Good Reading : June 2005
goodreading 15 author profile advocacy. ‘People think that’s so peculiar,’ she says. ‘People approach me with the question, “Oh, how did you manage to put politics on your novel?” as if my novel was a Christmas tree and I had tons of lit- tle ornaments all over it.The politics is the tree.The politics is the soil it grew out of.’ Kingsolver’s books resonate with pas- sionate, at times dewy-eyed, messages – about poverty, the wilderness, Native American rights, Central American asylum seekers and US foreign policy. Her 1988 literary debut The Bean Trees touches on the plight of refugees fleeing Nicaraguan death squads. Animal Dreams (1990) portrays idealistic Americans who head southward to support Nicaragua’s left- leaning government. In Pigs in Heaven (1993), Kingsolver challenges the laws surrounding the adoption of Native American children out of their tribes. Her critics accuse her of preaching, but Kingsolver has an elaborate explanation for that charge. She explains that a ‘superstition’ against mixing art and politics continues to linger from the McCarthy era, when socially committed literature fell out of favour with the American literati. After the glittering success of The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize, awarding $25,000 biennially and a guarantee of publica- tion to fictional debuts addressing ‘social change’. Not only is politics the lifeblood of her writing – it is also the reason she writes. Only by setting out to effect change does Kingsolver feel she can justify using up the wind: ‘Think about all the books that have ever been writ- ten. And then ask yourself: why should I write another one? That is the profes- sional question that hangs over my life.’ The germ of her novels is always a theme; character and plot come later. ‘I resist the idea of telling just another love story, or creating another funny or arrogant char- acter,’ she says. ‘That’s been done.Theme is the aspect of fiction that seems new to me, so that’s what occurs to me as a rea- sonable motive for writing a book.’ While her three early dramas of the American South were simple and cockle- warming, it was in The Poisonwood Bible (1998) that the fire in Kingsolver’s belly was most fiercely unleashed.Tragic and vast, the novel served as a searing indict- ment of America’s interference in the newly independent Congo of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the assassina- tion of the democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.The idea for The Poisonwood Bible occurred to Kingsolver in the late 1970s, but only after two decades of research did she set to work on the behemoth. ‘For years I wrote other novels to avoid working on that one because I was terrified of it,’ she says. ‘I had this file cabinet that was labelled “the damn Africa book” which just kept getting bigger.’While her previ - ous books cleared millions of copies in the US, not until The Poisonwood Bible did her name become household currency on the international stage.The novel elevated Kingsolver to the same plane as the world’s literary colossi, with one American reviewer proclaiming: ‘[A]t last our very own [Doris] Lessing and our very own [Nadine] Gordimer’. When Kingsolver was seven, her father, a physician, moved his family to the Congo for two years.While the Kingsolvers were not missionaries, like the Price family in The Poisonwood Bible, her memories nevertheless fed into the novel. ‘I lived in a place where the col- our of my skin made me an object of universal fascination and possibly repug- nance,’ she says. ‘I never took whiteness for granted again.’ Children would rub Kingsolver’s skin, expecting white paint to come off. As with the Price family, the Kingsolvers lived in a village without electricity or running water. But there the similarities end. ‘It really bothers me that people go around thinking that’s my family,’ she says. ‘This is a story of a really abusive, misogynistic, horrible fam- ily, and my family was really wonderful. People who don’t write novels often fail to grasp how you can purely invent. I’ve written about twenty other families, so they can’t all be my family!’ Kingsolver says the tension between the individual and the community is both her overarching theme and ‘the central conflict of my life’.Through the ques- tion of whether the six-year-old Native American protagonist of Pigs in Heaven, rescued by her adoptive mother from abuse, should be returned against her will to the Cherokee Nation, Kingsolver pits the individualism of white culture against an indigenous communitarian ethic. But there is little doubt about where her sym- pathies lie.As she has one character intone: ‘The good of the individual must never rise above what’s best for the community.’ Kingsolver’s writing exposes the illusion of the self-made lone ranger – the iconic image of her culture. She dismisses individualism as a ‘ridiculous myth’. As she explains: ‘Every great accomplishment of humans is a manifestation of our social nature, and also an effort in service of our social nature. Our modern lives are perched absolutely on the accomplish- ments of millions. How we can sit in the midst of this absolutely social construct that is human culture and pretend to glorify individual accomplishment, as if there is such a thing, strikes me as hilari- ous. People feel a sense of failure in the fact that they rely on other people.What I want to point out is that it’s not a failure – it’s something to celebrate.’ She was not always so passionate about the moorings of community. Growing up in a one-traffic-light town in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver felt a sense of isolation, not belonging. ‘I was too young to appreciate the values of rural connect- edness,’ she says. Kingsolver endured her adolescence with a passion for reading and a survival kit of detachment. None of her classmates was college-bound. Flat- chested and pushing six feet, Kingsolver went unnoticed by boys. ‘There was absolutely nothing for teenagers to do – nothing legal,’ she says. ‘Social life was organised around automobiles and alco- hol, which is a combination which frequently leads to death for males and pregnancy for females.’While her school- mates were crashing cars or preparing to give birth, Kingsolver was busy swotting and improving her piano skills, deter- mined to ‘fly away as far as I could’. Not only is politics the life blood of her writing – it is also the reason she writes. Only by setting out to effect change does Kingsolver feel she can justify using up the wind.