Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver
Born (1955-04-08) April 8, 1955
Annapolis, Maryland,
Occupation novelist, poet, essayist
Nationality United States
Period 1988–present
Genre historical fiction
Subject social justice, feminism, environmentalism
Notable works
  • Joseph Hoffmann (1985–1992)
  • Steven Hopp (1994–present)
  • Camille
  • Lily

Barbara Kingsolver (born April 8, 1955) is an American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood. Kingsolver earned degrees in biology at DePauw University and the University of Arizona and worked as a freelance writer before she began writing novels. Her widely known works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family's attempts to eat locally.

Her work often focuses on topics such as social justice, biodiversity and the interaction between humans and their communities and environments. Each of her books published since 1993 has been on the New York Times Best Seller list.[1] Kingsolver has received numerous awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award 2011, UK's Orange Prize for Fiction 2010, for The Lacuna, and the National Humanities Medal. She has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize to support "literature of social change".

Personal life

Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1955 and grew up in Carlisle in rural Kentucky.[2][3] When Kingsolver was seven years old, her father, a physician, took the family to Léopoldville, Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Her parents worked in a public health capacity, and the family lived without electricity or running water.[2][4]

After graduating from high school, Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, on a music scholarship, studying classical piano. Eventually, however, she changed her major to biology when she realized that "classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of [them] get to play 'Blue Moon' in a hotel lobby".[3] She was involved in activism on her campus, and took part in protests against the Vietnam war.[2] She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1977, and moved to France for a year before settling in Tucson, Arizona, where she lived for much of the next two decades. In 1980, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arizona,[3] where she earned a master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.[5][6]

Kingsolver began her full-time writing career in the mid-1980s as a science writer for the university, which eventually led to some freelance feature writing, including many cover stories for the local alternative weekly, the Tucson Weekly.[3][6] She began her career in fiction writing after winning a short story contest in a local Phoenix newspaper.[3] In 1985, she married Joseph Hoffmann; their daughter Camille was born in 1987.[7][8] She moved with her daughter to Tenerife in the Canary Islands for a year during the first Gulf war, mostly due to frustration over America's military involvement.[9] After returning to the US in 1992, she separated from her husband.[8]

In 1994, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from her alma mater, DePauw University.[10] In the same year, she married Steven Hopp, an ornithologist,[2] and their daughter, Lily, was born in 1996.[2] In 2004, Kingsolver moved with her family to a farm in Washington County, Virginia, where they currently reside.[2] In 2008, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Duke University, where she delivered a commencement address entitled "How to be Hopeful".[11]

In the late 1990s,[12] she was a founding member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock and roll band made up of published writers. Other band members include Amy Tan, Matt Groening, Dave Barry and Stephen King, and they play for one week during the year. Kingsolver played the keyboard, but is no longer an active member of the band.[13]

In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Kingsolver says, "I never wanted to be famous, and still don't, [...] the universe rewarded me with what I dreaded most". She said she created her own website just to compete with a plethora of fake ones, "as a defence to protect my family from misinformation. Wikipedia abhors a vacuum. If you don't define yourself, it will get done for you in colourful ways".[14]

Local eating experiment

Starting in April 2005, Kingsolver and her family spent a year making every effort to eat food produced as locally as possible.[15] Living on their farm in rural Virginia, they grew much of their own food, and obtained most of the rest from their neighbors and other local farmers.[16] Kingsolver, her husband and her elder daughter chronicled their experiences that year in the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Although exceptions were made for staple ingredients which were not available locally, such as coffee and olive oil, the family grew vegetables, raised livestock, made cheese and preserved much of their harvest.[15][17]

Writing career

Kingsolver's first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988, and told the story of a young woman who leaves Kentucky for Arizona, adopting an abandoned child along the way; she wrote it at night while pregnant with her first child and struggling with insomnia.[6] Her next work of fiction, published in 1990, was Homeland and Other Stories, a collection of short stories on a variety of topics exploring various themes from the evolution of cultural and ancestral lands to the struggles of marriage.[18] The novel Animal Dreams was also published in 1990,[19] followed by Pigs in Heaven, the sequel to The Bean Trees, in 1993.[20] The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, is one of her best known works; it chronicles the lives of the wife and daughters of a Baptist missionary on a Christian mission in Africa.[21] Although the setting of the novel is somewhat similar to Kingsolver's own childhood trip to the then Republic of Congo, the novel is not autobiographical.[2] Her next novel, published in 2000, was Prodigal Summer, set in southern Appalachia.[22] The Lacuna was published in 2009;[23] her most recent novel, entitled Flight Behavior, was published in 2012. It explores environmental themes and highlights the potential effects of global warming on the Monarch butterfly.

Kingsolver is also a published poet and essayist. Two of her essay collections, High Tide in Tucson (1995) and Small Wonder (2003), have been published, and an anthology of her poetry was published in 1998 under the title Another America. Her essay "Where to Begin" appears in the anthology Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting (2013), published by W. W. Norton & Company. Her prose poetry also accompanied photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt in a 2002 work titled Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands.[24]

Her major non-fiction works include her 1990 publication Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983[25] and 2007's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a description of eating locally.[15] She has also been published as a science journalist in periodicals such as Economic Botany on topics such as desert plants and bioresources.[3][26]

Literary style and themes

Kingsolver has written novels in both the first person and third person narrative styles, and she frequently employs overlapping narratives.[22] Many of her works display her thorough knowledge of biology and ecology; for example, the novel Prodigal Summer has extensive commentary on the value of higher predators in ecosystems,[22] and many of her essays in the book Small Wonder are based upon the lessons of biodiversity.[27] Her books are often characterized as having distinct female voices.[2]

Kingsolver's literary subjects are varied, but she often writes about places and situations with which she is familiar; many of her stories are based in places she has lived in, such as central Africa and Arizona. She has stated emphatically that her novels are not autobiographical, although there are often commonalities between her life and her work.[2] Her work is often strongly idealistic[3] and her writing has been called a form of activism.[28] Kingsolver's characters are frequently written around struggles for social equality, such as the hardships faced by undocumented immigrants, the working poor, and single mothers.[3] Other common themes in her work include the balancing of individuality with the desire to live in a community, and the interaction and conflict between humans and the ecosystems in which they live.[6] Kingsolver has been said to use prose and engaging narratives to make historical events, such as the Congo's struggles for independence, more interesting and engaging for the average reader.[2]

Bellwether Prize

In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize. Named after the bellwether, the literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change.[2] The Bellwether is awarded in even-numbered years, and includes guaranteed major publication and a cash prize of US$25,000, fully funded by Kingsolver.[29] She has stated that she wanted to create a literary prize to "encourage writers, publishers, and readers to consider how fiction engages visions of social change and human justice".[30]

Honors and awards

Kingsolver has received a number of awards and honors. In 2000, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Bill Clinton.[31] Her 1998 bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible, won the National Book Prize of South Africa, and was shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award.[32] Her most notable awards include the 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.[32] Her novel, The Lacuna, won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.[33] Every book that Kingsolver has written since 1993's Pigs in Heaven has been on The New York Times Best Seller list,[1] and her novel The Poisonwood Bible was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection.[34] In 2011, she was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Kingsolver is the first ever recipient of the newly named award to celebrate the U.S. diplomat who played an instrumental role in negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. In 2014, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Library of Virginia. The award recognizes outstanding and long-lasting contributions to literature by a Virginian.[35]


Calling Kingsolver a master of "Calamity Writing" in The New Republic, Lee Siegel wrote that she offers "the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art". He also characterized her as an "easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time".[36][37]

Kingsolver was criticized for a Los Angeles Times opinion piece she wrote following the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks, wherein she stated, "I feel like I'm standing on a playground where the little boys are all screaming at each other, 'He started it!' and throwing rocks that keep taking out another eye, another tooth. I keep looking around for somebody's mother to come on the scene saying, 'Boys! Boys! Who started it cannot possibly be the issue here. People are getting hurt." [38] One reader cited her essay as an example of the "shabby nihilism of the left." Another wrote, "Kingsolver seemingly believes an insufficient number of us died in New York to warrant our response in Afghanistan." Another reader, however, praised her "loving sentiments." [39] By some accounts, she was "denounced as a traitor," but rebounded from these accusations and wrote about them.[40]


Kingsolver's major published works are:[26]


  1. 1 2 Schuessler, Jennifer (November 13, 2009). "Inside the List". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Kerr, Sarah (October 11, 1988), "The Novel as Indictment", The New York Times, The New York Times Company, retrieved May 3, 2010
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Lyall, Sarah (September 1, 1993). "At Lunch With Barbara Kingsolver" (interview). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  4. Kanner, Ellen (November 1998). "Barbara Kingsolver turns to her past to understand the present". Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  5. "Barbara Kingsolver". St Charles Public Library. February 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Ballard, Sandra L. (2003). Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. pp. 330–331. ISBN 978-0-8131-9066-2. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  7. "Barbara Kingsolver". eNotes. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  8. 1 2 "Barbara Kingsolver Brief Biography" (Biography). Barbara Kingsolver's Official Site. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
  9. Leonard, Tom (November 20, 2009). "Barbara Kingsolver: Interview" (Interview). The Daily Telegraph. London: Telegraph Media Group. Archived from the original on 18 June 2010. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  10. "Barbara Kingsolver '77 is Finalist for Britain's Orange Prize". DePauw University News. April 20, 2010. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  11. Kingsolver, Barbara (May 11, 2008). "How to be Hopeful" (Speech). Duke University. Archived from the original on 11 May 2010. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  12. "History of the Rock Bottom Remainders" (website). Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  13. "History of the Rock Bottom Remainders" (website). Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  14. "Guardian interview: A life in writing: Barbara Kingsolver". UK: The Guardian. 12 June 2010.
  15. 1 2 3 Maslin, Janet (May 11, 2007). "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 18, 2010.
  16. Neary, Lynn (April 29, 2007). "Back to Basics: Kingsolver Clan Lives off Land : NPR". National Public Radio. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  17. Kingsolver, Barbara; Hopp, Steven; Kingsolver, Camille (2006). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. HarperCollins.
  18. Banks, Russell (1989-06-11). "Distant as a Cherokee Childhood". New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2010-05-18.
  19. Smiley, Jane (1990-09-02). "In One Small Town, the Weight of the World". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2010-05-18.
  20. Karbo, Karen (1993-06-27). "And Baby Makes Two" (Book review). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2010-05-18.
  21. Klinkenborg, Verlyn (October 16, 1998). "Going Native". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  22. 1 2 3 Schuessler, Jennifer (November 5, 2000). "Men, Women and Coyotes" (Book review). The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  23. Neuman, Rob (May 16, 2010). "Western North Carolina's best-selling books". Asheville Citizen-Times. Gannett Company. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  24. Parsell, T.L. (October 29, 2002). "New Photo Book an Homage to Last U.S. Wildlands". National Geographic News. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  25. Stegner, Page (January 7, 1990). "Both Sides Lost". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  26. 1 2 "Bibliography" (Bibliography). Official Website. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  27. Ciolkowski, Laura (May 5, 2002). "Books in Brief -- Nonfiction". The New York Times. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  28. Gioseffi, Daniela (2003). Women on War: an International Anthology of Women's Writings from Antiquity to the Present. New York, NY: Feminist Press. pp. 86–88. ISBN 1-55861-408-7. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
  29. "Bellwether Prize Information". Bellwether Prize Official Site. Archived from the original on 5 May 2010. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  30. "Frequently Asked Questions". Official site. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  31. Harper Collins. "About the Author, Barbara Kingsolver". Retrieved 2010-05-02.
  32. 1 2 "Awards & Honors | Barbara Kingsolver" (Awards & Honors List). Official Site. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
  33. Brown, Mark (June 9, 2010). "Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna beats Wolf Hall to Orange prize". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 12 June 2010. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  34. "Barbara Kingsolver author biography.". Archived from the original on 3 June 2010. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  35. "Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards". Library of Virginia. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  36. Siegel, Lee (March 21, 1999). "Sweet and Low". New Republic. Retrieved June 19, 2016.
  37. Michelle Dean in Slate extends Siegel's assessment.
  38. Barbara, Kingsolver (October 14, 2001). "No Glory in Unjust War on the Weak". LA Times. Retrieved June 10, 2016. (Note: quotation appears on page 2)
  39. "Defending the U.S. Against Barbarism". LA Times. October 20, 2001. Retrieved June 19, 2016.
  40. "How Barbara Kingsolver recovered from a 9/11 backlash". Herald Scotland. November 8, 2009. Retrieved June 19, 2016.

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