Barbara Kingsolver Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Annapolis, Maryland, 1955. Education: DePauw University, B.A. 1977; University of Arizona, M.S. 1981; additional graduate study. Career: Research assistant in department of physiology, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1977-79, technical writer in office of arid lands studies, 1981-85; freelance journalist, 1985-87; full-time writer, 1987—; book reviewer, 1988—. Awards: Feature-writing award (Arizona Press Club), 1986; American Library Association award, 1988, 1990; citation of accomplishment from United Nations National Council of Women, 1989; PEN fiction prize, 1991; Edward Abbey Ecofiction Award, 1991; Woodrow Wilson Foundation/Lila Wallace fellow, 1992-93; D. Litt., DePauw University, 1994. Agent: Frances Goldin, 305 East 11th Street, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A.
The Bean Trees. New York, Harper, 1988.
Animal Dreams. New York, Harper, 1990.
Pigs in Heaven. New York, HarperCollins, 1993.
The Poisonwood Bible. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.
Homeland and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1989.
Another America/Otra America (with Spanish translations by RebecaCartes). Seal Beach, California, Seal Press, 1992.
Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983 (nonfiction). Ithaca, New York, ILR Press, 1989; with new introduction, 1996.
High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.
Contributor, Rebirth of Power, edited by P. Portwood, M. Gorcey, and P. Sanders. Mother Courage Press, 1987.
Contributor, Florilegia, an Anthology of Art and Literature by Women, edited by M. Donnelly. Calyx Books, 1987.
Contributor, New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1988, edited by Shannon Ravenel. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1988.
Contributor, I've Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers, An Anthology of Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Constance Warlow. Pocket Books, 1997.
Contributor, The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic and Creative Nonfiction from the Twentieth Century, edited by John Loughery. New York, Persea Books, 1999.
Introduction, Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place, edited by Joseph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman Horak. New York, North Point Press, 1998.
Tell It on the Mountain: Appalachian Women Writers (sound recording), Whitesburg, Kentucky, WMMT-FM, 1995; Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion by Mary Jean DeMarr, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.
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Barbara Kingsolver's novels emerge as answers to implicitly embedded "very big" questions that she devises in hopes that she might "shift the world a little bit on its axis." Rising from her unwavering commitments to social justice, her novels, as well as her nonfiction, address political issues such as Western colonialism, cultural imperialism; disappearing cultures, particularly of Africans and Native Americans; class and economics; nature and ecology; along with race and gender issues. Not a preacher, Kingsolver skillfully weaves her political ideologies into the fabric of her fiction, often subtly enlightening her reader through educating a character. She first creates a detailed world right down to the appropriate flowers, and then invents characters who, through interaction with one another and the setting, answer her devised question.
In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver's question probes how friendship and community sustain and assist people through periods of great difficulty. Spurning a predictable life of early pregnancy, spunky Marietta Greer flees Pittman, Kentucky, renames herself Taylor in Illinois, ironically has thrust upon her a Native American infant in Oklahoma, and halts in Tucson. In this bildungsroman, reworked from a woman's point of view, Taylor's rich Kentucky voice introduces the new community and family she fashions for herself. With its "instant motherhood" and multitude of problems, Taylor's new life collides with social injustices. Forced to seek medical treatment and then social services for the withdrawn, abused infant Turtle, so named for her tenacious clinging, Taylor learns of the physical and emotional aftermath of child abuse. Through her activist employer Mattie, she meets and grows to love Estevan and Esperanza, illegal aliens, and thus learns of political unrest, torture, and disappeared ones in Guatemala. With her housemate Lou Ann Ruiz, a new mother whose husband has left her, Taylor redefines family. Through Kingsolver's gradual revelations, Taylor matures to greater self-assurance and political sophistication; thus without hesitation she aids her Guatemalan friends to safely relocate and secures fraudulent adoption papers for Turtle.
The prize-winning sequel Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver's third novel, catches up with Taylor and Turtle several years later. Here Kingsolver's motivation is to explore the complications created when the beliefs and needs of an individual and a community clash, in this instance the illegally adopted child Turtle and the Cherokee Indian Nation, represented by lawyer Annawake Fourkiller of Heaven, Oklahoma. At issue is the removal, through adoption by white families, of Native American children from their people and culture. Dedicated to multiple points of view, Kingsolver uses the novel's title to illustrate different ways of seeing and telling things. Annawake relates her tribal myth of the "Six Bad Boys" who are changed into "The Six Pigs in Heaven." She interprets this Cherokee variation of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters as meaning "Do right by your people." A white man's credo might be "Do right by yourself." These incompatible value systems of individualism versus community and tradition provide the conflict for the plot, which some have criticized as too coincidental and manipulated with too many settings.
One of the glaring manipulations brings together Taylor's mother Alice Stamper Greer, who appeared in the previous novel only in phone conversations, and Turtle's Cherokee Grandfather, Cash Stillwater. In an effort to help Taylor, Alice travels to Heaven where she joins her cousin, Sugar Boss, who introduces Alice to the Cherokee community and explains its traditions and history, such as the Trail of Tears, the stomp dance, and the Indian Child Welfare Act. Not surprisingly, the affection between Alice and Cash helps resolve the conflict and by novel's end, a matured Taylor returns to Tucson committed to a family with Jax, her rock musician boyfriend, and Turtle, for whom she now shares custody with Pop-Pop Stillwater, her new stepfather.
Kingsolver's fiction is not autobiographical. Her characters are what she calls "complex conglomerates" based on features that she has carefully observed or experienced. Her second novel, Animal Dreams, illustrates this point. The strong Mexican-American women she interviewed while researching the nonfiction Holding the Line provided the models for the novel's Emelina Domingos and the elder women of the Stitch and Bitch Club; in addition, their remote southern Arizona villages outlined the novel's Grace, Arizona, a fictionalized town set in a nurturing yet dying landscape. Intrigued by why individuals either engage or detach themselves from life, to dramatize the answer Kingsolver creates undirected, passive Codi Noline and her idealistic younger sister Hallie, who has gone to Nicaragua to teach crop management. Codi returns to Grace to teach high school and care for her Alzheimer's-stricken father, Homer, the respected town doctor. His short narrations brilliantly capture his wandering mind's inability to determine present from past. Through his confused flashbacks and Codi's incomplete memories, eventually filled in by women in the community, Kingsolver provides partial answers to her fundamental question about engagement.
Citing Doris Lessing's "Children of Violence" series as an influence, Kingsolver believes that writing is a form of political activism; thus, she readily accepts the classification of "political novelist"; however, author Jane Smiley criticizes Kingsolver for packing Animal Dreams with too many issues—Native Americans, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, parental relationships, acculturation, environmental issues, loss and grief, anti-violence, women taking charge. And again, although integral to the character development and plot, some of the political issues lead to predictable outcomes. Hallie is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Nicaragua; numbed by this loss, Codi mounts a national campaign to first rescue and, then, memorialize her sister. Loyd Peregrina, the father of teenaged Codi's miscarried child and now her adult, supportive lover, proves to be unmarred emotionally from the death of his twin brother, perhaps because of his loving matriarchal family. After Codi succeeds as an offbeat teacher whose students discover the silent environmental catastrophe of the town's "dead" river, her lecture to the Stitch and Bitch Club sparks the women to fight the mining company's plan to build a dam and, thus, flood the town and cover up their culpability. Raising money through selling piñatas as folk art, they succeed.
All of Kingsolver's novels portray women taking charge, many narrating their own success stories of personal growth through political involvement. In fact, her novels are often labeled "chick books," implying that they are written for women and, hence, seemingly about unimportant issues. The Poisonwood Bible put this unfortunate assumption to rest.
This long-awaited novel grew from Kingsolver's brief childhood experience in Africa as well as the 1991 short story "My Father's Africa," but was developed through extensive research (the novel contains a bibliography) and a careful reading of the King James Bible. Within the Bible, Kingsolver found the novel's structure, leitmotif, cadences, and vocabulary for the vivid voices who narrate their missionary family's experiences in Kilanga, Belgian Congo. Set on the eve of Zaire's independence, Africa, as the catalyst in irrevocably shaping and changing lives, becomes a character in the novel, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Historical incidents, such as Patrice Lumumba's assassination and Mobutu's betrayal through complicity with the CIA, play out as background to the Price family's destruction by a land that they completely misunderstand in a village where they are not trusted. The novel's brilliance originates in Kingsolver's stunning development of characters through language. Through first-person narration, five female voices provide the shifting points of view that develop the complex portrait of their family, headed by an evangelical Baptist Reverend, the smugly superior, abusive Nathan Price. Although never a narrator in his own story, Nathan is nevertheless fully developed by narratives of his wife and four daughters.
One of Kingsolver's constant reference books was K. E. Laman's Dictionnaire Kikongo-Français, a Kikongo-French dictionary that she read daily to grasp the "music and subtlety of this amazing African language, with its infinite capacity for being misunderstood and mistranslated." Characteristically, as with Pigs in Heaven, she uses her accumulated knowledge of another culture to enrich the novel's title as well as reveal Nathan's character. In Kikongo, "bangala," pronounced one way, describes something very precious; pronounced slightly differently it refers to the deadly poisonwood tree, whose woodsmoke can kill. Stubborn Nathan Price insists on preaching "Tata Jesus is 'bangala,"' complete with mispronunciation so that he insists, "Jesus is poisonwood." Ironically, his fierce, strict interpretation of the Bible coupled with his arrogant superiority poisons his very mission in Africa.
Another research tool was a pile of popular magazines. Kingsolver used them to attune her ear to the language of the Price teenagers. Rachel, a shallow, self-centered fifteen year old, walks right out of the beauty advertisements in Look and Life of the late 1950s. Her voice provides some comic relief to the family's nightmarish situation. A second playful voice is that of Adah, a mute twin suffering from hemiplegia but who thinks in palindromes and quotes Emily Dickinson. Readers are amused by Rachel, but they gravitate to the other twin, Leah, as she struggles to understand Africa; eventually Leah becomes a part of the continent by marrying her father's interpreter, the revolutionary Anatole, and living in Angola with their four sons. The childish voice of Ruth May, who parrots overheard discussions, is stilled by her death, then seen as senseless, in Africa in 1961; that tragedy provides the impetus for the girls' mother, Orleanna, to gather her three remaining daughters and flee the village, leaving Nathan to his own increasingly insane devices.
Kingsolver moves the novel into the mid-1980s in the introspective sixth section, titled "Song of the Three Children," from the Apocrypha, which exposes the adult sisters' views of one another at a reunion and as they discuss their father's awful death in Africa and update their mother's new life in Georgia. Orleanna's voice opens the novel, reconstructing an African picnic. By partially addressing the reader with an invitation to become the conscience and the eyes in the trees of the African forest and partially addressing Ruth May, long buried in African soil, Orleanna seeks some insight into her responsibility for the destruction of her family as well the international issue of the West's destruction of Africa. By the novel's epilogue, "The Eyes in the Trees," a symbolic Ruth May eerily speaks of forgiveness and understanding as muntu Africa—"all that is here."
Appearing on best-seller lists for months and hailed for its rich style and language, fully fleshed out, believable characters and complex plot woven through with political issues such as social injustice, colonial occupation, and genocide, The Poisonwood Bible drew inevitable comparisons with novels by Lessing and Nadine Gordimer. Following their lead, Kingsolver will no doubt continue to speak out to contemporary issues through her fiction. By establishing the Bellwether prize, awarded for literature that supports social responsibility, Kingsolver guarantees that others will follow her lead.