Barbara Kingsolver turns to her past to understand the present
Barbara Kingsolver was a little girl of seven when she and her family left their Kentucky home to spend two years in the Congo. When she returned, the world looked totally different to her. "I understood the way we lived in my little corner of Kentucky was just that," says the author. "One little corner where we had certain things we did, possessed, believed in, but there was a great big world out there where people had no use for many of the things my community held dear. I came home with an acutely heightened sense of race, of ethnicity. I got to live in a place where people thought I was noticeable and probably hideous because of the color of my skin. These weren't easy lessons," says Kingsolver, "but they were priceless." She has not forgotten what the Congo taught her. It made her the person, the writer, she is.
"I'm extremely interested in cultural difference, in social and political history and the sparks that fly when people with different ways of looking at the world come together and need to reconcile or move through or celebrate those differences. All that precisely describes everything I've ever written, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, all of it." It also describes Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, a novel of post-colonial Africa which brings to bear all she observed as a child in the Congo and all she came to understand of it as an adult.
"Given that this is what we did as a nation in Africa, how are we to feel about it now?" asks the author. How do we live with it and how do we move on? Given that this is our history, what do we do with it? One thing is very clear, there isn't a single answer, there's a spectrum of answers. Representing that spectrum is Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, his wife, and their four daughters. The Prices arrive in Africa believing God is on their side. That changes quickly. "I always believed any sin was easily rectified if only you let Jesus Christ into your heart," says Nathan's daughter Leah, "but here it gets complicated." Indeed. A stranger tells Nathan, " I do not think the people are looking for your kind of salvation. . . . they are looking for. . . the new soul of Africa." But in his eagerness to save everyone's soul, Nathan is deaf to the truth, just as he is deaf to the nuances of the Congolese culture. "We sang in church, Tata Nzolo! Which means 'Father in Heaven' or 'Father of Fish Bait,' depending on just how you sing it," recalls Nathan's wife, Orleanna, who returns from her time in the Congo marked and stricken by loss.
Leah, on the other hand, embraces Africa in the 30-year course of the book, even at the risk of rejecting the cornerstones of her past. " I had only faith in my father and love for the Lord. Without that rock of certainty underfoot, the Congo is a fearsome place to sink or swim." Leah's bookish twin, Adah, is a darker presence, a witness to the country's horrors. Rachel the eldest Price daughter, is vain, contemptuous of her new life and full of comic malapropisms, given, as she is to feminine tuition. Ruth May, the youngest, is the Price always in a hurry, propelled by a child's innocence and enthusiasm. The Price girls and their mother narrate The Poisonwood Bible in alternating chapters. Kingsolver chose multiple voices to portray the enormity, the complexity of her subject. That choice, however, created complexities of its own.
"I wasn't very far into this book when I realized what I set out to do was impossible." The author laughs. "Or at least extremely difficult, much harder than anything I ever did it before. The most difficult thing was to fine tune the voices five narrators, all in the same family, most of them about the same age. How do you make each voice distinct enough that the reader could open to any page and know who's speaking? It led to many quiet little fits of flying paper in my office. But it was also great fun. What I love best about being a novelist is I get to do something different every time. When you're flying by the seat of your pants, you're never bored." Writing is Kingsolver's passion, but she's no artiste. "I consider myself a writer of the working class, I'm a little bit smug about it, have so little tolerance for writers who have elaborate three-hour rituals before they even get down to work. I think, oh, please. My idea of a pre-writing ritual is getting the kids on the bus and sitting down." The years she worked as technical writer taught her to produce "whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writers' block, oh I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.
"I love revision. Revision is where the art really happens, when you begin to manipulate, shift things around so your theme begins to shine through." While Kingsolver was revising her novel, the Congo itself began its own revision. Mobutu, the Congolese dictator in power for over 30 years, died and his regime fell. The new president, Laurent Kabila has clashed with Tutsi rebels, and the Congo is once again in the throes of bloody strife. "It's very odd, says Kingsolver. This book is in some way timely, and nothing could surprise me more. When I began writing, I thought my primary task would get my readers to believe there was a dictator called Mobuto, that all these things really happened somewhere far away and they should care." As America and the United Nations study the Congo and analyze strategies for intervention, Kingsolver hopes governing bodies will heed some of the lessons she learned as a child, the lessons of The Poisonwood Bible. "We can never know, never look at history with anything but a narrow and distorted window, says the author. We can never know the whole truth, only what's been recorded for us and what our cultural and political predisposition understands. Leah says history is never much more at a mirror we can tilt to look at ourselves."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami, Florida.