Jamaica Kincaid Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, 1949. Education: Princess Margaret girls' school, Antigua; New School for Social Research, New York; Franconia College, New Hampshire, 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.
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.
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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
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