SUE MONK KIDD: A Soaring New Novel
In her latest novel, The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd tells a tale of the relationship between an urban slave in early-1800s Charleston and her conflicted young owner, as both struggle with the dogma of their times.
Religion is an important theme in this novel. Tell us about that.
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.
Would you say that the two main characters, a slave named Handful and her owner, Sarah Grimke, a real-life abolitionist and feminist who inspired your story, were both struggling with faith?
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, 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. They had the spirit tree in the yard, where they kept their souls safe. They had the story quilt 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 nor Sarah was right or wrong. It’s just that we have different lenses through which we can approach these mysteries.
What’s the significance of the spirit tree?
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.
Do you have rituals that help you connect with the creativity it takes to create the worlds within your stories?
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.