDDAnd it was quite extraordinary. And he was, you know, killed for it.

  • 13:56:01

    NNAMDIYeah. Denmark Vesey in Charleston. After reading the novel, you can't help but be struck, both by how far we have come, and how far we have not come since Sarah and Hetty's time. Has exploring this history helped you to better understand where we are today, and do you think we need more figures with an activist bent like the Grimkes had today?

  • 13:56:23

    KIDDWell, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have more people around with that kind of incredibly keen moral consciousness, you know. These people that see around the corner and see clearly what is in front of us. I think part of the beauty or the relevance of historical fiction is that it allows us to look at where we are today, maybe from a different perspective. We are the sum of our history, and so we can look at who we were, how we got here, and that can tell us a whole lot about where we're going, if we can see it clearly.

  • 13:57:00

    KIDDMaybe one of the -- as I've already eluded, one of the most problematic things I realized in writing the book is that slavery was so invisible to people. So it makes you wonder, you know, what are we not seeing today, what is invisible to us today, and I think we have a great long way to go, and we need sharp-eyed people and people with voices to speak boldly about it.

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDIAnd that invisibility lasted a long time. Reading this book causes one to remember that we had slavery for a long period -- longer period of time than we have had the abolition of slavery.

  • 13:57:38

    KIDDYes. It can be shocking to realize that. 246 years of slavery in this county, and something like a 150 years of abolition. So it's deep in our consciousness. I think it was James Cone, who is sometimes thought of as the black liberation theologian or the father of that. He said that it's in our American DNA, and we're not going to resolve it by refusing to look at these dark episodes of our history, but it's woven in there and it's time to look at it.

  • 13:58:11

    NNAMDISue Monk Kidd is the best-selling author of several novels and memoirs. Her latest book is "The Invention of Wings." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:19

    KIDDThank you very much.

  • 13:58:20

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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