A significant voice in contemporary literature, Jamaica Kincaid (born 1949) is widely praised for her works of short fiction, novels, and essays in which she explores the tenuous relationship between mother and daughter as well as themes of anti-colonialism. A native of the island of Antigua, Kincaid is considered one of the most important women Caribbean writers. Over a career that has spanned more than three decades, Kincaid has earned a reputable place in the literary world for her highly personal, stylistic, and honest writings.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in the capital city of St. John's on Antigua, a small island in the West Indies that was colonized by the British in 1632 and achieved full independence in 1981. Her mother, Annie Richardson, was an emigre from Dominica. Her stepfather, David Drew, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Kincaid's maternal grandmother, a Carib Indian, also played an important role in her early life. Kincaid's biological father, Roderick Potter, was never involved in her upbringing. Her family was poor: they had no electricity, running water, or plumbing in their home.
Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, at which time the first of her three brothers was born. Until their birth, Kincaid had enjoyed the sole attention of her mother, who taught her to read when she was three and had given her a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary when she turned seven. However, with the arrival of her brothers, Kincaid's relationship with her mother changed dramatically. She was no longer a dependent young child and her importance in her mother's eyes was severely diminished because she was female.
Although Kincaid was intellectually gifted, she was not given encouragement in the British public school she attended on the island. Her teachers frequently found her attitude rude and considered her a troublemaker. Nevertheless, she was an avid reader and spent much time at the city's library, getting to know and admire the young librarian who worked there. Kincaid's love for books was so fierce that she stole some from the library and hid them under her family's porch. The bookish and small child was not well liked by her peers, who often picked fights with her and beat her up. Discussing this period in her life, Kincaid recalled in a Kenyon Review interview with Moira Ferguson in 1994, "I would come home with my clothes in tatters and my face scratched up, and my mother would take me back to the person who had beaten me up and say 'fight, fight' and I couldn't fight. I would just cry and cry… ." Eventually, after years of abuse, when she was 11, Kincaid finally did fight back and win. After that, she was no longer tormented and she actually took on a leadership role.
As a girl there were few options available for Kincaid. She would have liked to have attended university in Antigua and remained there after becoming a teacher or a librarian, but she was not given that opportunity. Despite the shortcomings of her early education, she did acquire a strong background in English literature, studying the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and the King James version of the Bible. Kincaid especially loved the works of Charlotte Bronte, reading Jane Eyre numerous times.
Self-Exile in the United States
In 1966, shortly after turning 17, Kincaid was sent to the United States to work as an au pair for an affluent family in Scarsdale, New York. She was expected to send money home to her family, but she would not. She received letters from home, but she did not open them. It was in this state of self-exile that Kincaid would shape her new life away from the unhappiness she had felt in Antigua. Shortly after leaving her job in Scarsdale, Kincaid found work for an Upper East Side family in New York City. After this move, she left no forwarding address and was cut off from her family until her return to Antigua 20 years later. While working in New York, Kincaid continued her education at a community college, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and began taking photography courses at the New School for Social Research. She later studied photography at Franconia College in New Hampshire on a scholarship, though she never earned a college diploma. When asked in a 1996 interview with Dwight Garner in Salon if she had any aspirations to become a writer when she came to the United States, she stated flatly, "None. Absolutely none. [When] I first arrived I was incredibly depressed and lonely. I didn't know there was such a world as the literary world. I didn't know anything, except maybe how to put one foot in front of the other."
Although Kincaid was not fully aware of her literary ambitions during her childhood and early years in New York, she had gained much from her voracious reading, all of which was of an English literary tradition. She had never been exposed to West Indian literature. When speaking to Ferguson, she acknowledged that as a child she would imagine stories and conversations in her head, but she never wrote them down. It was her experiences in photography that finally made her aware of writing. After watching the French film La Jete and reading Alain Robbe-Grillet, Kincaid felt her burst of inspiration. She told Ferguson, "I began to write poems. I began to write of my photographs—what I would take and [how] I would set them up. I would look at what I had written down, and that is how I would take the photograph. I would write down what I thought the picture should feel like. And I would try to take a picture of what I had written down."
Entrance to Literary World
After three years as an au pair, Kincaid left to become a secretary, model, and backup singer in a New York club. In 1970, with bleached blond hair, Kincaid enjoyed a freewheeling city lifestyle, sharing with Garner that she once attended a Halloween party dressed as Josephine Baker with only some bananas wrapped around her waist. She began to contribute pieces to Ingenue, a teen magazine. Her first published work, "When I Was Seventeen," was an interview with Gloria Steinem about the notable feminist's own teenage years. In 1973, Elaine Potter Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid mainly to keep her anonymity since she feared her family would disapprove of her writing and mock her efforts. After her contributions to Ingenue and the Village Voice, Kincaid began to make contacts with members of New York's literary society. One friend, Michael O'Donoghue, who was a founding writer for Saturday Night Live, introduced Kincaid to George Trow, who wrote the "Talk of the Town" column for New Yorker magazine. A strong friendship developed between the two and Kincaid began to accompany Trow when he researched bits for his column, adding her observations. William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, ultimately asked Kincaid to write her own "Talk of the Town" piece. She submitted notes of her observations of the West Indian Day parade, and Shawn published the notes as a finished column. Beginning in 1976, Kincaid contributed regularly to the magazine as a staff writer under Shawn's mentorship. In 1978, she published her first work of fiction, the short story "Girl," in the New Yorker.
Kincaid acknowledged that Shawn helped her develop her voice and encouraged her to continue writing stories. Along with the significant development as a writer Kincaid received while working at the New Yorker, she also met Allen Shawn, a classical composer and son of Ted Shawn. They were married in 1979.
In "Girl" and nine other sketches, often denoted "prose poems" by critics, that appeared in the 1983 collection At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid plumbed her early life in Antigua, developing a series of "fictional narratives" centering on a young Caribbean girl. The stories were marked by a lyrically poetic, incantatory, rhythmic voice. Perhaps the most-discussed piece in the collection is "Girl," which is one sentence uttered by a mother to her child, listing in repetitive scrutiny a series of commands. Her breakthrough collection earned Kincaid the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Kincaid followed the publication of At the Bottom of the River with the slim novel Annie John in 1985. In this work, Kincaid writes a coming-of-age tale that focuses on the life of a young Caribbean girl. The theme of the mother-daughter relationship in which a mother devastatingly severs her bond with her daughter is at its core. This work was well received and critics praised its rhythmic quality, evocative images, and universal themes. Many critics have noted that her most significant theme, that of the mother-daughter bond, represents the larger issue of the powerful and the powerless, particularly as this relationship operates in a colonial culture.
The personal nature of so much of Kincaid's fiction is one of its salient features, and she admits that her difficult relationship with her own mother inspired her writing, though she maintains it was an act of salvation to write her thoughts down. "Writing is really such an expression of personal growth," she admitted to Ferguson. "I don't know how else to live. For me it is a matter of saving my life. I don't know what I would do if I didn't write. It is a matter of living in the deepest way." Noting the autobiographical element to her writing, she asserted that "My writing has been very autobiographical. The events are true to me. They may not be true to other people. I think it is fair for my mother to say, 'This is not me.' It is only the mother in the books I've written. It is only the mother as the person I used to be perceived her… . For me it was really an act of saving my life, so it had to be autobiographical."
Angry Voice Divided Readership
With the publication of her nonfiction work A Small Place in 1988 and her third fictional work, Lucy, in 1991, Kincaid was no longer the darling of the literary world. Reviewers were divided over the angry tone expressed in both works. In A Small Place, described as "an anti-travel narrative," Kincaid returns to Antigua after having been gone for 20 years. She ultimately skewers the white tourist who visits Antigua with no thought to the poverty and the long-endured oppression of the colonized natives, while also pointing out the corruption of the post-independent Antiguan government. Bob Gottlieb, editor of the New Yorker at the time, refused to publish any of the work in the magazine due to its angry tone. In her native Antigua, the government issued an informal ban on Kincaid, restricting her visits to the island from 1985 to 1992. Seemingly unaccepting of her resentment and frustrations, V.R. Peterson of People compared Kincaid to West Indian writer V.S. Naipaul, maintaining that "where Naipaul is humane and appreciative of the dark corners of the human condition, Kincaid seems only vituperative and intemperate."
Kincaid drew similar criticism for the novel Lucy. Annie John ends with the protagonist leaving Antigua at the age of 17, and Lucy begins with the eponymous protagonist leaving the Caribbean at age 19 to come to the United States to work as an au pair for a wealthy New York City family. Commentators note a more bitter tone to this novel in which Lucy will not bend to the powers that hold sway. However, most still commend Kincaid's storytelling abilities. Reviewing the novel, the Newsweek book critic summarized "Vinegary Lucy doesn't bother to be likable, but her shrewdness and her gumption make her good company all the same."
Kincaid returned to her familiar theme of the mother-daughter relationship and the cruel outcomes of colonization with her dark portrayal of seventy-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, the narrator of her novel The Autobiography of My Mother published in 1996. The novel, set on the island of Dominica, presents the life of the narrator and the mother whom she never knew who had died in childbirth. Xuela's life is mired in loss, and, as Andrea Stuart noted in the New Statesman, "[ Autobiography of My Mother] is simultaneously one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating." In 1997 this complex novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award.
In 1997 Kincaid published My Brother, a memoir of her youngest brother Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 33. This highly personal work addresses not only the relationship Kincaid had with her brother—the two were alike in personality though they had spent little time together—as well as the continued themes of her resentful relationship with her mother and the devastating outcomes of a post-colonial culture. Reviewing the work in Time John Skow laments that while "there is deep, honest feeling here … it seems long past time for this gifted writer to tell us something new." In response to such criticism, Kincaid related to Garner, "I am not troubled … to be seen to be of one whole cloth—that all that I write is a further development of something. Perhaps it is musical in that way. My work is a chord that develops in many different ways. I couldn't help but write these books." Central to this work is Kincaid's discovery after Drew has died that he was homosexual and the oppressive secret he had kept throughout his life. Kincaid's ability to address the personal themes within a memoir that, according to Brad Goldfarb in Interview, is "an almost ruthless desire to get at the truth" and still relate them to such universal themes as familial bonds and the overarching question of post-colonial issues, helped her earn a nomination for a National Book Award.
Fragrant and Thorny
As a child, Kincaid had been surrounded by plants on Antigua, and her interest in gardening developed steadily throughout her adult life. In 1985, when her husband accepted a teaching position in Bennington, Vermont, the couple moved to this idyllic community with their two young children, Annie and Harold. Leaving the confines of the city, Kincaid had ample space to garden, and she published My Garden (Book) in 1999. This collection of essays marks a departure from the embittered tone of her previous works and was heralded as entertaining yet intelligent due to Kincaid's artful connection between gardening and philosophical and poetic reflections. While most reviewers concede that all of Kincaid's works, despite at times her harsh tone, are complex and stylistically unique, with My Garden (Book), Kincaid seemed to have expressed similarly profound observations in a more gentle, even humorous tone.
Mr. Potter, Kincaid's tenth book, is a return to a West Indian setting and characters from her family background. The narrator, Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, ruminates over the empty life of Roderick Potter, her father who has had no part in her life. Acknowledging the characters' obvious connections to Kincaid's own life, Susan Walker asserts in the Toronto Star that "it's unlikely any reader will mistake these characters for actual people. They are too encased in literary language, too distilled, almost mythic in the way they come to represent the way many people's lives are shaped by history."
While many of Kincaid's works are short in length, they have never failed to elicit respect, if at times reluctantly. Kincaid herself is a forthright person who speaks candidly. After she left the New Yorker in 1995, she spoke quite openly about her disgust at the "vulgarity" that the magazine produced under the editorship of Tina Brown. Her frankness, however, is always tinged with humor as she told Garner, "[Brown's] actually got some nice qualities. But she can't help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was some vaccine—I would sneak it up on her."
Kincaid has been awarded honorary degrees from Williams College (1991), Long Island College (1991), Amherst College (1995), Bard College (1997), and Middlebury College (1998). She continues to write from her home in Bennington, teaching creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University.
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Kincaid, Jamaica 1949–
Jamaica Kincaid 1949–
Writer Jamaica Kincaid has been called an “Instant literary celebrity” in the New York Times Magazine for her sudden rise in the world of arts and letters. Kincaid’s intensely personal stories and novels about her homeland of Antigua and her experiences as an emigre have “carved out a singular literary niche,” according to Emily Listfield in Harper’s Bazaar. Listfield added that Kincaid’s “lyrical and intelligent work has won a discriminating following. Kincaid’s books may be brief, but no one could call them small.”
Much of Kincaid’s work is semi-autobiographical, reflecting both the lilting language and the colonial legacy of her island home. Her writings achieve universality through their themes: a daughter’s ambivalent feelings for her parents, a naive expatriate’s confrontations with urban America, a black person’s rebellion against white rule and white liberalism, and a woman finding herself and learning to live with rage. “Jamaica Kincaid just happens to write short, exquisite little novels,” noted Audrey Edwards in Essence. “And while the themes may be... personal, the writing is so eloquent and original, specific in details yet universal in truths, timeless and transforming that it demands attention and respect. Like other Black women for whom writing is both an act of liberation and salvation, Kincaid says she writes to save her life—that if she couldn’t write, she would be one of those people who throw bombs, who spout revolution, who would surely be in jail or perhaps even dead. Or maybe just insane.”
Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on the tiny West Indian island of Antigua. She grew up in poverty, the daughter of a carpenter and a loving but over-bearing mother. Her home in the island’s capital city of St. John had no electricity, running water, or bathroom. As a young girl, Kincaid made trips to a public pump twice a day or more for the water her family used, carrying it home in buckets. She described her youth in the New York Times Magazine as tightly restricted, revolving around her home and her mother. “You grow up in a street and it’s a tiny street,” she said. “The street might not be as big as this yard out there, but it becomes your world, and it’s the only thing you know, it unbelievably well, with this thickness, this heaviness, and you have no interest in anything else. It would not occur to you that there might be something else.”
When Kincaid was nine, the first of her three brothers was
Born Elaine Potter Richardson, May 25, 1949, on St. John’s, Antigua, West Indies; immigrated to United States, 1966; daughter of a carpenter and Annie Richardson; married Allen Shawn (a composer); children: Annie, Harold. Education: Attended a community college in New York City and Franconia College, New Hampshire. Religion: Methodist.
Writer. Worked as a nanny in Scarsdale, NY, and as an au pair in New York City during the 1960s.
Selected awards: Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1983, for At the Bottom of the River; Ritz Paris Hemingway Award nomination, 1985, for ’Annie John.’
Addresses: Home —Bennington, VT. ’Publisher’ —Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 19 Union Square W., New York, NY 10003.
born. Her Mother’s focus shifted from her to the baby, and the additional mouth to feed only enhanced the family’s poverty. “I was thought I was the only thing my mother truly loved in the world, and when it dawned on me that it wasn’t so, I was devastated,” Kincaid told Harper’s Bazaar. At almost the same time, Kincaid was beginning to mature. Separated from her mother’s love, she took solace in reading, stealing books and hiding them under the front porch of her house. “I was sullen,” she remembered in the New York Times Magazine. “I was always being accused of being rude, because I gave some back chat. I moved very slowly. I was never where I should be. I wasn’t really angry yet. I was just incredibly unhappy.”
Although most of the books she craved came from British authors, Kincaid was gaining an awareness of her status as a subject of white rule. This consciousness of subordination heightened her resentment. The author told the New York Times Magazine that none of her teachers recognized her potential as a student, and none of them offered her any praise or encouragement. “It was a colonial situation, and everybody was angry, but nobody knew why,” she said. “So if I wrote a good essay, my teachers would just say, ’Ha! At least one of you did it right.’ I remember my teachers as very angry people.”
Angry and bitter herself, Kincaid began to feel stifled by life on Antigua. “I didn’t know anyone who was as unhappy as I was,” she stated in Essence. “I felt different, but I didn’t know that was alright. I just wanted to get out. I didn’t know that I would.”
In 1966, at the age of 17, Kincaid saw her opportunity and took it. She left Antigua to work as a nanny for a family in Scarsdale, New York. She told the New York Times Magazine that as the northbound airplane rose into the sky, she looked out the window at the island she was so determined to leave. “I remember seeing it. How beautiful and small it was. I didn’t know it was so small!” she recounted. “From the air it was just this tiny place. And it looked very green, whereas on the ground it looks very brown.”
Kincaid decided to burn all her bridges. She refused to open letters from home and did not write any herself. When she left the job in Scarsdale after only a few months, she did not give a forwarding address. In fact, she would not return to Antigua for 19 years—and by that time she was famous.
From Scarsdale, Kincaid moved to New York City, where she took a position as an au pair, or live-in nanny, with a wealthy family. For three years she cared for the four children of writer Michael Arlen and attended night classes at a local community college to upgrade her island education. She received a high school equivalency diploma while working for the Arlen family and took photography courses at night. At the time, the idea of becoming a writer, of mining her past experiences and putting them into words, had not even occurred to her.
By 1970 Kincaid was dissatisfied with the menial jobs she was able to hold—including a stint as a secretary in a photography studio—and she accepted a full scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. After only a year at the college, she returned to New York City, dyed her hair blonde, and began to conduct interviews for a magazine for teen-age girls. In 1973 she changed her name from Elaine Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. The author told the New York Times Magazine that the name change was “a way for me to do things without being the same person who couldn’t do them—the same person who had all these weights.”
Gradually Kincaid made friends among New York’s literary community. One of these acquaintances, George Trow, was a contributor to the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column. Trow began to invite Kincaid along with him as he researched “Talk of the Town” pieces, and he even began to incorporate her observations into his column. Eventually, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked Kincaid to write a “Talk of the Town” piece of her own about the West Indian Day parade held annually in Brooklyn. She submitted the essay to Trow as “notes” from which he could craft a column. Instead, Trow gave the notes to Shawn, who published them in the New Yorker verbatim. “When I saw it, and it was just what I had put on paper,” Kincaid recalled in the New York Times Magazine, “that is when I realized what my writing was. My writing was the thing that I thought. Not something else. Just what I thought.”
Kincaid became a regular contributor to the New Yorker four years before she began to write fiction. “When I first started to write, I had no money and slept on newspapers in an apartment,” she told Essence. “I used my money to buy a desk and a typewriter; I had nothing—no shelf for my books or records. I didn’t even have a chair to sit on, but I had a chair for my desk.” At that desk, Kincaid eventually began to experiment with fiction, and a veritable dam burst when she set free her searing memories of her mother, herself as a child, and the island she had fled with such loathing.
Kincaid’s first story filled a single page of the New Yorker. Published on June 26, 1978, it was called “Girl” and consisted of a string of commands issued by a mother to her daughter. Other short stories followed, and by 1983 Kincaid released her first book-length collection, At the Bottom of the River. Critics such as Ms. correspondent Suzanne Freeman praised the work for its “singsong style” and its “images that are as sweet and mysterious as the secrets that children whisper in your ear.” Village Voice reviewer David Leavitt noted that the stories move “with grace and ease from the mundane to the enormous,” adding, “Kincaid’s particular skill lies in her ability to articulate the internal workings of a potent imagination without sacrificing the rich details of the external world on which that imagination thrives.” The collection won the prestigious Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Kincaid followed At the Bottom of the River with another collection of interrelated stories entitled Annie John. The pieces in Annie John revolve around a young girl in Antigua as she establishes independence from her mother, overcomes a serious illness, and decides to immigrate to England. New York Times Book Review contributor Susan Kenney observed that in the work Kincaid “has packed a lot of valuable insight about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.”
Ironically, Kincaid’s relationship with her own mother failed to improve substantially over the years. The author told the New York Times Magazine that her mother “has never taken me in as someone she’d want to talk to in the world. It’s really painful because some people might actually be rather proud of me. But it doesn’t enter my mother’s mind.” She continued: “It really is a mystery to me how I came to be the person I am.”
For many years Kincaid has lived in Bennington, Vermont, with her husband, composer Allen Shawn, and her two children. A daughter, Annie, is named after Kincaid’s mother, but Kincaid told Essence that the relationship she shares with her daughter is far different from the one she endured with her own mother. “We have a lot of intimacy, the kind that was never possible with my own mother. I want to see if it’s possible to be a strong person and still raise a healthy daughter.”
Kincaid returned to the subject of familial relationships and the colonial experience in her 1990 novel Lucy. The story is presented as the flashback of a young black woman who leaves the West Indies for the United States to work as an au pair for a wealthy but troubled white family. In a Los Angeles Times review, Richard Eder commented that Kincaid, whose life closely resembles that of her title character, “has gone far beyond autobiography. At best, a biographical or autobiographical protagonist will be vivid and true. Lucy has ascended into fiction: She is vivid, true and necessary. Her voice in this harsh and graceful book tells us in the only possible way—at least while we are reading it—what it is to be a colonized subject, a Third World sensibility in the United States, a child battling with her past and a woman battling with her identity.”
Kincaid, who never changed her Antiguan citizenship, makes universal themes immediate. She addresses such topics as the insights of a black colonial subject in a Third World country, the scars of childhood inflicting wounds on an adult, and the search for identity and self-worth. The author remarked in Harper’s Bazaar, “I’m just one of those pathetic people for whom writing is therapy.”
“I’m someone who writes to save her life,” Kincaid expressed in the New York Times Magazine. “I mean, I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t write. I would be dead or I would be in jail because—what else could I do? I can’t really do anything but write. All the things that were available to someone in my position involved being a subject person. And I’m very bad at being a subject person.” The author added that she never wants to be at peace, that she remains acutely aware of—and bitter about—her family’s past as slaves, and she wants to continue to explore her feelings in art. “I’m never satisfied,” she confided in USA Today. “I’m always complaining. And I hope I stay that way.”
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—Anne Janette Johnson
"Kincaid, Jamaica 1949–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kincaid-jamaica-1949
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Jamaica Kincaid, 1949–, West Indian–American writer, b. Antigua as Elaine Potter Richardson. She immigrated to the United States at 16 and later became a U.S. citizen. Changing her name (1973), she became a New Yorker staff writer in 1976, working there until 1996. Kincaid first became known for her lush tales of Caribbean life—in her first short-story collection, At the Bottom of the River (1983), and in Annie John (1985), a semiautobiographical series of related stories that explore the complexity of mother-daughter connections. Her later fiction continues the style and themes of these works. Dark and personal, they often feature clear-eyed yet lyrical portraits of everyday reality in the postcolonial West Indies. Her novels include Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Mr. Potter (2002), and the stream-of-consciousness, apparently semiautobiographical dissection of a marriage's dissolution, See Now Then (2013). Kincaid has also written nonfiction, notably A Small Place (1988), a long and angry essay on Antigua, and My Brother (1997), an incantatory memoir of her brother's death from AIDS. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener, she is also the author of many essays on the subject and of My Garden (Book) (1999).
See studies by M. Ferguson (1994), D. Simmons (1994), H. Bloom, ed. (1998), L. Paravisini-Gebert (1999), L. Golmore (2000), and S. A. J. Alexander (2002).
"Kincaid, Jamaica." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kincaid-jamaica
"Kincaid, Jamaica." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kincaid-jamaica
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Nationality: American. Born: Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, 25 May 1949. Education: Princess Margaret girls' school, Antigua; New School for Social Research, New York; Franconia College, New Hampshire, Family: Married Allen Evan Shawn; one daughter and one son. Career: Since 1974 contributor, and currently staff writer, The New Yorker. Awards: American Academy Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1984. Honorary doctorate: Williams College, 1991; Long Island College, 1991; Amherst College, 1995; Bard College, 1997; Middlebury College, 1998. Address: The New Yorker, 25 West 43rd Street, New York, New York 10036, U.S.A.
Annie John. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Pan, 1985.
Lucy. New York, Farrar Straus, 1990; London, Cape, 1991.
The Autobiography of My Mother. New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996.
At the Bottom of the River. New York, Farrar Straus, 1983; London, Pan, 1984.
Annie, Gwen, Lily, Pam, and Tulip, illustrated by Eric Fischl. NewYork, Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986.
Talk Stories. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Autobiograph of a Dress," in Grand Street Magazine.
A Small Place. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Virago Press, 1988.
My Brother. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Poetics of Place (essay), photographs by Lynn Geesaman. New York, Umbrage Editions, 1998.
My Garden Book, illustrations by Jill Fox. New York, Farrar StrausGiroux, 1999.
Editor, with Robert Atwan, The Best American Essays 1995. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Editor, My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998.*
Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body by Moira Ferguson, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1994; Jamaica Kincaid by Diane Simmons, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1994; Jamaica Kincaid, edited by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 1998; Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.* * *
Jamaica Kincaid is a talented writer, who has so far published five arresting books of fiction: At the Bottom of the River; Annie John; Lucy; Annie, Gwen, Lily, Pam, and Tulip; and The Autobiography of My Mother. Her nonfiction work includes an extended essay on her homeland, A Small Place; a meditation on her brother's 1996 death from AIDS, My Brother; and My Garden Book, which considers her particular relationship to gardening and the history of horticulture. Kincaid's work has been described variously as elegant, beguiling, gentle, graceful, dazzling, poetic, and lyrical.
Her fiction is sensuous, evocative, and sometimes erotic. The meanings are elusive in her first, second, and fourth books, and they emerge gradually from an almost hypnotic litany marked by repetition, echoes, and refrains as well as by brilliant descriptions of people, objects, and geography. The third book, Lucy, and Kincaid's most recent novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, depart from this style with their more direct prose. In the first two books Kincaid uses the narrative voice of a girl preoccupied with love and hate for a mother who caresses her only child one moment and then berates her as "the slut you are about to become." The child's father, thirty-five years older than her mother, is seldom with his wife and daughter and has had more than thirty children by various women, who jealously seek his wife's death through obeah rites. In the ten meditative sections of At the Bottom of the River, neither the child nor her homeland, Antigua, have names; in Annie John both do. In Annie John, Annie ages from ten to seventeen, giving the second book greater continuity and a more specific chronology. In both books the narrator describes her experiences and reflects upon them in monologues that complement one another but could stand separately. In both of these episodic works Kincaid achieves a degree of aesthetic unity through her careful and sparse selection of characters, an emphasis on the relative isolation of the child, a preoccupation with the mother/daughter relationship, and the use of a distinctive narrative voice. Kincaid reflects the childlike simplicity and apparent naiveté of the speaker, even while she conveys Annie John's sophisticated vision of her cultural milieu, her sexual awakening, her responses to nature, and her sensitivity to events, persons, and influences possessing symbolic overtones. Hypnotically talking to herself, Annie John uses parallel phrases reminiscent of biblical poetry. She is keenly receptive to sense impressions—sounds, scents, and colors. These two books offer insight into the nature of a typical girl's growth to maturity, but they also offer analysis of an atypical and highly sensitive child as she moves inevitably toward psychological breakdown, which occurs when she is fifteen.
Annie John lives in constant conflict with her unpredictable mother. She must choose always to submit or to resort to lies, trickery, and even open rebellion. In both books, transitions from everyday school and home life into the psychic are lacking as Kincaid shifts abruptly from realistic depiction of the Caribbean milieu to disclosure of the child's dreams and fantasies. At the most intense crisis of her protagonist's experiences Kincaid approaches the mythic and archetypal. She projects the unusual and timeless aspects of the mother/daughter relationship as an alternate merging and separating of two spirits. Annie John also views the strength of a mature woman symbolically—as the shedding of the skin, so that a woman stands up naked, vulnerable, and courageous before the world and leaves her protective covering rolled into a ball in the corner. The child in both books recites rules dictated by her mother, defining the female role in household routines and in social behavior. Some of these chants are ominous: "This is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child … this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you." The narrator in At the Bottom of the River parodies the commandments as she mischievously recites, "this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you."
The protagonist in both books moves into the disordered and the surreal as in dreams she walks with her mother through caves, empty houses, and along the shores of the sea. She dreams of happy marriage to a "red woman," who seems to be her mother (or an idealized mother-substitute), who wears skirts "big enough to bury your head in," and who will make her happy by telling stories that begin with "Before you were born."
In At the Bottom of the River the most notable explorations of the visionary and contemplative mind of the child occur in the sections entitled "Wingless" and "My Mother" and most disturbingly in "Blackness." In Annie John the girl's narrative of her mental and physical breakdown, marked by hallucinations, appears in "The Long Rain," and her illness is concurrent with rain that continues for ten weeks. Annie John's mother and maternal grandmother treat her with medications supplied by a British physician, but they also use—in spite of her father's objections—various obeah potions and rituals. In her fantasy the child never loses all contact with reality. At the bottom of the river of her mind, trust exists as cold, hard, and uncompromising as rocks embedded below moving water. Moving into the surreal or unconscious, she does not quite abandon her world of household routine, the rigors of her life at school, or her sensitivity to the details of external nature. In the midst of a visionary passage, she startles the reader with a meditative statement based upon her observations of concrete realities: "I covet the rocks and the mountains their silence." On the closing page of At the Bottom of the River, the girl finds direction and substance, not so much in her visionary flights as in familiar objects: books, a chair, a table, a bowl of fruit, a bottle of milk, a flute made of wood. As she names these objects, she finds them to be reminders of human endeavor, past and present, though in themselves they are transient. She identifies herself as part of this endeavor as it betokens a never-ending flow of aspiration and creativity. She declares: "I claim these things then—mine—and now feel myself grow solid and complete, my name filling up my mouth." Annie John admires the courage and wildness of an imaginary "red girl," whom her mother denounces. Near the close of Annie John, the girl moves away, implying that Annie John no longer needs this double. Such kinship—even with an imagined role model—determines her positive self-identity in the last analysis as a human being and as a part of nature. As she leaves at seventeen to study nursing in England, she stands quietly and stoically on the ship, watching her mother become a mere dot in the distance.
The protagonist of Lucy similarly leaves Antigua at nineteen to become an au pair, caring for the children of a rich white couple in New York, and studying in night school, with nursing as a possible goal. Lucy Josephine Potter's mother is considered to be saintly, although Lucy suspects she angrily named her Lucifer at birth. Her father, like Annie John's, is a philanderer, with mistresses who have borne his many children and who jealously threaten his wife through obeah schemes. But Lucy, except for occasional moments in this novel, presents herself as a relatively unemotional, detached, and self-centered woman, far different from Annie John. Her tough cynicism may arise primarily from resentment of her parents and from her anger at what she perceives as an oppressive island background. She despises the negative impact on her education of historic British imperialism, the exploitation of the island's beauty by Antiguan promoters of tourism, and the corruption of Antiguan politicians. At home she was punished for her healthy refusal to regard Columbus as a hero for his part in the "discovery" of West Indies, and she suffered silently the failure of books and teachers to recognize black African heritage in Antiguan students.
In general, however, Lucy's emotional repression is so great that she is a far less vibrant character than Annie John, whose imagination, passion, amusing impudence, and open laughter and grief make her unforgettable. Annie John's sensitive response to surroundings transformed the most mundane and familiar objects into art, but Lucy in her new surroundings allows herself to notice and remember only a few selected scenes. Protectively, she closes her mind and heart to new people and events, as if to cut herself off from the future and the present. She has already cut herself off from the past in her refusal even to open any letters from home. Only for a moment does she feel guilt upon learning a month late of her father's death. She sends her penniless mother a little money, but no message, and then burns all the unread letters from home. Yet when Peggy, her Irish apartment-mate, speaks of having "outgrown" her parents, Lucy is startled. She thinks she has never known anyone who could think of parents as pests, rather than as people "whose presence you are reminded of with each breath you take." At such rare moments, Lucy reveals the difficulty with which she maintains her cold isolation from emotion and intimacy. In all of her relationships, she seeks to appear detached. When her employer, Mariah, who is forty confides that her marriage is breaking up, Lucy simply wants to declare, "Your situation is an everyday thing. Men behave in this way all the time…. Men have no morals." Lucy contends she and Peggy have nothing in common except that they feel at ease when together. She manages to learn to love only one of the four children she cares for. Her companionship with Peggy and Peggy's sister lessens; her evenings with young men she meets at night school provide welcome and exciting sexual experience but no warmth and love. She remains always critical in evaluating their skill in arousing her but never viewing them as people worthy of love. On the last page we glimpse Lucy without her protective mask. She lies alone in her bed and on the first white page of a book Mariah has given her, she writes: "I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it." Her tears fall on the page and blur the words. Kincaid's writing style—a plain prose lacking the imagery, cadence, and brilliant descriptions of the earlier books—reinforces the rigidity of the mask that Lucy hides behind throughout most of the novel.
Kincaid's fourth book of fiction, Annie, Gwen, Lily, Pam, and Tulip, blends literature with visual art in the evocative meditations of five young women in this collaboration with the artist Eric Fischl. Kincaid's text and Fischl's full-page lithographs of the women—nude, loosely draped, or shadowed—appear on alternate pages in this beautifully designed fine-press book. Kincaid's interest in photography flourished in university night classes in New York before she began publishing stories, and in her effort to blend her writing with visual art, she feels kinship with Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and other modernists. The speeches of the five women resemble the style of At the Bottom of the River, and bear close resemblance also to the Song of Solomon in their relating of the beauty of women's bodies to nature imagery—animals, birds, mountains, and valleys. The influence of Woolf, particularly in The Waves, may also be evident. Though usually idyllic, the tone becomes ominous at times. As their thoughts dip into the unconscious, one senses their loving concern for one another, but the meanings are elusive and the abstraction of the poetic monologues seems to demand the abstraction of the visual artistry of Fischl's lithographs.
The Autobiography of My Mother continues Kincaid's charting of the interior lives of intelligent yet stifled women and their ambivalences about the choices they make. Via the now familiar form of a first-person monologue, seventy-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson engages in an extended retrospective meditation on the direction of her life, and the choices she has made. While the title might suggest a narrative return to the conflicted mother/daughter relationships common in Kincaid's work, in fact in this novel the exploration of mothering is fundamentally different, in its complete absence of mothers as characters. The novel opens with Kincaid "killing off" the narrator's mother: "My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity." Furthermore, Xuela refuses to bear children, recognizing that: "I would bear children, but I would never be a mother to them … I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god." Her aborting of her pregnancy then, is not a refusal of the unborn child, but an acknowledgement of her inability to engage in the act of mothering. Like all of Kincaid's fiction there is an element of the autobiographical at the center of her fictional plot; in this instance it is her belief that her mother should not have had children. However, The Autobiography of My Mother should not be dismissed as a mere therapeutic exercise—it is far more compelling. Like Lucy, Xuela longs for love, but the only person to whom she extends her love is her mother. Others she is unable to sustain connections with, and in old age she admits: "All the people I knew intimately from the beginning of my life died. I should have missed their presence but I did not." Emotionally distant, Xuela admits growing "to love not loving my father" and in another instance admits to the reader that this act of withholding is not passive: "He did not look like anyone I could love, and he did not look like anyone I should love, and so I determined then that I could not love him and I determined that I should not love him." Whether Xuela's inability to love anyone who exhibits the imperfections of humanity is a response to her childhood is almost irrelevant; the novel is about how Xuela asserts herself and her independence in the face of her inherited lot. Vivid characterization and mesmerizing lyrical prose chart her development from an observant child to an introspective adult, her relationships with others entering, but never defining, her life story. If, as some observe, Kincaid is continually rewriting the story of the difficulties of moving from childhood to womanhood—negotiating sexuality, power, colonialism, patriarchy, and other forces—then in the elderly Xuela she brings that story to a close for the first time. Yet as the novel ends, and Xuela is alone contemplating her life, there is no sense of an unqualified resolution in her life. Instead the novel reproduces the ambivalence common to all of Kincaid's endings, as Xuela asserts "Since I do not matter, I do not long to matter, but I matter anyway."
All the definitive themes of Kincaid's fiction are reworked in her nonfiction, which assumes the musing circular style of her novels. Her fierce criticism of colonialism and its legacy assumes full force in A Small Place, where she takes aim at the legacy of colonialism, as well as the continuing imperial exploitation of Antigua via tourism, and the failure of Independence to take seriously the needs of the people. Cultural exchange, Kincaid argues, must be measured and weighed, bringing the nation to task for adopting Europe's emphasis on capitalism instead of that on education. Likewise, My Garden Book, examines the cultural exchange of gardening via colonialism, and the history of attempts at cultivation in, or exportation from, foreign climes. Exceptionally perceptive, Kincaid examines the function of gardens as sites of luxury, and as repositories of history and memory, sometimes oppressive. While Kincaid favors hollyhocks, for instance, as a cousin of the cotton plant they elicit memories of childhood labor, and the institution of slavery. However, for Kincaid, memory is inescapable, and any event can generate an opportunity for exploration of the past and both its personal and larger meanings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kincaid's My Brother, where the dying of her brother becomes an opportunity to revisit the fraught familial relations that haunt much of her writing. A return not only to the past, the moving memoir is also a return to the "what might have been" had she not found greater opportunities elsewhere, or perhaps if her brother had. While Kincaid's nonfiction prose is powerful enough to stand as such, these personal meditations also read as powerful companions to her works of fiction.
—Margaret B. McDowell,
updated by Jennifer Harris
"Kincaid, Jamaica." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kincaid-jamaica
"Kincaid, Jamaica." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kincaid-jamaica