Arguably one of only a handful of household names in American literary fiction, Barbara Kingsolver has long been beloved for her many bestselling books, including The Poisonwood Bible. In the past decade, she’s grown equally prominent as an environmentalist: she’s a passionate advocate for ending mountaintop-removal mining; her memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, became a galvanizing text for the local-food movement; and her new novel, Flight Behavior, considers the imminent danger of climate change. But Kingsolver has made another contribution that’s equally influential, if less celebrated or trendsetting, to American culture: in 1999, she founded the Bellwether Prize, an award to be given biennially to an unpublished debut novel that addresses matters of social justice and responsibility.
Carrying a $25,000 prize — funded entirely by Kingsolver herself — and a publishing contract, the Bellwether is distinguished as the largest monetary prize for a single fiction manuscript in North America. Manuscript entries, judged blind, are read by a rotating panel of luminaries in American letters whose work tacklessocial change in ways similar to that of the Bellwether winners: Toni Morrison, Ursula K. LeGuin and Barry Lopez, among others.
On Nov. 29, Parnassus Books will welcome Hillary Jordan and Naomi Benaron, two Bellwether winners. Benaron’s Running the Rift, which took the prize in 2010, tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a young Rwandan Tutsi sprinter who pursues his dream of representing Rwanda in the Olympics just as ethnic tension in his homeland escalates with horrifying consequences. Jordan’s debut novel, Mudbound, received the Bellwether in 2006. Set on a hardscrabble farm in the Mississippi Delta at the end of World War II, the story concerns two veterans — one the son of the white farm owner, the other the son of black sharecroppers who live on the land. Set in the near future, Jordan’s second novel, When She Woke, offers a modern spin on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: For having an abortion, its protagonist, Hannah Payne, has been found guilty of murder.
Prior to their appearance at Parnassus, Benaron and Jordan answered questions via email.
In what ways has winning the Bellwether Prize affected your book’s reach, from the nature of its audience to the impact of its message?
Jordan: Barbara Kingsolver has legions of avid fans, and many of them no doubt read Mudbound because of her imprimatur and her wonderful blurb. I also think the prize made educators and librarians take notice, with the result that the book has been taught in a number of high schools and colleges. This, for me, is the highest honor my work can receive. The first time a teacher wrote to tell me she was teaching Mudbound to her 11th grade English class, I burst into tears.
Benaron: The Bellwether Prize is, I think, a stamp of approval. Especially as this stamp comes from Barbara Kingsolver, I think that readers who may not otherwise pick up a book about a subject as difficult as genocide in a place such as Rwanda, which has been and continues to be overlooked, will give the work a chance. Once readers approach our books with an open mind, the stories, I think, will speak for themselves.
Has winning the Bellwether Prize affected your subsequent writing in any identifiable way?
Jordan: Definitely. I didn’t start out thinking of myself as a political writer, but after winning the prize, I embraced that aspect of my work.
Benaron: In terms of subject matter, no, but it has given me a sense of validation for those subjects. Consequently, I approach my writing with more confidence that my work will reach a large audience.
Can you tell us a little bit about your research process in writing these books? What did you uncover or experience that most deeply affected you or surprised you?
Jordan: I was about 200 pages into the book — which at that point was more of a domestic drama about the love triangle between Laura, Jamie, and Henry — when I saw a PBS documentary called The African-American Experience. One of the segments was on the Negro Army in WWII, and in particular a tanker unit called the Black Panthers. I had no idea of the horrific treatment black soldiers were subjected to by their white superiors and brothers-in-arms. I was galvanized by what I learned (for example, that white and black troops had different blood supplies). And I decided right then that Hap and Florence had a son who was a Black Panther. And so the character of Ronsel was born, and once he started speaking, he changed the book profoundly. That’s really when Mudbound became a novel of social justice.
Benaron: My research process took me on four extended trips to Rwanda. I met many people who became close friends and who shared with me their stories, their knowledge and their homes. For this, I am very grateful. When I started this project, I knew nothing about Rwandan culture, about its language and mythology. My life is so much richer for having the doors and windows to this rich place thrown wide open.
Did you have the Bellwether Prize in mind when you began writing the work that ultimately received it? What circumstances prompted you to toss your hat into the ring?
Jordan: Certainly not! I’d just finished the second draft when I stumbled across the Bellwether in an online listing of prizes for fiction writers — I was searching high and low at that point for money to keep writing. I read the description and thought, Yeah, I guess Mudbound kind of fits the bill; it’s about racism. I sent in the manuscript with a check for $30, thinking, There goes 30 bucks.
Benaron: I definitely did. My fiction teacher at the community college where I took courses after jumping of the writing cliff told me about the Bellwether. She said she thought my writing was particularly suited to submit. When I heard about it, I knew I wanted to win really, really badly. It took me two tries (I was a finalist in 2008), but I did it.
Fiction writers are often cautioned against didacticism, which can make it tricky to write a book that deals with matters of social injustice. How did you overcome this problem?
Jordan: By taking myself out of it — meaning my views on race and feminism and war. Which took me many, many drafts to achieve! But I hate being preached to, and I figured my readers would too. I tried very hard to portray things as they were then, without letting judgment creep in or imposing my modern sensibilities on my characters, and to let the issues come out organically through their thoughts and actions.
Benaron: It’s all about the story. I never said, “I want to write a story that teaches about social injustice, about the consequences of “othering.” I set out to tell a story about real people, to build a world in which that process of othering has unspeakable consequences for those characters. By living inside the fictive dream, the reader will experience the “message” through the characters’ eyes rather than be hit over the head with it.
There are more avenues than ever for making a compelling case for a cause. How does contemporary fiction ultimately function in that process?
Jordan: As Barbara has pointed out, fiction is the only art form that puts you into the mind of another human being. Film, dance, visual art — none of them can do that, nor can journalism. But with fiction, you are literally inside someone else’s head, their experience, their thoughts. And I think that’s why it’s so effective in promoting change — because that sort of intimate knowledge of another person is the enemy of suspicion and hatred, of thinking them as “the other.” I think the socially engaged novel is alive and well, despite the resistance some people have to the idea of it. After all, it’s the job of literature to tackle the really big, thorny issues of our time. I can’t think of a single book I’d call great that doesn’t do that.
Benaron: When I look at The New York Times bestseller list and see at the top certain vapid, poorly written books, I get discouraged. But then I see that important works are also on that list, and this gives me hope. I believe that the role of fiction in increasing the American people’s awareness is essential. When She Woke is a prime example. Even if readers disagree, at least they are discussing the issues in book clubs, in high school and university classes, in panel sessions at book fairs. The discussion is what is important, and there’s nothing like a good book — an important book — to open eyes and get discussion going.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
On Tuesday, Nov. 27, Barbara Kingsolver will discuss Flight Behavior at the Nashville Public Library as part of the Salon@615 series. The event begins at 6:15 p.m.; doors open at 5:45. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Chapter 16’s Susannah Felts will interview Naomi Benaron and Hillary Jordan, two Bellwether Prize-winners, at Parnassus Books at 6:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.