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Cover of Barbara Kingsolver's SMALL WONDER
5.24.02
Arts and Culture
Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Barbara Kingsolver
More on This Story:
Barbara Kingsolver
Transcript

MOYERS: Take a look at this book jacket: two brightly plummaged members of the order Ara Macao otherwise known as Scarlett Macaws. Their wings spread against the lush green foliage of their tropical habitat. (Read an excerpt of SMALL WONDER.)

The cover of a new collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver, for whom nature is always the inspiration for her work.

And such work it is, read the world over. Short stories, poetry, history, novels like PIGS IN HEAVEN, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE — my favorite — PRODIGAL SUMMER, and now these essays called SMALL WONDER, her response to the terror of 9/11. I'm please to welcome to NOW, Barbara Kingsolver.

KINGSOLVER: Hi. Thanks.

MOYERS: The title, SMALL WONDER. Why?

KINGSOLVER: I guess, my answer to that question that a lot of us have found ourselves asking, how do we get through this without becoming embittered, without becoming intolerant and angry and hostile. In short, without becoming what we hate most. I think that if we become as intolerant and angry and violent as those who have attacked us we've lost everything.

MOYERS: What do you think is the best thing a novelist, a writer, can do at a time like this? You can't influence policy, can you?

KINGSOLVER: I can't. And I don't want to. That's not my domain.

What a writer can do, what a fiction writer or a poet or an essay writer can do is re-engage people with their own humanity. Fiction and essays can create empathy for the theoretical stranger.

When you—I think this is particularly true of fiction. When you pick up a novel from the bed side table, you put down your own life at the same time and you become another person for the duration.

And so you live that person's life and you understand in a way that you don't learn from reading a newspaper what it's like to live a life that's completely different from yours. And when you put that book down, you're changed. You have...you have something more expansive in your heart than you began with.

Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own.

MOYERS: There's a passage that I'd like for you to read if you don't mind, in the opening...in the early part of the book, and then I'd like to ask you a question about it.

KINGSOLVER: Okay.

MOYERS: But I think my audience would like to hear it in your words, starting at the bottom of page seven.

KINGSOLVER: Now we are faced with something new, an enemy we can't kill because it's a widespread anger so much stronger than physical want, that its foot soldiers gladly surrender their lives in its service.

We who live in this moment are not its cause. Instead, a thousand historic hungers blended to create it. But we are its chosen target.

We threaten this hatred and it grows. We smash the human vessels that contain it and it doubles in volume like a magical liquid poison and pours itself into many more waiting vessels.

We kill its leaders and they swell to the size of martyrs and heroes inspiring more martyrs and heroes. This terror now requires of us something that most of us haven't considered: how to diffuse a lethal enemy through some tactic more effective than simply going at it with the biggest stick at hand.

MOYERS: How do you propose we go after a Bin Laden?

KINGSOLVER: That is the hardest question, isn't it? That's probably what you chose as the darkest paragraph in this book, and sort of all the rest of the book is an attempt to answer that question.

There is not a simple answer, there are many thousands of answers, some simple and some complex. But what I...what I wanted to say there in that paragraph and the rest of the essay is that it's interesting that those of us who have proposed and argued for any solution, some...some solution that expands a little beyond answering violence directly with violence...

We're often called naive. It's the opposite of naivete. It's a matter of looking beyond the end of this week at next week and the week after that. Answering violence with violence doesn't get us anywhere.

MOYERS: As I said in my introduction to you, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is my favorite of your works...

KINGSOLVER: Thank you.

MOYERS: And there's the missionary that goes to Africa, and out of his own conviction because of his own beliefs trying to do good, he brings injury and harm to the people he went there to help.

KINGSOLVER: Um-hmm. And he thinks he's so right, the whole way, while he's even...even while he's trying to speak in the [Kukanga] language of his...of the people he's trying to save. He's making all kinds of mistakes, he's saying.... He thinks he's saying Jesus is beloved, and actually he's saying Jesus is poisonwood. He's going to give you a really bad rash.

The problem with communications, so often when we think we're right and someone else is wrong, it's a failure to express what we really mean.

MOYERS: What's that SMALL WONDER that has been your raft across the sea of the last few months?

KINGSOLVER: Writing this book, of course, and looking more deeply into the sort of investigations that are at the heart of this book.

I think the natural world holds a lot of answers for me. I was trained as a biologist, and so...

MOYERS: You were a science writer for a while....

KINGSOLVER: I was...yes. Before that I was a scientist. I did research in population biology.

And that's what I always go back to, it helps me to remember that people are not the end of the world, although we may be when it comes to it. We're just one species among millions in this world.

And our agendas though they seem terribly important to us, are little scratches on the surface of this planet.

MOYERS: Do you sometimes think when you write these things, you say these things, journalists report these things, we say these things, ...the force seems to be on the other side. I mean, the world doesn't seem to be going in this direction. So do words ultimately just fail to convince and persuade, to educate?

KINGSOLVER: Words are all we have. Words apparently do make a difference. The world is moving in the direction of greater humanity. I can't forget that. I mean...

MOYERS: You think so?

I mean, look at the war in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, the shift in priorities in the budget. Do you really think that we're becoming what you'd like to see us become?

KINGSOLVER: How could I not? I mean, think about it: 200 years ago, what kind of life would I have had? 225 years ago this country guaranteed citizenship only to white men who owned property. Isn't that right? I was nothing under the Constitution. That's why when I look at that flag I say, that's mine.

And it's mine now because over the years slowly a handful of people who were considered lunatics, who were considered way, way out there in the left hand fringe of humanity, were arguing for universal suffrage, were arguing for women to have the vote — first educated women and then all women.

They argued for...abolition of slavery, was the same kind of lunatic fringe at the beginning. And most people probably thought, it will never go anywhere, it's crazy. They should all just shut up.

But because our Constitution guarantees the right to free expression, and because people who believed did not give up even when people threw tomatoes at them and they persisted and sometimes they went to jail and sometimes they had hunger fasts, but they persisted and they changed things...

MOYERS: True, but it took a bloody civil war. And after the Civil War a hundred years before the Civil War was really won.

KINGSOLVER: That's true, but it was won.

MOYERS: Yes, but look at how long and how bloody and how painful and how many people suffered in the process of...

KINGSOLVER: Nobody ever said it would be easy, Bill.

MOYERS: You quote, Emma Goldman I think, something she said in 1903, the radical, she said out of the chaos the future emerges in harmony and beauty.

But she wrote those in 1903 just a few years before the trench warfare of...in France, killed millions of people, not long before World War II and the Holocaust and the atomic bomb and the Viet Nam war. I mean, do you really believe that she was right in the early part of the 20th century that perhaps the bloodiest century in the history of the species, to say that out of the chaos the future emerges in harmony and beauty?

KINGSOLVER: Well, I think that in every year in every century there are people who have had that faith. And it is conventional to measure our history in wars and in bloodshed — that's what our books do.

But an alternative is to measure our history in progress because that has happened to, and generally not as a consequence of the wars but in spite of them.

MOYERS: What does nature do for you personally? It's not just an object of study, I know that from reading SMALL WONDER. What does it do for you?

KINGSOLVER: It reminds me that my own plans are not the end of the world. It reminds me that in the long run I might be small enough not to matter and that human conflict's are only a small part of what's going on on this planet.

MOYERS: There's a very moving passage in SMALL WONDER where you put yourself in the mind of Afghan women during the bombing. You write, my mind's eye ran away to find women on the other side of the world who were looking just then from their children up to the harrowing skies. So what do you imagine was in their minds? What would have been in your mind?

KINGSOLVER: Probably what was in your mind on September 11th if you saw those buildings collapsing, absolute fear and horror, wonder about what's happening next, frustration that anger can be played out on such an enormous and devastating scope, doubts about whether that's the best way to solve any conflict.

MOYERS: Well, I was in this building that day, my wife and my colleagues. And we were in this building. What was going through my mind was, somebody really is out to get us. Somebody really does hate us.

KINGSOLVER: ...to ask why they hate us is not anything like forgiving them or excusing them. It's not.... It's very important to distinguish between innocence and naivete.

The innocent do not deserve to be the victims of violence. But only the naive refuse to think about the origins of violence and to pursue the possibility that the genesis of that hatred could be addressed.

MOYERS: In the book you say, I once hated myself and I don't any longer. What was the salvation for you?

KINGSOLVER: I think that every girl born into this world reaches a day or a week or a year in her life when she looks up from her skinned knees and the tree she's been climbing...

...or whatever she's been after that was pretty much the same as the little boys of her...who were her cohorts and looks to the end of next year and beyond and says, wow, no woman has ever been president of my country. No woman has ever gotten close.

Men fly the planes and women serve the coffee. At least, that's how it was when I was at the age of emerging from skinned knees. You look around and you see who's running the world and it's not people who look like you. And that's devastating for a lot of girls. It was for me.

MOYERS: Was there a moment?

KINGSOLVER: There was a period of time, yes, and it sort of got worse before it got better.

MOYERS: How so?

KINGSOLVER: When I was coming of age, people were just beginning to ask those questions, why does it have to be this way? Why is there such a difference in prospects for girls than for boys?

And for quite a while you sort of weren't allowed to ask that question, you were given sort of dumb answers like, well, those guys will do a good job, don't worry. They'll take care of you. When all evidence appeared to be to the contrary.

That's why it got worse. I didn't think I was allowed to...to address the question. And then I was, then in college I started finding writings of Emma Goldman, for example, who had been asking and addressing that question for close to 100 years, well, 50 years anyway, before I got there.

And more modern writers who were addressing the question. I discovered the novels of Doris Lessing, for example, which did wonders to open my eyes to gender issues, to issues of race. Her novels in the CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE series, which takes place in southern Africa, sort of opened the world to me.

And I guess gave me permission to do more than ask the questions, they gave me permission to write stories and maybe someday whole novels about the shape of the world as it is and as it could be.

MOYERS: And you still prefer to see it as it could be, right?

KINGSOLVER: I think...

MOYERS: Although...

KINGSOLVER: I think I have one foot in both.

MOYERS: Yes. A scientist and a novelist does.

KINGSOLVER: Um-hmm. Um-hmm. Um-hmm. It's the best thing I think about being trained as a scientist and working as a novelist.

MOYERS: So when you look at the cover of SMALL WONDER and you see those Macaws, what do you think? What goes in your mind? What...

KINGSOLVER: I've seen those Macaws. One of the essays in this book is a story of looking for those endangered birds in the jungle in Costa Rica, and almost giving up hope and thinking, if I could just see one, that would be enough.

And by the end of the day we ended up seeing hundreds, maybe 200 of those 1,000 that remain in that particular preserve. And so when I look at that birds I think, wow, there's more out there than you think.

MOYERS: SMALL WONDERs. Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver.

KINGSOLVER: You're welcome. Thank you.


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