Negotiating History & Imagination: Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings
WRITTEN BY JOHN KACHUBA
Sue Monk Kidd is the author of the best-selling The Secret Life of Bees (2001) and several other notable works. Her latest novel, The Book of Longings (Tinder Press UK/Viking US, 2020), continues her exploration of feminine empowerment and theology, this time going back to biblical times. The novel is set in first-century Judea where Ana, the daughter of an official in King Herod’s court, lives a privileged, sheltered life. Unusual for women of that time and place, Ana is literate and spends much of her time writing stories about the people in her environment, especially the women.
When Ana rebuffs Herod’s offer to be his concubine, she realizes her life is in danger and flees the palace. She meets a young, charismatic Nazarene carpenter and mason named Jesus, they fall in love, and marry. Their life together does not last long, however, as Jesus realizes his destiny is to be a wandering preacher and Herod’s forces close in on Ana, forcing her to flee to Egypt, where she discovers a society far more tolerant of women’s rights. There her writing and intellectual life flourishes.
It’s difficult for novelists to write about larger than life historical figures for whom we already have many preconceptions. But that task is far more daunting when one of those figures is not only a major historical personage but is held by millions to be God. Kidd explains her thought process in how she developed the character of Jesus:
“I can’t deny that when I first conceived of the idea for this novel, I experienced some moments of trepidation. Even though I was writing mostly about the period before Jesus’ public ministry — a time when his life is unrecorded — I knew I was climbing way, way out on the literary limb. And out on the religious limb, too. I grew up attending a Baptist church in a small town in Georgia. I understood all too well that some readers would resist the idea of a married Jesus. Nevertheless, I felt compelled. I kept a quote on my desk by Virginia Woolf: ‘Everything is the proper stuff of fiction.’ That was my personal permission slip. It was, of course, a matter of me giving myself permission.
“My intent was to create a reverential picture of Jesus as fully human. His divine nature looms so large in our minds and religious experience that his full humanity is often eclipsed. When that happens, we lose touch with what an extraordinary human being he was, and it becomes easy to forget what we as humans are capable of. Many readers have commented that The Book of Longings caused them to have a new appreciation for Jesus.”
As important as the character of Jesus is to the novel, this is Ana’s story and it centers around fulfilling her destiny. Kidd says, “I do realize that Jesus is a figure larger than life and that some readers might be reluctant to depart from his well-known storyline, but The Book of Longings is Ana’s story. It’s her passion, her struggle, her becoming, and her resolution, none of which are secondary to Jesus’s. In my mind it came down to this: Would Ana follow Jesus and be a witness to and a participant in the realization of her husband’s largeness, or would she follow her longings to find her own largeness? She would not, I felt, find the fullness of herself in his shadow.”
The characters and events depicted in The Book of Longings are so freighted with theological influences that it becomes difficult to accurately research them and sort the history from the theology. Kidd admits as much and says, “Usually, the main task when writing historical fiction is to negotiate between history and imagination, and this was true in writing The Book of Longings, but I quickly realized I also had the dilemma of trying to separate the history of Jesus from vast amounts of theology. For a while I was in a quandary about how to portray his character. I mean, millions of people are devoted to him, and his impact on history is incomparable. But I knew that my aim was to write this story from a historical perspective as much as possible, to write as a novelist and not as a religious person. I concentrated much of my research on a study of the historical Jesus, which peels back theological interpretations in order to find the actual Jesus, what he really said and what he really did. I read the works of as many prominent scholars in this field as I could.”
Kidd’s research was also a deep dive into Egyptian culture in the first century, particularly the role of women in that society. In the first century, there had already been a strong Hellenic influence in Egypt, begun three centuries earlier under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian, and exemplified by his descendant, Cleopatra, who died in 30 BC. That influence was more liberating for women in Egypt than in Judean society of the time.
Kidd says, “I found far more historical citations of rebellious women, including Jewish women, in first century Egypt: dozens of primary sources in which women defy and divorce husbands, expose men’s abuse publicly, agitate for rights and better treatment, own land and businesses, and my favorite, petition to give themselves away in marriage rather than their fathers doing it.
“But in Galilee, records of such women outside of a few scriptural accounts were non-existent. This did not indicate to me that women with longings and audacity and feminist-like awareness similar to Ana’s didn’t exist, only that history didn’t record them. Many women at this time must have wished for the freedom and opportunities their brothers had — one only has to know the unenculturated female heart to know this. Women’s stories were rarely recorded and when they were, the women usually went unnamed. Forbidden to read and write, it would’ve been rare for them to record and preserve their stories. I was up against their invisibility within history during this time and place.”
Luckily for modern readers, The Book of Longings gives voice not only to Ana, but to those countless numbers of strong, intelligent women from ages past whose stories had been buried under the sands of time.
About the contributor: John Kachuba is the author of twelve books, his most recent being Shapeshifters: A History (Reaktion, 2019). John also teaches creative writing through Ohio University and the Gotham Writers Workshop.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)