When I was 17 or 18, one of my friends in high school, who I've been out of touch with since I was a freshman in college, gave me a book for my birthday and said it was by her favorite author. I remember feeling some pressure when she gave it to me. Like, oh, I'm going to feel really bad if I don't like it.
But, I did. It was the Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. A decade later, tonight, I came face to face with her. She gave a book talk in Cambrdige on her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then did a quick book signing with her daughter.
It was intense for me. Intense because I had a rush of memories and thoughts connected to the stories and ideas she has shared through her writings. After a decade of reading her published works, fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry, and essays tucked into anthologies, as well as hearing her voice while listening to my favorite book of hers, The Prodigal Summer, on CD, you can imagine that her presence looms large in my mind.
She's most famous for writing the Poisonwood Bible, and popular enough that graduate students in literature have written theses on her works of fiction. I love them all, yet it's some of her lesser known books to which I have the strongest connection. Two of my favorites are Holding the Line, her first book written as a journalist about the role of the wives of miners in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, and her most recent book of fiction, Prodigal Summer. I'd really need to write an essay myself to explain why she's my favorite author. But to sum it up, as a biologist and ecologist, she opened my eyes to the beauty of the natural world in a completely new way. Also, her writing reflects the best of feminist contributions, that the personal is political and that conscientious carework for family and community is essential to our survival as a species. She connects everyday life with social justice.
To be standing in front of someone whom I respect so much while she signed my book was humbling. I've never done the book signing thing and to be a first timer with your favorite author is a little overwhelming. My only goal was to soak up the moment and save face. In order to deflect my nervousness, right before my turn in line I thought of something to say other than "thank you, thank you, thank you!". Her daughter was at the event because she contributed some essays to the new book, so I handed over my book to Barbara then told her daughter, Camille, that I enjoyed her essays. I did very much. She's 19 and in college, so after 8 months of talking to college students for a part-time living, addressing her felt like something I knew how to do. Gushing to the famous author is definitely not something I know how to do.
Right as I finished my comment, Barbara interjected that she really liked my necklace. I'm pretty sure I graciously said thank you, but I felt slower than a deer in headlights. She was so genuine that I wanted to say something else back. I tried to think of something meaningful to say, but of course nothing came. Afterward, I envisioned myself flippantly telling her the truth, "Thanks so much! I bought it at Macy's and I wear it from time to time!" I couldn't say, "Oh, I made it myself", or "I bought it from a women's jewelry-making co-op in Peru". So I took my book from her daughter who was done signing it, I said thanks again, and walked away feeling both humbled and glad to have had the experience, however awkward.
I got to say thanks, she spoke to me, and I respectfully addressed her daughter (whom I read about from her mother's perspective when I was probably 19 myself). I went outside, sat on the nearest park bench to calm my nerves and jot some thoughts in a small notebook I keep in my purse. I had just met someone who has inspired me profoundly over the course of a decade, and I needed a few minutes.
After hearing her read from her latest book about their family's year long effort to eat a locally based diet, I felt challenged to consider how far I've come in trying to understand and act on the topic and how incredibly far I have yet to go. And that's why she's my favorite author. Not only for her ability to beautifully play with the English language and tell a compelling story, but to teach and inspire people to action by providing accounts, both fiction and nonfiction, of how social justice "causes" are so very personal. She has a soft-spoken tenacity that inspires me to dig deeper. Activism comes in many forms. Here are some of the issues and movements she's taught me about over the years:
After I got up from the bench, I decided to walk around Cambridge a bit since it was so beautiful outside. Within a minute I looked up to see this mural around the corner on Church St.
A "call to action" - what I had just been thinking about.
Her talk was very funny too. There was video of turkey sex. She said we had to read the book to find out if Tom and Lolita made any baby turkeys.
Hopefully I'll find finish reading the book this weekend. I've been reading it before bed for the last week, and my organizationally inclined husband who forbids eating in bed (minus the occasional breakfast-in-bed served with the covers pulled back) has been joking that it's a little strange and "untidy" to read about food in bed. But untidiness doesn't bother me as much as it bothers him.
Either way, how can you resist a whole book about eating fresh, delicious food? I ate enough raspberries right off the bushes in our backyard garden as a kid, when I was supposed to be picking them to bring inside, to understand the rewards of eating locally and seasonally. One of the mantras I left this past semester with was "do what you can and then try to do a little more". So this summer I'll see if I can do a little bit more, to learn more about the food I eat and to make wiser choices. I still drink a Coke or a Mountain Dew every day, so I've got quite a ways to go. And I don't think I can raise turkeys in our apartment. But I'll do what I can.