Alternate Histories and Silenced Women: Sue Monk Kidd on Her New Novel The Book of Longings
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode, New York Times bestselling author Sue Monk Kidd discusses her upcoming novel The Book of Longings, which is from the point of view of Ana, the wife of Jesus. Kidd talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about how alternate histories can be vehicles for silenced voices of the past, and how our present might be different if Jesus being married was part of the Bible’s story. Kidd also talks about her research process and writing the character of Judas Iscariot.
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Selected readings for the episode:
The work and teachings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung · The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick) · The Plot Against America (Philip Roth) · The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead) · Empire City (Matt Gallagher) · Rodham (forthcoming, Curtis Sittenfeld)
Whitney Terrell: The Book of Longings is about a young woman named Ana, who becomes the wife of Jesus. You’ve described it as an alternate history story. For any listeners out there who might be unfamiliar with that term, I’m wondering if you could talk about what “alternate history story” means to you and how it applies to your new book.
Sue Monk Kidd: I’m not sure I had that concept when I first started, but I soon realized that that’s what I was doing. I was writing an alternate history. When I was writing The Invention of Wings — that’s a historical novel — I had to think a lot about history and what it means. I realized that history is not a fixed thing. We have this idea that it’s static, that it’s someplace in the past, and that’s the way it was. But the more I looked into this, I began to understand that history is a construction of a narrative. And that narrative is written, or actually it’s gathered together by a lot of evidence. Now, what evidence do you choose to look at and which evidence do you leave out? Which voices are in that evidence and which voices aren’t in that evidence? Then you have to interpret all of this evidence and you do that based on what? Your predilections, your biases, your family system, the culture you’re in, whether you’re privileged or not privileged. Now, the next thing I learned was that history is more or less constructed by men for men. So we become that in a way, and we fix it in our mind. Part of what an alternate history is about is to shake that up. History needs to be radically reimagined from time to time because it’s never really complete.
I realized I was writing an alternate history. And why did I want to do that? Because when Jesus became a bachelor, it really screwed up a lot of things. So, let’s imagine that Jesus wasn’t a bachelor, what would that look like? One of the questions that really gripped me was, how would the world be different? If Jesus had had a wife who had really been a partner and had a story and been part of the whole narrative, how would we be different? I was convinced it would be quite, quite different. For one thing, the highest value wouldn’t be celibacy and virginity. We have this breach between sexuality and spirituality that has impacted so many things. Jesus was too holy to be sexual, so he’s not really like us. There are all kinds of ramifications from this. I have been for a very long time, at least 20 years, studying and trying to understand and look into the misogyny within religion and how that plays out in women’s lives and in who we are and in how the culture approaches women. I know that women would not have had as many limitations placed on them if Jesus had had a wife. So that’s the reason for the alternate history.
History needs to be radically reimagined from time to time because it’s never really complete.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of my favorite sections of the book was the moment when Ana sets eyes on Jesus for the first time and, I mean, Jesus, he’s really attractive. It’s a hugely fun passage to read because it’s so different from our entrenched views of who he was. We’re talking on this episode about alternate histories which have been particularly popular in recent years. Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle was recently made into a popular TV series, as was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and of course, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was wildly popular a few years back and is being turned into a TV series by Barry Jenkins. Why do you think alternative history is appealing to so many people right now? Why is it coming back?
SMK: I think probably because it gives us this shocking, maybe the word is astonishing, startled way of thinking about our history. It makes us think, “Whoa, what if it was different? What if it had been different? What would that mean?” Or maybe it scares us, as in, “How fragile is this government? How fragile is our life? Could it turn into something autocratic, just like that?” So I think it jolts us. Was it Kafka that said a book should crack open the ice in us? That’s kind of the idea. I think that’s what an alternate history somehow does. It causes us to just think dramatically different, and that’s really good for us because what an alternate history does is kind of loosen up the possibilities. I think fiction is not just to look at our culture and say, “See, this is what we have, and this is what it means,” but to say, “What is possible?” I think that is what E.M. Forster was talking about when he said that fiction is meant to deliver a series of small astonishments or maybe one big one.
WT: Sue, your alternate history is what I’d call “positive.” It attempts to unearth the truth that has been hidden by our “official” history, which you were alluding to in your earlier answer. But there are also what I would call negative alternative histories out there. The Trump administration and Fox News, in my personal opinion, are trying to create their own alternate history working daily to rewrite Trump’s failings on COVID-19 in a more positive light, which is why we’re all here in separate places doing this podcast rather than being together. So I wonder if some of the impetus to create positive alternative histories comes out of our awareness that negative ones are being created as well.
SMK: When I think of what is going on every afternoon with these press conferences, I suppose in a way, they’re trying to create an alternate history. But it seems more in the moment, in real time, that we’re just creating a whole alternate reality. It’s as if there’s a transaction going on of how to take a lie and turn it into truth, and that’s an interesting idea. That may be different than creating an alternate history. I don’t know. This just seems bizarre, what’s going on there. But I suppose if it works, and it seems to work in some quarters, then you end up with an alternate history. I worry whether it can get traction in people’s minds and actually become the version that everybody accepts. So then somebody down the road is gonna have to write an alternate history to this fake history.
We have this breach between sexuality and spirituality that has impacted so many things. Jesus was too holy to be sexual, so he’s not really like us. There are all kinds of ramifications from this.
VVG: Yeah, and it’s interesting to mention the briefings, of course, which have become a daily event, sort of a litmus test. I have friends who say, “I never watched the briefings anymore,” “My partner has banned me from watching the briefings,” or “I don’t watch the briefings because I know he’s just gonna lie.” A number of networks have recently decided, because it’s full of lies, not to carry it. And then yesterday, I saw that Trump is list building off of the mainstream media’s decision to not carry his alternative history. So there’s an alternative history to the alternative history, which is that Trump has said, essentially, “The ‘lamestream’ media with their fake news won’t carry my briefings in full. Won’t you sign my petition? They’re not giving me my full due.” So even there I felt like I was watching this and a history House of Cards being built. And I also just think that the readership for this is so strange because we’re seeing the fruit of decades of defunding of public education that has created a reading audience and a political audience unlike any we’ve ever seen before. In this vein, you described your decision to begin work on The Book of Longings as a second chance to take on an idea that struck you about 15 years ago. And of course, writing about Jesus having a wife is no small task. What changed between then and now to prompt you to take the jump into telling the story?
SMK: It seemed like an absurd idea at the time, it’s like, “Who’s gonna buy this?” And it might have been a failure of courage on my part, too. But 15 years later, when this came to me, I was in a completely different place and time. Not long before that, I had written a 20th anniversary introduction to The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, which is my telling of my collision between feminism and religion. It’s very personal but also kind of takes on my religion. As I was looking back for 20 years, I realized that a lot of things had changed and a lot of things had not changed. And it bothered me immensely that we still had evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Christians, putting limitations on women, segregating women. It’s a separate but equal policy, which sounds just like segregation in the south that I know well. So I think that was playing in my head too, that we had so much further to go. I think religion is really going to be the last bastion of patriarchy, the last thing to go, it’s that deeply mired. I had to crank my bravery up a little bit when I really sat down to do this. My husband said to me, “Oh, you’re gonna let Jesus get married? What could possibly go wrong?” Well, a lot could, I’m sure, and I suspect it would be controversial, but I felt so strongly about writing this book and why I needed to write this book. So I just did it, and I remember the day I sat down and wrote the first sentence of the book. The opening line is — I thought, she’s just got to walk out there and say who she is, so my character says, “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth.” When I wrote that, I sat back in my chair, and I thought, “I’m doing this. I’m really doing this.” It sort of took my breath in that moment. And I wrote somewhere along the line that a woman should, once in her life, take her own breath away. And I thought in that moment, “Okay, this is mine. This is it.”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the things that recurs powerfully in your work is deep friendship and loyalty is between women, women who are friends, women who are related. I’m thinking of Yaltha and Ana here. I wonder if you could read a passage about deep friendship and loyalties between women for us.
Sue Monk Kidd: I would be glad to do that. I should set it up a little bit. Ana has been betrothed to an older widower, a rather bitter man, who’s repugnant to her, and this is a forced marriage kind of situation. And she has now arrived at the Palace of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who is hosting this betrothal ceremony. And I’m going to just pick up with where she is. She’s been ushered to a bed chamber before the ceremony takes place, and she’s kind of waiting for it.
Excerpt from The Book of Longings:
“So, you are the lamb to be sacrificed,” a voice said in Greek.
Turning, I saw a dark-skinned, wraithlike woman standing beside a grand bed that was swathed in jewel-colored silks. Her black hair cascaded down her back like a spill of ink. It had to be Phaesaelis, Antipas’s wife. All of Galilee and Peraea knew that her father, Aretas, King of the Nabataeans, had conspired with Herod Antipas’s father to arrange their marriage as a way to stop skirmishes along their common border. It was said that upon hearing her fate, Phaesaelis, only thirteen at the time, cut her arms and wrists and cried for three days and three nights.
The shock of her presence in the room left me momentarily mute. She was dazzling standing there in her scarlet dress and golden mantle, but pitiable, too, her life turned into a ploy by two men.
“Are you capable of speaking Greek or are you simply too docile to answer me?” Her tone was scoffing, as if I were an object of amusement to her.
Phaesaelis’s rebuke was a slap, and it was like waking. A feeling of loss and wrath rose in me. I wanted to shout at her—I am betrothed to someone I despise and who despises me in return. I have little hope I will see the man I love ever again. I don’t know what has become of my brother. Words are life to me, yet my writings are buried in the ground. My heart is sickled like wheat tares and you speak to me as if I am weak and imbecilic.
I did not care if she possessed the stature of a queen. I thundered at her, “I AM NO LAMB.”
A flash in her eyes. “No, I see you’re not.”
“You heap condescension on me, but we are no different, you and I.”
A sneer slid into her voice. “Inform me. Please. How are we no different?”
“You were forced to marry as I am now forced. Were not each of us used by our fathers for their own selfish purposes? We are both wares to be traded.”
She walked toward me and her scent floated out—nard and cinnamon. Her hair swayed. Her hips oscillated. I thought of the lurid dance my mother had seen her perform. How I would have loved to see it. I feared she was coming to slap me for my insolence, but I saw her eyes had softened. She said, “When I last saw my father seventeen years ago, he wept bitterly and begged forgiveness for sending me to this wasteland. He told me it was for a noble reason, but I spit on the floor before him. I cannot forget he loved his kingdom more than me. He married me to a jackal.”
I saw the difference then. Her father had traded her for peace. My father had traded me for greed.
She smiled, and I saw this time there was no guile in it. “We shall be friends,” she said, taking my hand. “Not because of our fathers or our shared misfortune. We shall be friends because you are no lamb, and I, too, am no lamb.”
VVG: Gosh, thank you so much. I love that passage. Through her friendship with the Phasaelis, who’s Herod’s wife, Ana finds the strength to speak up for herself. So is that what Ana means on her incantation bowl, on which is inscribed, “She was a voice”?
SMK: Not exactly. I really had in mind something else. And that was a kind of passion that was innate in Ana, important to her. It was her longing, and it was to write the narratives of silenced women, of stories that were lost. In the scriptures, it’s something like 2 percent of all of the quotes or sayings are by women, and many of them aren’t even named. Ana was as disturbed by that as I am, and she wanted to write these stories of these lost matriarchal stories, she wanted to bring attention to the voices of women and her own. So that was her longing.
I once had someone ask me years ago, “What is the thing that lies deepest in your heart? What is the longing that is at the bottom of your heart?” And you know, what came to me was, I want to be a novelist. And that’s where that recognition started for me. Maybe I had something like that in mind for Ana, that she recognized this desire and needed her to make a difference. So this is what her voice is about, and she passed this incantation bowl, which her aunt Yaltha gives to her. And she’s told to write her deepest longing or that thing that lies at the bottom of her heart, or her prayer, whatever you want to call it, in a spiraling fashion inside this bowl. She does that, but she thinks very carefully about what it will be. And she takes it very seriously because it is now making this real and tangible to her. So she writes, essentially, this prayer, When I am dust, say these words over my bones, “She was a voice.” So that’s what she means by being a voice in the world and in being a scribe to it.
Whitney Terrell: I was interested in the way that you wrote Judas, as being a political activist against the Roman Empire, and you call his treachery an act of earnest political theater. And, you say, “It speaks, I think, to the danger of hyper-idealism, how a person overly possessed by a principle can begin to justify almost anything for his cause.” Can you talk about how or if that character was commenting on the political world you were living in at the time you wrote the character?
SMK: So many things in that book were a commentary on what’s happening. I think historical novels must be relevant, or what’s the point? I’ll say first there was a real Me Too moment in the novel in the story that I inserted with my character, and with Harod Antipas. And the other thing that I went back and rewrote was during the Kavanaugh hearings. I was so distressed by listening to them that I went back and created a new character and her name was Tabitha. It was something I felt compelled to go back and put in that was my response to the Kavanaugh hearings. But Judas, he was probably politically motivated. But I wanted to give him a human side. I wanted to give us a more complicated way of thinking about him, that it wasn’t so black and white, he’s the evil one, he betrayed Jesus. But why? And what was playing out inside of him? That was one reason I did it. But I also wanted to demonstrate, if I could, how our over-idealism sometimes to a particular principle, a cause, can almost negate the sense of the personal. It’s principle over the personal, or we tend to not even see people as people anymore. It’s all about the principle.
WT: I think it’s quite clear that — we’ve been talking about the #MeToo movement — if women had had a greater voice in history or talking about their experiences in earlier times, when men were writing all of the histories, history would look very different. I just think that’s a simple fact, or indigenous people in America. There are many people who didn’t get to write histories that I think we’re trying now to figure out what history would look like if they had been writing it.
SMK: Yes, so many voices were left out of writing the history. And I think historians can address that but fiction writers can address that, too.
VVG: You mentioned that writing the character of Ana isn’t exploring so much whether Jesus had a wife or not, that it’s important to imagine it, that she represents the missing feminine in religion. Can you talk more about the missing feminine and religion and why you think people are seeking to fill that need in our time?
SMK: I think it’s an absolutely important, front and center issue for me and for a lot of women. I hear from them all the time. Over 20 years ago when I wrote The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, it was important to me then. More recently, I co-authored a novel with my daughter called Traveling with Pomegranates in which I looked at this yet again. I was looking at Black Madonnas and ways to image the Divine Feminine. It’s like Mary Daly the theologian said, “If God is male, male is God.” That was her premise. It’s an interesting one. But I think we need imagery that helps us to see the Divine in both feminine and masculine ways. I have seen women’s whole lives pivot when they have an image of a Divine that looks like them, that includes them. So, Ana became for me, she symbolized this missing thing. Not necessarily of divinity, but just of the feminine in general. Her own search in the novel for a divine feminine presence she decides, I now will pray to Sophia. And that becomes her connection to what is transcendent. So Ana became an image of this lost feminine in so many ways, just women’s voices, in Scripture, in the divinity. And I think that we need her. I think the human psyche needs her. And that’s why we’re constantly looking for her, and why we’re so out of whack in our culture sometimes because we don’t have this kind of balance. I think we all are looking for that loss when we don’t maybe even realize it.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Abbey Outain, and Harmony Lassen. Photograph of Sue Monk Kidd by Tony Pearce.