Interview: Sue Monk Kidd revisits racism in ‘The Invention of Wings’

Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd spent three years researching before she started to write her new book, “The Invention of Wings.”
Credit: Roland Scarpa

It’s been out for one day and already Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, “The Invention of Wings,” has landed on every “best” list (including ours) and has been lauded by Oprah. “The Secret Life of Bees” author did it again. Alternating chapters between Sarah Grimke, a reluctant slave owner, and Hetty, her slave, “The Invention of Wings” captures the complexity of black-white friendships during the 1800s.

We talked to Kidd about the real-life Sarah Grimke and what the author found most disturbing about American slavery.

Metro: I didn’t know until I read the author’s note that Sarah and her sister were real women. What was it like discovering their stories and the fact that they’ve been overlooked historically?

Sue Monk Kidd: It was definitely a surprise, especially since they lived in Charleston, where I was I living at the time. I think they fell down a big crack in history and honestly, I imagine a lot of women fell in that crack.

Metro: When you were doing your research, did you come across any other women whose stories you were tempted to tell?

SMK: I’m sure there are so many, but I really focused on Sarah and Angelina immediately when I discovered they were some of the earliest females that were pioneers for women’s rights. I knew I wanted to tell the story of an enslaved woman and her owner. That was the only strong feeling I had about the characters, and luckily I was able to find this character both in history and in my imagination.

Metro: What made you write about Sarah as opposed to Angelina?

SMK: I initially thought I would write about Angelina too, but it became unbalanced with too many voices, so then I had to choose. I pretty much knew all along that it would be Sarah. For some reason, I gravitated toward her story; probably because she struggled so much to find her voice, which I can relate to, especially as a writer. She really struggled for her freedom and courage.

Metro: I doesn’t sound like it was a good time to be a woman — black or white.

SMK: Exactly. That’s one of the things I want people to take away from the book: how far we’ve come and how some of the greatest movements of the 20th century grew out of extraordinary movements in the 19th century.

Metro: There’s so much historical detail in the book about the way urban slaves were treated. Was there anything you found especially upsetting when you were doing your research?

SMK: Everything I discovered was upsetting. There is a certain familiarity we think we have about slavery, but sometimes familiarity creates distance between us and the subject, which is not a good thing. It needs to be disturbing. I collected an enormous amount of books about American slavery and also traveled to look at historical documents. A great deal of my research was in Charleston. The most disturbing thing I discovered was the work house. There were these houses [slave owners] could pay to have their slaves worked, abused and controlled.

Metro: I like that Sarah and Hetty’s friendship isn’t perfect. At times it felt strained and I think that made is so much more real than a best friend relationship between a slave and her owner.

SMK: That was the aspect of the novel that challenged me a lot. I was trying to understand and portray the relationship between these two women because it is not an equal relationship and guilt operates hugely on Sarah’s part. I wanted very much to show that complexity and at the same time show that a friendship was possible.

Metro: Was one person easier for you to write, Sarah or Hetty?

SMK: Hetty was actually more accessible to me. Her voice came to me with more ease; she just had so much to say.

Reading dates:
NYC: Jan. 8, Barnes & Noble (Union Square), 7 p.m.
Boston: Jan. 9, Brookline Booksmith at Coolidge Theatre, 6 p.m.
Philadelphia: Jan. 28, Philadelphia Free Library, 7:30 p.m.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence


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