May 5, 2005

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd


The Secret Life of Bees

An interview with Sue Monk Kidd was taken from
© BookBrowse LLC 1997-2005

The novel is set in South Carolina in 1964. Did you experience the South in the 1960s?

In 1964 I was an adolescent growing up in a tiny town tucked in the pinelands and red fields of South Georgia, a place my family has lived for at least two hundred years, residing on the same plot of land my great-great-grandparents settled. The South I knew in the early sixties was a world of paradoxes. There was segregation and the worst injustices, and at the same time I was surrounded by an endearing, Mayberryesque life. I could wander into the drugstore and charge a cherry Coca-Cola to my father, or into the Empire Mercantile and charge a pair of cheerleader socks to my mother, and before I got home my mother would know what size Coke I'd drunk and what color socks I'd bought. It was an idyllic, cloistered, small-town world of church socials, high school football games, and private "manners lessons" at my grandmother's. Yet despite the African-American women who prominently populated the world of my childhood, there were enormous racial divides. I vividly remember the summer of 1964 with its voter registration drives, boiling racial tensions, and the erupting awareness of the cruelty of racism. I was never the same after that summer. I was left littered with memories I could not digest. I think I knew even back then that one day I would have to find a kind of redemption for them through writing. When I began writing The Secret Life of Bees, I set it during the summer of 1964 against a civil rights backdrop. It would have been impossible for me to do otherwise.

What parts of The Secret Life of Bees were drawn from your own life experience?

Once, after I gave a reading of the scene where T. Ray makes Lily kneel on grits, someone in the audience asked if my father had ever made me kneel on grits. She couldn't imagine, she said, anyone making that up! I explained that not only had I never knelt on grits, or even heard of kneeling on grits before it popped into my head while writing the novel, but that T. Ray is the exact opposite of my father. I conjured most of the novel straight out of my imagination, inventing from scratch, yet bits and pieces of my life inevitably found their way into the story. Like charm school. Lily wanted to go, believing it was her ticket to popularity. As an adolescent, I went to charm school, where I learned to pour tea and relate to boys, which, as I recall, meant giving them the pickle jar to unscrew, whether it was too hard for me or not. And there is the fact that Lily and I both wanted to be writers, rolled our hair on grape juice cans, refused to eat grits, and created model fallout shelters for our seventh-grade science projects. We also both had nannies, but otherwise Lily and I are more different than alike.

My favorite piece of personal history that turned up in the novel is the honeybees that lived in a wall of our house when I was growing up. We lived in a big country house in Georgia, where bees lived for many years inside the wall of a guest bedroom, squeezing through the cracks to fly about the house. I remember my mother cleaning up puddles of honey that seeped out, and the unearthly sound of bee hum vibrating through the house. The whole idea for the novel began one evening when my husband reminded me that the first time he'd visited my home to meet my parents, he'd awakened in amazement to find bees flying about the room. After he told that story, I began to imagine a girl lying in bed while bees poured through cracks in her bedroom walls and flew around the room.

I couldn't get the image out of my head. I began asking myself: Who is this girl? What is the desire of her heart? That anonymous girl became Lily Melissa Owens, lying there, yearning for her mother.

Are any of the characters modeled on people you know?

I'm inclined to say that no character in the novel is modeled on a real person, but nothing is ever that simple, is it? As I wrote about Rosaleen, I could hear my own nanny's voice in my head. She had a colorful way with words, and some of her sayings found their way into Rosaleen's mouth. For instance my nanny used to say that if you put her husband's brain into a bird, the bird would fly backward. You may recall that Rosaleen said exactly the same thing about her husband. Like Rosaleen, my nanny was also a connoisseur of snuff. She carried around a snuff cup and had a distinct manner of spitting it that Rosaleen inherited. Other than a few borrowed traits and sayings, however, the two of them weren't that much alike.

While I borrowed some trivial details from my own adolescence and gave them to Lily, she was essentially her own unique creation, just as T. Ray, Deborah, Zach, Gabe, and Neil were. All of them sprang to life the same way—conjured from anonymity. As for August, May, June, and the Daughters of Mary, I'm sure I drew on amorphous memories of growing up around a lot of wonderful Southern, African-American women. As a child, I loved to listen to their stories. But I wasn't thinking of any particular one of them as I wrote. The inspiration for August came mostly from a vision I carry inside, of feminine wisdom, compassion, and strength. I just kept trying to imagine the woman I would've wanted to find if I'd been in Lily's complicated situation.

Where did your interest in Black Madonnas come from? Are there actual Black Madonnas in the world? If so, what is the story behind them? How did a Black Madonna end up in your novel?

For a number years I studied archetypal feminine images of the divine and grew fascinated with how the Virgin Mary has functioned as a Divine Mother for millions of people across the centuries. It was during this period that I inadvertently stumbled upon an array of mysterious black-skinned Madonnas. They captivated me immediately, and I began to explore their history, mythology, and spiritual significance.

Approximately four hundred to five hundred of these ancient Madonnas still exist, most in Europe. They are among the oldest Madonna images in the world, and their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses. I traveled to Europe to see some of the Black Madonnas and found them to be images of startling strength and authority. Their stories reveal rebellious, even defiant sides. Black Madonnas in Poland and Central America have been the rallying images for oppressed peoples struggling against persecution.

I decided the Black Madonna had to make an appearance in my novel. I had no idea, though, what a starring role she would end up with. I thought she would be a small statue, sitting quietly in the background of the story. Then I visited a Trappist monastery, where I came upon a statue of a woman that had once been the masthead of a ship. It was deeply scarred and didn't look particularly religious. I asked a young monk about it. He told me she'd washed up on the shores on a Caribbean island and wound up in an antique shop. She wasn't really the Virgin Mary but was purchased and consecrated as Mary. I fell in love with the masthead Mary. I imagined a masthead Black Madonna in the pink house. I pictured fabulous black women in grand hats dancing around her, coming to touch their hands to her heart. I understood in that moment that here was Lily's mother, a powerful symbolic essence that could take up residence inside of her and become catalytic in her transformation. Just like that, the Black Madonna became a full-blown character in the novel.

Did you know anything about bees and beekeeping before you wrote the novel? How did you learn so much about bees?

I knew that bees could live inside the wall of a bedroom in your house. Other than that, I didn't know much at all. I began my bee education by reading lots of books. There's a mystique about bees, a kind of spell they weave over you, and I fell completely under it. I read bee lore and legend that went back to ancient times. I discovered bees were considered a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth. I will never forget coming upon medieval references which associated the Virgin Mary with the queen bee. I'd been thinking of her as the queen bee of my little hive of women in the pink house, thinking that was very original, and they'd already come up with that five hundred years ago! Books couldn't tell me everything I needed to know, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina. Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked. There seemed to be thin veneer of honey everywhere, and my shoes stuck slightly to the floor when I walked, something I could never have learned from a book. When the beekeepers took me out to the hives, I was unprepared for the rush of fear and relish I experienced when the lid on the hive was lifted. I became lost in a whirling cloud of bees. So many, I could hardly see. The scent of honey drifted up, bee hum swelled, and the smoke meant to calm the bees rose in plumes all around us. Beekeeping, I discovered, is a thoroughly sensual and courageous business. I got through my bee education without a single sting. The first time August took Lily to the hives, she told her, "Don't be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don't be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants."

It is prohibited to reproduce this interview in any form without written permission from the copyright holder. Unless otherwise stated, this interview was provided by the author or the author's publisher.

Do you think that Lily carried the Black Madonna around because she felt that it represented her mother, that she was always with her, watching over her as if she were her guardian angel?

What I got out of the story was that Lily had carried this icon of the Black Madonna around with her, simply because she felt that her mother was always watching over her and protecting her. I also feel that the reason that Lily was able to get away was that the powerfulness of the icon and her mother's presence watching over her,that she was able to give her a sign of strength to getaway. It was unique how the beginning of the story starts out with Lily's interaction with bees and she eventually gets lead to a "mother-type figure" who makes honey. Overall, I feel that her whenever Lily has the Black Madonna with her she is being watched over by her mother, and is being lead in the right direction. Her mother had lead her to a more safe environment away from her father.

Posted by MelissaBerg at 3:18 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Blog Portfolio #2

This is my second blog portfolio for Dr. Jerz, I am currently finishing up my first year of college and wrapping up everything in American Literature EL 267. For those of you who do not regularly keep up with my blog, I am going to welcome you to the entries you may be missing. My name is Melissa Berg and I am currently finishing up my first year at Seton Hill University. I had just finished up an awarding season on the Women's Tennis team and currently working on getting my Elementary Education, Special Education, Early Childhood and Family and Consumer Science degree.

These blog entries are posted for the public to view for anyone who enjoys reading about American Literature or random information which is posted weekly. This is an introduction to my blog portfolio in EL 267. The following links and topics will be discussed in my upcoming blog portfolio:

THE COLLECTION: The Best Blog Entries

Coverage Blog: Here We Are This is an entry relating to the description and themes of A Streetcar Named Desire, I felt that I demonstrated intellectual skills and talked about the assigned reading appropriately.

Depth Blog: Blood-Burning MoonThis is my example of Depth in one of my blog entries involving poetry. In this blog entry i provided readers with two different types of poems involving my opinions, settings, emotional view points dealing with the poems, and other such details. Since I am not an expert at reading poetry I looked elsewhere for help on different websites for summarys and comments to help me comprend the poem. Neha Bawa's blog on Blood-Burning Moon had helped me understand some interesting figures throughout the poem. Understanding this poem was crucial because of the class dicussions in EL267 and for the final exam.

Interaction:Holly Waite blog entry on A Streetcar Named Desire interested me in several types of ways. The way Holly sets up her theory on whether Blanche is guilty or not guilty for her actions in throughout the story. Here in Holly's blog entry she depicts the story well. I enjoyed her title, " A Streetcar Named BLANCHE." I thought it was really unique, because the entire story basically revolves around Blanche.

Discussions: Scott Clark
had sparked an intesting comment on my blog entry on A Streetcar Named Desire. Here Scott said, "I have to agree with you on Stanley. He was the boss type person in this play and he did love the power. He is really assertive and forward and it might trace back to his time in the army. I disagree with you on Blanche. I don't think she was mentally stable enough to leave and go on with her life. It seemed to me that she was making up the millionaire in texas, and was not welcomed back in her home town because of her sexual history their. I think she needed help, but maybe not as far as putting her in a hospital." Scott posted this comment on March 17, 2005. With Scott commenting on this entry, made me more not only confident with my knowledge of the story but also thrilled he had agreed with my comments toward this book.

Secondly, Neha had commented on my entry dealing with the poem, Here We Are. Here, Neha commented, starting a discussion deal with my ability to sum up points in just a few sentences. "Melissa, you have a great eye for picking out the nuances in the characters that we've read about. You've got it pinned down in two sentences or less...that's a great accomplishment in and of itself. Good job."
Since I am a busy person, I hardly get around to blogging that night it is due. However, one entry that I had posted early enough for students to comment on was the entry on A Streetcar Named Desire and also Mircle at St. Anna. With these two entries, I had spent a fair amount of time, plotting out the themes, setting, and character traits throughout the stories. Another lengthly entry which I had contributed was the information of the poetry slam. Here, I had introduced the poems which I was going to present to the my EL267 class.
Xenoblogging:Here are a few entries that demonstrate my willingness to contribute selflessly and generously to the online classroom community:
Scott Clark blog entry relates to the Secret Life of Bees assigned for this weeks reading assignment. Here, Scott was puzzled over the same question which I was pondering over, whether or not Lily was at fault for her mothers death or her dad T-Ray was to blame. I commented with, "Scott, good blog entry, in your response to Lily killing her mother, I wasnt exactly sure either to be honest mostly because I am in the same position as you, busy week and lots of other work. Therefore, I was not able to finish the entire book, however I was wondering the same question you had on Lilys mothers death." I posted this comment on May 5, 2005.

A second blog entry I had commented on was Tammy Roberts blog. Here, Tammy had wrote an entry on how Lily was able find a safe place after all. Also, I had commented on how Lily is definitly better off living with a complete stranger than a father that beats her half to death.
The Comment Primo:
The Comment Grande:
The Comment Informative:
The Link Gracious:

Here I will include two blog entries dealing with all three of the poetry entries I had submitted previously: Blood-Burning Moon, Here We Are and Poetry Slam. All three of these entries will allow you to evaulate me as a student weblogger and how I had grown as a writer from my first blog entry throughout this entire semester till now. Hopefully, this will allow you to see my truthful options as a weblogger, serious or non serious entries which in include in my blog.

Posted by MelissaBerg at 1:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack