Exploring Invisible Evils and Real-Life Heroines: Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings

Tomorrow morning on her Super Soul Sunday show, Oprah Winfrey will interview author Sue Monk Kidd. In December, Winfrey chose Kidd’s most recent novel, The Invention of Wingsas her Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick. The book has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list since its release in January. The following video is a preview of tomorrow’s show.

I received my own sneak peek this month when Sue Monk Kidd spoke before a group in Atlanta. She read from and signed copies of The Invention of Wings. What did I learn from her speech?

Kidd went to college and became a nurse. Eight years after graduation, Kidd pursued her lifelong desire to write for a living.

Kidd said one of her “weird idiosyncrasies” is that she must have a title before she can start writing a book. Before writing The Invention of WingsKidd completed six months of research and began writing down titles. She took a walk on the beach where she picked up an angel wing seashell. The shell prompted her to think of slaves in the 19th century as having their wings clipped. From this find on the beach, Kidd had her title–The Invention of Wingsand later her first few sentences:

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddThe “when” is November 1803. The “here” is Charleston, South Carolina. And the narrator is Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a ten-year-old slave. The story alternates between the first-person narration of Handful and her mistress, Sarah Grimke. Sarah is just a year older than Handful and receives the waiting maid as an eleventh birthday present. Sarah does not think it is right to own another person and aspires to be the first lawyer in the United States, so she copies a manumission document from one of her father’s law books. This first act of rebellion begins Sarah and Handful’s friendship and sets them both on a turbulent course of resistance.

I did not know that The Invention of Wings was historical fiction based on the lives of Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, before I read my advance copy at the end of last year. As much as I savored Kidd’s prose and wanted to believe that a privileged white girl in the antebellum south would befriend a slave, I was deeply conflicted about such an impossible story. When I read the author’s note at the end of the book, I learned that Sarah Grimke did receive a slave for her eleventh birthday and later devoted her life to the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. While Handful lived only in the imagination of Sue Monk Kidd, many of the other characters and events in The Invention of Wings are based on real happenings in the 45 years that the book covers.

In her speech, Kidd said that writing the book meant delving into the parts of history that we flinch from. She said that she considers slavery the “ground zero of American racism” and believes that we, as citizens and human beings, must “go into the wound” of America’s slave-owning past before we can effectively deal with the racism that still exists today. When writing The Invention of Wings, Kidd says she was most interested in asking, “How does evil gather when nobody’s looking?” and “What is it in a human being that allows these invisible evils to go unnoticed?” Her fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s life explores the circumstances that led Sarah to notice and challenge the otherwise invisible evils of slavery and women’s oppression. Oprah Winfrey was right when she said, “It is impossible to read this book and not come away thinking differently about our status as women and about all the unsung heroines who played a role in getting us to where we are.” I look forward to her conversation with Sue Monk Kidd tomorrow on OWN.

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