Writers

Add to researchJamaica Kincaid

Born
Antigua
Genre
Non-Fiction, Fiction
 
 
Biography
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on Antigua in 1949.

In 1965 she left Antigua for New York to work as an au pair, then studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and attended Franconia College in New Hampshire.

In 1972 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid and was a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine from 1974-1996, publishing her first book, At the Bottom of the River, a collection of short stories, in 1983. Her first novel, Annie John, followed in 1985 - the story of a wilful 10-year-old growing up on Antigua. Further novels include Lucy (1990); The Autobiography of my Mother (1996), a novel set on Dominica and told by a 70-year-old woman looking back on her life; and Mr. Potter (2007). A Small Place (1988), is a short, powerful book about the effects of colonialism. My Brother (1997) chronicles her brother's batlle with AIDS.

Her love of gardening has also led to several books on the subject, including My Garden (2000) and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005), a memoir about a seed-gathering trek with three botanist friends.

Jamaica Kincaid teaches in the English, African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University and lives in Vermont.

Critical Perspective

Written in a deceptively simple and unadorned style, Kincaid’s books are informed by her status of uprooted subject, born in the Caribbean island of Antigua, but living in North America.

Thanks to her condition, Kincaid critically examines her Antiguan past with its colonial legacy, and her American present. She is deeply dissatisfied with both of them, as she finds that the society she has left behind was characterised by bigotry, while North America can only offer opulent ignorance and is permeated by racism. Her work is also characterized by a constant exploration of the mother-daughter relationship ('I write about my mother and her influence on her children and on me all the time'), the quest for identity of former colonial subjects, especially women, and the cultural struggle against colonization and its erasure of local traditions. Kincaid’s oeuvre as a whole denounces the continuing effects of colonial domination over West Indians and their invasion of the natives’ lives. These effects, in turn, fuel the natives’ quest for emancipation and their consequent desire to leave the Caribbean island to seek opportunities elsewhere. Her style, which, at times, borrows the surrealistic tones of magical realism, blurs the boundaries between literary genres and also between personal stories and history. In spite of the author’s stress on open emotional revelations, her books also remain deeply elusive as they consciously omit information, thus repeatedly calling on the readers to make sense of the characters’ emotional and psychological predicaments.

The characters in Kincaid’s novels are constantly trying to emancipate themselves from their mothers and, by extension, from their motherland, an oppressive environment that hinders their cultural, psychological and sexual development. In Kincaid’s fiction, the mother-daughter relationship often becomes a mirror image for the hegemonic relationship between the mother country (England) and the daughter island (Antigua). The title characters in both Annie John (1985) and Lucy (1990) are aware that the only way to fully articulate their own selves is to leave their native land. The former novel significantly ends with Annie John’s departure from Antigua. This seems for the character the only way out from the self-destructive cycle that dominates her life because of her inability to come to terms with her coming of age and her relationship with her mother. The latter begins instead with Lucy’s arrival in the United States where she has moved to take up a job as an au pair. Yet, as Lucy is driven through her new city, she is already pervaded by a deep dissatisfaction because her expectations do not live up to the bleaker reality. In her day-dreams, she used to conceive the places she is being driven through as 'points of happiness,' 'lifeboats to [her] drowning soul' capable of seeing her through a bad feeling she did not have a name for. Yet, seeing them in real life, Lucy suddenly realises that 'these places ... looked ordinary, dirty, worn down by so many people entering and leaving them in real life.' It also occurs to her that she 'could not be the only person in the world for whom they were a fixture of fantasy.' Lucy refuses any type of contact with her mother and she actually becomes a mother figure herself for the children she looks after. Through her witty observations, Lucy challenges the hypocrisy of American society as well as the stereotyped view of America as the land of opportunity. The same satirical observations against American capitalism and society inform Kincaid’s contributions to The New Yorker.

The exploration of a mother-daughter relationship acquires a new twist in The Autobiography of My Mother (1996). The book recasts the bond in terms of maternal absence. 'My mother died at the moment I was born,' recalls the mixed-race protagonist, Xuela, in her late years after she has taken the conscious decision not to be her mother herself. Because of her mother’s death, read by some critics as metaphor for African diaspora, Xuela spent her childhood with the woman who used to do the washing for her father. It is this maternal absence, coupled with the oppressive legacy of colonial domination, that prevents Xuela articulating a meaningful identity for a long time. Yet, the protagonist becomes increasingly aware of her thwarted self and this realization is, in some ways, already a form of empowerment. Xuela also makes her sexuality and her race a form of independence and self-realization. Although the colonial institutions she attends, such as the school where she excels, constantly remind her of her subordinate position, Xuela achieves a certain degree of autonomy and self-determination. As Kincaid has repeatedly pointed out, 'whatever is a source of shame - if you are not responsible for it, such as the colour of your skin or your sexuality -- you should just wear it as a badge.' That is what Xuela does, yet such independence comes at the price of the loneliness and despair that pervade her narrative. The book further develops Kincaid’s autobiographical fictional cycle documenting the quest for identity of black women through childhood (Annie John), adolescence (Lucy) and maturity (The Autobiography of My Mother).

In My Brother (1997), Kincaid shifts her focus from a female to a male protagonist: her own brother, whose suffering and eventual dying of AIDS the book chronicles with harrowing details. Yet, in spite of this shift, Kincaid’s narrative still emphasizes the difficulty of expressing fully one’s inner self in the post-colonial context of Antigua. The island is portrayed once again as a suffocating and bigoted place where sexuality and AIDS are considered taboo topics. The author traces this cultural backwardness to the legacy of colonialism which she also deems responsible for the lack of an effective health care system.

In addition to novels and memoirs, Kincaid has also written the polemical A Small Place (1988), a pamphlet subverting the cliché of Antigua as a tourist’s paradise, and has edited a book of anecdotes on gardening, My Favourite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love (1998).

Luca Prono, 2010

Bibliography

2005
The Best American Travel Writing, edited with Jason Wilson, Houghton Mifflin
2005
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, National Geographic Books
2002
Mr. Potter, Chatto & Windus
2001
Talk Stories, Vintage
2000
My Garden, Vintage
1999
Poetics of Place, with Lynn Geesaman, Aperture
1998
My Favourite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (US)
1997
My Brother, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (US)
1996
The Autobiography of my Mother, Vintage
1995
The Best American Essays 1995, with Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin
1990
Lucy, Penguin
1988
A Small Place, Virago
1986
Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip, Whitney Museum of American Art (US)
1985
Annie John, Picador
1984
At the Bottom of the Garden, Pan Books
1983
At the Bottom of the River, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (US)

Awards

1997
PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, The Autobiography of my Mother, shortlist
1984
PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, At the Bottom of the River, shortlist