ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Best-selling author Sue Monk Kidd’s just-released historical novel “The Invention of Wings” is changing how some people talk and think about status, gender, race and identity.
Oprah Winfrey calls the book “a conversation changer” on her website, explaining why she selected the novel for her book club. “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 where we are. 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.”
Kidd will be in Albuquerque on Feb. 14 to discuss her book, which is about the brutal realities of slavery and its lingering effects. Amanda Sutton of Bookworks, which is organizing the event at Albuquerque Academy, says she hopes the auditorium is large enough for the audience of the popular author.
“Of course, we’re excited that it’s an Oprah’s Book Club pick,” Sutton says. “Sue Monk Kidd is a writer with great breadth, who is able to reach such a wide audience.”
Inspired by the real-life Grimké sisters, Sarah and Hetty in a complicated friendship as their restricted lives suffocate and batter them, but never defeat them.
Kidd says she’s a writer who chooses a title before she starts writing. “The Invention of Wings” suggested the sweeping social movements that began in the days of her novel, both abolition and women’s rights.
As she studied the period, she discovered an American black folktale about people in Africa being able to fly, but losing their wings when they were captured into slavery.
She told Oprah, “I was interested in how my characters could invent their own freedom, their own voices in the world – their wings.”
When she stops here, Kidd’s hoping for some of the food that makes New Mexico famous.
But zigzagging the country in two months with Albuquerque being stop 19 on a 25-city book tour, it’s unlikely she’ll have time to savor much green chile.
“Albuquerque gave me one of the warmest receptions I had,” Kidd recalls on the phone from her Boston hotel room, the third stop on her tour. Kidd came in 2005 to a Bookworks reading for her second novel, “The Mermaid Chair.” She remembers great people, good food and blue skies.
Kidd acknowledges her recent Oprah accolades modestly, but admits all the attention can be a little unsettling: “I am an introvert, so it is a little daunting.”
Because she writes about her life in memoirs, “Readers sometimes know a great deal more about me, than I do about them. But more importantly, I feel privileged to hear what they have to say.”
Kidd has written several memoirs, including “Traveling With Pomegranates” with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. Her first novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” (Viking, 2002) was on The New York Times bestseller list for 2½ years and sold 8 million copies worldwide. Kidd, a mother and grandmother, now lives in Florida with her husband, Sandy.
In “The Secret Life of Bees,” set in 1964, a young white girl, Lily, 14, is taken in by three African-American sisters. “The Secret Life of Bees” later became an award-winning movie.
Although that book was widely embraced by the African-American community, a few people criticized Kidd, a white woman born in Georgia, for writing African-American characters.
She hopes readers find compassion for her enslaved character Hetty, written in first person.
“I didn’t do it lightly,” she says. “I tried to write her in third person, but it didn’t work. I am intimately drawn to my characters, to see the world through their eyes and to allow the reader to do that.”
In fact, over the four years she wrote the book, she found Hetty’s character easier to write than the historical Sarah and her sister.
In her research, she discovered that Sarah Grimké was given a slave, Hetty, on her 11th birthday, whom she taught to read, illegal in Charleston at the time. Both girls were severely punished. Nothing more is known of the historical Hetty, except she died a short while later of an unspecified disease.
“I had to take a deep breath and get the courage to go there,” she says. “I grew up in a small town in Georgia in the pre-Civil Rights South. Race matters a great deal to me. One of my earliest memories is seeing the Ku Klux Klan on the street of my small hometown. I witnessed terrible injustices and racial divides. I didn’t know what to do with that except to write a story that fosters connections across those divides and boundaries.”
She says the “common heart” philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an idea that the whole of humanity is connected with intrinsic unity, has inspired her writing career: “I try to go there when I am far away from my experience through that mysterious process of empathy.”
Another who inspired her work was professor Julius Lester, author of “To Be A Slave,” and other books, who wrote: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”
She says what troubled her most as she researched and wrote the book was how invisible slavery became to Americans for the years it existed, from the beginning of colonization in America to the end of the Civil War: “It was heartbreaking to write. Something as evil as slavery was made OK for a very long time. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust and its legacy is racism. I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin,” she says. “We are a product of the past. It makes me wonder, what is our blind spot today?”