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Barbara Kinsovler evangelizes for books, reading, bookstores

November 10, 2009

kings372192Most writers stand decorously behind a microphone at their readings. Not Barbara Kingsolver. She strides the stage, microphone in hand, like a motivational speaker, or maybe a TV preacher.

At Miami Book Fair International on Monday night, Kingsolver apparently was aware of the similarity.

“I’ve been stomping around the country,” Kingsolver said. “I”m evangelizing for literature.”

Among the literature Kingsolver is stumping for is her new novel, The Lacuna, a sprawling historical epic encompassing art and politics, Mexico and the U.S., freedom of expression and the oppression of the McCarthy era.

Kingsolver took nine years to research and write The Lacuna, a process she likened to pregnancy.

“A long quiet build and — boom! There it is,” she said. “The book goes out into the world, meeting readers, who do the other half of the work.”

The Lacuna has received a mixed reaction from critics — rare for the beloved author of The Bean Trees, Prodigal Summer and, above all, The Poisonwood Bible. But those who like it, such as Liesl Schillinger, are unstinting in their praise. Writing in Sunday’s New York Times, Schillinger calls the novel “breathtaking.”

Kingsolver told her book fair audience, more than a thousand strong, that The Lacuna arose from her long reflection between art and politics in the U.S.

“Every other country I’ve been to looks to artists as interpreters of the events of the day, of the social contract,” Kingsolver said. “I cut my teeth reading Doris Lessing’s novels about the color line in Rhodesia, or the gender line in London.”

In the United States, Kinsolver said, there is an “unease” about trusting artists with matters like politics and social upheaval. Self-reflection and dissidence are looked at “sideways.” Patriotism means we view “the country as a finished product,” perfect and unimprovable.

“It didn’t start that way,” she declared. “Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers were all about smashing things that didn’t work and starting over.”

Kingsolver’s hunch was that it started in the McCarthy era, when dissent was “severely curtailed.”

The Lacuna follows the story of a boy, Harrison William Shepherd, born in the 1920s in Virginia to an American father and a Mexican mother, who takes him back to Mexico after the marriage founders. Coming of age in Mexico City, he becomes a chef, eventually working for those famous communists, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.

Returning to the United States, Shepherd settles in Asheville, N.C. and becomes a successful author of historical romances. But his past associations come to the attention of the commie hunters in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In discussing the uses and pleasures of fiction, Kingsolver said if someone wants to read The Lacuna just for the plot, “Boy Howdy! I’ve given you plenty of that.”

But literature should not be read literally, she warned. Each reader does half the work of making any book come alive, Kingsolver said. Every reader understands the “metaphor and allegory” in his or here own way.

Kingsolver offered an unusual definition of the difference between literary fiction and popular or genre fiction, which people do read mainly for the plot.

“With a literary novel,” she said, “you can easily read it more than once. You read it as a place to go, not just to find out what happens, but because you like being there.”

In addition to her new novel, Kingsolver evangelized for other things, too.

Calling her book fair audience “the true beating heart of democracy,” she thanked readers “for your love of reading books, newspapers and all forms of entertainment that would not electrocute you if you dropped it in the bathtub.”

Kingsolver especially extolled independent bookstores, reminding her audience of the importance of reading “up-and-coming” writers, which are fostered mainly by small, independent stores like Books & Books in Coral Gables.

“Your local businesses are like your teeth,” Kinsolver declared. “Ignore them and they go away.”

Miami Book Fair International’s prestige Evening with series continues tonight with memoirist Jeanneatte Walls, author of the bestseller The Glass Castle and her newly published follow-up, Half Broke Horses. Walls takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Get there early, though, and you can enjoy free food and drink at the Twilight Tasting, 5-7:30 p.m. Tonight features cuisine from Miami’s Finest Caribbean Restaurant and Next Level Barbershop.

All book fair events take place at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College, 300 NE 2nd St., in downtown Miami.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 1:25 pm

    I really liked the way she just got up there and grabbed the mike…she was so comfortable, and such a good reader. Sometimes I get twitchy when the readings go on too long, but I could’ve sat there all night listening. A great event!

  2. alexis permalink
    November 10, 2009 2:35 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about the independent book stores!

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 10, 2009 2:43 pm

    Kingsolver was indeed very comfortable and charismatic on stage. The only thing I couldn’t understand is how she kept saying she is shy. I saw no evidence of shyness in her performance. A very good reader, too, which is not always the case with a novelist.

  4. rachel permalink
    November 10, 2009 3:54 pm

    “With a literary novel,” she said, “you can easily read it more than once. You read it as a place to go, not just to find out what happens, but because you like being there.”

    I love this and can relate. True and beautifully said.

    I also agree about the independent bookstores. But the comment about “up-and-coming” authors irks me a little, whether or not I agree, my brain says: don’t tell me what to read!

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 10, 2009 4:13 pm

    Kingsolver meant only that we need to be open to emerging new authors to keep the cycle of literature alive. Every author we now love was once an unknown. “Buy a book, and the author gets to write another one,” she said.

  6. Colleen Lockwood permalink
    November 11, 2009 1:27 pm

    Used to love her books. And have always respected her point of view. But am now part of the camp that feels “not so much” about her books now. Not sure why. The description of her in person as an evangelist is resonating… hmmmm

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 11, 2009 3:24 pm

    Like her or not, read her or not. One great thing about the world of books is that there’s always SOMETHING to read. Give Jeannette Walls a try.

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