Authors: Jamaica Kincaid

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Antiguan American writer of novels, short stories, essays, and children's literature.

May 25, 1949

Saint John's, Antigua

Biography

Jamaica Kincaid is a writer of powerful, lyrical prose that is intensely introspective, while also examining, through a very personal mirror, the realities of being a woman, a daughter, and a native of an island nation that, though it had some degree of home rule for most of her life, did not become independent from Great Britain until 1981. Born in Saint Johns, the capital of Antigua, as Elaine Potter Richardson, Kincaid was the daughter of a carpenter; it was her mother, described by Kincaid as a literate, cultured woman, who had the greater impact on her writing. In an interview with The New York Times Kincaid said, “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me,” a statement that may help explain the deep ambivalence her daughter characters feel toward their mothers. At the age of seventeen she left Antigua to finish her education in the United States, where, however, she withdrew from college before earning a degree. In 1973, during a period of transition, she changed her name from Elaine Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid. In 1976 she became a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she met her husband, Allen Shawn, a son of the magazine’s editor, William Shawn. They had two children, and in 1986 the family moved to Vermont, where she took a position at Bennington College. Kincaid and Shawn divorced in 2002.

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Her first book, At the Bottom of the River, a collection of stories, received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Some critics found the work indecipherable or too personal, but Susan Sontag and Doris Grumbach praised the book highly. The main theme of these stories, which often have the form, simple language, and sharp images of folktales, is the intensity of the unnamed central character’s relationship with her mother. The first story, “Girl,” is a series of instructions from a mother to a daughter on how to eat, how to walk like a lady (“and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming”), and how to love a man, written in one extended sentence marked by two moments of protest in which the girl tries to stem the rush of language. The story inaugurates the central theme of the volume and cues the reader to expect the stylistically unexpected. The perspective shifts between stories from mother to daughter. “In the Night” presents the images and thoughts in the mind of the young girl at night, whereas “Blackness” explores the night thoughts of the mother thinking about her child.

Jamaica Kincaid, Miami Book Fair International, 1999

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By MDCarchives (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The final story, “At the Bottom of the River,” is the longest and perhaps the most difficult in the collection. A story about death and transformation, it begins with the narrator discussing a man who, unaware of the beauty of the world, refuses to get out of bed. The narrator contrasts this man to a carpenter who takes pleasure in the world but is eventually overcome by a feeling of futility when he considers his own mortality. From there the story turns into a meditation on death. The narrator seems to look at her home from an ethereal place beyond individual life and death, but she finally comes back to the solid world at the end of the story, feeling renewed.

Kincaid’s second book, Annie John, connected short stories shaped into a novel, covers much of the same emotional territory in a much more conventional, though still highly personal, style of narration. In the chapter “Gwen,” for example, readers of the earlier book’s story “My Mother” will find echoes of that story’s action, such as the therapeutic bathing in the sea, the panic of separation from the mother, and the mother’s suffocating hug; in “Gwen,” however, all of this comes in an autobiographical essay Annie John writes that, though poignant, is fairly straightforward.

Annie John follows Annie (whose name echoes that of her and the author’s hometown, Saint Johns) from the age of ten to seventeen and presents a series of losses, starting with her first encounters with death. In the second chapter, “The Circling Hand,” her mother begins to see Annie as a young lady and disallows the extraordinary closeness that the two of them had known. This distance finds a central image in the almost dead-looking circling hand with which her mother caresses Annie’s father when Annie catches a glimpse of them in bed. The animosity between Annie and her mother grows throughout the book, and finally, at the age of seventeen, Annie leaves Antigua for England. On the way to the jetty she passes all the places that have deep meaning for her, seeing “these places as if they were hanging in air,” much like the narrator’s experience at the end of “At the Bottom of the River.”

A Small Place is a personal and historical essay about Kincaid’s native home, Antigua. The poetical ear and eye of her fiction is still there but marked by rage, not only at the history of British domination, which she discusses, but also at the legacy of imperialism. This imperialism included a corrupt government (and a people who have learned to expect no better from government), the tradition of celebrating British royalty, and the nostalgia for the times when the British kept most of the island’s population enslaved or impoverished. The rage and helplessness the author feels are clearly fueled by her love for Antigua, and it is this strength of emotion that makes the essay finally effective, even while perhaps causing the rhetorical problems of which some reviewers have complained. This essay expands on the subject matter of Kincaid’s earlier books, establishing the political and historical canvas on which her sharp and personal images are painted.

Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip continues Kincaid’s theme of maturing girlhood. A collaborative effort with Eric Fischl, the illustrator, Kincaid’s text is a lyrical dialogue of five girls as they journey toward adulthood. Although the theme remains familiar, the collaborative effort is Kincaid’s first. Fischl’s semiexpressionist illustrations enhance Kincaid’s text, and though the primary audience may be a youthful one, adults also enjoy the book.

In Lucy Kincaid presents a young woman whose worldview has been constructed by colonialism. Fiercely determined to define herself, Lucy moves from her island home to the United States, where she works as an au pair. It is easy to see Lucy as a continuation of Annie John’s story, but in an interview Kincaid has stated that she considers it a separate work with autonomous relevance that does not depend upon Annie John for meaning. “It’s a continuation,” she says, “only in the sense that it’s about my life and it’s the same life I’m writing about, but they [Lucy and Annie] were not meant to be the same person at all.” Returning to her political theme, Kincaid designates the nameless and genderless narrator in “Ovando” as an Arawak, a now extinct group of indigenous Caribbeans.

In The Autobiography of My Mother Kincaid changes an important constant in her work. Focusing not only on childhood and youth but also on a woman who achieves maturity, the novel expands the canvas on which she presents her personal and political images. The Autobiography of My Mother generates new and greater narrative complexity.

In the late 1990s, Kincaid began exploring the male experience, first in her memoir My Brother, a grim account of her brother Devon’s death of AIDS in 1996. The story Kincaid relates, however, shows her brother responding to the same familial psychodynamics that drive her fictionalized autobiographies of mother-daughter relations. Mr. Potter switches focus from maternal to paternal relationships, telling the story of the title character, an Antiguan chauffeur, and his fisherman father through the eyes of his writer daughter.

Kincaid explores the dissolution of a marriage, loss, motherhood, and time in her 2013 novel See Now Then, winner of the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 2014. Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, the protagonists, are artists living in a small Vermont village with their two children. These and other details parallel Kincaid’s own experience of her marriage to Allen Shawn.

Author Works Short Fiction: At the Bottom of the River, 1983 Long Fiction: Annie John, 1985 Lucy, 1990 The Autobiography of My Mother, 1996 Mr. Potter, 2002 See Now Then, 2013 Nonfiction: A Small Place, 1988 My Brother, 1997 My Garden (Book), 1999 Talk Stories, 2001 Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, 2005 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, 1986 (with illustrations by Eric Fischl) Edited Texts: Best American Essays 1995, 1995 My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, 1998 Best American Travel Writing 2005, 2005 Bibliography Als, Hilton. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Review of Lucy. The Nation 252 (February 18, 1991): 207-209. Als compares the novel with A Small Place, since both are concerned with oppression. Als emphasizes Kincaid’s importance as a Caribbean writer who is not afraid to tackle the issues of racism and colonialism at the risk of alienating readers. Bloom, Harold, ed. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. A collection of individually authored chapters on Kincaid, this critical study includes bibliographical references and an index. Bouson, J. Brooks. Jamaica Kincaid: Writing Memory, Writing Back to the Mother. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. An examination of Kincaid’s life, including her relationship with her mother, her homeland of Antigua, and her conflicting relations with her father and brother. Cohen, Paula Marantz. “Jamaica Kincaid Returns in Epic Voice.” Review of See Now Then , by Jamaica Kincaid. Salmagundi, no. 182/183, 2015, pp. 222–32. Poetry & Short Story Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=prf&AN=110598536&site=eds-live. Accessed 27 Mar. 2017. Presents a literary critique of Kincaid’s 2014 novel, See Now Then. Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994. Focuses on the importance of migration in the construction of identity in black women’s fiction in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Especially insightful regarding Kincaid’s Lucy. De Abruna, Laura Nielsen. “Jamaica Kincaid’s Writing and the Maternal-Colonial Matrix.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Discusses Kincaid’s presentation of women’s experience, her use of postmodern narrative strategies, and her focus on the absence of the once-affirming mother or mother country that causes dislocation and alienation. Ellsberg, Peggy. “Rage Laced with Lyricism.” Review of A Small Place. Commonweal 115 (November 4, 1988): 602-604. In her review of A Small Place with references to At the Bottom of the River and Annie John, Ellsberg justifies the anger that is present in A Small Place, anger that is occasioned by exploitation. Emery, Mary Lou. “Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 16 (Fall, 1997): 259-280. Emery uses one of Jean Rhys’s novels to illustrate a dialectical relationship between the European means of visualization and image-making in postcolonial literatures as something not just of the eye. Argues that the use of the rhetorical trope of ekphrasis (an artistic hybrid) reflects the cultural hybrid nature of postcolonial literature. Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Ferguson, Moira. “A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” The Kenyon Review, n.s. 16 (Winter, 1994): 163-188. Kincaid discusses the inspiration for her writing and the reasons she wrote her first book in an experimental style; describes the influence of the English tradition on fiction in the Caribbean; comments on the nature of colonial conquest as a theme she explores through the metaphor of gardening. Garis, Leslie. “Through West Indian Eyes.” The New York Times Magazine 140 (October, 7, 1990): 42. Based on an interview with Kincaid, this six-page article is the best source of information about Kincaid’s life. Contains details about her childhood in Antigua, her relationship with her mother, her early interest in books, her early years in New York, and her marriage to Allen Shawn. Includes illustrations. Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. The chapter on Kincaid analyzes her “serial autobiography” of her mother. Kreilkamp, Ivan. “Jamaica Kincaid: Daring to Discomfort.” Publishers Weekly 243 (January 1, 1996): 54-55. Lee, Felicia R. “Dark Words, Light Being.” The New York Times, January 25, 1996, C1, C10. MacDonald-Smythe, Antonia. Making Homes in the West Indies: Constructions of Subjectivity in the Writings of Michelle Cliff and Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Garland, 2001. Focuses on these two Caribbean women writers. Milton, Edith. “Making a Virtue of Diversity.” Review of At the Bottom of the River, by Jamaica Kincaid. The New York Times Book Review. (January 15, 1984): 22. Milton presents the major criticism of Kincaid’s fiction—that the stories are obscure, plotless, and too visionary. Milton also discusses the strong Caribbean folktale influence evident in Kincaid’s stories. Mistron, Deborah. Understanding Jamaica Kincaid’s “Annie John.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A student casebook, providing literary, cultural, and biographic context for Kincaid’s novel. Onwordi, Iki. “Wising Up.” Review of At the Bottom of the River and Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid. The Times Literary Supplement (November 29, 1985): 1374. A brief review in which Onwordi discusses the works’ similarities, especially in language and themes. Paravisini-Gerbert, Lizabeth. Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Two biographical chapters are followed by in-depth analyses of At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother. Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne, 1994. A clear, lucid critical overview of Kincaid’s life and work. A good introduction to her work for nonspecialist readers. Weather, Diane. “Jamaica Kincaid: Her Small Place.” Essence 26 (March, 1996): 98-99.

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