“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political. Literature is a powerful craft, so we have an obligation to take it seriously”

Barbara Kingsolver, who this week won the Orange prize for fiction for her sixth novel, The Lacuna, spent two years in the early 1960s in the Republic of the Congo, where her American parents were vaccinating people against smallpox outbreaks. For a seven-year-old girl, it was simply a “grand adventure in a forest full of snakes and lions, with cobras on the doorstep”. It was only later that she grasped the historical significance of that moment.

“We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era,” she says. Until, that is, some 20 years later, when she read of the CIA-backed coup against the elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba, his murder in 1961, and the installing of the dictator Colonel Mobutu. “I knew nothing about postcolonial Africa or Europe’s role, or my own country’s complicity in what went on.”

It took another decade before Kingsolver combined her childhood memories of place with her later awareness of history, in a far-reaching parable of responsibility and redemption, The Poisonwood Bible (1998). As an American Baptist missionary drags his family to the Belgian Congo (later Zaire), his bullying evangelism is paralleled by cold-war jockeying for mineral wealth, amid plagues of ants and floods, lethal green mamba bites and blood diamonds smuggled from breakaway Katanga. The story is told through the voices of his wife and four daughters, who are “occupied as if by a foreign power”, and implicated in his pursuits without ever having chosen them. For Kingsolver, it is an “allegory of the captive witness. We’ve inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”

The Poisonwood Bible, which was her fourth novel, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. All her later novels have made the New York Times bestseller list.

The broad appeal of her story of a mother and daughters may owe something to its faint echoes of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (loved by Kingsolver as a child) or The Joy Luck Club, the bestselling novel by Amy Tan with whom Kingsolver has played keyboards in a charity rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, alongside Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen. Yet although she says books belong to their readers, she clearly hopes to communicate her political views in the palatable form of page-turners. In much the same way, as a biologist and former science writer and journalist, she aspires to tell people in plain English about science. Her fiction is saved from didacticism or sentimentality by a keen ear for speech, an eye that is sensitive to the natural environment and by a cool scrutiny: “I’m a scientist,” she says.

The novelist Russell Banks wrote of Kingsolver’s “Chekhovian tenderness towards her characters” and of her humour as “contemporary American – fast, hip and a little outrageous”. Critics such as Lee Siegel, who waspishly dubbed her the queen of “Nice Writing”, have suggested she appropriates others’ pain in a parade of empathy.

“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political,” she says. “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you’ll behave to other people. How can that not affect you politically?” It is, she adds, a “powerful craft; there’s alchemy. So we have an obligation to take it seriously – and I do. Perhaps that’s why I’m marked. I’m not pretending to be ingenuous; I know what I’m doing.”

We meet on the morning of the Orange prize-giving. Given Kingsolver’s green convictions, her trip to London was a rare concession to flying. Aged 55, she lives with her husband, Steve Hopp, who teaches environmental studies, and their daughter Lily, 13, on a farm in the Appalachian mountains of south-west Virginia. She writes in a farmhouse whose windows face into the woods.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), was co-written with her husband and her daughter from a previous marriage, Camille, then 19. It recorded the family’s drive to be “locavores”, pledged to eating locally sourced, seasonal food, to combat the ills of agribusiness and environmental profligacy in a “nation with an eating disorder”. The book tapped overlapping anxieties, from climate change to junk food, childhood obesity and dietary health. But its success took her aback. “People responded viscerally; they were so excited about taking control.” She says her own family has kept to the vows they made that year. “It wasn’t so different from the year before or the year after. We marked it out as a project to dramatise our commitment. But what we eat hasn’t changed.”

She was born in 1955, and grew up in small-town eastern Kentucky. “The older I get, the more I appreciate my rural childhood. I spent a lot of time outdoors, unsupervised, which is a blessing.” Her father was a doctor who worked in communities with scant health care, in the American South or on forays to the Congo, St Lucia and Newfoundland. “My parents chose a life of service, rather than enriching their own bank account,” she says. “I admired their courage.” For her, “it’s more important to do what I love than go looking for money. That feels as indigenous to me as my eye colour.” She believes a lack of material excess in her childhood, paradoxically, left her more secure. “I’ve always been a very low-overheads person. That’s the most important asset I’ve had as a writer. I felt I had enormous freedom to do what I wanted.”

She won a scholarship to study classical piano at DePauw University in Indiana, but gave up music for a biology degree. She still loves the piano. “It’s the only time when the words in my brain stop. Music gives me relief from the flood of words that wakes me up in the morning. It’s like a gushing faucet, but it stops when I’m concentrating on playing.” She arrived at college in 1973, towards the end of the Vietnam war. Her knowledge of it was confined, she says, to what she read in Reader’s Digest about the “blood-red hands of Ho Chi Minh”. But her elder brother was narrowly spared the draft. “I was politically naive. Then I got to college, with all the marching, and the war ended, Nixon resigned. I thought, people can yell and make a difference.”

After graduating in 1977, she lived in Greece and France, working on digs and living on communes, until her visa ran out, and she chose graduate school in Tucson to study ecology and evolutionary biology. In Arizona, near the Mexican border, she stumbled on another America. “I fell in with people assisting refugees fleeing war in central America and Chile that was funded by the US government. They were fleeing phosphorus bombs I’d paid for with my tax dollars. I learned Spanish, and a new side of the story, from Chilean refugees sleeping on my floor.”

She worked as a science writer for the University of Arizona, then freelanced as a stringer for the national press. Covering strikes in the local copper mines in the mid-1980s, she interviewed mainly Latina women who “held the strike when the men had to leave town because legal injunctions barred them from picketing . . . I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing – a war zone in my own country.” Her non-fiction book Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (1989) came out of that experience, as did a short story, “Why I Am a Danger to the Public”.

Kingsolver is outraged by a recent Arizona law targeting suspected illegal migrants. “I’m so glad I don’t live there. It’s shocking, probably unconstitutional, and it can’t possibly last.” But in the next breath, the novelist-scientist steps in. “Times are hard. When people are frightened about going hungry and paying their mortgages, a scarcity model begins to prevail; they fear someone else will get their piece of the pie.”

Her early fiction was based in the American South and south-west. The Bean Trees (1988), her first novel, written during her first pregnancy, was narrated by a Southern woman who adopts an abused and abandoned Cherokee girl and settles in Arizona. In Animal Dreams (1990), a woman moves to Nicaragua during the US-backed contra war against the Sandinistas. Pigs in Heaven (1993), a sequel to The Bean Trees, centres on a custody battle, as a Native American lawyer tries to wrest the adopted girl back to the Cherokee nation.

The Native American writer Sherman Alexie has implicated Kingsolver among “Indian poseurs” who make “claims of authority [as] something they’re not”. Kingsolver says that, when he first made the criticism in the 1990s, “I was surprised, so I called him up. He said he hadn’t read any of my books.” She adds: “I’m very cautious about appropriating or representing a view I don’t have legitimate authority to represent, because I don’t want to take the place of someone who could do that better. I don’t write characters from a point of view I don’t inhabit. My Congo novel is seen through a bunch of white Southern girls. It’s my choice, but I make it carefully.”

She spent a year in the Canary Islands with her eldest daughter in 1991 – their proximity to Africa enabled frequent research trips for The Poisonwood Bible. After returning, she met and married Hopp, and for seven years they lived in Tucson and spent summers on his farm in Virginia – a “marital compromise” – before moving there permanently in 2004.

With Prodigal Summer (2000), she fulfilled a long-held wish to write a “biological novel” (“I thought everybody should know this stuff”). A biologist divorcee with a “hillbilly accent” scours the Appalachian hills for poachers while keeping a fond eye on the local coyotes, till her solitude is disturbed by a young sheep rancher from Wyoming. The novel insists on the shared animality of human beings despite their efforts to subdue nature, within “immutable rules of hunger and satisfaction”. That it is her most erotically charged book was partly a tactical decision: “Though many people are afraid of science, they’re not afraid of sex.” The boundaries erode between wilderness and cultivation, society and the individual. “As a biologist, I can’t think of myself as anything but an animal among animals and plants,” she says.

Kingsolver speaks of a “backlash” after 9/11, when she drew flak for her essay “And Our Flag Was Still There”. Calling for scrutiny of US foreign policy, she wrote: “The last time I looked at a flag with an unambiguous thrill, I was 13.” “Ultraconservatives . . . revile[d] me,” she wrote in Small Wonder. Fear, she says now, “can bring out the worst in people. I saw how close to the surface that defensiveness was, about any self-evaluation on a national scale – among the loudest people, anyway. I was shocked that some people behaved as though I’d said something inflammatory.”

The Lacuna grew out of that period. It moves between the revolutionary muralists of Mexico in the 1930s and the McCarthyite witchhunts of the late 1940s and 50s to probe the relationship between art and politics in the US. Fictional characters are boldly inserted among historical giants such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, using real and fictitious news cuttings.

Her ambition was to chart the “birth of the modern American psyche”. She was “interested in national identity, curious about why my country seems so vocally to identify patriotism with completion, perfection, as though we’re a finished product, not a work in progress. Is there an equivalent to being ‘unAmerican’ in France? Yes, – but it’s about cooking, not about being a bad person.” She researched the “period that came to define being unAmerican on a national level . . . It frightened people so badly, we’ve never gotten over it.” She found a contrast in Mexico, which “has such a different sense of itself as a work in progress. It’s useful to explore a psyche from outside or on the borderline: how we got frozen in the US, while in Mexico artists have leave to be political. Why are we so terrified of that word, communism – the anti-Christ? It’s like living in a world where grownups still believe in the bogeyman.”

Some reviewers have objected to what they see as her air-brushed portrayal of Trotsky. It is not a biography, she responds, “but it is an honest portrait of him in Mexico. Everything he says in the novel he did say. It didn’t pretend to be a whole picture. He was ruthless in his teens. He overthrew a monarchy – that’s never going to be pretty.”

The novel was written during George W Bush’s two terms in office. “The growing claustrophobia and manipulation of language with ‘Desert Storm’ were bearing heavily on my shoulders,” she says. “I felt a sense of despair that the world could ever be different.” Just as she was finishing the final draft, President Obama was elected. “I was more excited about my country by his inauguration day than I have been perhaps in all my adult life,” she says. “I thought my book would become irrelevant. But it wasn’t a day before the Fox News howlers took up the cry that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, and the cries of ‘communism’, and ‘don’t mess with my health care’. The book’s still acutely relevant.”

The “howlers” in The Lacuna are monkeys (“one howls and the others pass it on, marking out their territories”) that provide a metaphor for a gossip-driven press and its role in the witchhunts. “I’ve worked as a journalist,” she says tactfully, “and have every respect for good ones. But it’s an indictment of lazy journalism. It’s also an indictment of those who listen to the howling and believe it.”

Yet emerging celebrities such as Frida Kahlo take control of their own image. “We’re all required to do that,” Kingsolver says. “I never wanted to be famous, and still don’t.” So, she chuckles, “the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most.” She created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, “as a defence to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don’t define yourself, it will get done for you in colourful ways.”

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