You know how to sign your name, right? This week I heard a story on the radio that some states are no longer requiring the teaching of cursive writing. If people really do grow up without knowing this, will we stop having signatures? Will people in the future look at George Washington’s signature (or at letters he wrote) and think “What are these mysterious lines?” This week I also went to an event where signatures are considered part of the reason for being there—a book promotion where an author signs copies of the book.
The author was Sue Monk Kidd, who appeared for a talk and book signing at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, to promote her new novel The Invention of Wings. Many people had copies of the book, and Kidd sat at a table before her talk, rolling out her signature. I also have a copy of that novel, which I bought as a birthday present for myself a couple of months ago, but I didn’t have my copy with me this week, as I’ve loaned it to someone.
Over the years I’ve stood in line to have other writers sign a book, but at this point I realize I don’t care anymore about having a signature. Maybe if it was somebody from the Bible, like Noah. I wouldn’t mind if he signed his chapter. Otherwise, what am I going to do with a signed book? Probably just give it away the next time I move.
I did, however, want to meet Sue Monk Kidd. I got in line to say hello to her, and to tell her that I’ve enjoyed her novels, though I really wanted to say “Can we sit somewhere and talk about writing for an hour?” Instead I said my few words of approbation, shook her hand, and moved on. It’s a disadvantage, sometimes, being nobody.
There was quite a crowd gathered for the talk, which was held in the somewhat stark, modern sanctuary of the church. Looking at the crowd, I noticed what was obvious—99% of the attendees were women. I can’t figure what to make of that. Is it because Kidd writes about female characters and women read about women, whereas men read about men? Are human beings so stupid that we only want to read about ourselves? I hope there was another reason for this strange gender imbalance.
This particular novel has a historical setting and uses two real people, the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s. In her talk, Kidd told us some of how the book was inspired, a bit of how she came to create it as she did, and she did a few readings from the book.
Kidd also talked about the fact that she has always felt compelled to write about race (she also wrote The Secret Life of Bees). She grew up in Georgia, at a time when she saw the open racism of Colored water fountains and other signs of our southern apartheid. In addition, Kidd told us about sitting in school watching a home economics teacher make a short list of the few jobs that were available to women. With The Invention of Wings, Kidd has embodied the battle against both racism and sexism by writing about two women who engaged that battle—amazingly—in the 1830s, women who rose up in the very maw of slavery and opposed it. We can reasonably ask why South Carolina has not yet erected a monument to these women.
As a writer myself, I was also interested in some of what Kidd said about how she writes. I happily noted that she referred to Joseph Campbell and his idea that something extraordinary happens to initiate an adventure. This was an idea Campbell (a scholar of mythology) discusses in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces. For her novel, Kidd said that the event that sets off the “adventure” (the plot of the novel) is a birthday party, when Sarah Grimke is a little girl and her mother gives her a young slave as a birthday gift.
As part of her talk to us in the church, Kidd discussed racism as a lingering result of slavery. I’m glad to see her write about this, talk about it, push the discussion. We have not yet had an honest recognition in the south of the apocalyptic horror that happened here. Shamefully, even now in the 21st century we still hear weasel language about heritage and history and obtuse bullshit about the Confederate battle flag, without acknowledgment of what that “history” was really about.
Books like The Invention of Wings are moving us in the right direction, and I’m grateful to Kidd for adding to the necessary conversation. This is part of what writers can do. As Kidd said, “What I really want readers to take away is to feel what it might be like to be an enslaved woman.”