Novelist Barbara Kingsolver urges readers to emphasize prose over politics

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

The thing about calling Barbara Kingsolver a political novelist is that she really wishes you wouldn't. Both readers and critics have done it for years; now it's all wrapped up in the narrative of what it means to be Barbara Kingsolver.

There goes Kingsolver, inserting Nicaraguan contras into "Animal Dreams," a father-daughter story about Alzheimer's. There she goes again, talking about Native American tribal rights, smack dab in the middle of "Pigs in Heaven." "The Poisonwood Bible," Kingsolver's sweeping portrait of a Southern Baptist family -- shortlisted for the Pulitzer 10 years ago -- is set in Congo and examines U.S. complicity in a bloody dictatorship.

Even Kingsolver's 2007 memoir, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," was tinged with eco-activism -- chronicling her family's locavore attempts to subsist for one year on the food grown on or around their Virginia farm.

If the political shoe fits . . . .

"I never quite know what people mean by political," says Kingsolver, 54. "They may be saying that it's a brave work. Or they might be saying the work makes them uncomfortable, that they don't want to deal with it."

She's sitting in her Capitol Hill hotel room, on the first week of a three-week tour promoting her new novel, "The Lacuna." In person she's twinkly: sweet laugh, funky earrings and scarf, sort of kindergarten-teacher chic.

Already, her acolytes have begun with the "political novel" mantle. Just a few hours earlier, Kingsolver gave an interview on NPR. A devoted fan called in, wanting to know how her science background (a master's degree in evolutionary biology) had informed her identity as a political noveli -- oh, never mind.

Ultimately, though, one gets the sense that what Kingsolver disapproves of isn't the P-word -- she's published decidedly activist essays, including a controversial post-9/11 one questioning the symbolism of the American flag -- but rather that such labels don't allow for other interpretations, metaphorically exiling her work to "specialty fiction" shelves of bookstores. Her work is undeniably political. But readers who think that's all it is are missing the point, she says.

"We live in a society that packages things into handy boxes, and we're used to being told what to think," Kingsolver says. "But one of the challenging and gratifying things about literature is that it doesn't tell you what to think. It asks you what you think. . . . When I write a book and hand it over to my publisher, I consider it half-finished. The other half of the work happens in the hearts and minds of the reader. It's a personal experience and it's different for everyone."

Missing pieces

"The Lacuna" is Kingsolver's first work of fiction in nearly a decade. It is (forgive us) a political novel. Lacuna is a Latin word, literally meaning "gap" or "missing part." In Kingsolver's narrative, the protagonist is the missing piece between two cultures.

Harrison Shepherd, the child of a dull American father and a social-climbing Mexican mother, spends his childhood shuttling back and forth between the countries, including a stint at a D.C. boarding school set against the backdrop of the Hoover presidency.

In his teenage years Harrison becomes not only a spectator of history but also a participant. He appears, Forrest Gump-like, in several major events of the early 20th century. Eventually he gains employment as a cook and errand boy in the colorful house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and this is where the story's main theme kicks in.

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