The novel tells the story of four women from Charleston, South Carolina—two sisters from the prosperous white Grimké family and an African American mother and daughter who are the Grimkés' house slaves. All four share an ardent desire to break free: Sarah and Angelina Grimké from the constraints of being female in the early 19th century, and Hetty and her mother, Charlotte, from the bonds of slavery.
Though the tale is fictional, the Grimké sisters were real-life abolitionists whose stories captivated Kidd. Also drawn from real life is Hetty, nicknamed Handful. Her character sealed the deal for me. She profoundly deepened my understanding of what it was to be an urban slave and of what striving for freedom and dignity feels like on the inside.
Kidd was drawn to tell Hetty's story because she is a seeker herself, on a mission to deeply engage with the world. She grew up in a time when women were pressured to follow a traditional path, and in many ways she did: marrying, becoming a nurse, having two children. But she was also acutely aware of the women's movement and the struggle for civil rights, which not only helped shape her inner voice but at some point started telling her that writing was what she was born to do. At age 30, Kidd sat her husband down and announced her intention: to become a writer. To achieve that goal, she tapped "a reservoir inside myself—my own little ordinary genius that is the source of creative life. I think we all have one."
For more than 20 years, Kidd published mainly nonfiction books and articles; she didn't finish her first novel, the wildly successful The Secret Life of Bees, until she was 53, 12 years ago. I couldn't wait to tell her how glad I am that she found her calling and what an impact her new book had on me.
Read the exclusive interview
Sue Monk Kidd: I'm always captivated by stories of women who find a way to be daring—misbehaving women. The Grimkés slammed me in the heart. I felt like their story was mine to tell.
OW: How did you come across them?
SMK: In 2007, I went to see Judy Chicago's exhibition The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. There was a wall of women—a list of 999 who had made significant contributions to history, and lo and behold there were these two sisters from Charleston, the Grimkés. I was living in Charleston then, and I'd never heard of them, but after reading about them at the exhibit, I thought, "They should be as well known as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony."
OW: That's interesting—I'd never heard of them, either. Were you in search of a subject for your next book at the time?
SMK: I don't go in search of ideas; I try to let them find me. So I wasn't particularly looking for a novel to write, but my antennae are always up. And the more I read about the Grimkés, the more they awed me. They were early abolitionists and women's rights activists who sacrificed so much for their causes—relationships with family, their standing in society.
OW: And Hetty—Handful?
SMK: I knew from reading about Sarah Grimké that she'd been given a handmaid to be her personal slave and that her name was Hetty. The only other fact I knew about her was that Sarah taught her to read: They conspired in a very subversive way, by locking the door and screening the keyhole.
OW: Because it was illegal for slaves to know how to read...
OW: What gets me throughout the novel is that in such an imaginative and forceful way you enable us to see the state of women's rights—that not so long ago, women were just pieces of property. Looking out at an audience of Barnard College students during a talk I gave there in 2012 with Gloria Steinem, I thought, "It's just amazing how far we have come."
SMK: Yes, and of course, it was so much worse for slave women—but even for American white women, it was an atrocious time that we don't fully appreciate.
OW: You make a distinction, with Handful, between urban slavery and the world of American slavery that readers are more familiar with. What were you trying to convey in making this distinction?
SMK: Readers think they're already familiar with the narrative of cotton picking, slave cabins, and the master. I thought it was important to say we're talking about something different here.
OW: It's very recognizable to me—my mother was a maid, her mother was a maid, her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave. You see with the Grimké sisters that for a time they are very close to the domestic workers in the household—like in The Help. Those servants are considered members of the family—but as the maids would say, yes, we're members of the family, but we still have to go in through the back door. Even today some of those maids are treated like urban slaves.
SMK: We are not finished with the legacy of slavery or with the bias in our gender relations, and that's why the topics are still relevant.
OW: Were there challenges in writing a historical novel?
SMK: I had to do an enormous amount of research, because I wanted to get it right. I spent a year reading—slave narratives; people writing about slavery, about abolition; 19th-century history. I had quotes on the walls of my stairway leading up to my study, and every day I would read the quotes before I started writing.
OW: They were written on your wall? I want to do that!
SMK: The first one was, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction"—of course that's Virginia Woolf. The second one was by Cynthia Ozick, who called writing "an act of courage." That's always been true for me. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't yearn to be a writer.
OW: You started your professional life as a nurse—which is also such an honorable calling.
SMK: I was a very good nurse, but I burned out after eight years or so, because it wasn't what I truly wanted to do. Writing is what I belong to.
OW: What you belong to—I love that! Both the Grimké sisters and Handful are looking to be free, but in different ways. Is that where the title of the book comes from?
SMK: I was interested in how my characters could invent their own freedom, their own voices in the world—their wings.
OW: I came away from the book with so many layers of empathy, gratitude, and understanding of the path that had been paved for me, as an African American woman, daughter of a maid, great-great-granddaughter of a slave, and as a woman in the culture of America. Both The Invention of Wings and The Secret Life of Bees are explorations of racial relations. What inspires your interest in that topic?
SMK: It's right at the bottom of my heart—it's my history, too. I was a little girl in the '50s, living in a small town in Georgia. I can feel the voices of all those who yearned to be heard, to leave their marks, to say, "I existed."
OW: We've done some healing since then, but we have more to do. The Invention of Wings is an open door, an invitation to see ourselves and our history in a way that allows us to heal even more. Thank you.
More on The Invention of Wings