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Barbara Kingsolver is a highly acclaimed contemporary author and social activist whose work often concentrates on feminist and environmentalist concerns. In 2000 she was awarded the highest honor for service through the arts, the National Humanities Medal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Writing to Make Experience Real Born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, Kingsolver is the daughter of a county physician. Her youth was spent immersed in both the storytelling culture of Appalachia and the scientific culture of her father’s profession. When she was in the second grade, she moved to Africa with her family, where her father worked for almost a year as a physician in the Congo. In Africa she began her lifelong habit of keeping a journal. ”What I feel,” Kingsolver told interviewer L. Elisabeth Beattie, ”is that writing is the thing that makes my experience real to me.” Wendell Roy and Virginia Lee Henry Kingsolver, her parents, instilled in Barbara and her siblings, Rob and Ann, a love for reading and a respect for the natural world.
Early Education and Travel Abroad
Although she was a prolific writer in her youth, Kingsolver told David King Dunaway that ”it never crossed my mind that I’d be a writer when I grew up because I really didn’t think of writing as a profession.” She did, however, consider a career as a classical pianist, a result ofa youth spent virtually without television and with parents who had wide-ranging musical tastes. Kingsolver went to DePauw University in Indiana on a music scholarship, but after realizing how scarce jobs were for pianists she switched her major to something more practical: biology.
During her junior year of college, Kingsolver left Indiana to live and work in Greece and France as an archaeologist’s assistant. She returned to DePauw briefly, graduated magna cum laude in 1977, and then returned to France, where she lived until her work visa expired. During those and the following years she earned her living variously as a copy editor, typesetter, biological researcher, and translator.
Return to the United States
When Kingsolver returned to the United States, she settled in Tucson, Arizona. In 1981 she earned a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona.
She also became active in ecological and humanitarian causes, including the Sanctuary movement to assist Central American refugees. In her early twenties Kingsolver met Joseph Hoffmann, a chemist, to whom she was married from 1985 until 1992. Together they had one child, Camille. Kingsolver sought a PhD in evolutionary biology but left academia in favor of a scientific writing position with the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona. She later married Stephen Hopp, a professor of environmental sciences, with whom she had another daughter, Lily.
Getting paid to be a writer gave her the confidence to begin freelancing, at first for local newspapers and magazines and then for such national publications as the Nation, the Progressive, the New York Times, and Smithsonian. Through her writing Kingsolver was able to bring together her love of science and her love of the humanities. She continued her journal writing and produced ”lots and lots” of poetry. In 1981, to her astonishment, she won a poetry contest sponsored by the University of Arizona and gave her first public reading. In 1983 Virginia Quarterly Review accepted her first ”decent” fiction, a short story called ”Rose-Johnny,” which was later collected in Homeland and Other Stories (1989).
The Fruits of Insomnia
While pregnant with Camille, Kingsolver suffered from insomnia and as a result began writing a novel. She worked exclusively at night, in the closet of her tiny one-room cottage so she would not disturb her sleeping husband. Her doctor suggested she do something undesirable, such as scrubbing her bathroom tile, so as not to reward her sleeplessness—but instead she stayed awake crafting The Bean Trees (1988). Within twenty-four hours of delivering her daughter she had a book deal with Harper and Row.
Kingsolver’s first novel was highly acclaimed. Like many stories in the Western American literary canon, The Bean Trees is a narrative of self-renewal brought about by a journey west. Self-named protagonist Taylor Greer leaves her Kentucky home in search of a new identity and an escape from what she sees as the inevitable future for a Pittman County girl: early pregnancy and marriage. Unlike the traditional Western hero, however, what Taylor finds is not independence but dependence, not self-determination but strength in community.
In her next book, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (1989), Kingsolver further characterizes the ways that women create and sustain community. As a stringer for several newspapers in the early 1980s, Kingsolver covered the devastating eighteen-month strikes in three southern Arizona Phelps Dodge mining communities. The book raises questions of economic decline, gender relationships, and corporate discrimination against Mexican Americans. Reviews of Holding the Line were mixed.
The same year that Holding the Line appeared, King-solver published her first collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories (1989). The central questions in Homeland, concerning how people are bound to each other and to place, anticipate Kingsolver’s second novel, Animal Dreams (1990). Animal Dreams also grows out of Kingsolver’s conviction that the personal is political and that her job as a writer of fiction is, simply put, to change the world. The characters in Animal Dreams, like those from Kingsolver’s earlier fiction, are people who have been traditionally considered marginal in canonical literature. Animal Dreams is a complex postmodern story that explores the relationships among memory, truth, and experience. In it, Kingsolver relies on the power of stories to effect change. Animal Dreams won many accolades: the PEN/USA West Fiction Award, the Edward Abbey Award for Ecofiction, and the Arizona Library Association Book of the Year award.
Challenging the American Myth of Individuality
Kingsolver’s book of poetry, Another America/Otra America (1992) is a conversation between North America and South America. Many of the poems reflect ways in which the two continents view each other. Each of the poems in the volume is a story; each poem critiques a social ill to which Kingsolver is exposed, including homophobia, racism, colonialism, and sexism. The poetry in this volume revolves around a favorite theme of King-solver’s: the American cultural myth of individuality.
While themes of conversation and conflict are evident in many of these poems, they are most fully developed in Pigs in Heaven (1993), the sequel to The Bean Trees. Pigs in Heaven is about the difficulty of single motherhood, the development of community consciousness, adoption, abuse, ethnic identity, and poverty. Pigs in Heaven, like Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees, was an ABBY nominee. Kingsolver’s third novel also won the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and the Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Fiction Award.
Kingsolver’s next book, a collection of twenty-five essays, is titled High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never (1995). She calls the essays ”creative nonfiction” and likens her writing process in composing the essays to that of fiction. The essays are autobiographical and take as their subjects book tours; childhood; patriotism; life in the Canary Islands; her love of books; her critiques of such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Stephen Gould, and Charles Darwin; and her stint as keyboard player in the band Rock Bottom Remainders, which also featured novelists Stephen King and Amy Tan. As in her fiction and poetry, her background as social activist directly influences the essays. In its first four months the collection sold more than any of Kingsolver’s previous books had during the initial months following their publication.
Establishment of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction
In 1997 Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which recognizes literature of social change. By creating this award, Kingsolver hopes to give American trade publishers an incentive to publish and promote the kind of fiction she most admires—fiction that exposes injustice and explores issues of social responsibility.
Kingsolver’s devotion to social justice through art continues in her novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998). In this book, zealous, uncompromising Baptist missionary Nathan Price takes his wife, Orleanna, and four daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where they remain through the next three decades of stormy, violent African history. Orleanna and the four girls—teenaged Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and five-year-old Ruth May—take turns narrating and responding to political developments in the Congo as well as the personal tragedies of the Price family. The book reflects Kingsolver’s own experience living in the Congo for almost a year during the same time period as a child.
Kingsolver Awarded the National Humanities Medal
In 2000 she was awarded the highest honor for service through the arts, the National Humanities Medal. That same year, she published another novel, Prodigal Summer, and two years later, her second collection of essays, Small Wonder (2002). Kingsolver left the Southwest in 2004 and moved to a farm in southwestern Virginia, where she now lives with her family. Her most recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) chronicles her family’s food project, a year-long attempt to restrict their food consumption to local products.
Works in Literary Context
Kingsolver is a writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, but as she told interviewer Donna Perry, if she had to categorize herself by genre, she would pick storytelling. Her work is deeply rooted in a sense of place, whether she is depicting rural Kentucky, the Belgian Congo, the arid Southwest, or her farm in Virginia. Kingsolver counts Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner among her earliest literary influences. Other influences on her writing include her rural childhood, with its exposure to storytelling, community, and social responsibility; love and respect for the natural world; social activism; and scientific background.
Social Justice and Feminism
Barbara Kingsolver renews the Western literary landscape by debunking the myths of individuality and self-determination. Her heroines lead meaningful lives by relying on compromise and community. Kingsolver’s work reflects the real West in which she lives—a West populated by people with different values, histories, and worldviews. Kingsolver’s devotion to social justice and her commitment to activism shape her vision. As she writes in High Tide in Tucson, ”Good art is political, whether it means to be or not, insofar as it provides the chance to understand points of view alien to our own.” The points of view of single mothers, Guatemalan refugees, children, and even a hermit crab are among those King-solver presents to her readers. Kingsolver calls herself a feminist and writes ”from a point of view that’s unequivocally female.” Kingsolver’s female characters perform mundane yet heroic deeds: they feed children, support friends, and restore justice, all foundational acts that sustain community.
Kingsolver’s literary contributions as feminist, social activist, environmentalist, and community advocate ensure her an important place in American letters. As a Western writer, she continues to revise the canon and set high standards for her Western American contemporaries.
Works in Critical Context
Kingsolver has enjoyed both critical acclaim and wide readership during her career as an author. While many regard her fiction as compelling, some reviewers have criticized her inattention to the male perspective, particularly in her nonfiction essays. Kingsolver has been awarded numerous accolades for her work, including the prestigious National Humanities Medal. She is admired and often praised for her commitment to social justice.
The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible garnered critical praise in advance of its fall release. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that in this ”risky but resoundingly successful novel” Kingsolver presents ”a compelling family saga, a sobering picture of the horrors of fanatic fundamentalism and an insightful view of an exploited country crushed by the heel of colonialism and then ruthlessly manipulated by a bastion of democracy.” A critic for Kirkus Reviews praised the ”consistently absorbing narrative” as well as Kingsolver’s skillful blending of the personal and the political: ”Kingsolver convinces us that her characters are, first and foremost, breathing, fallible human beings and only secondarily conduits for her book’s vigorously expressed and argued social and political ideas.” A national best seller, The Poisonwood Bible was chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 1998.
- Beattie, L. Elisabeth. ”Barbara Kingsolver.” Conversations with Kentucky Writers. Edited by Elisabeth L. Beattie. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996, pp. 151-171.
- Dunaway, David King. ”Barbara Kingsolver.” Writing the Southwest. Edited by David King Dunaway and Sara L. Spurgeon. New York: Penguin, 1995, pp. 93-107.
- Perry, Donna. ”Barbara Kingsolver.” Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. Edited by Donna Perry. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 145-168.
- Bowdan, Janet. ”Re-placing Ceremony: The Poetics of Barbara Kingsolver.” Southwestern American Literature 20 (Spring 1995): 13-19.
- Epstein, Robin. ”Barbara Kingsolver.” Progressive Review 60 (February 1996): 33-38.
- Flemming, Bruce. ”’Woolf Cubs’: Current Fiction.” Antioch Review 52 (Fall 1994): 548-565.
- Pence, Amy. ”An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver.” Poets and Writers 21 (July 1993): 14-21.
- Ryan, Maureen. ”Barbara Kingsolver’s Lowf at Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 19 (Winter 1995): 77-82.
- Barbara Kingsolver. Retrieved October 9, 2008, from http://www.kingsolver.com.
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