The American author Sue Monk Kidd's award-winning novel The Book of Longings has a sensational beginning, despite the simplicity of the phraseology: It starts: "I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus bin Joseph of Nazareth". It would be impossible for anyone not to swallow this bait with enormous curiosity, and follow through with reading what is well and truly a 'page-turner'. The book is crafted to be breezy and exciting, necessary perhaps to better deliver its message. This historical work of fiction was the subject of discussion at a recent seminar organized by the Dhaka -based 'The Reading Circle'. The event was held in a 'hybrid' format, an experiment of the Circle in consonance with the evolving practices of the Covid era. There was a core of participants in Dhaka, and other members joining in from London, Paris, and Singapore. Chaired by Professor Razia Khan, the list of speakers and commentators included Niaz Zaman, Nusrat Huq, Tanveerul Haque, Ameenah Ahmed, Shahruk Rahman, Asfa Husain, Nazmun Nahar, Sarazeen Ahana and myself. The following essay is based on my remarks made on the occasion.
The novel is about Ana, a woman born in the first century in Galilee, Palestine, who in the book is the mythical wife of Jesus of Nazareth. It is about how she longs to shape her own destiny at a time when women were perceived as no more than mere silent chattels, or possessions. To have Jesus as a character in a literary work, and yet not as the main protagonist, would require huge skill on the part of any author, which in view of the discussants, Kidd was able to demonstrate. The challenge is compounded when he is to be shorn of his divinity and presented as a simple human being as he was in the book; as a husband, a brother, and a son, not of God, but of a woman. The writer picks up this intellectual gauntlet, and seems to be able to pull it off.
That is mainly because her work is not about faith, but about feminism. She has a theme, and despite the biblical backdrop, it is not theology. It is one that has been a center of aspiration of half of humanity through ages, of women in a world dominated by men. It is a simple one, but historically has been one of the most difficult goals of humanity to achieve. It is that women should have the equal rights and opportunities as men. Just as it should, in deference to its importance at this time and age,this topic had featured time and again in the Reading Circle's discussions . It was reflected in the yearnings of Briseis when the Circle read Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Or in the passionate writings of Virginia Woolf when it discussed her A Room of One's Own. And now in the longings of Ana in Sue Monk Kidd's book. I would like to refer in this connection to a recent part-autobiographical tome by Glennon Doyle entitled "Untamed". Having felt like a caged animal much of her life, Glennon Doyle has written about how she had learnt to break society's rules, upend expectations, and rebuild her emotions and life. She was inspired by a Cheetah in a zoo!
Ana represents a prototype different from many others of her sex, though there is indeed a lot of Ana in a lot of women. She is wild, free spirited and untamed. She is intensely modern, a 'woke' person by contemporary standards, entertaining radical ideas about societal change. She even tries to shun motherhood, believed then, as now, to be a blessed state for every woman. She tries it by secretly using herbal contraceptives, which would be unthinkable in Nazareth, particularly in a household all Christendom was to worship as the 'Holy Family'. She is extremely worldly, and not at all spiritual. Her prayer inscribed in an incantation bowl gifted to her by an aunt, is not about any kind of redemption from sin. Instead, she seeks blessings for the 'largeness' in her, a very individualistic longing, and seemingly Un-Christian. She is by no means a Mary Sue, the perfect woman in literature, one without failings or flaws. And yet the author shows Jesus as bestowing on her love, empathy, and understanding. And who can be more Christian in spirit than the Nazarene himself? So, is Sue Monk Kidd seeking to obtain for Ana's behavior the highest possible social sanction?
Now for the character in the book of Jesus himself. The characterization of Jesus must have been the most difficult challenge to our writer. In Biblical terms, Jesus' ministry to spread 'the Word' did not really begin till he was thirty. But in Christian belief emanating from the New Testament he was already divine when born, recognized by the three Magis who came to worship him with gifts at his birth! In the novel, Mary hardly behaves like the keeper of what would be the greatest secret on earth. She provides no clue as to Jesus' divinity, remains totally mum about her experience at the Annunciation. This was (it's not in the book but in the Bible) when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced the incarnation of baby-Christ in her womb, stating "Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee!" and a startled Mary, quickly regaining composure, responded 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord'!
Some Church-oriented critics of the book, who, while admiring the work of fiction, have opined that a Christian reader to better appreciate the book should be well-grounded in the Bible, otherwise he or she would be apt to misunderstand the essence of the contents. Be that as it may, Jesus here comes through, not as a leader of the Alpha- Male type like the mighty Achilles of the Trojan wars, but a Beta-male, compassionate and forgiving, who leads by kindness. He believes the kingdom of God will come by acts of love, rather than by the power of the sword.
This view is not at all shared by Judas, the betrayer of Christ, a complex personality in the book in which he is the adopted brother of Ana, apart from being a friend and later, disciple of Jesus. In the Biblical narration Judas gives Jesus away to his captors 'for thirty pieces of silver'. In this book he is pictured as a political firebrand, a zealot who thinks for the Kingdom of God to come, the Romans must be driven away from Palestine, if need be, by the sword. He views Jesus' mild ways as an impediment to his objective, and hence takes steps to remove him. There also have been interpretations of Judas, in some revisionist thinking, as someone who helps Christ fulfill his destiny by dying in the cross for the sins of man. Carl Trueman in his epochal work "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" has noted that radical thinkers and writers have driven the rapidly changing cultural mores in the Christian ethos with their ideas in recent times. Perhaps our writer can be seen as one such.
Sue Monk Kidd's deference to tradition, however, is reflected in the way she depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kidd shows Mary to be pious and pristine, truly without fault, as a woman, a mother, or even as a mother -in-law! Possibly the author uses a modicum of circumspection by not pushing the envelope too far. For me a tad surprising was that, perhaps being an American and not English, the author barely mentions a character, without developing it at all, who later emerges as a prime figure in English perceptions. It is Joseph of Arimathea who appears in this book only at Christ's entombment. English literary tradition has it that Joseph of Arimathea had hosted the boychild Christ in the Mendip mountains in Somerset, which I had the occasion to visit.
This myth of the boy-Christ's visit to England of course seeks to fill the void in our knowledge of Jesus's life during his boyhood and youth, just as our author does in her book. The poet Blake highlights it in his New Jerusalem, England's unofficial National Anthem when he rhetorically asks: "Did those feet in ancient times tread upon England's mountains green?". Since then, Jerusalem in English has become a metaphor for 'heaven', a blissful state in which many Britishers would like to see their country to be!
However, the message of our author lay, not in theology nor in history but in a somewhat fanciful response of our author to feminist intellectual and, at times, emotional urges. If Jesus had a wife, she would be the most silenced person on earth! Sue Monk Kidd only sought to give her a voice. This is indeed also the voice of everywoman, everywhere, and in every age!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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