Barbara Kingsolver gets uncomfortable
BOSTON — Bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver is keenly aware that her latest book deals with uncomfortable material. She's even thought of an apology she could have attached to it: "I'm sorry this will be hard to read, but I think you'll come out of it on the other side a wiser and probably more satisfied human being."
"The Poisonwood Bible," an allegory about US policy in the Congo in the 1960s, is the broccoli of Ms. Kingsolver's novels, leaning more toward good for you than easy to swallow. It is so different from her previous fare, she says she's gotten used to hearing: "What in heaven's name got into you?"
But what appears as a leap to everyone else is perfectly natural to the author, who says this book is the "product of a lifetime." She's been thinking about it for 30 years, researching it for more than 10.
She's even dropped hints that Africa was on her mind. In an essay about a trip to Benin in her 1995 collection "High Tide in Tucson," she writes, "Africa pulls on me, the whole or any part; having rubbed against it in childhood like iron against a magnet, my poles of attraction are permanently set." And in 1991, in a short story in McCall's called "My Father's Africa," she laid the groundwork for the characters in "The Poisonwood Bible."
Kingsolver says she's been reluctant to mention that she lived in the Congo for a time when she was young because people are quick to assume the book is based on her life - that her father "must be an abusive and crazy missionary and I must have three sisters."
"The fact is that my experience in Africa was happily extremely different," she says in an interview from her home in Tucson, Ariz.
The allegory she weaves in her book is far from pleasant. Nathan Price, the missionary who imposes his will on locals and family alike, represents what Kingsolver sees as "a historical vision that was brought to bear on the Congo with calamitous results." She is frank about the effect she says the US had on the country's independence, particularly by backing Mobutu Sese Seko, whom she calls "a villain of Shakespearean proportions."
"If we had dropped an atomic bomb on the Congo in 1960 and walked away from that country never to return, the death toll would have been lower than what we did."
"The Poisonwood Bible," like her other novels, began with a theme. In this case it was "What have we done, what do we make of it, how do we come to terms with it and move on?" Because there are many answers to that question, she chose to have five narrators - the missionary's wife and four daughters. "I've never before written a book that presented so many different paths, so many different alternatives of what could be viewed as right."
Noticeably missing from the book is the voice of the Rev. Mr. Price. She says one reason is that she doesn't feel entitled to represent from the inside characters that differ from her in culture or gender. She describes them from the outside, instead. "It's fairly subtle ... but if you pay attention in my writing, the characters in whose heads you are are virtually always female, and they're virtually always roughly from my background."
In addition to voicing five narrators, Kingsolver also took on the King James Bible. "We were largely unacquainted," she quips. They became fast friends, though, so she could talk as a missionary would. "I found it a really rich source. A lot of times, I would begin my day by reading sort of a random chapter of the Bible, and I would start to get ideas."
Although the novel has received much critical attention, readers may find it tougher going than Kingsolver's previous books, like the popular "Pigs in Heaven." She argues that her books have always dealt with difficult subjects - child abuse, cultural difference, adoption rights. "I've never been willing to settle for easy."
It's a philosophy that's proved successful, enough so that she says she's now in a position to help other writers. With the advance for this book, she established a literary prize for first novelists who write about social change - an area she says is lacking in today's literature.
As for her next project, "It's a little scary," she admits, "I go to the stove and suddenly there's nothing cooking.... But I'm not worried at all. I mean, something will pop up. You know, one of these days, I'll go in the kitchen and there'll be something. I can't not write."