Best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver urged fellow writers and readers to “keep the faith” during Donald Trump’s presidency as she and four others were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
“When the loudest, rudest tweet carries the day, where does that leave us who believe in literature?” Kingsolver asked a standing-room-only crowd at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning on Thursday night that included many of Kentucky’s best-known writers.
“Where does that leave those of us who believe in conversation?” she asked. “Conversation means listening. That means a room full of different kinds of people, every one of whom has something important to add.”
Kingsolver, who holds degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology and whose novels, essays and poetry reflect themes of environmentalism and social justice, also noted: “The climate won’t stop getting warmer if we make it illegal to talk about it.”
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During her remarks, Kingsolver read three of her poems, including one about a governor when she lived in Arizona who tried to take the teaching of poetry out of public schools. The other two poems were titled: “How to Love Your Neighbor” and “How to be Hopeful.”
Seven days before leaving office, former President Obama invited Kingsolver and four of his other favorite authors — Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz — to lunch at the White House to discuss literature. Despite having “the hardest job in the world,” Kingsolver said Obama told them that he found a little time each day to read literature.
“He said he went to fiction for guidance, for comfort, for wisdom, for the touchstone that brought him back to the moral center of humanity,” she said. “There are so many people … who depend more than ever on reading and writing. So please keep this in your heart as you read and write. This is where we find our moral center as we do the hardest job in the world, which is keeping the faith.”
Kingsolver was one of two living writers inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. The other was the reclusive Lexington author Gayl Jones, 67. Excerpts from her work were read by Nikki Finney, a South Carolina poet formerly of Lexington whose 2011 book “Head Off & Split” won the National Book Award.
As Finney began, she said she has had a recurring dream that, at that moment, Jones would walk into the room and take her place at the lectern. But she did not.
Jones, 67, grew up in Lexington, earned master’s and doctorate degrees from Brown University and taught at Wellesley College and the University of Michigan. Her prolific output of novels and poems between 1975 and 1999, which focus on the African-American experience, have been described as “stylistically breathtaking.”
Jones lives in Lexington but has not appeared in public since her mentally ill husband, Bob Higgins, committed suicide during a standoff with police at their home in February 1998. But when approached at her home by Carnegie Center Director Neil Chethik last year, Jones gave him permission to honor her.
Three deceased writers also were inducted into the Hall of Fame: journalist and essayist Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944); novelist and journalist Alfred Bertram Guthrie Jr. (1901-1991); and poet and playwright Joseph Seamon Cotter (1861-1949).
Kingsolver, 61, was born in Maryland and spent part of her childhood in Nicholas County, where her family has deep roots. She also grew up in Africa, where her father was a missionary doctor. That experience inspired perhaps her best-known novel, “The Poisonwood Bible,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998. She now lives in Virginia.
The Carnegie Center created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2013 to draw attention to the state’s rich literary heritage. It now has 29 members.
“That is a job to live up to the name Kentucky writer,” Kingsolver said. “I think about it all the time. I don’t take it for granted.”
Mayor Jim Gray, who attended the ceremony as did Vice Mayor Steve Kay, honored the Carnegie Center on its 25th anniversary. The city plans to create banners from Hall of Fame members’ portraits to join the rotation of banners on lamp posts along Main Street.