The Bean Trees
by Barbara Kingsolver
In Her Own Words
Quotations from Barbara Kingsolver
The following profile of the author of The Bean Trees was written for KETs Signature series showcasing contemporary Southern writers. It is adapted from the teachers guide to that series.
Barbara Kingsolver lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona; but inevitably her years growing up in Carlisle, Kentucky find their way into her writing. In recalling how she took an early short story and turned it into a book, she says: I took the character from Kentucky, drove her across the country to Tucson, had her accidentally pick up an orphaned baby along the way so I had a plot, and that became The Bean Trees, my first novel. I could set it in Tucson, but I had to tell that story about community in a voice with a Kentucky accent.
Her memories of growing up in the rural South are a mix of good and bad. The other important thing about rural and small-town life is that everybody knows you, she says. People know you better than you know yourself. You live out your days within a body of presumed common knowledge. If you ask somebody for directions, you dont get a map, you get a story: Well, you go down there to where the church burned down and you turn up and follow that road as far as the old Earlywine place and then you take that road where they used to be a store and go on down, you cant miss it. Story is what holds people together, and its how they set themselves apart from their neighbors.
But Kingsolver warns against romanticizing small-town life, remembering that her hometown was racially segregated in the 1960s.
Kentucky is a place where you cant help seeing the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Its a place that tends to breed firebrandsbut with an overlay of Southern kindness. So its not Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis, its a more soft-spoken type, Harriette Arnow and Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Berry. I guess you could say Kentucky breeds polite firebrands.
Whether or not Kingsolver would put herself into Arnows, Warrens, or Berrys company, she does call herself a political writer. In an address delivered at the 1993 American Booksellers Association Convention, Kingsolver talked about her view of a writers job:
We have to find a way of getting across those truths that are too huge and maybe too terrible to say in simple language. Truths like, If we dont pay attention to how were wasting resources and fouling our habitat, our grandchildren will not get to live out their natural lives. Or truths like, Every single minute in this country, a child dies because of poverty. Or, If we dont learn to listen to each other, well all go to hell in a handbasket....
What the writer has to do is find a way to carve those enormous truths down to the size of the personal, to the size of individual reality, something that can fit inside a heart. The amazing power of fiction is that it can do that. It can create empathy. As a reader of fiction, you leave your own life for a while and allow someone else to move in, to inhabit your heart and your skin.
Later in that same speech, Kingsolver elaborated: I believe the creation of empathy is a political act. The ability to understand and really feel for people who are different from ourselvesthats a world-changing event. Its the antidote to bigotry and spiritual meanness, and all the terrible things those deficiencies lead us into. That is why I feel lucky to get to do what I do: I get a little shot at changing the world.