Recently, Berea College was proud to host a convocation titled “Writing and Roots” featuring critically acclaimed author Barbara Kingsolver and Berea’s own best-selling author Silas House.
Kingsolver, acclaimed by many as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, hails from Carlisle, KY and currently resides in southwestern Virginia with her husband and two daughters. Author of The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. In 2000, Kingsolver was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor for service through the arts offered within the United States.
Kingsolver spent part of her childhood in the Republic of Congo and has lived in England, France, and the Canary Islands, and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America. Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life documents a year in which the author and her family learned to grow, harvest, and preserve food on their farm in Virginia. Kingsolver endeavored to eat whole, homegrown or locally grown food and wrote about this experience in order to present an alternative to the modern industry of imported, chemically laden, factory produced sustenance. Kingsolver also established the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction that awards previously unpublished authors a publishing contract with Algonquin Books and a cash prize of $25,000 for socially engaged fiction that address issues of social justice and human relationships within a cultural or political realm. Prior to her convocation speech at Berea College, Kingsolver joined hundreds of protestors in September for a candlelight vigil and presented a speech for Ilham Tohti, a fellow writer, scholar and teacher who was imprisoned by the Chinese government on charges of “separatism.” Through a haunting reading of Tohti’s own words, Kingsolver emphasized Tohti’s commitment to defend and uphold human rights despite persecution, as well as his commitment to free expression.
Kingsolver expressed her excitement to be a part of the Berea College experience and both authors discussed at length the value of coming from a rural environment, having a deep connection to community, and how being an introvert has helped both reflect on the world. “We live in a culture where to be by yourself is not respected,” said Kingsolver. House agreed that “writers are observers” and observation is the first step towards empathy. Kingsolver told of how having her roots in the heart of Kentucky created in her a strong sense of the value of all labor and a particular affinity for those who work the land, much like the young character “Turtle” in Kingsolver’s first novel, “The Bean Trees.”
Kingsolver also spoke at length about the struggle for social justice and argued, “Artists are the guardians of social justice” because art provides a lens that allows viewers to see a new side of life. Kingsolver urged aspiring artists to, “learn all you can about anything besides your art” because having a wide range of experiences and knowledge helps inestimably during the process of creation. She also urged the audience to remember to “practice your muscles of empathy” and learn to understand the value of all perspectives and the beauty of all of people. This is why novels exist, she argued, so that you can immerse yourself in someone else’s life and understand the world through their eyes. Kingsolver urged her audience to not give up on the struggle for social justice and to continue creating art. Don’t give up, because “the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice.”