The Invention of Wings begins on Sarah Grimké’s 11th birthday in 1803; her father’s gift to her is her own slave, ten-year-old Hetty (also known as Handful). Grimké was a real historical figure who went on to become an abolitionist and a crusader for women’s rights, in large part because of her experiences with her family’s slaves. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) intertwines fact and fiction as she explores the evolving relationship between Sarah and Handful and the ways the two women come into their own.
Your new novel is a work of fiction, but it is firmly rooted in historical fact?
My inspiration was the life of Sarah Grimké, who was the first female abolition agent in America. I was just awed by what she had to overcome in order to do that.
I wanted to write about her but also about a fictional character, an enslaved woman. So I grafted a lot of imagined things on to it, but [Sarah’s] history and her story are the bedrock.
What kind of primary-source research did you do?
There is a great deal of material. Not as many diaries as you’d hope, but some. Sarah’s sister Angelina kept more diaries, but Sarah kept one for part of her life. There are a lot of letters.
There are also biographies, like Gerda Lerner’s [Grimké Sisters from South Carolina, Oxford Univ., 1998]. And there are essays in academic journals.
So, you probably used a lot of library materials in your research?
I literally could not have written this book without libraries! I went to historical societies and historic homes and the grandmother of all libraries, the Library of Congress. I looked at abolitionist newsletters and other materials that helped me flesh out the events and the characters. I also researched other people and events that were going on at the time, so I could weave them into the narrative: the Denmark Vesey slave uprising, Lucretia Mott, and Angelina Grimké’s husband, Theodore Weld.
How do you approach writing in a historical voice?
You have to bring a certain modern sensibility to connect with modern readers. You couldn’t re-create the 19th-century writing in Sarah’s diary—no one would get past page three! I barely got past page three even though I was completely fascinated by her life story. The writing just sounds stilted and pious to modern ears. You have to come up with a hybrid approach.
Did you have any say in the choice of narrators?
Jenna [Lamia] also narrated The Secret Life of Bees and did a spectacular job, so I was incredibly happy to learn that she’d be voicing Sarah as well, even though it wasn’t my decision. It’s a hard role to narrate, especially since I gave Sarah a speech impediment.
I did listen to a number of audition tapes for Handful, and I knew Adepero [Oduye] was it as soon as I heard her. I was just awed by how she carried the spirit of that character. It was exactly how I’d imagined her in my mind.