‘I didn’t stutter on the page. It was an ecstasy to write without hesitation, to write everything hidden inside of me, to write with the sort of audacity I wouldn’t have found in person.’ – Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd’s most recent novel is a story about many things, but perhaps more than anything else it is about finding a voice in a place where one’s opinion is considered insignificant. Loosely based on the life of Sarah Grimké, a 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, the narrative alternates between Sarah and one of the Grimké family’s slaves – Hetty, or as she is better known, Handful. Beginning on the day that Sarah is presented with Handful as a birthday present in 1803, the novel spans a period of thirty five years, rendering the reader with a heartfelt attachment to both characters as we watch them mature through various stages of their lives.
One a slave and the other the daughter of a wealthy family in the highest circle of Charleston society, the lives of Handful and Sarah are worlds apart and yet both are subordinates in a society dominated by white men. To such men – and women too – Handful is but an object whose material worth is listed on paper along with the household furniture. Meanwhile, Sarah’s childhood ambition to become the first female jurist is shot down by a firing squad of mockery and scorn, and she is instead expected to validate herself through efforts on finding a suitable husband.
I think the depiction of the relationship between the two girls is both a poignant and honest one that is almost, but not quite, friendship. In the early childhood chapters of the novel we witness moments when they laugh and talk openly in each others’ company, but Kidd is careful not to create any illusions. Handful is still, according to the rules of society, one of Sarah’s belongings, and this inevitably causes tension to cloud the air between them. Sarah may not support slavery, but she is part of and enjoys the luxury of being part of the ‘superior’ group in a social system in which it is embedded. Her shame renders her more sympathetic to us than her peers, but it is not enough to excuse her – certainly not in the eyes of Handful and the other slaves. As the novel progresses and the two girls begin to take control of their adult lives, finding autonomy in the little ways that they can, the dynamic between them gradually shifts. They are allies in their plight for more, but perhaps uneasy allies as a result of the air of apprehension Kidd persistently evokes between them.
Neither character is in a position to have their opinions heard, but Kidd’s novel in lends both a channel for their voices. Kidd depicts the struggles and small successes of her character’s rebellions against injustice, ranging from the minute – such as Handful’s mother’s theft of a small piece of green silk – to the vast and controversial. Kidd illustrates the way in which rebellion can take many forms and manifest itself in even seemingly inconsequential actions. Language, in this novel, is depicted as a method of exercising power – for example, when the young Sarah tries to teach Handful to read as a means of ‘setting her free’ . This celebration of the profundity of language is reflected in Sarah’s fascination with the books in her father’s library, as well as in the speech impediment that Sarah struggles with – as a result of which, writing proves to be a liberating way to express her views. In order to find a voice, Kidd therefore implies, one need not necessarily be able to deliver speeches to swarms of people. Just as rebellion is versatile in its forms, there too are other ways in which a person can be ‘heard’ and it is by dwelling on this that Kidd is able to give power, of sorts, to characters who are the victims of a stubborn and prejudiced society.
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