The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd was born on August 12, 1948, in Sylvester, Georgia, and lived on a plot of land that had belonged to her family for more than 200 years. She spent all of her childhood in Sylvester, a safe, small, rural town she has called “endearing” and “Mayberry-esque” in interviews, even though the town was the site of racial injustices so prevalent in the South during that time. As a child, Kidd observed the deeply ingrained segregation between white and black southerners. Nevertheless, she recalls listening to the stories of the African American women that worked in the domestic realm of her home. As a teenager, during the mid-1960s, Kidd witnessed the beginnings of desegregation; the injustices she encountered left a lasting impression, as did two literary works she read at the time: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854) and Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899). These works would come to guide her early years as a writer.
In 1970, Kidd graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in nursing. Throughout her twenties, she worked as a registered nurse in pediatrics and surgery and as a nursing instructor at the college level. Although she kept a journal—she has always been an avid chronicler of her own life—Kidd did not publish any writing. Around this time, she met and married Sanford Kidd, a theologian. The pair later had two children, Bob and Ann. In the late 1970s, while her husband was teaching at a liberal arts college in Anderson, South Carolina, Kidd began to take writing courses with the intention of learning the craft of fiction writing. However, just before she turned 30, a nonfiction essay she had written for the class was published in Guideposts magazine, then reprinted in Reader’s Digest. Inspired by this success, Kidd began to write professionally; eventually she went on to publish hundreds of articles and essays on religious, inspirational, and personal themes and became a contributing editor at Guideposts.
Throughout her thirties, Kidd began to use her writing to explore philosophy and theology. She read widely in the classics of Western spirituality, philosophy, and literature, and she has named the Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung and the monk and poet Thomas Merton as important influences discovered during that time. In 1988, Kidd published her first book, God’s Joyful Surprise: Finding Yourself Loved, a spiritual memoir that explores her Christian faith and personal relationship with God. Her next book, another spiritual memoir called When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions (1990), describes Kidd’s spiritual awakening. Virtue magazine named this book its “Book of the Year” in 1991. Kidd’s third book, Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine (1996), describes Kidd’s transition from a Baptist upbringing to the development of her unique feminist perspective. This bestselling memoir explores feminist theology—a thematic interest that would reappear in her later fictional work, including The Secret Life of Bees.
As successful as her nonfiction books had been, Kidd began feeling an urge to write fiction as she entered her forties. She enrolled in graduate writing courses at Emory University and spent time at the Sewanee and the Bread Loaf writers’ conferences. Gradually Kidd began to publish short fiction in literary journals. In 1997, she decided to expand a short story she had published in 1993 in Nimrod magazine. That story, entitled “The Secret Life of Bees,” would become the seed for her first published novel. It took Kidd nearly four years to complete The Secret Life of Bees.
The Secret Life of Bees draws on both Kidd’s personal experience as a child growing up in the segregated South and on American history. Kidd has cited the storytelling influences of her father and of the African American maids who worked in her childhood home as forces that helped shape the novel. Even though slavery was outlawed in the United States in 1865, several laws, known collectively as the Jim Crow laws, were enacted to limit the civil liberties of the newly freed blacks in the American South. These laws ensured that blacks were treated as second-class citizens, even as lawmakers invoked the “separate but equal” doctrine. In practice, the laws institutionalized prejudice, racism, and discrimination. Under Jim Crow, blacks and whites were forced to attend separate schools, were not allowed to get married, were not able to use the same textbooks or library books, and were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain or sit in the same sections of movie theaters, among other things. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka eliminated segregation in schools; in 1964, the Civil Rights Act eliminated the other Jim Crow laws. Over time, the civil rights movement rid the United States of these practices and worked toward establishing a society of equals.
Upon the publication of The Secret Life of Bees in 2002, the novel found a wide readership and received much critical acclaim. Since then, it has been translated into more than twenty languages, nominated for England’s Orange Prize, named a finalist for the 2003 Book Sense Book of the Year award, and selected for Good Morning America’s Read This! program. The book has also been made into a movie. In 2005, Kidd published The Mermaid Chair, which won the 2005 Quill Award for General Fiction; in 2006, she published Firstlight, a collection of her early writings on spirituality. Kidd lives with her husband and their dog outside of Charleston, South Carolina, where she is at work on another novel.
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