When my sister Theresa and I began the Nasty Women Writers project three years ago, we set out to amplify the voices of women, many of whom have been marginalized and erased. We decided to claim the word ‘nasty’ because it was being hurled at powerful women who were unafraid to speak up. Clearly ‘nasty’ was not such a bad thing to be.
Sue Monk Kidd in her new novel The Book of Longings addresses the erasure of women’s voices. The main character, Ana, is a spokesperson for this cause: she is a capturer and keeper of women’s voices, stories and experiences.
The big splash of this work of fiction is that Ana is the wife of Jesus! It is unknown whether Jesus ever married, but if he did, Ana would have been a great match. For me, Ana being Jesus’s wife is but a side-plot. The real substance consists of who Ana is, and her relationships with other women, especially her aunt Yaltha.
Ana is born into a wealthy family of some status. As the daughter of a greedy man, Ana is viewed as an object that through marriage can enhance her family’s position. Her father concocts a most advantageous plan, but a combination of fate and Ana’s refusal to sacrifice herself foil his efforts.
Ana, privileged enough to be literate, realizes,
“To be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worse sadness of all. I swore an oath to set down their (matriarchs in the Scriptures) accomplishments and praise their flourishings, no matter how small. I would be a chronicler of lost stories. It was exactly the kind of boldness Mother despised”(5).
Being this “chronicler” in those times was no easy feat since women were rarely allowed to write and writing supplies were scarce and expensive. But Ana gains access, and with her prayer penned in the “magic bowl” her aunt secretly gifts her, she begins a lifelong commitment to fulling her role as recorder and protector of women’s voices, all while she discovers her own, as illustrated here:
“John raised his hands to quiet the uproar. “You ask who I am -I will tell you who I am. I am a voice crying in the wilderness.”
These words, this proclamation, fairly stunned me. I thought of the words inscribed in my incantation bowl: When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice. I closed my eyes and imagined the words rising from their ink beds and escaping over the side of the bowl. The figure I’d drawn of myself at the bottom leapt up and danced along the rim.
Turning, Jesus laid his hand on my shoulder. “What is it, Ana? Why are you crying?”
I reached up and felt the wetness on my lids. “John is a voice,” I managed to say. “What it must be to say such a thing of oneself! I’m trying to imagine it”(219).
As the story progresses, the reader witnesses Ana’s growing independence and fortitude, but it is obvious she does not come by this on her own. Ana’s aunt Yaltha is a formidable role model, one that makes a strong statement: women need one another.
A rebellious woman herself, Yaltha is banished to live with her brother, Ana’s father. Ana and Yaltha develop an authentic bond and before Ana departs to reunite with Jesus, there is this exchange:
“You were something to be reckoned with. Fourteen years old and full of rebellion and longings. You were the most stubborn, determined, ambitious child I’d ever seen. When I saw what was inside your cedar chest, I knew.” She smiled.
“That there was also largeness in you. I knew you possessed a generosity of abilities that comes only rarely into the world. You knew it, too, for you wrote of it in your bowl. But we all have some largeness in us, don’t we, Ana?”
“What are you saying, Aunt?”
“What most sets you apart is the spirit in you that rebels and persists. It isn’t the largeness in you that matters most, it’s your passion to bring it forth.”
I gazed at her, but could not speak. I went down on my knees; I don’t know why, except I felt overcome by what she’d said.
She placed her hand on my head. She said, “My own largeness has been to bless yours”(354).
It is a culminating moment when Ana completes her work and owns her worth. Despite the multitude of barriers, Ana makes it home to herself:
“Then came a balmy day with spring. I had just finished turning the last of my scrolls into books, a task I’d worked on for weeks with an exigency I couldn’t explain. Now, alone in the house, I surveyed the stack of codices with relief, then amazement. Perhaps my words would endure now.
Remembering Enheduanna, who signed her name to her writing, I reopened the books and signed mine: Ana. Not Ana, daughter of Matthias, or Ana, wife of Jesus. Just Ana”(340).
Ana’s codices or manuscripts were the
“stories of the matriarchs; the rape and maiming of Tabitha; the terrors men inflicted on women; the cruelties of Antipas; the braveries of Phasaelis; my marriage to Jesus; the death of Susanna; the exile of Yaltha; the enslavement of Diodora; the power of Sophia; the story of Isis; Thunder: Perfect Mind; and a plethora of other ideas about women that turned traditionally held beliefs upside down”(405).
If only this was a true story and the narratives civilizations and generations were built upon were inclusive of powerful women and shockingly illuminative of the wrongness in the world. When wrong is blatantly revealed and not hidden or muted, it begs to be addressed. This we know.
I agree with some of the reviews that The Book of Longings will not go down as Kidd’s best or most memorable novel. The Secret Life of Bees may, and for me, The Invention of Wings is one I will always treasure.
Nevertheless, The Book of Longings is a story that captivates and resonates.
Ron Charles’s book review in the Washington Post is titled, In Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Book of Longings,’ Jesus has a wife and behold – she’s so woke!
Yes, Ana is woke, and why shouldn’t she be? Jesus was woke, and so was his wife.
In his review, Charles has this to say about Ana:
“Determined to alleviate “the sting of being erased,” she secretly writes the lost histories of Eve, Bathsheba, Jezebel and other nasty women. But she’s not just an illuminating feminist historian, she’s also a brave activist. When a friend is raped by a Roman guard and then brutally punished by her family, Ana lashes out at the sexist cultural and legal standards of the day.”
I’m glad Ana is woke. I’m glad Ana lashes out. I’m glad Ana claims herself and works to preserve nasty women’s stories, as well as her own.
She was a voice. May we all be.
Sue Monk Kidd is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2020
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. New York: Viking, 2020.
Charles, Ron. “In Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Book of Longings,’ Jesus has a wife – and behold, she’s so woke!” The Washington Post, 21 April 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/in-sue-monk-kidds-the-book-of-longings-jesus-has-a-wife–and-behold-shes-so-woke/2020/04/21/51ebf2a6-8373-11ea-ae26-989cfce1c7c7_story.html