Jamaica Kincaid in September 2019
|Born||Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson|
May 25, 1949
St. John's, Antigua and Barbuda
|Genre||Fiction, memoir, essays|
|Notable awards||American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2004|
(m. 1979; div. 2002)
Jamaica Kincaid (//; born May 25, 1949) is an Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, gardener, and gardening writer. She was born in St. John's, Antigua (part of the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda). She lives in North Bennington, Vermont (in the United States), during the summers, and is Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at Harvard University during the academic year.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St John's, Antigua, on May 25, 1949. She grew up in relative poverty with her mother, a literate, cultured woman and homemaker, and her stepfather, a carpenter. She was very close to her mother until her three brothers were born in quick succession, starting when Kincaid was nine years old. After her brothers' births, she resented her mother, who thereafter focused primarily on the brothers' needs. Kincaid later recalled,
Our family money remained the same, but there were more people to feed and to clothe, and so everything got sort of shortened, not only material things but emotional things. The good emotional things, I got a short end of that. But then I got more of things I didn't have, like a certain kind of cruelty and neglect.
Kincaid received (and frequently excelled in) a British education growing up, as Antigua did not gain independence from the United Kingdom until 1981. Although she was intelligent and frequently tested at the top of her class, Kincaid's mother removed her from school at 16 to help support the family when her third and last brother was born, because her stepfather was ill and could no longer provide for the family. In 1966, when Kincaid was 17, her mother sent her to Scarsdale, a wealthy suburb of New York City, to work as an au pair. After this move, when Kincaid refused to send money home, "she left no forwarding address and was cut off from her family until her return to Antigua 20 years later".
In 1979, Kincaid married the composer and Bennington College professor Allen Shawn, son of longtime The New Yorker editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn. The couple divorced in 2002. They have two children: a son, Harold, the music producer/songwriter Levelsoundz, a graduate of Northeastern University; and a daughter, Annie, who graduated from Harvard and now works in marketing. Kincaid is president of the official Levelsoundz Fan Club.
While working as an au pair, Kincaid enrolled in evening classes at a community college. After three years, she resigned from her job to attend Franconia College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship. She dropped out after a year and returned to New York. In New York City, she started writing for a teenage girls' magazine. She changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in 1973, when her writing was first published. She described this name change as "a way for [her] to do things without being the same person who couldn't do them — the same person who had all these weights". Kincaid explained that "Jamaica" is an English corruption of what Columbus called Xaymaca, the part of the world that she comes from, and "Kincaid" appeared to go well with "Jamaica". Kincaid became a writer for The Village Voice and Ingénue. Her short fiction appeared in The Paris Review, and in The New Yorker, where her novel Lucy was originally serialized.
Kincaid is an award-winning writer, whose work has been both praised and criticized for its subject matter because it largely draws upon her own life, and her tone is often perceived as angry. Kincaid counters that many writers draw upon personal experience, so to describe her writing as autobiographical and angry is not valid criticism. Jamaica Kincaid was named the 50th commencement speaker at Bard College at Simon's Rock in 2019.
The New Yorker
As a result of her budding writing career and friendship with George W. S. Trow, who wrote many pieces for The New Yorker column "The Talk of the Town", Kincaid became acquainted with New Yorker editor William Shawn, who was impressed with her writing. He employed her as a staff writer in 1976 and eventually as a featured columnist for Talk of the Town for nine years. Shawn's tutelage legitimized Kincaid as a writer and proved pivotal to her development of voice. In all, she was a staff writer for The New Yorker for 20 years. She resigned from The New Yorker in 1996 when then editor Tina Brown chose actress Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue as an original feminist voice. Though circulation rose under Brown, Kincaid was critical of Brown's direction in making the magazine less literary and more celebrity-oriented.
Kincaid recalls that when she was a writer for The New Yorker, she would often be questioned, particularly by women, on how she was able to obtain her position. Kincaid felt that these questions were posed because she was a young black woman "from nowhere… I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I'm writing for The New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people."
Talk Stories was later published in 2001 as a collection of "77 short pieces Kincaid wrote for The New Yorker's 'Talk of the Town' column between 1974 and 1983".
Her novels are loosely autobiographical, though Kincaid has warned against interpreting their autobiographical elements too literally: "Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence." Her work often prioritizes "impressions and feelings over plot development" and features conflict with both a strong maternal figure and colonial and neocolonial influences. Excerpts from her non-fiction book A Small Place were used as part of the narrative for Stephanie Black's 2001 documentary, Life and Debt.
She never feels the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a female sensibility. She assumes them both. I think it's a distinct departure that she's making, and I think that more and more black American writers will assume their world the way that she does. So that we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to the deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and die. Which, after all, is what art is all about.
Kincaid's writing explores such themes as colonialism and colonial legacy, postcolonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, Kincaid also first explores the theme of time.
Tone and style
Kincaid's unique style has created disagreement among critics and scholars, and as Harold Bloom explains: "Most of the published criticism of Jamaica Kincaid has stressed her political and social concerns, somewhat at the expense of her literary qualities." As works such as At the Bottom of the River and The Autobiography of My Mother use Antiguan cultural practices, some critics say these works employ magical realism. "The author claims, however, that [her work] is 'magic' and 'real,' but not necessarily [works] of 'magical realism'." Other critics claim that her style is "modernist" because much of her fiction is "culturally specific and experimental". It has also been praised for its keen observation of character, curtness, wit, and lyrical quality. Her short story Girl is essentially a list of instructions on how a girl should live and act, but the messages are much larger than the literal list of suggestions. Kincaid makes a list of motherly orders a piece of literature. Derek Walcott, 1992 Nobel laureate, said of Kincaid's writing: "As she writes a sentence, psychologically, its temperature is that it heads toward its own contradiction. It's as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels. And that is astonishing, because it's one thing to be able to write a good declarative sentence; it's another thing to catch the temperature of the narrator, the narrator's feeling. And that's universal, and not provincial in any way". Susan Sontag has also commended Kincaid's writing for its "emotional truthfulness," poignancy, and complexity. Her writing has been described as "fearless" and her "force and originality lie in her refusal to curb her tongue". Giovanna Covi describes her unique writing: "The tremendous strength of Kincaid's stories lies in their capacity to resist all canons. They move at the beat of a drum and the rhythm of jazz…" She is described as writing with a "double vision" meaning that one line of plot mirrors another, providing the reader with rich symbolism that enhances the possibilities of interpretation.
Kincaid's writing is largely influenced by her life circumstances even though she discourages readers from taking her fiction literally. To do so, according to the writer Michael Arlen, is to be "disrespectful of a fiction writer's ability to create fictional characters". Kincaid worked for Arlen, who would become a colleague at The New Yorker, as an au pair and is the figure whom the father in Lucy is based on. Despite her caution to readers, Kincaid has also said, "I would never say I wouldn't write about an experience I've had."
Reception and criticism
The reception of Kincaid's work has been mixed. Her writing stresses deep social and even political commentary, as Harold Bloom cites as a reason why the "literary qualities" of her work tend to be less of a focus for critics. Writing for Salon.com, Peter Kurth called Kincaid's work My Brother the most overrated book of 1997. Reviewing her latest novel, See Now Then (2013), in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it "bipolar", "half séance, half ambush" and "the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished. It picks up no moral weight as it rolls along. It asks little of us, and gives little in return." Another New York Times review describes it as "not an easy book to stomach" but goes on to explain, "Kincaid's force and originality lie in her refusal to curb her tongue, in an insistence on home truths that spare herself least of all." Kate Tuttle addresses this in an article for The Boston Globe: "Kincaid allowed that critics are correct to point out the book's complexity. "The one thing the book is," she said, "is difficult, and I meant it to be." Some critics have been harsh, such as one review for Mr Potter (2002) that reads, "It wouldn't be so hard if the repetition weren't coupled, here and everywhere it occurs, with a stern rebuff to any idea that it might be meaningful." On the other hand, there has been much praise for her writing, for instance: "The superb precision of Kincaid's style makes it a paradigm of how to avoid lots of novelistic pitfalls."
List of works
- Annie John (1985)
- Lucy (1990)
- The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)
- Mr Potter (2002)
- See Now Then (2013)
- Uncollected fiction
- "Ovando" (1989), Conjunctions 14: 75–83
- "The Finishing Line" (1990), New York Times Book Review 18
- "Biography of a Dress" (1992), Grand Street 11: 92–100
- "Song of Roland" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 94–98
- "Xuela" (1994), The New Yorker, 70: 82–92
- Short story collections
- At the Bottom of the River (1983)
- Non-fiction books
- A Small Place (1988)
- My Brother (1997)
- Talk Stories (2001)
- My Garden Book (2001)
- Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (2005)
- Uncollected non-fiction
- "Antigua Crossings: A Deep and Blue Passage on the Caribbean Sea" (1978), Rolling Stone: 48–50.
- "Figures in the Distance" (1983)
- "On Seeing England for the First Time" (1991), Transition Magazine 51: 32–40
- "Out of Kenya" (1991), The New York Times: A15, A19, with Ellen Pall
- "Flowers of Evil: In the Garden" (1992), The New Yorker 68: 154–159
- "A Fire by Ice" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 64–67
- "Just Reading: In the Garden" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 51–55
- "Alien Soil: In the Garden" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 47–52
- "This Other Eden" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 69–73
- "The Season Past: In the Garden" (1994), The New Yorker 70: 57–61
- "In Roseau" (1995), The New Yorker 71: 92–99.
- "In History" (1997), The Colors of Nature
- My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love (1998), Editor
- Children's literature
- Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip (1986)
- Selwyn Cudjoe, "Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview," Callaloo, 12 (Spring 1989): 396–411; reprinted in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Cudjoe (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990): 215–231.
- Leslie Garis, "Through West Indian Eyes," New York Times Magazine (October 7, 1990): 42.
- Donna Perry, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," in Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990): 492–510.
- Kay Bonetti, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Missouri Review, 15, No. 2 (1992): 124–142.
- Allan Vorda, "I Come from a Place That's Very Unreal: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," in Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, ed. Vorda (Houston: Rice University Press, 1993): 77–105.
- Moira Ferguson, "A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Kenyon Review, 16 (Winter 1994): 163–188.
Awards and honors
- 1984: Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for At the Bottom of the River
- 1984: Shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for At the Bottom of the River.
- 1985: Guggenheim Award for Fiction
- 1985: Finalist for the International Ritz Paris Hemingway Award for Annie John
- 1997: Shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Friction for The Autobiography of My Mother
- 1997: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of My Mother
- 1999: Lannan Literary Award for Fiction
- 2000: Prix Femina étranger for My Brother
- 2004: American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2009: American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2010: Center for Fiction's Clifton Fadiman Medal for Annie John
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Tufts University
- 2014: Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for See Now Then
- 2015: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Brandeis University
- Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award.
- 2017:Winner of the Dan David Prize in Literature
- Farrior, Angela D. "Jamaica Kincaid". Writers of the Caribbean. East Carolina University. Archived from the original on June 8, 2017. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- "Jamaica Kincaid - Harvard University Department of English". English.fas.harvard.edu. Archived from the original on June 5, 2018. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- Slavin, Molly Marie. "Kincaid, Jamaica". Postcolonial Studies. Emory University. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- Loh, Alyssa (May 5, 2013). "Jamaica Kincaid: People say I'm angry because I'm black and I'm a woman". Salon. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- "Her Story". BBC World Service. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 3, 2014. Retrieved November 20, 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- Kenney, Susan (April 7, 1985). "Paradise with Snake". The New York Times. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
- Garris, Leslie (October 7, 1990). "Through West Indian Eyes". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 18, 2013.
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- Halper, D. "Black Jews: A Minority Within a Minority". United Jewish Communities. Archived from the original on February 28, 2009. Retrieved August 3, 2010.
- Benson, Kristin M., and Hagseth, Cayce. (2001). "Jamaica Kincaid." Voices from the Gaps. University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. Retrieved on August 7, 2018.
- "Jamaica Kincaid". Department of English Language and Literature. Fu Jen Catholic University. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- Garis, Leslie (October 7, 1990). "Through West Indian Eyes". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 18, 2013.
- Sander, R. "Review of Diane Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid". Caribbean Writer: the Literary Gem of the Caribbean. University of the Virgin Islands. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- Ippolito, Emilia (July 7, 2001). "Jamaica Kincaid". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- "Jamaica Kincaid Named Simon's Rock Commencement Speaker | Bard College at Simon's Rock". simons-rock.edu. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
- Jelly-Schapiro, Joshua (2016). "[Excerpt]". The View from Jamaica Kincaid's Antigua. New York: Penguin Random House.
Jamaica Kincaid's first published work, in the magazine where she made her name… appeared in the September 30, 1974, issue of The New Yorker. It was a brief notice about the annual West Indian Labor Day Carnival in Brooklyn, in the magazine's Talk of the Town section. It ran without a byline, as was customary for "Talk" pieces at the time, and employing the royal 'we', also common to these pieces then.
- Levintova, Hannah. "'Our Sassy Black Friend' Jamaica Kincaid". Mother Jones (January/February 2013). Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- Powers, Sienna (February 2001). "Talk Jamaica". January Magazine. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
- Kincaid, Jamaica; Bonetti, Kay (June 1, 2002). "Interview with Jamaica Kincaid". The Missouri Review. University of Missouri College of Arts and Science. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
- Jamaica Kincaid. (n.d.). Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. Literary Resource Center. Retrieved June 2014
- "About the film". Life and Debt. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
- Garis, Leslie (October 7, 1990). "Through West Indian Eyes". New York Times Magazine.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. (1998). Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House. ISBN 0791047814. LCCN 98014078. OCLC 38580188.
- Frederick, R. D. (2000). "Jamaica Kincaid", Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American, pp. 314–319. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- Eberstadt, Fernanda (February 22, 2013). "Home Truths: 'See Now Then,' by Jamaica Kincaid". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 8, 2018.
- Garner, Dwight (December 25, 1997). "The worst books of 1997". Salon. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
- Garner, Dwight (February 12, 2013). "'See Now Then,' Jamaica Kincaid's New Novel". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
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- Stahl, Eva Marie. "The Autobiography of My Mother". Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The Cleveland Foundation. Retrieved June 7, 2018.
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