Shortly before it was announced that Barbara Kingsolver had won this year’s Orange Prize for her novel, The Lacuna, on the McCarthy period she told me what motivates her as a writer.
Kingsolver is one of the leading social-realist writers in the English language today and has written, or collaborated on, 13 books, most of which are novels, but she has also written poetry, short stories and essays. Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for ‘literature of social change’.
Her books have been widely praised both for their passionate moral commitment and for their evocative writing style. Every one, since Pigs in Heaven, has been on The New York Times bestseller list.
At the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990, she was so horrified by the gung-ho militarism gripping the nation that she emigrated temporarily to retain her sanity.
She agreed to answer a few questions exclusively for the Morning Star.
Her novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998) won her international acclaim. It is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fanatical evangelical minister who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.
This was a time of great turmoil for Africa –the height of the Cold War – with the collapse of colonialism, revolutionary movements were determined to win control of their countries. It is the time of Lumumba’s murder and the suppression of a genuine anti-colonial movement. The West was determined to stop ‘the spread of Communism’ and the Eastern Bloc was supporting the revolutionary forces. The book’s complex and compelling characters clarify, as scarce another novel has been able to, the processes that unfolded there. By placing a US missionary family centre stage it also ensured that the reader in the West was obliged to recognise the links (and perhaps a certain responsibility too) between his/her privileged and sheltered way of life and the oppression, inhumanity and war unfolding in the Congo.
Kingsolver’s other books have taken up similar controversial social issues. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (1989) is based on interviews with strikers and their families. It is an account of eighteen months, during the 1980s, of a strike against the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation. In particular, the book is about the women in these towns: how they answered the challenge set before them, and how they changed.
In The Bean Trees, she tells the story of a family of Guatemalan immigrants whose daughter is taken by the government in an effort to force them to speak out about their underground teaching circle. They were forced to escape torture and death in their home country, but forced to evade the authorities in the United States. The sequel to this novel, Pigs in Heaven, examines the conflicts between individual and community rights, through a story about a Cherokee child adopted out of her tribe.
In Animal Dreams (1990), the American sister of the main protagonist is kidnapped by US-backed Contras while working to promote sustainable farming in Nicaragua. It intertwines the issue of indigenous culture and its marginalisation in the USA and that country’s support fro the Contras in Nicaragua.
I asked her about her latest novel, The Lacuna, which continues the tradition set by her previous ones of tackling large social themes. It takes as its subject matter perhaps one of the most politically controversial periods in US history – that dominated by the activities of The House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator McCarthy. What led her to choose this subject matter now, I wondered. Does she see any parallels in today’s society or was she simply interested in that period for its own sake or because of its impact on the lives of so many creative and progressive individuals?
“I don’t think of myself as having established a tradition of ‘tackling big social themes,’ she replies, ‘I construct novels around questions that seem compelling to me, but they need not be ‘big’ or ‘social’. Sometimes I write about family and community. My previous novel, Prodigal Summer, explained in fictional terms a handful of crucial biological principles that are confusing for non-scientists. My only persistent tradition is to keep working at the edge of my powers, in terms of both theme and craft. I love challenges.”
“I’ve wondered for many years about why art and politics have such an uncomfortable relationship in the U.S. I suspected that if I looked deeply into the events surrounding the so-called ‘McCarthy era’, I would find some interesting fictional territory. That period has left a strong imprint on the political identity of my country, in which patriotism is now widely defined as resistance to change. That seems a strange position for a nation founded by revolutionaries. I wondered when and why we made that huge shift. I assumed others would also be interested in that question, and it seems to be so.”
She has expanded this idea in her collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, where she writes: “We’ve created for ourselves a culture that undervalues education (compared with the rest of the industrialized world, to say the least), undervalues breadth of experience (compared with our potential), downright discourages critical thinking (judging from what the majority of us watch and read), and distrusts foreign ideas. “Un-American,” from what I hear, is meant to be an insult…If there is a fatal notion on this earth, it’s the notion that wider horizons will be fatal.”
I mention her most acclaimed novel The Poisonwood Bible and wonder if, as a writer, she feels that her role (as well as crafting good stories, believable characters and providing an enjoyable read) is to make a social/political intervention.
She replies: “The sole pact I’ve sworn with myself is to be the best literary writer I can be. The greatest work will always come from passion – writers work hardest at whatever thrills and intrigues us. That might be murder or romance or whatever, artists pursue what we love. In my case, I happen to be a person with strong convictions about human justice and more than an average curiosity about how things get to be the way they are. Like every other writer on earth, my work reflects my world view. Why critics want to make hay over that, I’ll never know.”
“It’s a curious risk, fiction,” she writes in an essay, “Some writers choose fantasy as an approach to truth, a way of burrowing under newsprint and formal portraits to find the despair that can stow away in a happy childhood, or the affluent grace of a grandfather in his undershirt. In the final accounting, a hundred different truths are likely to reside at any given address. The part of my soul that is driven to make stories is a fierce thing, like a ferret: long, sleek, incapable of sleep, it digs and bites through all I know of the world. Given that I cannot look away from the painful things, it seems better to invent allegory than to point a straight bony finger at Scrooge’s mute Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, declaring: ‘Hee you will end, if you don’t clean up your act.’ By inventing character and circumstance, I like to think I can be a kinder sort of ghost, saying: ‘I don’t mean you, exactly, but just give it some thought, anyway.’”
Kingsolver doesn’t usually receive the sort of publicity that some of her more esoteric and cynical counterparts despite being an international best-seller. This is perhaps not altogether surprising as she doesn’t fit comfortably into any mould but is very much a mould-breaker, particularly those so beloved of the mainstream media. She cannot be labelled or put into any easy category; she stays true to herself and her deeply held principles. She is a somewhat ‘old-fashioned’ writer in a positive sense. She writes tightly structured, allegorical novels, without readers feeling they are being lectured at. Her characters are believable and well-rounded; her stories grip. She has an eloquence of language and keen sense of humour, a powerful and vividly descriptive style combined with an unfettered imagination, but rooted firmly in reality. Community, economic injustice and cultural difference and a strongly feminist stance inform the themes of her work.
The majority of Western novelists today have adopted a largely post-modernist, disengaged or solipsistic position in their writing. I ask her if she feels that the fact that she takes on important social and political subject matters (e.g. the rights of indigenous people, responsibility for a sustainable world, international solidarity and the wider role of the USA in the word) could be considered ‘old-fashioned’ harking back to writers like Upton Sinclair, Irving Stone, Howard Fast and Theodore Dreiser. Would she reject such an association or is she comfortable with it?
“I agree with you, as a writer I might claim more kinship with Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser than with many modern novelists in the U.S. But I’m disinclined to call that “old fashioned,” because I labor to belong to a tradition that’s absolutely alive elsewhere in the world, a wildly diverse club that’s anything but antique. Let me name a few names: Nadine Gordimer, Arundhati Roy, José Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M. Coetzee. Let’s throw in the graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, just for good measure, and I’ll rest my case. Worldliness may go out of fashion in the U.S., but that doesn’t concern me. I’ve lived in a lot of other countries.”
In a world increasingly dominated by the electronic media, of sound bites, ‘junk food’ culture and the demand for quick and easy fixes, can literature such as Kingsolver’s have any discernible impact on the politics, thinking and attitudes of the present generation, I wonder.
“Can ‘literature such as mine’ still have an impact in a sound-bite world? You may as well ask that question about literature in general. Does anyone under 30 still read literary fiction? As it happens, the answer is yes, I hear from younger readers all the time. A small but impressive cadre.”
“I would venture to guess that the percentage of the population that reads literature has held fairly steady since the days of Cervantes. Centuries ago, few people read great books because few had the privilege of education and literacy. Now we have a higher literacy rate, and also more options, so it evens out. But the novel, as a form, has remained basically the same for 400 years, which suggests it will persist as long as humans do. I don’t mean the paper or electronic pad or whatever it’s delivered on, that’s immaterial, I mean the novel itself: the word charged with purpose, the narrative arc, the taste of connotation on the palate, the capacity of a reader to enter other lives and come away changed. Some portion of us will always need that.”
She questions accepted US shibboleths and interrogates lazy thinking and simplistic philosophies. Her essays are particularly illuminating and outspoken, often laced with a winning self-deprecatory humour. She has said, ‘If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.’ And you feel she would genuinely be happy to go down this road if she felt her books really made no difference.
She is clearly a writer of the left and unusually for US writers doesn’t even shy away from mentioning Marx or Engels with whom she is clearly familiar. In another of her essays she explains the significance of Engels with relation to property ownership:
“Engels,” she says, “examined our history under the lamp of a new paradigm set forth by his contemporary Charles Darwin. Engels also had access to the prodigious work of the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Countless modern scholars have addressed the history of private property, but it’s hard to beat the elegance of Engels’s simple outline of social evolution, laid out in his wonderful classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” And later, she adds: “What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things. Engels remarked at the end of his treatise that the outgrowth of property has become so unmanageable that ‘the human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation.’ But he continues on a hopeful note: ‘The time which has passed since our civilisation began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come…A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind’.”
Despite all the deeply divisive and threatening issues she deals with in her books, Kingsolver, too, retains hope for humanity and that is what comes through forcefully in all her novels. Her characters may be up against enormous odds, but they remain resilient and that also gives the reader hope.
The Lacuna – her first novel in nine years – is now out in paperback.