The first installment of this 15 Influential Writers series gives me space to expound a little on the first fiction writer that truly grabbed my attention. As a young reader in high school, I was anxious to soak up as much of the world as I could without venturing too far out into it. I was also deeply dissatisfied with my religious upbringing at that time in my life. The confluence of these two desires brought me to Barbara Kingsolver.
A writer of fiction has a particularly difficult task. Those of us who have written non-fiction (occasional essays, articles, or data-driven reports) may have the burden of presenting the truth, but our burden is relatively light. Non-fiction requires a clever turn of phrase and a clear direction… that’s about it. But to write fiction is to speak about the truths of the world in such a way that transports you out of one pocket of the world and into another. If you have not become part of the story or begun caring about the characters within it, I’m afraid you aren’t reading terribly good fiction.
Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist who is able to take you hostage into a world that—though it may not be like your own in every detail—is unmistakably real. When I first read The Poisonwood Bible in my late teens, I caught up in a different pocket of the world from my own.
As a teenager whose love of her childhood religion was quickly souring, I found myself drawn to a long novel about the daughters of an evangelical Christian missionary in Africa. It seems strange that someone who developed a critical eye for her religious upbringing would become excited by a novel about missionaries in Africa, but their foibles as a family and as well-meaning (but often paternal) Westerners provoked a kind of gentle self-righteousness in me. I delighted in this book, perhaps because I could see their follies more clearly than my own. The characters became like family to me. And though the book was rather longer than any book I was required to read at the time (over 570 pages), I devoured it.
Since my late teens, I have come to see the ways in which this complicated work has stood to indict me as well as comfort me. I first entered the world of The Poisonwood Bible with a kind of delicate schadenfreude, but came back to it for insight into my own religious myopia.
There were other books from my youth that stuck with me, to be sure. But Kingsolver’s words made an indelible mark: her style is simple and clear, yet she is able to weave together complex themes of faith, social justice, imperialism, family, sexuality, body politics, and intelligence. And she does this all with little judgment and a rich dose of poeticism. Since reading The Poisonwood Bible, I have had the delight of reading some of her other works, such as Prodigal Summer and Animal Dreams. Reading Kingsolver’s novels is a sensual, earthy pleasure. She reminds me of my own weaknesses, strengths, and humanity.
Her influence on me has been such that almost any poll of “favorite” authors will elicit her name from my memory.
The joy of reading a book, of being transported into the truth of your own existence, and of becoming more fully human through understanding the frailty of your own self and surroundings; these are the things that make Barbara Kingsolver one of the 15 most influential authors in my life.
And for beautiful words on this author (more beautiful words than I could muster), read my friend M’s blog entry on Kingsolver.