Kim Barnes on the Human Themes of her Latest Novel, In the Kingdom of Men
In advance of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories Spokane (Sept. 28) and Bedtime Stories Seattle (Oct. 12) galas, Spark magazine is conducting 5 Questions interviews with each of the talented Northwest authors featured at this year’s events. Today: Kim Barnes Previously: Kathleen Flenniken, Jim Lynch, Shann Ray, Nance Van Winckel and Jess Walter.
Check back during the couple weeks for interviews with Charles Johnson, Kevin O’Brien, Nancy Pearl and Amy Wheeler.
Gin Mitchell, viewpoint heroine of Kim Barnes’ novel In the Kingdom of Men, is a woman alienated from her own family twice over – once in the strict Oklahoma Methodist home where she was raised, a second time in the Saudi Arabian oil compound where her new husband Mason takes up work in the early 1960s.
In this way, Gin is a magnification of her creator, who likewise endured a strict fundamentalist upbringing while exercising a repressed creative spirit. This latest novel continues and builds on themes Barnes has explored in two prior novels, including 2008’s A Country Called Home and two memoirs, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (1996) and Hungry For the World (2000), which explored her youth in a migrant logging family that consecrated itself to the Pilgrim Holiness Pentecostal church – and her eventual estrangement from her stern father and his faith. “That I survived is actually a miracle, truly,” she says today.
The dual layers and exotic locales of In the Kingdom of Men are nonetheless familiar to Barnes, who felt echoes of her own experience.
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“I had more connection to that place than I had ever dreamed that I would,” she says. “… The elements that really fascinated me had to do with the nomadic lifestyle dependent upon place, the isolation in every way – physical, social, cultural, social isolation – and also the dependency on the land, what the land provides.”
Barnes now teaches at the University of Idaho. She appears Sept. 28 at Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories gala in Spokane, alongside fellow Northwest writers including Jess Walter, Nance Van Winckel, Jim Lynch and Shann Ray.
Humanities Washington: This story of In the Kingdom of Men hinges on what happens to Gin and her husband in Saudi Arabia. What was it that interested you about that particular setting?
Kim Barnes: My uncle was a roughneck for Halliburton, and had gone to Saudi Arabia in the early ’60s to live in the compound and job out to ARAMCO, the Arabian American Oil Company. So that had been part of my awareness as I was growing up, as I did, in the very isolated logging camps of the Clearwater National Forest in north central Idaho. So my aunt and uncle retired and came to Clarkston, Washington, and my mother and father were still living in Lewiston, Idaho, and I was able to talk with them about their experiences there, and the story started shaping in my head. So it came to me at first as dramatic story, and the fascination with the lives of these expatriates living this strange, Walt Disney postcard life inside these compounds surrounded by nothing but desert – the true wilderness, as defined by, say, the King James Bible that I grew up with.HW: I started thinking about In the Kingdom of Men in a different light recently because of some election news. The respect in which a society holds its women is very much in the news right now, and there’s this sort of argument about the definition of a woman and a woman’s status. I think this is the sort of thing that Gin bumps up against in the novel. Did you find it easier to tell that kind of story by setting it in an environment that’s distant from America?
Barnes: I think you’re right, in a way. As a first-world country, we see ourselves as very progressive. Many people look down upon cultures such as the Saudi culture – “Oh, look how they treat the women.” I think it’s easy for us to forget how close we still are to that. I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about what Mad Men means to me, and I pointed out that even women my age – our husbands had to sign for us to open a bank account. So one thing it did for me is it allowed me to look at a time that seems so long ago in how women were treated and what they were allowed to do. I looked at all these journals from ARAMCO wives, as they’re called, and they were like the diaries of pioneer women. “Today my husband came home after two weeks and I made a nice steak dinner, and we had so and so over for drinks, and then we went to bed.” Of course, I grew up also in a fundamentalist religion, so Gin’s young life, being raised by this grandfather who’s old school Methodist, was very similar to my being raised in Pilgrim Holiness. We had to wear dresses with long sleeves and high collars. We were covered. Our hair was our “veil of modesty.” You’re so inside a certain thing, whether it’s female oppression, no matter the country or culture, or fundamentalist religion, or even being raised in an isolated environment like I was, it’s hard to see outside of it. I’ve written about my own life growing up in a fundamentalist religion, and certain brutalities and injustices that I have suffered personally at the hands of certain members of the patriarchy, if you will. It was interesting to put Gin in this place where she was both inside her own culture that is patriarchal and oppressive, inside another country that is patriarchal and oppressive.
HW: I was also thinking about your book in the context of the Iraq War. Occasionally there were stories of American contractors getting away with things – being accused of wrongdoing, but then being spirited out of the country really fast. I didn’t know if this was in your mind when you were thinking about the kind of quandary Mason comes up against.
Barnes:: Sure, I was aware of it, and aware that very little has changed as far as how the big companies, the international companies that are kind of American-based, can go over to these other countries, developing countries, and basically be rogue. It’s amazing. They make their own laws, just like ARAMCO. I was aware of that, but more focused on the stories that came out of the time of development in the ’50s and ’60s, where basically ARAMCO was making up its own laws with the House of Saud. And Congress was just going along with everything. “You need a 50 percent tax break? We’re going to give it to you.” But it was all under the table — they didn’t even want Israel to know. So that triangle between Israel and Arabia and the United States is one that is ongoing and informing our lives way beyond our imagination. Imperialism, of course, has everything to do with it, and the doctrine of exceptionalism which has in fact become a part of the current political scene. So definitely I think some of those companies carry that. It’s not just that they have money and power — it’s that they are bearing the banner of exceptionalism, that they have a right to do whatever they think needs to be done. That’s interested me form the beginning to the end, but those men — because they’re always men — who do get into “trouble,” as my aunt and uncle called it, and had to be secreted out — the fact is that could not happen without the kind of strange undercover complicity of the Saudis. It’s very complex and very fascinating.
HW: As a memoirist, you’re asked to investigate your own origins. How hard was it to write about your own family history, given how much conflict and alienation you experienced?
Barnes: Hard in a number of different ways. I am inherently curious about personal narrative: Who am I and why? What are your stories made of? Personal stories, stories of experience, I can’t get enough of. I’m fascinated. Memory is a narrative that we tell ourselves, and it can be completely false. I abide by the kind of old-school definition of memoir, which is actually a struggle with memory. In that regard, it’s a thing I love to write the most. The story is not in what happened, but why. I’m really drawn to that element, how the story of my own family fit into larger archetypal stories. I see my father as basically a tragic figure in the Aristotelian sense, a noble man with enormous flaws. I don’t fear or worry too much about the judgment of other people, and that’s kind of being glib. People say you’re so brave to write this, and in my mind, I never see it that way. I’m just looking for meaning and honesty and truth. I’m a big truth teller, which is really threatening in some ways. But I also really believe and trust in my readers. Story is a community endeavor. I write nonfiction, and fiction for that matter, foremost to serve the art.
HW: If your service is more to the reader and story than it is to yourself, does that then apply to fiction? Do you find it also a valuable way of explaining yourself to yourself?
Barnes: Well, I never think about it. I think I’m looking less from a personal level. Even though personal things do come in – experiences and curiosities. “Write what you know” is an oversimplification, because you can write what you don’t know and come to know it, or you can write what you know emotionally, even though you don’t know it experientially. Why did our daughter, at ten, know she wanted to be in Krakow? What the hell is that about? When I come to fiction, I actually resist the impulse to bring in my own life. I might use it as a springboard – I wanted Gin to come out of a fundamentalist background. That was really important to me. She comes out of one fundamentalist background to another, and that allowed me to bring my experience forward in a kind of intimate way. But finally, what interests me most in fiction is the same in nonfiction. In nonfiction, I’m the main character, and I have to explore myself as though I were a character and discover my motivations. What do I desire the most, as John Gardner says, and what gets in the way of that desire? That is conflict. In fiction, I ask the same thing of my characters, but I don’t know. And that’s what kills me. “What do you want, Gin?” It’s a process for me of discovering that. But through the characters, I discover a more universal theme, if I write it well enough, that has to do with every man, every woman’s desire.