Books

Barbara Kingsolver Was Writing Social Justice Novels Before They Were Cool

An interview about politics, appropriation, and Demon Copperhead, a new novel set in her native Appalachia.

A headshot of Barbara Kingsolver overlayed on a frame of a miscellaneous items.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Evan Kafka.

Barbara Kingsolver has been writing about issues of social justice for decades, starting with her first novel, 1988’s The Bean Trees, set against the backdrop of immigrant life in Arizona. It’s easy to dismiss her novels as middlebrow, but I’ve found the best of her work angry, engaged with politics, and alive to the natural world in ways that have only felt more relevant as tastes in fiction have evolved.

Kingsolver’s new novel, Demon Copperhead, takes her back to Appalachia, where the author was raised and where, after decades away, she once again lives, on a farm in southwestern Virginia. As the title suggests, it’s a backwoods twist on Dickens’ David Copperfield, starting from the opening sentence, “First, I got myself born.” Demon, né Damon, is a chatty, likeable orphan whose life gets caught up in the structural poverty and opioid epidemic that plagues rural America. It’s a propulsive reading experience, energetic and funny while still conveying Kingsolver’s fury at the institutions that have let her community down. I talked to Kingsolver about how J.D. Vance portrays Appalachia, about leaving home and coming back, and about the forgotten history of Appalachian progressivism. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Dan Kois: It seems difficult to write fiction about structural poverty because the forces seem so insurmountable. How do you make a book that does not feel hopeless, even though it’s about characters who have every reason to lose hope?

Barbara Kingsolver: How do you keep it from feeling hopeless? Well, in the same way that I live my life with hope. It’s something that I derive from the whole ecosystem of people that we have here in this place who are survivors, who are caretakers. If I had to choose one cultural characteristic of this region, it is a resilience embedded in community. The way we rely on and belong to our communities. We’ve survived a lot of shit. Can I say that?

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We’re a website, it’s OK.

I won’t cuss as much as Demon, I promise. Looking at Appalachia from the outside, all people know about us or think about us, is that we are, I don’t know, backwards, ignorant degenerates, if you believe Deliverance, or people with such limited worldview that we can’t even imagine bettering our circumstances, if you believe J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. The portrait that is consistently painted of us is toothless, hopeless, the butt of every joke. I live here, that’s not who we are. And part of why I write about this place is to counter those stereotypes and show the world a portrait of us with some subtlety.

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Why did you leave Appalachia for so long, and what drew you back?

Well, I left because that’s what kids from little towns do. You want to kick the little-town dust off your shoes. I wanted to go away to college, and then after that I wanted to go out in the world and seek my fortunes. So I backpacked around Europe and I ended up living here and there working at low-paying jobs. When I got to Tucson, Arizona, I just got stuck. I went there expecting to stay a month, and I stayed 20 years, because life happens. Every single day that I lived in Tucson, I missed the trees, I missed the mossy creeks and the ferny glens and the hollows. I missed water and green, and I just longed for home.

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It’s true that you couldn’t have chosen a place less like the Appalachians on an ecosystem level.

Also at a cultural level. It’s just a place where few people had roots. And it felt that way to me. So it was hard to pass any budgetary assistance for the schools because so many of the people there had already raised their kids and didn’t have investment in the future of the place.

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Tucson was where you wrote a book for the first time, nonfiction about a mine strike.

Yes, not the first book I had published, but the first book I wrote. When I was covering that strike, I was a stringer for a number of national publications, and I started really looking at and analyzing what happens when big power comes up against the working class. And what I saw was: I know this. This is why the Eastern Kentucky of my childhood was deeply politicized and really pretty radical. You wouldn’t guess it now, necessarily, because labor unions and everything that they did for people have been deconstructed.

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Disassembled, basically.

Yeah, disassembled, exactly. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, everybody understood the difference between labor and capital. And so there was something about that mine strike and the people’s stories and the fierce determination to represent their communities that really resonated with me. I think that’s why I stuck with that assignment through many months, even though it was hard. I got tear-gassed, a lot of close shaves. I didn’t intend to write a book about it, but I just kept showing up weekend after weekend for these big picket lines. And the women that I was interviewing started referring to me as “that girl that’s writing a book about us.” So I thought, “Oh man.”

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“I guess I better.”

“Now I got to do that.” I’m not one to disappoint people. That’s when I first thought, maybe I could write a whole book, and I did.

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Another thing that came out of that time was a short story of yours I love, “Why I Am a Danger to the Public.”

Exactly.

It’s written in the voice of a Latina mineworker. I taught that story recently to a group of college students who really enjoyed it and who also got into a big debate about whether a white writer should even have written that story.

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Of course.

I’m curious how you feel about that story now, and more broadly, how you imagine your way into other people’s lives, whether they’re Latina crane operator or a young man from a “trailer park universe.”

Well, that story is an outlier for exactly that reason. At the time I wrote it, the whole issue of authenticity and the writer’s ethical domain, nobody was really talking about that. It was a pretty primitive argument at that time: A lot of us were saying, “We’ve only read about women’s experience from male writers. Maybe women writers ought to be writing about female experience too.” We were just trying to carve out some basics of the territory.

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But pretty quickly, by the time I wrote The Poisonwood Bible in the ‘90s, I was well aware that I was not going to represent Congolese characters from the inside. And that has generally been my rule. If you think about Of Mice and Men, you only ever see Lenny from the outside, you never go inside. Steinbeck couldn’t know what it’s like to be a person with that brain damage. But he’s beautifully represented from the outside. So keeping that inside-outside rule is the way I navigate that pretty comfortably.

And so that’s why I say “Danger to the Public” is an outlier. And that happened because I had more than 100 hours of taped conversations with these women who sounded just like her. And that’s just the ones I had on tape, not counting the hundreds of hours we just bullshitted on the front porch or on the picket line or running for cover or whatever. So I channeled that story. It was the rare story that just felt like it came through me. I felt like these women that I had come to love had given me this story and I gratefully accepted it. At the time, it felt OK to do. And now, I have no argument with your students who said I probably shouldn’t have.

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Demon’s from Appalachia, but his life is still very different from the life you live in Appalachia now.

Not as different as you might think. I know Demon. He is not very different from me. I was very bullied as a kid for not wearing the right clothes, for being nonconforming in various ways, and being perceived as less wealthy. I’ve lived with imposter syndrome my entire life since I left Kentucky. I’ve almost never walked into a room without feeling like, “They’re going to figure out, I don’t belong here. They’re going to kick me out.” And the higher I might fly, the worse that feeling becomes.

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I know this character. I own the right to represent Appalachia, even from the inside of a kid like Demon. Plenty of people have usurped the Appalachian experience, but I’m not.

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The book isn’t overtly political, but every now and then Demon reveals he’s paying attention. I’m thinking of that bit when he’s talking about the word hillbilly, how it’s been reclaimed by some people as a mark of defiance. And he mentions other words like that: redneck, moonshinersdeplorables. How did you think about how much this book ought to intersect with the real-world politics of its time?

Well, that awareness is always there. Like many writers, I’m wearing this mantle, I have to represent my people. When Colson Whitehead or Jesmyn Ward write about Black experience, it’s what they’re bringing to the table. I bring to the table a level of outrage. And I’ve come to see, over the course of my career, a greater acceptance … or I’d put it another way, less wariness, less suspicion of the possibility that a novel can engage with the issues of the world. Identity politics have become quite acceptable as a component of fiction. I guess I’ve always done that, and I’m happy that it seems like people have lightened up about that.

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I also live in Virginia, but in Northern Virginia.

[Mountain twang] Where they have those AP classes and all.

That’s correct.

[Even twangier] We could kick yer butts.

My kids wouldn’t last 10 minutes in Demon’s school. When I drive through the western and southern parts of the state, I see a lot of Trump signs everywhere. I also meet a lot of people who remain really devoted to progressivism and social justice. As you said, Appalachia has always had a history of fighting for change. I think a lot of people don’t understand that. So here’s a reductive question: Who do you think Demon would’ve voted for in the last election?

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This is probably cop-out, but I honestly think he would not have voted. He has so little faith in adults, first of all, who have never, ever come through for him. He has no faith in institutions, who have never come through for him. I know a lot of people who don’t vote because they’re so completely dispirited. Their only contact with institutions tends to be negative.

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In part, that’s what the book is about, about the way that whatever hope Demon feels does not come from institutions, it comes from the people around him.

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Exactly. For him, it’s his community of boy friends. When his caseworker says, “Oh, I meant to get your clothing and books from your home and I forgot to do that.” After he’s been in a foster home for week. And he says to himself, or he says to you, the reader, “If I didn’t have my guys looking out for me, I’d be nowhere.” And a lot of those Trump signs are really saying, “I’ve given up on government as we know it. I’m voting for the guy who just says he’s not government. He’s going to blow it all up and somehow, magically, make things work for us.”

That word you mentioned, deplorables, we went back and forth. It came out, it went in, it came out, discussions with my editor and my agent and other people. People asked, “You really sure you want to do that?” I decided, yes, if there’s this little frisson of discomfort when people read that … I meant for that to be an uncomfortable moment. I meant for plenty of readers to say, “Ouch. We’re doing some name-calling here.”