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A native author of the West Indies, Kincaid is known for her personal style and honesty that characterizes both her fiction and nonfiction writing.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Colonial Antigua
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, on the tiny island of Antigua in the West Indies, daughter of Annie Richardson and a father she did not know. she was raised by her mother and her stepfather, a carpenter. When she was nine, the first of her three brothers was born, and Kincaid felt expelled from the “paradise” of her mother’s love, as she recounts in her first novel, Annie John (1985). At about the same time, she became aware of the islanders’ subservience to the British, a status she questioned but that others seemed to accept. Antigua had been colonized by the British in 1632 and remained under colonial rule until 1981 when it gained its independence. Kincaid left Antigua in 1966, coinciding with a transfer of ruling power to the French, a change that was reversed only a year later.
Though exceptionally bright, she began to be considered a problem in school; as punishment, she was forced to memorize long passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a work she later credited with first suggesting the subversive idea that one may rebel against even overwhelming power. Although Kincaid later saw that the colonial education constituted an “erasure” of her own identity, which was replaced by a love of all things British, her childhood love of English literature was intense, and she became a voracious reader. This fascination with books annoyed her mother, Kincaid recounts in My Brother (1997), and when she neglected babysitting duties to read, her mother doused all of her books with kerosene and set them on fire.
Move to New York
When family finances worsened, Kincaid was sent to the United States to work as a nanny and send money home. The year was 1966 and tensions in the United States were high, as President Lyndon B. Johnson increased the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Protests against the war continued, contributing to the countercultural movement of the 1960s, a reaction against social norms including race relations, gender inequality, and sexual mores. During this time, Kincaid became interested in photography and took courses at the New School for Social Research. She attended Franconia College in New Hampshire for a time but returned to New York to find her first job in publishing at a magazine called Art Direction, only to be fired, as she recalled in a 1988 interview with Selwyn R. Cudjoe, for an article she wrote on black American advertising. Kincaid applied for jobs at Mademoiselle and Glamour but was hindered by her inability to type. Then, a story idea submitted to the magazine Ingenue—a proposal to ask Gloria Steinem what she was like when she was seventeen—was accepted. The article was a success and turned into a series.
Becoming Jamaica Kincaid
Around 1973, Elaine Potter Richardson became Jamaica Kincaid, a change she has described as a way of shucking family disapproval of her writing and gaining a sort of anonymity. The choice of name was not particularly political, she has said, just something she thought up, sitting around with friends. The name change was not Kincaid’s only act of liberation. She cut her hair short, dyed it blond, and wore outlandish clothing, apparently removing herself as far as possible from the proper, faux-English schoolgirl in her gray linen uniform. Kincaid’s first journalistic successes produced others, and a chance acquaintance with New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow resulted in lunch with William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, and an assignment to write her first Talk of the Town piece for the magazine: an account of the annual West Indian parade in Brooklyn. The piece was the first of eighty Talk of the Town pieces spanning a decade—most of which were written within an autobiographical framework.
In 1978 Kincaid, under the influence of the Elizabeth Bishop poem ”In the Waiting Room,” wrote “Girl” in a single afternoon. The one-sentence story was published in the New Yorker, filling one magazine page. Later widely anthologized, ”Girl” became Kincaid’s first story in her collection At the Bottom of the River (1983).
Kincaid came to believe that a directional narrative was almost never an attempt to tell a true story but was almost always a way of creating self-serving lies. But, two things changed Kincaid’s thinking about writing. One was a French movie, La Jetee (1962), made up of black-and-white still photographs, and the other was the work of the experimental French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. Both works showed Kincaid that there was a way to write without recourse to a storytelling mode she had come to see as archaic and dishonest. In her earliest work, as in the nonnarrative scenes of Robbe-Grillet, both writer and reader are freed of the need to make conventionally coherent arrangements of experience and reality and are invited instead to follow a chain of subliminal connections to find psychological, if not rational, sense.
From Servitude to Literary Stardom
By 1983, seventeen years after leaving Antigua to work as a servant, Jamaica Kincaid was a literary star. Her first book, At the Bottom of the River, a collection of the New Yorker stories, won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was widely reviewed by critics who were often adulatory and always respectful, even when puzzled by the surreal nature of the book. In the ten dreamlike stories speakers are unidentified, identities merge, and fantasy and reality are inseparable. Taken together, the pieces trace a journey of mourning over the loss of a childhood paradise of perfect love and harmony in which time stands still and in which betrayal—including the great betrayal of death—is unknown.
At the Bottom of the River was followed in 1985 by the more accessible Annie John, also originally published as a series of short stories in the New Yorker. The book was one of three finalists for the 1985 international Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, and this time the reviews were almost universally positive. In this novel Kincaid covers similar emotional ground as in At the Bottom ofthe River, but in a less surrealistic, more autobiographical form.
Anger at Racial Domination
Kincaid was bothered, she said, when people called her work ”charming.” This anger was expressed directly for the first time in the long essay A Small Place (1988). In this work, the writer addresses the reader, whom she assumes to be a relatively privileged New Yorker subscriber. An unrelenting attack takes up the first quarter of the eighty-one-page essay. Kincaid shows the white tourist as repeating the pattern of racial and cultural domination begun by slaveholding European colonists. The tourists, she concedes, like the Europeans who colonized the West Indies, would probably be good people if they had stayed home.
Despite the considerable disagreement and anger provoked by A Small Place, the New Yorker continued to publish Kincaid’s fiction, and in 1990 five of these stories were collected and published as the novel Lucy. While Lucy, whose title character is named for John Milton’s great rebel Lucifer, contains little of the overt political anger of A Small Place, it is still a work obsessed by the question of how domination hinders the formation of authentic identity. The stories take up where Annie John left off, showing the further progress of a West Indian girl who leaves her mesmerizing mother and her Caribbean home, going out to make her way in a new world and becoming the nanny to a beautiful and wealthy white family that seems to present a portrait of perfection until the young girl discovers a turmoil that will soon break the family apart.
With her next work of fiction, The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Kincaid continues to explore her sense that the instinct to dominate others, as enacted by the colonial powers in the West Indies, is born in a vain emptiness that sends people out in the world on a mission of conquest and control.
Losing Her Brother to AIDS
In 1997 Kincaid published My Brother, the nonfiction account of the death of her half brother, Devon Drew, of AIDS. The third child of Kincaid’s mother and stepfather, Drew was three when Kincaid left Antigua for the United States. She tells of returning to Antigua when she learns of her brother’s illness and finding him in a decrepit hospital room. The hospital and the local attitude toward AIDS generally— there is no real effort to treat the disease, no funds for the expensive drugs, and no support from her brother’s friends, who do not visit him in the hospital—seem to represent her home in microcosm as a place that is broken and where there is no attempt at repair. Kincaid closes the book in mourning not for her brother but for William Shawn, her former father-in-law and editor of the New Yorker, who died in 1992.
In 2002 Kincaid published Mr. Potter, a lyrical prose poem about a narrator whose father abandons her before she is born. In 2008 Kincaid was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Wesleyan University. She currently teaches creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University.
Works in Literary Context
In her work, Kincaid employs a highly poetic literary style celebrated for its rhythms, imagery, characterization, and elliptic narration. Her writing was heavily influenced by her experiences growing up poor in Antigua and immigrating to the United States, in addition to the relationships she forged with people in the literary community throughout her career. Kincaid’s work has been compared to that of Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Colonialism and Race
A recurring theme in Kincaid’s work is how colonialism—the occupation of a region by members of an outside culture, and the subsequent attempt to “civilize” the conquered—affects the native population, whose traditional beliefs and cultural touchstones are typically devalued. This issue is at the forefront of Annie John. While the traditional coming-of-age story traces the often painful journey from youth to maturity, in Annie’s world, as defined both by the all-powerful mother and the colonial education system, there seems to be no viable maturity. For in her mother’s kingdom—and by reflection in colonial Antigua—the coming-of-age black girl is expected to have only one preoccupation: to imitate as much as possible the white English girl, whom she can never become and against whom she will always be deemed inferior.
Love for the Betrayer
Whether she is writing about the loss of a mother’s love, the cruelty of the colonial environment, her brother’s death from AIDS, or the plants in her garden, Kincaid holds in solution a sense of endless loss and betrayal that is complicated by a love for the betrayer. This love, once implanted in the trusting young heart, can never truly die, despite what one may later learn. In inhabiting this space, Kincaid has made herself a rare, one-woman monument, not only to the legacy of European conquest and domination of the world’s places and peoples but also to the immense paradox of that legacy.
Works in Critical Context
While her work has always been critically acclaimed—her nonfiction book My Brother was nominated for the National Book Award—Kincaid has at the same time, through her outspoken opinions on topics such as colonialism, managed to invite controversy with people on all points of the political spectrum.
A Small Place
Reviewing the essay A Small Place, Adewale Maja-Pearce in the New Statesman and Society excoriates Kincaid’s “inexplicable” descent into a ”sniveling attack on the sins of the nasty—and long-departed colonial power” that had dominated her West Indian home of Antigua. William Shawn, former editor of the New Yorker, liked the piece, but it was rejected as too angry by Robert Gottlieb, the editor who replaced Shawn. It was published in book form by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1988, and certainly no one found it ”charming” as Kincaid was previously labeled by some. Nor did reviewers miss the anger. Salman Rushdie describes it in a Wall Street Journal review as ”a jeremiad of great clarity and a force that one might call torrential were the language not so finely controlled.” Many reviewers, such as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, did not find the anger at ”Europeans and North Americans who routinely patronized and humiliated the Antiguans” misplaced, but Alison Friesinger deems the book “distorted” by Kincaid’s anger in her review for the New York Times Book Review.
- Birbalsingh, Frank. Jamaica Kincaid: From Antigua to America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Bloom, Harold, ed. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia, Pa.:Chelsea House, 1998.
- Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1994.
- Mistron, Deborah. UnderstandingJamaica Kincaid’s Annie John. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne, 1994.
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