When you travel Europe, you have to get in tune with, or at least tolerate, the rhythm of your companions. In writing their memoir Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor found they had to get in synch again, trading off chapters about places on their itinerary.
“Ann would always have to wait for me,” Sue says. “I’m the slow one.”
“Yeah, but I’d paid for it in the re-writing,” Ann says.
A reflection on trips to Greece and France, Pomegranates goes back 11 years, when Kidd, then 50, was contemplating trying fiction for the first time, the seed for her blockbuster novel The Secret Life of Bees starting to germinate. Taylor had just graduated college, suffering from depression with no clear picture for her life.
This book started as Taylor’s project, one she had been working on for many years. It’s her first book and Kidd’s sixth.
“My first book signing was in the greeting card department of Belk’s in Anderson,” Sue says. “Hers is in the biggest Barnes and Noble in the world.”
“She was wedged in between lingerie and china,” Ann adds, flashing a family gift for recall that imbues her writing.
When the two Kidd women took off for Europe, they weren’t going on a purposeful pilgrimage, but their meticulous and reflective journaling belies a tale of healing and growth.
“The motif that we found in the myth of Demeter and Persephone, we really just stumbled into, kind of fell into when we were in Greece,” Sue says, “It’s a story of loss and search and return. When we mapped out the book, it became really clear to us that this book was about loss and search and return.”
The Eleusinian Mysteries were an initiation ceremony held by the cult of Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and fertility. In the origin myth, Demeter’s daughter Persephone is captured by Hades, who makes her queen of the underworld. Demeter goes down to rescue her, but before Persephone leaves, Hades tricks her into eating pomegranate seeds. A rule of the Fates was that anyone who consumed food or drink in the underworld could never fully leave, so Persephone returns each year for the winter months. While she’s below, her mother mourns and makes the earth barren.
“On our journeys we would find symbols and icons that spoke to us,” Sue says. “Ann was very captivated by Joan of Arc in France, and I of course was captivated by the Black Madonna.”
Comparative religion scholars have claimed that images of the Madonna with dark skin are descendants of pre-Christian mother or earth goddesses, like Demeter. In Sue’s creekside home in Mt. Pleasant, this reporter didn’t see the Black Madonna prop Queen Latifah prays to in the film version of Bees, though there are artifacts from various trips: a replica of an ancient Greek water pitcher, a Kenyan head rest, an African marriage stick that Ann’s six-year-old son Ben likes to use for swordplay.
Also not around are the two glass pomegranates that mother and daughter bought at a souvenir shop in Athens. The red pendants pop up periodically throughout Pomegranates, something of a sacred version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Ann said hers was at her home (she lives 15 minutes away); Sue thinks she lost hers in a move right about when they started writing the book.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t take that as an omen,” Ann says, laughing.
There’s something very Southern about the Kidd women’s lack of sentimentality, yet in the Greek city of Eleusis, standing before one of many priceless antiquities the two see on their travels, Sue reveals in Traveling with Pomegranates that an heirloom cookie tin is the most intimidating thing about being her mother’s daughter. (At 88, Leah Monk still makes life-sized Easter Bunny cookies for every member of the family.)
As for Ann’s own anxieties of influence, there’s the daunting prospect of trading off chapters with one of the most revered writers in the South. She holds her own, grounding her writing voice in detail and letting her mother take the lead in pondering the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Black Madonna, menopause, and fertility.
Ann describes a belly dancer wearing “a sheer purple skirt that falls to her ankles with slits cut to her hips. Her spine is an octopus tentacle. When she balances the sword on a spot above her belly button, I think to myself, I could never be this woman.”
Now it is Ann who has bared herself, emotionally speaking, and soon she too will be up on the stage, although likely in more demure attire. Late last month, she and her mother were rehearsing their book tour talk, hoping to make it as legato as their well-synched chapters.
“I’m honestly overwhelmed,” Ann says. “When you see the girl in the store, looking at this book with her mouth gaping open, that will be me.”