Born: April 8, 1955
Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe characterized Barbara Kingsolver as the “Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction,” primarily because social activism is at the core of most of her published work. What has driven Kingsolver throughout her writing career is a focus on environmental issues, political criticism and activism, and the role of biological and scientific fact. Her ultimate focus has been on the relationship between art and politics, and man and nature.
Kingsolver, the daughter of Dr. Wendell R. Kingsolver and his wife, Virginia, grew up in Carlisle in Nicholas County, where her father was a physician. When she was 7, the family went to Léopoldville, Congo, where her parents worked as missionaries in public health. The experience inspired Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998). This epic story about an Evangelical Christian family on a mission in Africa became her best-known work. The novel sold more than 4 million copies and was short-listed for both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Penn-Faulkner Award, won the National Book Prize of South Africa, and was an Oprah Winfrey “Oprah’s Book Club” selection.
While doing research for the novel, Kingsolver read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World (1984), a book characterized as “America’s worldwide war against its own best interests,” and said of the experience: “The analogy struck me as novelesque: a study of this persistent human flaw — arrogance masquerading as helpfulness — could be a personal story that also functioned as allegory.”
In addition to awards for The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has been the recipient of numerous other honors, including the 2000 National Humanities Medal (awarded by U.S. President Bill Clinton), a James Beard Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edward Abbey EcoFiction Award, the Physicians for Social Responsibility National Award, and the Arizona Civil Liberties Union Award. Her novel The Lacuna won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Every book Kingsolver has written since her 1993 novel Pigs in Heaven has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2011, she was the first recipient of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Writer’s Digestnamed Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century.
Kingsolver holds a B.A. degree in Biology from DePauw University (magna cum laude) and a M.S. degree in Biology and Ecology from the University of Arizona. She has held a variety of jobs, including archeologist, art class model, grant writer, housecleaner, X-ray technician, biological research assistant, medical document translator, copy editor, typesetter, science writer, and feature writer for journals and newspapers. Since 1985, she has focused on writing, having published numerous freelance newspaper and magazine articles and 15 books including novels, short stories, and essays.
“I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political,” Kingsolver told May Jaggi in a 2010 interview forThe Guardian newspaper. “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person… the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you’ll behave to other people. It is… a powerful craft.”
One seminal moment in the direction of Kingsolver’s thematic focus came when she moved with her first husband, Joe Hoffmann, to a small cabin in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona, where they became active in organizations investigating human-rights violations and supporting Latin American refugees seeking asylum. This set the course for her activism in human rights and other political issues.
“I had come to the Southwest expecting cactus, wide open spaces, and adventure,” she later wrote of the experience. “I found, instead, another whole America … this desert that burned with raw beauty had a great fence built across it, attempting to divide north from south. I’d stumbled upon a borderland where people perished of heat by day and cold hostility by night.”
Barbara Kingsolver says this about her writing process: “I tend to wake up very early. Too early… I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.”
The Bean Trees. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Homeland and Other Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Animal Dreams. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
Another America/Otra América. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1992.
Pigs in Heaven. New York: Harper Perennial (New York), 1993.
High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Prodigal Summer. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Small Wonder. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands. Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt. Washington: National Geographic Society, 2002.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. HarperCollins (New York), 2007.
The Lacuna. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Flight Behavior. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Unsheltered, New York: HarperCollins, 2018.