Barbara Kingsolver: ‘Things are changing, and we owe that to Trump’
The author on the world’s dire state, the rise of women and why millennials are right
Barbara Kingsolver: “I had been thinking for several years: this looks like the end of the world as we know it.” Photograph: David Wood
Six days before the inauguration of Trump, Barbara Kingsolver was invited to dine at the White House with Obama and five other prominent novelists. “When I got the invitation, I thought, Does he want us to help him pack?” she says. “There was a certain air of mourning about it, but he was so hopeful. He was the one to tell us that what we do matters so much, that administrations come and go but art is enduring. That has been a comfort to me. If he can believe that, by God, so can I. What a man. And what a reader. A president who reads!”
You might call Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered, her Trump novel. She would not appreciate that. Speaking on the phone from her farm in Virginia, she does linguistic somersaults to avoid saying the T word.
Closing her office door against outside noise, she says her daughters have been trained from a young age to let her work in peace. “I always told them there were two reasons you can knock on this door: one, arterial bleeding, and two, the house is on fire.”
This looks like the end of the world as we know it. It seemed clear that the kinds of shelter that most of us have counted on were starting to fail us
She is the author of 15 books, fiction and non-fiction, the most famous of which is the Oprah-endorsed The Poisonwood Bible. Unsheltered is about crumbling structures, literal and societal: nostalgia rubbing up against a fear of the future. But Kingsolver would like to clarify that “he who shall not be named” was “not on anyone’s horizon when I started the book”.
The impetus came well before.
“I had been thinking for several years: this looks like the end of the world as we know it. It seemed clear that the kinds of shelter that most of us have counted on were starting to fail us: the economic ones, environmental ones. Everyone I know has somebody in their family who has retired and their pension isn’t there, needs healthcare and they can’t afford it. Even these basic things that we always believed would be true, that the ice on the Poles would stay frozen and there would always be more fish in the sea. We are trying to hold on so tightly to a world that is clearly gone.”
It is the writer’s job “to look at human behaviour and say: isn’t this interesting? This is what people do when it seems the world is ending.”
Kingsolver explores this through the stories of two families living in the same dilapidated house in two periods – the present and the 1870s – when people are grappling with a loss of control over their destiny.
“We had just had this terrible civil war, the country was as polarised as it is now. There was a shortage of generosity, a shortage of everything really. And into this walks Darwin suggesting that even the solid truth of human supremacy is up for debate.”
Did she seek out a comparable historical moment to give some hope that upheaval like this is cyclical? “There are many ways in which the crisis of this moment is far beyond anything humans have had to figure out before: we’ve wrecked the planet good and well. This is not the fall of the Roman empire, this is a larger scale.”
As a trained biologist herself, she offers a Darwinian take. “I don’t see life – capital L – as a battle between people and nature. I see life as thousands of species, one of which has gotten way too big for its britches and is profoundly fouling its nest, but I also know from studying population biology that many different species have these cycles in which they overpopulate and then they reduce. I guess I take the long view.”
Millennials, however, come off particularly well in Kingsolver’s work.
“[They’re] coming up in a world where it’s clear that the people in charge are powerfully outdated, they formed their notions of what the world has to offer in the 1950s and 1960s when it seemed there would always be plenty of everything. These kids are watching that play out. They can see it’s not working.”
This, Kingsolver says, can turn younger people towards “a profound self-reliance and community reliance, a determination to find a life in what’s left over. It was very interesting to write about a generation that is tired of being dismissed.”
Kingsolver is a lifelong activist. She grew up the daughter of a doctor who was driven “to spend his entire working life taking care of people who really couldn’t pay. We lived in the poorest part of the US, in eastern Kentucky.” He then moved the family to the Congo. “He had this single-minded passion to put his talents to use where they were needed. There were costs to the family. But I did grow up admiring that sense of actualisation, that he was happiest when he was being useful. I think that I really absorbed that.”
At a time when we are devouring non-fiction to explain the current global and US crises, Kingsolver is confident of the continued value of a fictionalised approach.
It’s awful to see the selfish impulses from people when they’re afraid, how angry and vulgar some old white men can become when they see that their world is crumbling
“There is a way that journalism, as crucial as it is, keeps us on the outside. You can read about the tsunami in Indonesia that killed thousands, then you can turn the page and read the football scores. You absorb all of it in some way as the same kind of information. It all comes at you from outside, and you remain yourself, in your own house. But with a novel, you put down your own life and become these other people.”
Of the US’s current upheaval, Kingsolver finds hope in the surge in activism. “People won’t make change while they’re comfortable. As they say in addiction treatment, you have to hit bottom before you can be cured. It’s really awful to see the selfish impulses that rise from people when they’re afraid, how angry and vulgar some old white men can become when they see that their world is crumbling and that they’re not going to come out on top.
“It’s also very exciting to see the anger of women getting organised and making real change.”
I mention a piece she wrote in the Guardian where she described teaching her young daughters to say, “Don’t say that to me. Don’t do that to me. I hate it”, so that the words might come more easily if needed.
“The amazing thing is that I had to do it, that the world had taught them otherwise. When I read that Trump was saying [after the Kavanaugh hearing], ‘This is a scary time for men’, I thought, You bet it is!” She laughs. “I should add to that, only if they feel they’ve been getting away with something.
“Watching the Me Too movement has made me jump for joy after waiting my whole darn life for something to change, watching my daughters grow up in exactly the same world I grew up in, in terms of the entitlement of the men, in terms of sexual assault. All of a sudden things are changing, and we owe that to Trump. This would not have happened under a leader like Obama. It’s like a morality play; the evil is really easy to identify.”
Kingsolver once observed that there was a nervousness in American culture about politics in art, but that is now changing with the rise of identity politics, people “using art to stand up for themselves. Even 10 years ago, if I wrote a novel that seemed to be speaking up for women, that would be brutally criticised and dismissed as a feminist novel. But now, if people speak up for being Haitian-American or being transgender, that’s much more accepted. I think women my age are not considered to be participants in that. We still get criticised for sounding as if we’re feminists, but the landscape is definitely changing.”
She expands on this, haltingly.
“I lived my whole life in a world where women are not supposed to be ambitious. If men write about the great themes, they are to be admired; man against man, man against nature, put them all together and you get Hardy or Melville, but women are supposed to stick to conflict at the level of the marriage or the grocery store. I’ve never done that, because I grew up reading Hardy and Melville and thinking, Now this is a novel. I’ve always tackled very large themes and I’ve been shot down. I’ve been criticised for being too loud, or sort of patted on the head. It took me a while to figure out, oh, it’s because women are not supposed to assert any moral authority whatsoever. That is just so completely imprinted in the DNA of my generation, though somehow I missed that gene.
“When people say to me, ‘You’re supposed to write about small things’, I look around and I think, they’re not saying that to men. So forget about it. But somehow, we are so accustomed to it. I would suspect that Margaret Atwood has heard the same thing, and Doris Lessing. The culture for so long categorised them as a certain kind of woman writer, but younger women coming up are getting a different stake, and I’m really very happy to see it.”
Unsheltered is published by Faber & Faber