Barbara Kingsolver celebrates community and social change

Novelist and activist Barbara Kingsolver appears at the Paramount on Friday to celebrate Earth Day. Photo: Annie Griffiths Belt Novelist and activist Barbara Kingsolver appears at the Paramount on Friday to celebrate Earth Day. Photo: Annie Griffiths Belt

Over the course of her writing career, which began at a weekly alternative newspaper like C-VILLE Weekly, Barbara Kingsolver has authored 14 books and won numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. Her novel The Lacuna won the Orange Prize in 2010, and her memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, co-written with her family about a year of eating locally, won the James Beard Award for food writing in 2008. She is now at work on a new novel and is adapting two of her novels, The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, for film.

On Earth Day, April 22, Kingsolver will speak at The Paramount Theater to benefit Virginia Organizing and celebrate its 20th anniversary. Michele Mattioli, Virginia Organizing’s special projects coordinator, wrote in an e-mail to C-VILLE: “Barbara Kingsolver has supported Virginia Organizing’s work for much of our 20-year history, holding a fundraiser for us in 2000, supporting the Washington County chapter’s work on sustainability and now doing an Earth Day benefit. Thousands of Virginia Organizing supporters get involved, take action and help raise the funds it takes to keep the social justice and environmental work moving forward. We thank Barbara for her contributions to this vital work.”

Kingsolver, who lives in Southwestern Virginia, spoke to C-VILLE by phone about her career and what to expect at the event.

C-VILLE Weekly: Tell me a little about your partnership with Virginia Organizing.

Barbara Kingsolver: It’s a true grassroots organization. And it addresses the whole range of concerns that we have, people working for better lives and a better place. They have living wage campaigns, anti-discrimination campaigns, environmental campaigns, especially to keep (well, in our end of the state) mining companies from polluting our communities with toxic waste; they have campaigns to help keep our legislators honest and representing us, not just the companies that make big donations.

So, what I really love is that Virginia Organizing is truly about community. I’ve participated in all of these many kinds of campaigns or active projects that help us feel stronger, that remind us that we have power in our hands…if we’re willing to work together. And so when they asked if I’d be willing to do something big to help celebrate their 20th anniversary I said, absolutely. Make a date and I’ll show up.

What will you be reading or talking about at the Paramount?

There’s no telling what I’ll do. [Laughs] I want the evening to be enjoyable. I want it to be about community, and I want people to leave feeling better, happier and stronger in spirit than when they came in. Because in this particular year with politics the way they are, I feel it’s really important to give people an opportunity to feel good and remind them that we don’t have to be at the mercy of belligerent and soulless people—we can create power ourselves.

I will definitely speak to that subject of community and the notion of empowering ourselves. I’ll probably read some poetry and some passages from new work, and mention the big things I’m working on now: a novel and two screenplays. And then what I’d really love to do with an audience is open it up to conversation. I’ll take questions and we’ll talk about anything, whatever comes up, with the goal of creating a sense of community.

Are you open to talking about the new novel?

If people ask me about it I’ll be happy to talk about it. I’m willing to talk about pretty much anything, except my family and my personal life. I’d rather save [the novel] for the event. I can just say now that it is set in two different centuries in one place.

Can you speak a little about your belief in the power of literature to affect change?

I believe in the power of literature because of the way it creates and cultivates empathy. When you think about various different art forms and you think about various different ways of getting information, like newspapers, like television or like plays or theater or books or what have you, the only art form that really puts you inside the brain of another person is a novel.

If you think about it, when you read a novel you’re putting yourself away, in a drawer, for the space of several hours and becoming a different person. You’re trying on the persona of a different human, so you’re seeing the world through his or her eyes, and you’re experiencing that person’s hopes and that person’s losses. And somehow people are drawn to this because we keep writing and reading novels.

As everything else changes around us, we keep gravitating towards the novel, this experience of being another human. I believe that is the most political act of human nature, to really work to experience another person’s life because that itself is the antidote to war and hatred of every kind.

What do you think the responsibility of the individual is when it comes to social change?

I think the answer is as complex or simple as the golden rule of doing unto others as we’d have done to us. And there are a million ways of putting that into practice.

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