Jamaica Kincaid

[WRITER]

“I HAD THIS EXPERIENCE WHEN I WAS THIRTEEN YEARS OLD OR SO, OF MY MOTHER BURNING MY BOOKS. I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND AT THE TIME THAT IT WAS A FAIRLY PROFOUND THING TO DO TO SOMEONE.”
Phrases that take up precious space:
“Really?”
“She said that?”
“He said…”
“I was wondering…”

Jamaica Kincaid, was born on Antigua, May 25, 1949, as Elaine Potter Richardson. She was educated in colonial British schools, and in 1965, at the age of sixteen, she was sent to Westchester, New York, to work as a servant. She briefly attended Franconia College in New Hampshire, and her interest in photography led her to New York City and the New School of Social Research. Through some fortuitous circumstances she was befriended by New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow, who introduced her to legendary editor William Shawn. Shawn began publishing Kincaid in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section and encouraged her writing. As Kincaid now recalls, “He always made you think you were the best writer of all. He was an unbelievable suitor.”

In his introduction to Kincaid’s collection of “Talk of the Town” pieces, her good friend and colleague during her tenure at The New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes:

A lot of the exhilaration of those years for me was in seeing who could be the bravest, who could be the coolest. I kept a mental scorecard of brave and cool deeds: I saw New Yorker veterans… come in to the office an hour or two before an issue’s deadline and in one draft turn out “Talk of the Town” stories as elegant and effortless as a Will Rogers roper trick… but to me nobody was braver than Jamaica. She didn’t try to be shocking or “transgressive” or audacious, those imitations of bravery done mainly for effect: her bravery was just the way she was and it came natural and uninterrupted from inside.

Jamaica Kincaid, who adopted that name to distance herself from her Antiguan family’s disapproval of her writing, has published four novels: Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), and Mr. Potter (2002); a story collection, At the Bottom of the River (1984), which contains the highly regarded “Girl”; a book-length essay about Antigua titled A Small Place (1988), an illustrated children’s story with Eric Fischl called Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1986); a memoir about her youngest sibling who died of AIDS in 1996, My Brother (1997); a collection of writing on gardening My Garden (Book) (1999); and an anthology of her New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces, Talk Stories (2001).

During my phone conversation with Kincaid, to arrange our interview, the discussion drifted to our parental responsibilities (she is the mother of Annie Shawn, eighteen, and Harold, fourteen) and how they require us to turn our attention to films such as X-Men and The Matrix. In her sweet, girlish, lilting voice, she confessed she was slightly embarrassed by two things: She liked The Matrix and she likes Eminem.

This interview took place on a sunny day at Kincaid’s spacious brown clapboard house near Bennington College in Vermont. Nestled on a gentle rise, the house is surrounded on all sides by her plantings. A brief tour revealed her current fascination with mottled red brown plants and a digression into the difference between “mottled” and “dappled.” Identifying one lilac tree, multiple rose bushes, tulips, and a young magnolia tree was the extent of my horticultural taxonomy, but it was clear to even my uninformed eye that Kincaid’s garden is a separate and complicated universe.

—Robert Birnbaum

*

THE BELIEVER: How do you end a book? How do you know the last sentence?

JAMAICA KINCAID: Well, this is very interesting. The last story in my first book—the title story “At the Bottom of the River”—took me six months to end. But at the end of the six months, I had not added one word. During the six months, I read “The Prelude,” Wordsworth’s great narrative poem. I spent six months reading it, and at the end of it I understood what I had been writing was finished. And that’s almost always true of my writing. I know it’s finished through some odd way, not by actually finishing it. I go over it in my mind and say, “That’s the end.” Because it crests in some way that satisfies me. Not that it ties things up. It just ends. You know, Dickens is Dickens. Balzac is Balzac. All sorts of things are all sorts of things. But I don’t want to write that kind of great novel, the great family novel. I enjoy reading it, but I myself don’t want to write it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Robert Birnbaum is a journalist and literary enthusiast who is editor-at-large and CFO at Identitytheory.com. He drives a convertible but believes in sunscreen.

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