Kincaid, Jamaica

Biography

Book cover of At the Bottom of the River, 1983.

At the Bottom of the River, 1983

Jamaica Kincaid was born in 1949 as Elaine Potter Richardson on the island of Antigua. She lived with her stepfather, a carpenter, and her mother until 1965 when she was sent to Westchester, New York to work as an au pair. In Antigua, she completed her secondary education under the British system due to Antigua’s status as a British colony until 1967. She went on to study photography at the New York School for Social Research after leaving the family for which she worked, and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire for a year. Her first writing experience involved a series of articles for Ingenue magazine. In 1973, she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid because her family disapproved of her writing. Through her writing, she befriended George W.S. Trow, a writer for The New Yorker, who began writing “Talk of the Town” pieces about her. As a result, Kincaid met the editor of the magazine, William Shawn, who offered her a job. Kincaid later married Shawn’s son, Allen, a composer and Bennington College professor, and they now have two children. Kincaid is an avid gardener and has written several pieces, short and long, on the subject.

Major Themes

“I was always being told I should be something, and then my whole upbringing was something I was not: it was English.” (Cudjoe 219)

“Antigua is a small place, a small island…It was settled by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa [...] to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty– a European disease” (A Small Place 80-81).

Antigua became self-governing in 1967, but did not achieve the status of an independent nation within the Commonwealth until 1981. Within the structure of the British educational system imposed upon Antiguans, Kincaid grew to “detest everything about England, except the literature” (Vorda 79). She felt first-hand the negative effects of British colonialism as the colonists attempted to turn Antigua “into England” and the natives “into English” without regard for the native culture or homeland (Kincaid 24). The effects of colonialism serve as the major theme for A Small Place in which Kincaid expresses her anger both at the colonists and at the Antiguans for failing to fully achieve their independence. She feels that Antiguans failed to adopt the positive aspects of colonialism, for instance a good educational system which might help the population to better their lives. This inability to promote the importance of education and hope for the future is symbolized in the failure to rebuild Antigua’s only library, St. John’s, which was “damaged in the earthquake of 1974″ and years later, still carries the sign “REPAIRS ARE PENDING” (Kincaid 9).

Although Kincaid has faced heavy criticism for her angry tone and simple writing style in A Small Place, she wears her anger like “a badge of courage,” blaming her intimate connection to her homeland for creating “a sort of traumatic history” (Perry 132). In many ways, the identity Kincaid has developed is a result of an exposure to English cultural practices as well as education. This exposure created a disjunct between herself and the culture of Antigua, and “nothing can erase [her] rage [...] for this wrong can never be made right” (Kincaid 32). This rage provides the tone for this tract; as in other works, Kincaid’s writing becomes an expression of herself.

In A Small Place, Kincaid calls attention to the fact that in many ways, conditions in Antigua worsened with the achievement of independence; she communicates her frustration with her people and capitalism. In a nation free from colonialism, Antiguans “do to [themselves] the very things [colonists] used to do to [them]” (Kincaid 36). Just as they have adopted the behaviors of colonialism, the natives have “absorbed” the event of tourism “so completely that they have made the degradation and humiliation of their daily lives into their own tourist attraction” (Kincaid 69). Through her critique of colonialism and the development of an exploitative tourist industry in A Small Place, Kincaid addresses several other major themes which include the influence of homeland on identity, culture, and the desire for independence.

In her other novels, Kincaid reflects on the influence of the mother-daughter relationship in shaping a female identity in a male-dominated society and explores the phenomenon of female bonding. Because colonialism involves politics and public life, often thought to be male spheres of influence, Kincaid’s Annie John, Autobiography of My Mother, and At the Bottom of the River provide the opportunity to explore Kincaid’s relationship with her mother as well as her development of identity in light of cultural expectations. Lucy, in turn, incorporates these cultural expectations and how they result in different interpretations of the same events. Kincaid also examines a mother’s role in her daughter’s socialization and explores the ideas of love, affection, hostility, death and their impact on self-discovery. In fact, in an interview with Kay Bonetti, Kincaid states that “I don’t really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman.” Kincaid often portrays sex as a tool of independence for women, adding another dimension to the feminist aspects of her writing.

Finally, Kincaid is highly interested in writing as such. Many of her novels deal with the power that writing holds in terms of the audience it reaches, the privileges it gives to certain ideas over others and its ability to become internalized within the reader. Novels like Lucy reference famous poetry, specifically Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” poem, in order to problematize notions of aesthetics (Which flowers are consider beautiful? Where do they come from? And as a colonial subject, how that flower becomes inaccessible?). Her use of Wordsworth problematizes the Enlightenment principles that both morally hid and facilitated colonialist endeavors, and also highlights the class overtones of canonization (What kind of knowledge become necessary for a colonial subject to move within and through Western spheres and how easy it is for Western subjects to forget that the canon reflects back at them their own culture, rather than the culture of another?).

Works Cited

  • Allan, Vorda, ed. Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists. Houston: Rice UP, 1993. Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Web.
  • Byerman, Keith E. “Anger in A Small Place: Jamaica Kincaid’s Cultural Critique of Antigua.” College Literature 22 (1995): 91-102.
  • Cudjoe, Selwyn R., ed. Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference. Wellesley: Calaloux Publications, 1990.

Works By Jamaica Kincaid

  • “Girl” – short story (June 26, 1978, appeared in The New Yorker then again in 1984 in At the Bottom of the River)
  • At the Bottom of the River (1983)
  • Figures in the Distance (1983)
  • Annie John (1986)
  • A Small Place (1988)
  • Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip (1986)
  • Lucy (1990)
  • Biography of a Dress (1990)
  • “On Seeing England for the First Time,” essay (1991, published in Transition Magazine)
  • The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)
  • My Brother (1997)
  • My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love (editor; 1998)
  • My Garden (1999)
  • Talk Stories (2001)
  • Mr.Potter (2002)
  • Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (2005)
  • Life and Debt (Film, 2001)
  • “In History” (in The Colors of Nature)

Works About Jamaica Kincaid

  • Birbalsingh, Frank. Jamaica Kincaid: From Antigua to America. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
  • Braziel, Jana Evans. Caribbean genesis : Jamaica Kincaid and the writing of new worlds. Albany : State University of New York Press, 2009.
  • Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Middle passages and the healing place of history : migration and identity in Black women’s literature. Columbus : Ohio State University Press, 2006.
  • Ferguson, Moira. “A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Kenyon Review 16.1 (Winter 1994): 163 – 88.
  • —. Colonialism and Gender Relations from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid: East Caribbean Connections. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
  • De Ferrari, Guillermina. Vulnerable states : bodies of memory in contemporary Caribbean fiction. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2007.
  • —. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1994.
  • Muirhead, Pamela Buchanan. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Clockwatch Review: A Journal of the Arts 9.1&2 (1994-1995): 39-48.
  • Murdoch, Adlai H. “The Novels of Jamaica Kincaid: Figures of Exile, Narratives of Dreams.” Clockwatch Review: A Journal of the Arts 9.1&2 (1994-1995): 141- 54. Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne, 1994.
  • Page, Kezia Ann. Transnational negotiations in Caribbean diasporic literature : remitting the text. New York : Routledge, 2011.
  • Ramone, Jenni. Postcolonial theories. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Related Sites

Mother Jones Interview
http://www.mojones.com/mother_jones/SO97/snell.html
Salon Interview
http://www1.salon.com/05/features/kincaid.html

Author: Vanessa Pupello, Fall 1997

Last Updated: July 2012

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