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11:00 PM, Feb 18, 1996 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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In 1991, as the novelist Barbara Kingsolver marched outside the Tucson federal building to protest America's involvement in the Persian Gulf war, a man sped by in a pickup truck and screamed, "Hey Bitch, love it or leave it!" Kingsolver, whose anti-war animus had already driven her to rip yellow ribbons off car antennas, obliged her heckler. She ran off to Spain to ride out what she called the "clamor of war worship" that had taken hold in the States.

Kingsolver herself has become the object of literary cult worship among a multiplying sect of young, white, mostly female readers. They are hooked on her soft, multicultural tales of strong women in strange circumstances. Still, ask one of them about her self-expatriation during the war, and you're likely to be met with surprise, if not disbelief. Like devotees of daytime soap stars, Kingsolver's fans identify her with her fictional heroines: She is their girlfriend, their confidant. But what would they think of the unmediated agitprop of the real ingsolver at Ladies Night Out?

Kingsolver is an unreconstruct Jessica Gavora is director of programs at the New Citizenship Project in Washington, D. C. ed leftist. But her first rule of writing fiction, she told the Arizona Republic, is that in the U. S. " you're not allowed to mix art and politics." To do so is to risk the censorship that the American establishment imposes on "cultural workers" who dare to question prevailing national passions. In her nonfiction, Kingsolver labels the U. S. soldiers in Desert Storm war criminals and baby killers; but she is cagier in her novels. There, she conveys her message by stealth, layering it under easy, flowing prose, engaging characters, and a biting wit. Though her politics are radical, her aesthetics are quaintly didactic. "The artist's maverick responsibility," she writes in a new collection of essays entitled High Tide in Tucson (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $ 22), "is sometimes to sugarcoat the bitter pill and slip it down our gullet, telling us what we didn't think we wanted to know."

Artificially sweetening her bitter political medicine has paid off for Kingsolver. Since 1988, three of her feel-good, eco-feminist novels -- The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Pigs in Heaven -- have become bestsellers.

Once in paperback, her books stay in print and continue to sell. Kingsolver's publisher, Harper-Collins, boasts that she has had combined paperback fiction sales of 1.5 million. That's a lot of recycled paper. What's more, Kingsolver has built up her following largely by word-of-mouth, almost entirely outside the "literary-industrial complex." Independent booksellers, whose customers tend to be particularly receptive to her multicultural, New Age message, love her. She packs their customers in at her frequent signings and readings, spending time to talk with fans and linger over autographs.

It's not that her novel s aren't political -- they're full of descriptions of the rapaciousness of Western culture, paeans to Mother Earth, and some not-so-subtle disparagements of men. Two of them deal with a deep dilemma for the politically correct: Can a single white mother adopt an Indian child, taking her off the reservation and into the white world? Or is she denying the child her cultural heritage and continuing the cultural genocide of white against Native American?

Her politics are consciously inclusive; the aim of the novels is to (as they say) bring us together. Kingsolver's characters are not crusaders but ordinary people made heroes because they battle forces larger than they. Her protagonists are all women -- single women, mostly -- yet they are not manhaters, and they retain their sense of humor. Her villains are distant, ubiquitous forces -- corporations intent on exploiting workers and raping the land, or governments bent on oppressing the working class. There are no unhappy endings.

Success seems to have emboldened Barbara Kingsolver. In High Tide in Tucson, her first major work of nonfiction, she dispenses with the soft focus she uses in her fiction to blur the sharp edges of her politics. In interviews publicizing the book, as well as in the essays themselves, she has become more direct and less artful in packaging her message. Above all, she seems relieved. The weight of her art has been lifted: She can finally speak her mind.