Kincaid, Jamaica (1949–)

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Kincaid, Jamaica (1949–)

Elaine Potter Richardson (Jamaica Kincaid) was born in St. John's on the eastern Caribbean island of Antigua on May 29, 1949. She was educated in the British colonial system and raised by her half-Carib mother and her father, a carpenter. Much of Kincaid's work is inspired by her early life: Her novel Autobiography of My Mother (1996) imagines the life of a half-Carib woman in Dominica, and her novel Annie John (1985) and her short-story collection At the Bottom of the River (1983) deal with girlhood in the colonial Caribbean.

In 1965, shortly before Antigua gained its independence from Britain, Kincaid left her home for Westchester, New York, to work as an au pair—a servant, she would later say. Her novel Lucy (1990) is based on this experience working abroad to send money home to her family. She attended Franconia College in New Hampshire before pursuing photography at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

She became Jamaica Kincaid in 1973 during a moment of inspired self-invention. Her reasons for choosing this name are vague, except that Jamaica was representative of the Caribbean and its colonial history, and Kincaid flowed well with Jamaica. This renaming was strategic: She achieved the anonymity necessary to write about her experiences at home and abroad without anyone, particularly Antiguans, recognizing her early efforts.

With the encouragement of George Trow, a friend and writer for the New Yorker, she submitted her work to the magazine. Her writing caught the attention of the editor, William Shawn, and by 1976 Kincaid had joined the New Yorker as a staff writer. She credits Shawn and the New Yorker with providing her the opportunity to learn how to write. At the New Yorker Kincaid developed a signature style, striking a balance between fiction and nonfiction. Her articles for the "Talk of the Town" column are anthologized in Talk Stories (2001).

Her narratives are inspired by the events and people in her life, the facts of which are fictionalized through the filter of her perception. She uses these familiar relationships to discuss the dynamic between the powerful and the powerless, most often as it relates to British colonialism and North American neocolonialism in the Caribbean. More so than her themes, it is her shockingly honest, distinctly feminine West Indian voice that makes her work autobiographical. The urgency and directness of this narrative voice at times seems angry, as in the anticolonial, antitourist essay "A Small Place" (1988), and at other times unsympathetic, as in My Brother (1997), her memoir of her youngest brother's death from AIDS.

Kincaid identifies writers from an English literary tradition, including Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf, as primary influences. This complicates critical readings that understand her work's orality in the context of African storytelling, or interpret her postcolonial themes and Caribbean landscapes as derived from a West Indian literary tradition.

Kincaid has two children from her marriage to composer Allen Shawn (William Shawn's son). She teaches at Harvard University, but makes her home in Bennington, Vermont, where she is an avid gardener. In the essay collection My Garden (Book) (1999) and the travel narrative Among Flowers (2005) Kincaid explores gardening as the ultimate form of conquest.

See alsoAntigua; Colonialism; Feminism and Feminist Organizations; Jamaica; Literature: Spanish America; Women.


Primary Works

At the Bottom of the River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.

Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip. New York: Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, 1986.

A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Lucy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

My Brother. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

My Garden (Book). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Life and Debt. Produced and directed by Stephanie Black. 80 mins. New Yorker Films, 2001. Documentary film.

Talk Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Mr. Potter. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2005.

The Best American Travel Writing. Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Secondary Works

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Lang-Peralta, Linda, ed. Jamaica Kincaid and Caribbean Double Crossings. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006.

                                            Lara B. Cahill

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