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The Book Show #1659 - Sue Monk Kidd

Book cover for "The Book of Longings"

Joe Donahue: Welcome to The Book Show, a celebration of reading and writers. I'm Joe Donohue. In Sue Monk Kidd's, new novel, "The Book of Longing", she imagines a young woman named Ana, who becomes the wife of Jesus. The novel explores many of the signature themes in Kidd's fiction: feminism, the search for self, the quest for one's voice and purpose, and the power of female community. In particular, this novel explores the longings and virtuosities in women, as well as their silencing and marginalization within Western religion. The story evokes a seminal question: how would the world be different if Jesus had had a wife? Sue Monk Kidd's debut, "The Secret Life of Bees" spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it has sold more than 6 million copies. Her other novels include "The Mermaid Chair" and "The Invention of Wings". Again, the latest is "The Book of Longings". 

And it's a great pleasure to welcome Sue Monk Kidd to this week's Book Show. Thank you so much for being with us, what a delight to have you on the program.

Sue Monk Kidd: Thank you, Joe. I'm so delighted to be here.

So what brought you to this point? It seems that whenever you tackle the Bible, the subject of Jesus and having a wife, you're taking on quite a lot.

Ya think? Yeah, huh?

I do think so. At what point did you say "Okay, well. I can, I can do this"?

Well, I'm not sure I ever I really said that. But I- from the very beginning, I longed to write this book. The moment the idea struck me, I was hooked. And so captivated by it, that there really was no turning back. The trepidation came a little later. But it was even too late for that even. I suspect there will be some who will not want to read about a fictional life of Jesus and reimagine history in that way. But I would just say, give it a try. So many have said to me, "Well, I was a little nervous about it, but I'm so glad that I read it because it has given me this whole new appreciation for the humanity of Jesus." So yes, it's going way, way out on the literary limb, isn't it? But I'm, I'm- I feel very passionate about the story and very strongly about it.

So, give us a sense, if you don't mind- just give us a sense of your religious background and how you came to this story.

Well, I grew up in Georgia in a, I guess you would call it an evangelical, Protestant church. It was a Baptist Church. It was a small town with only two churches, so it was Methodists and Baptists. That was your choices, take your pick. My family was never really overly religious or fundamentalist or strongly evangelical, which probably was a little saving for me. But it was not until I was an adult that I began to question my faith and question a lot of things, and grew more spiritual and less religious. I left the Baptist Church, became an Episcopalian. I wrote a memoir about the collision of feminism and my faith tradition, called "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter". So it has been an evolution for me of how I relate to the divine.

You have a letter to the reader and you say, "writing from a novelist perspective and not a religious one, I wanted to portray the fully human Jesus "- that idea of writing from a novelist perspective and not a religious one, give us a sense of what that is like.

I hope you can actually separate these two things out, but probably not as clearly, as I said, because all of these things are integrated in a way. But I had to make a decision of how I would write the character of Jesus. And if I did it as a religious person, then I would have portrayed the divinity of Jesus, as well as his humanity. I chose to show his "pre-Eastern" nature, so to speak, and that is a phrase that comes from a very renowned historical Jesus scholar called Marcus Borg. I was just fascinated as a novelist in a story grounded in humanity and things we can identify with. And so he's fully human in my story.

And with that, also, the book is fictional. But of course, it is deeply researched as well. And I'm curious as to how that is woven in to the, the fictional Ana and the fictional, fictional marriage of Ana and Jesus.

Well, there was a tremendous amount of research. I had no idea what I was getting into. But I read everything I could find, particularly about the historical Jesus. But I had to learn about first century Palestine, and the Roman occupation and, you know, what they wore, what they ate. All of these things, just tiny details in order to create this world. Because I wanted it to be vivid and rich in detail but I found this book about Jewish marriage and betrothals. I found an invaluable book about that called, "Jewish Marriage in Antiquity" by a Jewish scholar and professor. So it was a 14 month process for me of researching so that I could take all of these bits and pieces I'd learned and recorded in my notebooks and weave them into the story and intersect my imagination with history.

Sue Monk Kidd is our guest in this week's Book Show. The name of the new novel is "The Book of Longings", it is published by Viking. So tell us about Ana, this character, and how ultimately it, it goes with the title, "The Book of Longings" because this is a character defined by her, her longings and her aspirations.

That's right. She was full of longings and as her aunt tells her, "that's what women's hearts are filled with". She wanted to write the lost stories of women. She was passionate about this. She says in the story that "the worst thing is to be ignored or forgotten". And women lived on the margins, on the peripheries. And so she wanted to not only bring women's stories back, but she wanted to have a voice in the world. She was very ambitious. She would come from a wealthy family, her father's a scribe, connected to the Tetrach of Galilee, Herod Antipas. And Ana has a gift. She's very precocious, brilliant, and daring and rebellious. So she's a unique woman. I think someone said, "Oh, she's the world's first feminist." Well, maybe. But I think, yeah, she longs to bring forth what she calls the "largeness in herself". So this becomes really the quest of the book. And it is essentially a story of this quest, to become a voice and to have not be forgotten. And the story of her marriage.

It's interesting because the, the quest, the longing, if you will, is, is to have a voice, and to be a voice, right? To have that voice and to use it.

Yes. I think it's been said that, "while we all have a voice, it's about using it". Well, it's really a matter of semantics. But I think, to have a voice is to have one in the world: audible, heard, and spoken. And that's what she wants, not just to speak her truth but to have it heard and received. Because that's the other part of it. It is all about having and being a voice.

On that subject, there is great significance in the novel of the incantation bowl. Give us a sense of that and, and how it ties into the longings and the allowance of her voice to be heard.

I just love this incantation bowl and I found it in all of that voluminous research I was doing. One day, I stumbled upon them, and here were these amazing bowls from antiquity, that dated to the time of the first century and even beyond that. In which people wrote in a spiraling fashion inside of it, their prayers or their- sometimes a curse, they might make a drawing of themselves in it- or of some, a spirit that could ward off, something. So I was fascinated by this. And I thought what if, Ana has her incantation bowl, and records the deepest longing inside of her, inside this bowl. And it becomes a central icon in the story that can hold her longings and hold this deep desire that lies at the bottom of her heart, so to speak. So it goes all the way through the novel from beginning to end. And it's a precious thing to her.

When it actually comes to the moment where you are going to marry off Jesus... What is it- What is that like in the sense of, are you- for what you have written prior you are prepared for it? Or are you always getting ready, and preparing yourself for that, knowing that you're going to have to do that?

Yes, you don't sleep the night before. That's right. It's um, it's an interesting process really. And I think there was, there was trepidation about it, I didn't write this lightly. But I do feel like it seemed natural at the time. It just seemed very part of the story. The next thing that happens, and so yeah, he got married. As I-my husband's asked me what the book was about initially, but when I started it, and I said, "Well, Jesus is going to get married," and he said, "Oh, great, what could possibly go wrong?" And you know, you do have that feeling. And yet, it felt right and natural to write about this in my story, it just took on a kind of reality for me.

Let's talk a little bit, because of the expectations- because her parents , Ana's parents, expect her to marry like a bitter old widower, and she ends up in this relationship with, with Jesus, that you, that you write is very tender. It is very loving, but it is also- has its share of conflict.

That's right. I wanted to write about the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of their marriage. And so it had to have some conflict in it. I mean, it wasn't a tremendous amount of it, but it was enough to make us think, "Oh, it's a real marriage," I think. It mostly had to do with Ana's confinement, as a woman, and Jesus' freedom as a man. But he was just essentially, I think, a wonderful husband and I wanted to portray a great love story in this book. And Ana was besotted with him. And I think he came to love her deeply too. And there's a scene that I loved writing in the story of where Jesus and Ana say to one another, "I bless the largeness in you." And it was, I mean, that's like marriage at its best, you know? And so they- I tried to portray that aspect of it. But they had their moments to where they were at odds.

Does that come from the conflict over just the norms of the day? You, you have this, this very larger than life character who is, is acting differently, let's say, than the, the social and religious norms of the time?

Yes, I think that drives a great deal of the conflict in the story. Between her, and not really Jesus, so much as his family around him. Perhaps some of his family, and just the whole religious and cultural context, as you said. So, Jesus tried to be supportive. But at one point, Ana says, "Even Jesus could not overcome some of these dictates about what a good woman is supposed to do and be", and there were just very strong reasons why she felt caged. And, you know, there's also a scene where they have, they have an argument about his, his ability to leave and go forth and be free and pursue his calling, and she cannot go. So it's um, it's an ongoing thing, but mostly, I would say these two have a rather beautiful relationship in my mind.

You really do portray Jesus- I mean, you mentioned this a moment ago that they do have their conflict and- and there are aspects that he has trouble grasping, but it seems as though you have him as a, a pro-feminist character, really.

Yes, I think you could interpret it that way. Obviously, there was no organized feminist movement then. But, but there are impulses and desires in the hearts of women to have the freedoms their brothers had, and their fathers had, and to feel the confinement of all of that, and the marginalization. And I think Jesus was particularly sensitive to people who had not, who were not included. And that just feels- well, that's scriptural. I mean he, he cared about those left out, the invisible, those left behind, those societies turned their back on, and in many cases, that was women. So I think from that standpoint, he was very sensitive to that. And I tried to portray him that way. I'll say one more thing. There's, there's a scene that- in the very beginning when Ana meets Jesus for the first time, he is in the market and he is involved in helping his sister, take her threads and ball it up into balls of yarn to sell in the market. And he's got these threads kind of threaded through his fingers, while she rolls them up. And Ana sees this and she's absolutely entranced by it. And she says, "What kind of man assist a woman with the balling of her yarn?" And I thought, "Yep, the best kind of man." That's who does that, and I think that was what got Ana in the beginning, is that he was different that way. And he didn't set himself apart from women.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the character of Ana's aunt, Yaltha, who is such a vibrant, incredible character in the novel.

Well, I loved writing her character, Joe. She is a fierce, feisty woman, educated from Alexandria, Egypt. A Jewish woman who comes from the sophisticated world and is banished to Galilee, to this kind of Backwater Village. And she and Ana come together in a coalition or a sacred Alliance, and I think the Yaltha's role in this story is really to encourage Ana's audacities and to be this mentor for her. But she has quite a mouth on her too, I mean, she can let go a curse, and she's just a very audacious woman.

Talk a little bit about their relationship. And the impact that she has on the relationship between Ana and Jesus.

They make a pact in a way that is like the one that is in the scriptures, I think it's between Ruth and Naomi. "Where you go, I will go, and your God will be my God. Your people will be my people." It was like that for them, it is a real pact. And I suppose one of my favorite scenes to write was between the two of them. When Yaltha says to her, "Ana, my largeness has been to bless your largeness," and she saw herself that way. I mean, she had a checkered past as in, she was accused of murdering her husband because he was abusive to her. Although she, she swears she didn't do it. But if she was believed to have done it, so when they returned to Egypt, there was a great deal of peril and danger that is happening. And she has her own story, really, in the novel, kind of sub story. That becomes very important in Ana's life.

You write about Yaltha, of course, and Yaltha, and create Ana. And we talk about what it's like to write about Jesus, but you also write about Jesus's mother, Mary. You also write about Judas, you, you humanize Judas a bit.

I tried. I certainly did. I wanted to help readers and myself to understand some of his motivations. I mean, surely he had reasons for betraying Jesus. And we think of him as just this very evil person who did what he did. But why? My take on it was that it was a huge, politically motivated thing that drove him that got out of hand with him. And so I tried to trace the inner conflicts inside of him. And it became more interesting to me. Because I made him Ana's half- not half- adopted brother. It was interesting to see how Ana and Jesus and Judas would interact. The three of them had a very close relationship that took turns, and surprising turns.

I mentioned this in the introduction, we talked about it a little bit at the beginning. But you, you start off with this, this question, really, that fascinated you, of how the world might have been different if Jesus had a wife. So let's talk in our few final moments how you ultimately answer that question.

I feel like the world would be different within the ecclesiastical world particularly. I mean, it's doubtful that there would be celibacy among the priesthood, if Jesus had been married. It's doubtful that we would have had such a breach between sexuality and spirituality that existed. I mean, there's a deep gorge there, between those two. And, you know, virginity became one of the most important virtues within Christianity. I'm not sure that would have worked out that way. But I think the main way that I was interested in was, how women's roles and leadership and presence and valuation would be different. If Ana had had a big part of this story, and I think women would not have been left out quite as much, that their stories would have been more front and center. And that they would have been more included in the central meaning making of the religion as it evolved.

You beautifully bring us to those moments. I mean, obviously you don't hit us over the head and say, "Okay, here are the answers." You lead us to those, and those are the things for discussion and for understanding, further understanding, and really answering questions, of course, that we will never know the answers to.

Well, that's right. But it is amazing to speculate and imagine, because we learn so much about our present and our future by looking back at our history. And if we can perceive of a different history, sometimes it jolts us, our thinking, into what is possible right now. We might begin to see things a little bit differently or to approach things differently. It's just a wonderful imaginative exercise. And I kind of think that the human psyche needs to imagine Ana, this lost feminine, within the Christian world. We need her and we're always looking for her, somehow, because there's a vacuum there. And we're going to continue to fill it somehow the best we can, until we figure this out, but the marriage of Jesus we'll never probably know. But we can imagine.

You write beautifully in your novels about friendship between women, and Ana has this group of female friends and, and you even say that it's possible that there's more sisterhood in this novel than in "The Secret Life of Bees".

Well, that's saying a great deal, too. I do you think that's the case here. I can't seem to write a novel without having this community of women These women that Ana really cultivates around her, all of them have some brokenness in their lives, some tragic circumstance. And she writes their stories, and they are bonded. And there's a solidarity, almost like a family that forms. And I think it's just a topic I love of how women can transform and support one another. And what comes out of that, in this case, a great deal.

They do seem like very different books. And I assume that that's something that you look for all the time to do a completely different book, creating that challenge for you.

If you look at my four novels, she would think that for different people wrote them, maybe on the surface. But once you really read them, I think you find recurring things and a similarity. They're alike on the inside, but not the outside. There's always this community of women, there's always a- usually a woman in search of the fullness of her self-hood, a kind of feminist search for voice. There's also a theme in a lot of my work of race. Not in every book, but I would say that inclusiveness is in every book, The sense of justice is in every book. I do see, though, the similarities they have in their motifs. But yes, the stories are quite different.

And without reading too much into it, it does seem that it- even there are connections to your nonfiction in which you have. have written about your story and that there is also a spiritual search that you share with Ana.

Yes, actually, I think I probably drew on my own history more than I realized in this novel. "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter", and then the book I wrote, co-authored with my daughter called "Traveling with Pomegranates" are both very personal, intimate stories of this search for the divine feminine, for a voice, for a creative belonging. And yeah, Ana has the same thing going on in her life, really, she's on a feminist quest. She wants similar things that I did. So I do think there is a little overlap here going on that maybe I didn't mean to do quite as vividly as I did.

But that's a wonderful thing about it, isn't it? That that you realize how deep you allowed yourself to go and that comes in, to me, that would come out of a great trust that you have in yourself, as well as a writer.

Well, there's always a vulnerability that you feel as an author. And yeah, I guess I feel that with this book to some extent, but I also feel so strongly about its need to be in the world. And I'm going to stand by it and by all my work, and hope that readers can take away something meaningful from it.

Sue Monk Kidd's new novel is "The Book of Longings". It is published by Viking. Sue, thank you so much for spending time with us. What a beautiful conversation I thank you so much for sharing.

Oh, I love talking with you. Thank you.

We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@wamc.org and you can listen again to this, or find past Book Shows via podcast at WAMC.org. Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmarks us for next week, and thanks for listening for The Book Show. I'm Joe Donahue.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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