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From Kingsolver, The Fiction Of A Split Psyche

Nov 8, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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Writer Barbara Kingsolver is fascinated by the tension inherent in living on the border between two cultures. It's a theme she likes to explore in fiction, but it's also something that crops up in real life; recently, the author returned to her roots in Appalachia after more than 20 years in the Arizona desert.

"I think the most interesting parts of human experience might be the sparks that come from that sort of chipping flint of cultures rubbing against each other," she says of Arizona. "And living on the border between Mexico and the U.S. for so many years gave me a lot of insight into that."

Though Kingsolver spent half her life living near the arid desert, she says it's the dense, green woods of the Appalachians where she feels most at home.

She and her husband, Steven Hopp, live in a renovated farm house in southern Virginia, not too far from the Appalachian trail. For many years, they spent most of the year in Tucson and summers on the farm. Finally, they decided that this is where they belong and so moved back to Virginia for good.

"I had a very split psyche when I lived between the two places," says Kingsolver. "When we came back here in the summer I kind of let my breath out. It seems very safe to me to be surrounded by green growing things and water."

Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna, also concerns itself with a "split psyche" of sorts. The title of the book has several layers of meaning. It refers to a tunnel that leads from one place to another, as well as to the missing part of a story.

"There's always a part of the story you haven't heard that would influence your judgment if you knew it all," Kingsolver explains. "There's always a part of your nation's history that you haven't been told that ... has a powerful impact on how you yourself may behave and may believe."

The book spans a period from the 1930s to the McCarthy era, mixing fiction and history to tell the story of Harrison Shepherd, a young man born of a Mexican mother and an American father. Shepherd gets a job working for the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and winds up living in their colorful household during the time they are providing shelter for the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Kingsolver says she wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics in two different cultures. And Shepherd, caught between two worlds and searching for his own identity, became the perfect vehicle for that exploration.

"He has a clear understanding that life would be much better for him if he were invisible. ... He gets to go a lot of places because he has cultivated this capacity to be unnoticed in the world, and therefore he gets to sit in on a lot of important conversations," she explains.

The intersection of art and politics; the flinty nature of disparate cultures rubbing against each other; the desire for privacy and simplicity versus the fame that comes with writing bestsellers — these are the kinds of borders Kingsolver constantly criss-crosses in her life and tries to make sense of in her novels.

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