Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I will admit when I am wrong (at least most of the time). And this is one of those times. When I first saw early press releases for The Invention of Wings—famous spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work—I could not help but roll my eyes. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely loved Dance of the Dissident Daughter and Travelling with Pomegranates, and enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees. But at first glance, this looked like another work in the white girl finding herself while helping black people in the process genre. You may know of this genre: the film The Help is the first that springs to mind, but the aforementioned The Secret Life of Bees is another example.

The basic premise: a white girl is feeling oppressed. In her journey to define herself, she interacts with oppressed black people who teach her their wisdom. At the end of the story, white girl helps black people overcome their oppression and, in the process, overcomes her own. In the film adaption of The Help (I have not read the novel, so I cannot say anything about that), Skeeter is an aspiring writer who befriends Aibileen and Minny, two black maids serving in white houses in the early 1960s south. After hearing their stories, Skeeter writes a book chronicling their experiences.  The book becomes popular and the money is split with the help, allowing them greater mobility in society, and also helps Skeeter prove to herself and her family her ability as a writer.

This trope is often called “White Man’s Burden,” and is exhibited in other films like The Blind Side and The Soloist, and has many parallels with “The Mighty Whitey” trope (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, etc.). From the explanation on

This trope is about a plot where an ordinary, ethnically-European (white) person meets an underprivileged non-ethnic-Euro character. Taking pity on the other character's plight, they selflessly volunteer themselves as the other's tutor, mentor, or caretaker to make things better…. The white character is the one who gets all the Character Development while the minority character's main purpose will be to advance that character development. The focus of this plot will be on the white character's saintliness rather than the minority character's journey.”

This is a problematic trope for many reasons. For one, the black characters are generally foils to the main white character. Secondly, the black characters have no capacity to free themselves and are underprivileged; it is only with the benevolent help of the white (main) character that they are able to achieve freedom, social mobility, or whatever. Furthermore, the white person generally has little to do to adapt to the black person’s culture, whereas the black person is forced or helped to integrate into white culture. And, the trope focuses on the white person’s guilt and self-pitying over the whole affair. I could rant about this obnoxious trope all day but I’m stopping myself. This is a review about The Invention of Wings after all. Not The Help.

Anyway, I bring up the White Man’s Burden tope because The Invention of Wings is so not that! I was legitimately surprised. First, the plot focuses on two main characters: the historical Sarah Grimké and the fictional Hattie “Handful” Grimké. Set in antebellum South, Sarah is given a slave—Hattie—for a present on her 11th birthday. Sarah vows to free Hattie in any way possible, but is unable to do so before she leaves for Philadelphia. The story chronicles their lives through several decades, following Sarah’s history as an outspoken abolitionist and woman’s rights activist and Hattie’s life as a chattel slave in Charleston, South Carolina. What makes this story unique is that both Handful and Sarah are given equal time in the book, as the novel alternates first-person narratives of the two characters. Rather than Handful being a foil to Sarah, and rather than Sarah being the architect of Handful’s freedom from slavery, the novel instead looks at both people’s stories. Yes, it does have a load of White Man’s Burden—Sarah is consumed with guilt over slavery and is outspoken on behalf of the slaves. Sarah is a person of privilege, a rich daughter of a lawyer, and her primary story arc is one of self-discovery. But, Handful is also a character in her own right—she has her own hopes and dreams, she is given her own voice, and, without revealing the end, Handful’s “Invention of Wings” is her own doing, and that of her black mother’s and black sister’s, not Sarah’s.

The story really is about the invention of wings—as both Sarah and Handful seek wings to free them from the oppression of their time. It’s not a perfect novel (is there such a thing?), but it is an excellent and surprising read, and perhaps one of my favorite works by Sue Monk Kidd. The novel takes some historical liberties, which Kidd explains in the afterward of her book, and they do make sense and help build a compelling tale. Kidd’s writing has certainly evolved since her more devotional nonfiction days, and even one can see a progression between this her third novel and her first, The Secret Life of Bees.

I think that given time this novel has the potential to be a classic in American fiction. It is one of the few books written by a white person dealing with themes of racism, civil rights, and empowerment not to fall into the aforementioned tropes. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming. It can be a little too sweet in its discussion of empowerment, but not as cringe worthy as others in the genre.

Kidd said herself that she erred on the side of being too bold in the inclusion of Hattie’s tale, but I think she made the right choice. The book is unique, powerful, and imaginative, a welcome addition to my book shelf, at very least. Well done, Sue Monk Kidd! We needed this kind of book.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

In Defense of Lenten "Dieting"

Dr. Largen, one of my professors at seminary, recently posted a blog in defense of giving up chocolate for Lent (view here post here). During the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, there are always a flurry of posts about what is a "proper Lenten discipline," and, as Dr. Largen states, chocolate is "definitely the go-to negative example of what you are 'supposed' to do for Lent, and what Lent is really about." She then writes about how giving up chocolate for Lent really is an important part of her Lenten practice and does help her "create a mindful connection with God and with others."

I agree with her post wholeheartedly. Giving up chocolate might not be able to create that mindful connection with God and others for everyone, but for some, it certainly has the potential to do so. Thinking about Dr. Largen's post also made me examine the concept of Lenten fasting in general.

One of my friends recently stated that "Lent is not a diet plan." And I agree--Lent shouldn't simply be an excuse to drop a few pounds. But can Lent be a time to examine our relationship with food? Can Lent be a time where we examine unhealthy relationships with food or body-image and try to change them? I think so.

First, there is still a dualism implicit when people favor spiritual practice over physical practice, as if both cannot be related. Some say you can give up fast food for Lent, providing you have right intentions by giving money save from that experience to the poor. It's as if anything one does for their own physical betterment is devoid of anything spiritual and is somehow missing the point or being selfish. Eastern religious practices, such as yoga, point to the fact that what we do with our bodies also can have spiritual significance. God created our entire being--spirit, body, intellect--all of it. Neglecting one's physical fitness can have just as much of a negative spiritual impact as not going to church (particularly if it leads to self-esteem, body-image, or depression issues).

Especially in the United States, given our fascination with food, focusing on having a healthier understanding of food is a valid Lenten practice. And this fascination is on both ends: the United States is the most obese nation in the world yet at the same time has some of the highest rates of eating disorders in the world--and both are on the rise. It is clear that as a culture we have a very unhealthy relationship with food. The reasons behind this are many, stemming from American culture's fascination with a false body image, flawlessly airbrushed models, celebrities that are on the low end (or under) a healthy BMI; yet at the same time a culture obsessed with food--Eat more! Treat yourself! Give in! Buy one get one!

Furthermore, self-esteem is so often tied to with physical appearance. Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent. Depression, eating disorders, and more can stem from having a negative body-image. This is a very unhealthy cycle.

Our relationship with food truly can get in the way of our relationship with God, each other, and with ourselves. Our self-esteem suffers, we may suffer from depression or an eating disorder, we may yo-yo in our weight. We may develop conditions like diabetes or high-blood pressure. And yet we don't think this can get in the way of our relationship with God? Learning how to eat healthy, how to be active: these are certainly spiritual practices because they affect the way we see ourselves and the way in which we are able to interact with the world. (On the flip side, I'm also not suggesting that one has to have a BMI of 25 or under in order to have a healthy relationship with God--by no means! I am simply suggesting that a healthy relationship with our bodies is also an important aspect of our relationship with God).

Let me be clear here: I am not talking about joining a fad diet, as those are unhealthy practice to begin with. By no means am I suggesting giving up carbs or joining the South Beach Diet, as both can have very unhealthy consequences.

What I am talking about is meeting with a nutritionist, going to the US Dept of Health and Human Services page on nutrition and exercise, joining a gym, or simply going on a daily fifteen minute walk outside (which has the added bonus of participating in and reflecting upon God's creation). I'm talking about standing in front of a mirror and learning to look at yourself with love, realizing that that is how God sees you. To take the Barbie and Ken dolls out of our eyes and see ourselves as beautiful as we are.

Most importantly, Lent gives us the time to remember that God loves us as we are, no matter what. No matter if I struggle fitting in my airplane seat, or into my pair of pants, or feel the need to hide behind super baggy clothing, God loves me. Even if I hate myself or the way I look, or if I go to bed crying because a kindergartner at work called me fat (true story), God still loves me just the way I am, from a BMI of 21 to a BMI of 42, God loves me. And in a culture where we are preached self-loathing and that we can never be good enough, perhaps the most powerful and life changing Lenten discipline is to remember that we are loved by God as we are.

Here are some suggestions for Lenten Disciplines centered around physical well-being:

1. Go on a 15 minute walk every day, making it a part of your daily routine. Pay attention to how your body feels. Pay attention to God's creation--notice the sky, the trees, and notice how you are a part of that.

2. Practice learning to love yourself as you are. Look in the mirror and tell yourself that "I am beautiful as I am" and "God loves me as I am."

3. Pick one of the simple tips on, such as "Eat Less Sodium: Quick Tips" and spend a little time before each meal thinking about how to incorporate that healthy eating tip into your meal.

4. Eat more fruit and veggies! Have at least one fruit and low in starch vegetable every meal. Many websites have recipes on simple ways to incorporate fruit and veggies into every meal.

5. Train for a 5k--there are many 5ks in the spring and summer months, and most support charities and other good causes for the community. Registering for one has the added benefit of giving back to the community in addition to being more active. The couch to 5k training program is a fun way to start training, as well.

Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or expert on healthy eating. Any weight-loss or healthy eating plan should be discussed with a doctor before starting.