Monday, February 24, 2014

Wordcraft -- The quest to find our own wings

The book clubs packed the largest meeting area in Highland Park United Methodist Church for last week’s Authors LIVE! program last week, to welcome Sue Monk Kidd, the unassuming-looking nurse turned author to Dallas. I give the book clubs credit, because I shuffled from place to place as people draped books, book fliers and sweaters over seats, pleading for space for late-coming friends.

I didn’t begrudge them. After all, Kidd’s first two novels were bestsellers made into movies. Her third, The Invention of Wings, the novel all of us had braved the vagaries of Dallas winter weather to hear about, had debuted on the New York Times number one bestseller spot less than a month earlier. And it made Oprah Winfrey’s book club list.  But the crowd wasn’t composed only of the usual white women over a certain age I’ve come to expect for book club favorites. White, black, women, men, old, young or in between, they exited with multiple copies of the book in hand.

Pretty darn good for a historical novel set in an obscure decade of the early nineteenth century, in the cultural backwater of the southern United States, about a subject--slavery and the birth of American racism--that’s still a painful topic in this country’s public discourse. Oh, and it's about feminism, too, still a sore point for many in this election year.

But audiences have learned to trust Kidd, who began her writing career with inspirational essays in Guideposts magazine, to deal compassionately, even lyrically, with topics others only rant about. She stood alone on the stage and read, “There was a time in Africa the people could fly. . . When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

The year is 1803, and the speaker is an enslaved young girl, Hetty Handful Grimke, and the story is about a quest for freedom, “our ability as human beings to transcend, to find our wings,” Kidd told her audience.

“Handful was my basket name. The master and missus, they did all the proper naming, but a mauma would look on her baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her. . . If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma. Master Grimke named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful.”

The idea of Handful came to Kidd from the historical record of a girl given, like a doll or a puppy, to almost as young Sarah Grimke, later to become, astonishingly, an early Southern abolitionist and feminist. Handful’s historical record disappears early, leading Kidd to believe she died young. But in Kidd’s atoning hands, she finds a voice, the voice of an “enslaved people who really did struggle and die, not the passive, happy members of the family” who too often figure in Southern mythologies of slavery.

In Kidd’s hands, Handful will discover her own identity, becoming party to a failed slave revolt led by the man she learns is her father, free black Denmark Vesey, and inspire Sarah. “My body might be enslaved,” Handful tells Sarah, “but my mind is not. For you, it’s the other way around.”

“One of the things I really wanted to get across,” Kidd said, “was, it was in fighting for the rights of others that women discovered their own rights. . . You want your novel to be a carrier of ideas, but what I really want is the reader’s heart. Taking another’s experience and making it our own is the greatest power of literature.”

For more about Kidd, her books and other appearances, see

See more about Authors LIVE! including future programs, at


Additional business that’s piled up in my inbox--the 2014 manuscript contest of The Writers’ League of Texas, one of the state’s largest literary organizations, has been extended to February 28. For specifics, see

Places for the 2014 Dallas FenCon writers’ workshop with Hugo-nominee Carrie Vaughn are now open. For workshop information and writing contests sponsored by the science fiction/fantasy convention, see

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