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Office of Barbara Kingsolver
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Like most artists, I’m chary about categorizing my work—particularly this novel. It’s very large. It’s political and domestic, symbolic and epic and, I dearly hope, a heck of a read. I believe in delivering on my contract with my readers. You’ve got plenty of other things to do, I know, so here is our deal: No matter what else I’m delivering inside the covers of a book, I promise also to make you laugh out loud at least once, cry some in private, and burn whatever you left on the stove.
Certainly I considered that other famous family as I was writing this. It was one of the most beloved books of my childhood. But the parallels don’t go too far. Louisa May Alcott didn’t put any snakes in her book, that I recall.
Nathan kept me in thrall for thousands of pages, through the many drafts of this long novel. Am I pleased with how I rendered him? Yes, of course, or he would not be in print. I only turn in a manuscript after I’ve made it exactly what I want it to be. If I ever worried that he was overdrawn, I don’t any more, since the book came out and I began getting letters from women asking, “How did you know my ex-husband?”
Nathan is single-minded, but I respect his complexity. Sometimes people do contain their own opposites, particularly his combination of ferocity and cowardice. He is charismatic and revolting; brilliant and tedious. Unhinged characters are fascinating to create. When people ask if I “did him justice,” I have no idea what they mean, because obviously I don’t owe him anything. He’s a character, invented by me, to serve my plot. I count on readers to know what literary fiction is, and to understand the relationship between character and theme. Nathan Price does not represent the missionary profession (or men), any more than Dr. Jekyll represents all physicians or King Lear represents all old men with daughters. Charles Dickens especially excelled at the wicked male character, but we don’t assume he therefore hated men. I created Nathan Price as a symbolic figure suggesting many things about how Western nations have approached Africa with a history of arrogance and misunderstanding.
Did I do justice to his faith? I would call his faith “deeply misguided Christianity, combined with mental illness,” and yes, I think I pegged it. But many other spiritual traditions are also represented here. I have no antagonism toward generous-hearted Christianity, or missionaries, and I took some care to show that. My favorite character is Brother Fowles, a Christian who does beautiful things with the notion of mission. At one point in the novel he says, “There are Christians, and there are Christians.” Nathan Price and the Jesus-like Fowles are utterly different men who use the same name for opposite brands of faith and works. They even have a Bible-quote showdown. This duality is a real-life phenomenon I find fascinating. To my mind, religion is never well served by people who attempt to reduce it to a sound bite.
Because of what the story is about. Some people to seem to think this is a male/female issue, but that never even crossed my mind. He represents an attitude. This book is an allegory, in which the small incidents of characters’ lives shed light on larger events in our world. The Prices carry into Africa a set of beliefs about religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture, just as industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world in a high-minded way, very certain of being right (even to the point of destroying local ideas, religion, and leadership). But sometimes — as happens in this novel — those attitudes are offensive or inapplicable.
I expected my readers would feel unsympathetic to that arrogance. We didn’t make those decisions, we didn’t call for the assassination of Lumumba; most readers, I’m guessing, didn’t even know about it. We inherited these decisions, and now have to reconcile them with our sense of who we are. We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price. Male or female, we are not like him. That is what I wanted to write about. We got pulled into this mess but we don’t identify with that arrogant voice. It’s not his story. It’s ours.
Obviously, I read a lot of books about the political, social, and natural history of Africa and the Congo. Some were famous and well-written, but most were obscure. I found some self-published memoirs written by missionaries to the Congo in the 50’s and 60’s, which were gems, giving me details of missionary life and attitudes from the era. I also read daily from the King James Bible, to help internalize the rhythm of the Price family’s speech, their spiritual frame of reference, and countless plot ideas. Likewise, I daily perused an ancient, enormous, two-volume Kikongo-French dictionary, compiled early in the century (by a missionary). I hoped to grasp the music and subtlety of this amazing African language, with its infinite capacity for being misunderstood and mistranslated.
A big challenge, also, was to capture the language of U.S. teenagers in the late 1950’s. Teenage slang is notoriously ephemeral; if I’d just guessed, it would have sounded inauthentic. I purchased thirty pounds of Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post magazines from 1958-1961, from a used book store, and sank into those pages until the attitudes of the era began to acquire for me a certain ring: “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” Thus Rachel Price was born.
I also needed to know things about Africa that must be learned first-hand. I made research trips into Western and Central Africa (as near as I could get to Mobutu’s Zaire) to experience the sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and domestic trivia that I couldn’t really get from reading. I stayed with local residents, walked through village markets to bargain and bring home the ingredients of a meal, and often asked questions that many Africans surely found amusing and too personal. A University student in Cotonou suffered my curiosity for days on end, giving me his frank views on religion, history, and family life that would permanently alter my universe. I also spent time in museums studying exhibits on African religion and material culture. I lost myself in the amazing Okapi diorama in the American Museum of Natural History. And I spent one unforgettable afternoon in the Reptile House of the San Diego Zoo, watching a green mamba.
If this laundry list of observations seems excessive or odd, I can only say that this is what it means to be a novelist. You have to be madly in love with the details.
I did. And I’m happy to say, my own experience was nothing like The Poisonwood Bible. My father worked for fifty years as a physician dedicated to medically underserved populations. Mostly he practiced in rural Kentucky, but occasionally he took our family to live in other places, where “medically underserved” is an understatement. We spent 1963 in a Congolese village where most residents had never experienced electricity or plumbing, let alone western medical care. I was seven years old when we went. My parents were not missionaries, though we met some missionary families and benefited from their generosity on many occasions.
My memories of playing with village children and exploring the jungle are acutely sensory and indelible. My parents were courageous to do the work they did, risking their own comfort and security to help address problems like leprosy and smallpox. But for me, it was just an adventure. I was a child, and understood only about a thimbleful of what was happening around me in the Congo. The thematic material of The Poisonwood is serious, adult stuff. I wrote the book, not because of a brief adventure I had in place of second grade, but because as an adult I’m interested in cultural imperialism and post-colonial history. I had to approach the subject in an adult way.
This story came from a long-term fascination with politics and culpability, and my belief that what happened to the Congo in 1961 is one of the most important political parables of a century. I’d thought about this story for a very long time, ever since the early 80’s when I read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies, a stunning non-fiction account of that piece of history.
Here’s how I framed the question, to myself: nearly every industrialized country has arrived at its present prosperity by doing awful things, extracting wealth from some unfortunate locale, whether in the form of tea or diamonds, cheap labor, or even human slaves. Most of us alive today didn’t participate in those decisions, but we do benefit materially from this history. How do we think about that, if at all? England has a strong tradition of postcolonial literature, but here in the U.S., we can hardly even say the word “postcolonial.” We were a colony ourselves; we didn’t have colonies, we’re not like that. If you can overlook an agricultural economy originally built on slave labor, and the odd coup our CIA has organized here and there, to control economic interests in Chile’s copper, Congo’s cobalt, and so on. We still would really like to think of ourselves as the global good guys. Who wouldn’t?
Denial is one path to redemption, but it leaves certain holes, and the possibility of repeat offense. I’m keen to look at history, and study truth in all its facets. I think this is one of the ways novelists can earn our keep, morally speaking. So I decided to dive into the heart of darkness and write about paths to redemption. It’s a large ambition. I waited many years to begin. I’d have waited a hundred, but realized I’d be dead before I was really wise enough to write this book, so I’d better give it a shot.