Barbara Kingsolver

National Humanities Medal


From the fields of Kentucky to the jungles of the Congo, the novels of Barbara Kingsolver's novels take her readers to new geographic and psychological terrains. The critically acclaimed author of The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, and The Poisonwood Bible sees literature as a way of spreading awareness about the injustices and inequalities of the world--but always within the context of a good story, and always expressed with Kingsolver's characteristically rich, image-filled language, poignancy, and humor.

"Literature is a wonderful tool for social change and to wake people up to their responsibility," she says. "The most important thing to me is to integrate what I believe in most passionately with what I do for a living--in my novels, essays, the Bellwether Prize--all are ways I can use my work to make the world a better place."

The 1998 Poisonwood Bible, for example, is the story of a missionary, his wife, and four daughters caught in the turmoil of the Belgian Congo in 1959. On one level it is the story of the dissolution of a family, while on another it deals head-on with themes of colonialism, religion, and racism.

Kingsolver's belief in the power of literature to bring about change led her to establish the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biannually for a first novel that represents outstanding literary quality and a commitment to serious fiction as a tool for social change. "It's always frustrating that the literary criticism industry in this country does not value literature for social change as it does in other countries," says Kingsolver. "Literary critics are suspicious of politics. When I started earning more than I needed for my family I wanted to establish an award to fly in the face of this snobbery."

With the prize comes a guarantee of publication. The first Bellwether Prize was awarded to Donna M. Gershten of Denver, Colorado, for her novel Kissing the Virgin's Mouth.

Kingsolver has always been a storyteller. As a child growing up in eastern Kentucky, she would beg her mother to let her tell the bedtime stories. She graduated with a degree in biology from DePauw University in Indiana and went on to graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While in Tucson, she took creative writing courses, which eventually led to a career in journalism and then to fiction writing. Her nonfiction work is collected in High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never. Kingsolver's newest novel is Prodigal Summer.


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.