A rural conversation between Barbara Kingsolver and Silas House

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver

As a high schooler in Nicholas County, Barbara Kingsolver spent two weeks in Berea studying Appalachian art with fellow Girl Scouts.

On Thursday, Kingsolver will return to Berea for a convocation titled Writing and Roots: Barbara Kingsolver's Novel Perspective, a Public Conversation with Silas House.

A Kentucky native with deep roots in the Appalachian region, Kingsolver has published more than a dozen books that have been translated into more than two dozen languages. Kingsolver, whose novels include The Bean Trees and The Poisonwood Bible, was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000, and Writer's Digest named her one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

Kingsolver met Silas House at a public reading of his work, and soon a friendship blossomed between the two.

"She's been incredibly generous and encouraging to me," House says. "I love that we can talk about canning and gardening as easily as we can talk about books and writing."

"Silas House is one of my favorite writers and favorite human beings," says Kingsolver, who says their public talk is likely to touch on the experience of being an Appalachian writer, what they cherish and what they find difficult.

One defining conflict within the Appalachian experience is the quandary of whether to stay in a rural area or leave Appalachia to experience the wider world and pursue opportunities that might be scarce in the region, such as higher education and good jobs.

Kingsolver left Nicholas County after high school to attend college in Indiana, then she spent several decades living and traveling around the world before permanently resettling in the Virginia hills of Appalachia.

"So many of us who grow up in rural places, we do feel a tension between our loyalty and our devotion to the people and the places that are making us as young people and the world out there that we feel we might be missing," Kingsolver says. "It's a story as old as the industrial revolution, that people leave the country and go to the city. It's a narrative that everyone knows.

"The question is, what will you do with that? For me it was a process of learning more about the world and learning how I can belong to the world and still remain the person I am, which is, at heart, a rural person. I have never stopped being a rural person and now, after my walkabout, which was very large — I walked about 5 continents — I ultimately knew that I was still a rural person, and I feel most at home in the country among country people."

Kingsolver lived and worked around the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America, and she spent two decades in the American Southwest. But when she moved to the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia to live on a farm in a rural county, she knew she was home.

"When we moved into this house, I said, 'You'll move me out of here in a box,'" says Kingsolver, who enjoys the neighborliness of rural life.

House says he and Kingsolver have had different life experiences but that they share a kinship rooted in their appreciation of and connection to rural places and people.

"Unlike Barbara, I never really left here," House says. "I've lived within sight of the Appalachian mountains my entire life, whereas Barbara has lived all over."

"But even though I've stayed here, I've always been an outsider to some degree. A writer must be an outsider to observe properly. But when Barbara and I are talking together, no matter where we are, we're right back in the hills of Kentucky. Because when two people are from here, and observe it as closely as we both have our whole lives, it lives within us all the time, no matter where we are.

"And when two rural Kentuckians are together, that blooms up as an undeniable, bonding thing. I believe that's what people will see when they come to hear us talk together at Berea College."

While the talk is unscripted, House has a few ideas about what topics they are likely to touch on.

"I'm most anxious to talk to her about definitions of home, particularly how complex that can sometimes be," House says. "We will be talking about being of service to others, standing up for what one believes in, community — all the things that make Barbara's writing so resonant and meaningful to so many people around the world."

One thing Kingsolver believes in is the resilience of the Appalachian region and people and the imperative to find new sources of energy and jobs.

"I believe in this community," Kingsolver says. "I believe in the resilience, both economic resilience and personal resilience, of Appalachian people.

"We are a place that has been robbed by outsiders from the beginning.

"First the big companies came in and took our timber and left these mountains for dead, but the trees grew back. Then they came in and took our coal and again, leaving our mountains for dead.

"The world has to move forward into more sustainable more renewable forms of energy and there are many people in my community who know this and are excited to work on solutions on alternative sources of revenue for our people and I support that movement."

Thursday's convocation is a rarity since Kingsolver is very selective about making public appearances. In the past, that was due to having two daughters at home. Now that her youngest is in college, she has more time and freedom to travel but remains selective in her public engagements.

Kingsolver says, "I still think my limited time on earth is put to better use writing books than standing on a stage."