According to the emails sent to Fanatics members by Exclusive Books, Barbara Kingsolver has come to South Africa to “launch her latest book Flight Behaviour”. Hold on, I thought, I read that book when I was still a member of a book club and that club dissolved about three years ago. Yes, memory correct, on Wednesday night at the “launch” at Exclusive Books in Walmer Park in Port Elizabeth, I checked the date of publication: 2012! This was all a bit mystifying to me, Anna Christensen and the 11 students we took down for the “launch” until Gillian McAinsh of The Herald, who was the MC for the evening, asked Kingsolver about South Africa and got a most interesting reply. It turns out that Kingsolver has had a keen consciousness of and interest in South Africa since Hector Pietersen was shot in Soweto in 1976. She said on Wednesday: “I have wanted to come to South Africa for 18 years. South Africa has been on my moral and social justice radar for a very long time.” When the Soweto riots and shootings took place Kingsolver was at university and got involved in the disinvest campaigns in the US. She describes herself as having been “watching the whole world watching South Africa” since then and more especially since “the new government of the country which is so exciting and so new”. She went on to say that she had promised herself a substantial trip to this country as soon as her youngest daughter went to university, and that she wanted to be here for a while and do the trip properly, and that — aha! — is why she was here, and more over why she was in Port Elizabeth, because she and her husband drove the garden route and stopped under the oldest tree in the country and her publishers in SA couldn’t think of another way to describe her visit other than a “book launch”. Also, the publisher representative said to me rather dismissively when I asked about her next stop, “we usually don’t ever come to PE”. Well thanks. So the only reason we were on the agenda in this part of the minimal book reading catchment area for publishers is that Kingsolver herself wanted to be here. So instead of billing this as what it was: Kingsolver’s discovery and enjoyment of our country, we got a “book launch” with book launch mindset and trappings (stern instructions about lining up with books for a simple signature, no dedications) and we didn’t get very much of this extraordinary’s person’s heart and mind except a glimpse during a single hour on her way to somewhere else. Nevertheless, Kingsolver is unfettered in person by these constraints. Some insights:
- Firstly about that big tree. She stood under it looked into the sky through its branches and thought: “She was already 300 years old when the first Europeans came to this country.”
- About place: “Place is so much of what I write about — place and community. I have to put my feet on the ground, I have to know what it smells like.”
- About Animal Vegetable Miracle: “We spent one year being mindful about where our food comes from. We grew our own food and spent time discovering out local food shed. It is in the last half of the last century something ordinary and extremely important — control of food — has been taken from us.” We’ve been sold the idea that making food in a factory process is “modern” but it’s a “bum deal” and “dreadful” — “there is something primal and thrilling in the connection between humans and food; we are supposed to know where our food comes from”. Kingsolver said she spent quite a lot of her journey from Cape Town to PE poking her nose into South African gardens to see what they were growing.
- About what she reads: contemporary fiction, “books I would like to have written”. She’s very interested in what other fiction writers are doing. But Middlemarch is a classic she returns to again and again, and she says to learnt to write by “reading closely very good books”. She encountered Doris Lessing’s Martha Quested “at the right age; 18 or 19; The Children of Violence knocked me out.” “Literature did it for me; you can see further. You see the things that people everywhere are aching to change and fix. A novel is a powerful thing; so much mightier than a newspaper.”
- In response to a question from the audience which asked about the inspiration for the Poisonwood Bible, she talked about having read Endless Enemies by Jonathan Quitney on US foreign policy and the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. “The killing of Lumumba flummoxed me. My country was enriched by a horrible piece of history. The US has this presumptious approach to developing countries. I decided to create an allegory for this arrogance. It was a hard story to write and took 20 years to complete.”
- About Lacuna: when people look back at her oeuvre they’ll say this is the “non-Kingsolver book”.
- That she starts a book with an issue she wants to convey, not a plot idea, not a character.
When the evening was over, and people everywhere had stacks of books in arms, all signed, my colleague Anna went up to Kingsolver and said: “I’m disappointed we didn’t talk more about Flight Behaviour.” “Yes, I am too,” Kingsolver said.