Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Barbara Kingsolver at the South Bank

American novelist and biologist Barbara Kingsolver has a special place in my life, and especially in the story of my marriage, and that alone makes her dear to me. That she continues, in the third decade of her writing career, to turn out complex, thoughtful, important novels which grapple with really big issues is, apart from anything else, a relief. It’s always sad when one’s literary loves start to churn out crap – one of my former favourite novelists, an American feminist who shall remain nameless, is a depressing reminder of how even terrific writers can descend into purveyors of potboilers.

Last Thursday, Kingsolver was speaking at the London Literature Festival. Apparently her event was the fastest-selling of the season, and you’d have guessed it from the reception. She got a prolonged round of applause, plus cheers and whoops, just for walking on-stage. And seemed sweetly awed by that, even if it was just a good act.

Kingsolver was mainly there to talk about her latest book, Flight Behaviour. This takes a (fictional, but only just and for how long?) shift in the carefully-balanced migrations of the monarch butterfly as the point of departure for a novel about climate change, but also about love, loyalty, celebrity, faith, denial and how one raises young children when one’s growing comprehension is that we have well and truly fucked the planet they are going to have to live on.

As Kingsolver put it, “what are we thinking? Why are we still denying this when islands are drowning and our houses are blowing away?” She’s one of the few people – apart from my perennially doom-mongering husband – to acknowledge the fact that the impacts of climate change are not something hypothetical, something which might kick in in a few generations, by which time we’ll have cooked up some shiny sci-fi techno-fixes. And neither are they, like most other environmental issues, something that happens to poor people/people in majority world countries/obscure animals, and can therefore be either ignored by affluent, white, minority-world people, or seen as something which might induce the occasional donation to an environmental charity. They are already starting to happen to ‘people like us’, and that trend is only going to get worse.

In some ways, this dynamic of how the ‘first world’ sees environmental disaster is interestingly paralleled in Kingsolver’s own work. Her wonderful 1990 novel Animal Dreams deals with a community whose peach orchards are being ravaged by pollution from a closed-down mine. That is the kind of environmental issue we’re used to. It might be bad, but it can be solved – there can, with enough money/passion/political lobbying, be a ‘happy ending’.

Almost a quarter of a century later, things are different. As Kingsolver was brave enough to say when I managed to shoehorn it into the Q&A, there’s nothing like this with climate change. We’re already too late for the ‘happy ending’. In her words, we’re looking at “a lot of adapting and a lot of things to grieve for” – namely, life as we know it and civilisation as we like to see it, and sooner rather than later. My notes on how Kingsolver spoke of her approach to writing Flight Behaviour include the following:

— that people reject climate change, or refuse to engage with it, because of its ‘ugliness and scariness’, so the monarch butterflies were a way of using a beautiful thing to “lure the reader in” (although this also made me wonder about the additional power that comes from juxtaposing beauty and terror);
— that “literature is about truth, but in a different way that science is about truth” – in relation to the enthusiasm of a monarch butterfly specialist for her fictionalisation of what ‘his’ species is undergoing;
— that she wanted to write a novel about climate change because of her sense of “why lobbing information across the wall [at those who deny or do not understand climate change] is not going to work” – the need to cultivate trust between people in order to get them to listen. Flight Behaviour came from a desire to explore this denial and the “culture wars” over climate change, especially in the USA;
— “if I wanted to get climate change to a wider audience, literary fiction would probably not be my medium!”
— Kingsolver now lives back in South Appalachia, where she grew up, and where people are being “socked” by climate change – “I’m living amongst people who are losing everything to climate change but are unprepared to deal with it or even believe in it”.

On other topics, my notes include the following:
— “novels are like marriages. Short stories are like affairs, but they have deadlines so they’re less fun”
— Kingsolver herself is something akin to bilingual – she can slip in and out of ‘hillbilly’ language depending on who she is speaking to, and defends the closed and suspicious society she comes from as justifiably so, after generations of being exploited and mocked by ‘city folk’;
— and “cemeteries are a great place to research names”. Which reminded me of the almost-lost desire to write something inspired initially by one such name, found on a tombstone in South Australia…

PS, if anyone else who was at this event stumbles upon this post, my profuse apologies. I’m the one whose coughing fit probably obscured most of Kingsolver’s answer to the final question. Sorry!

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