There are no happy writers: Novelist Jamaica Kincaid

Geetanjali Jhala interviews Jamaica Kincaid during the Jaipur International Literary Festival for DNA India.

Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid had an abusive childhood and was taken out of school so her three younger brothers could be educated. She was sent to the US to become an au pair. Instead, she changed her name from Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson to Jamaica Kincaid so that no one would recognise her, and became a contributor to the New Yorker. “I came from a place where there were no writers and I didn’t want to be a writer as I had known writers, so I started with my autobiography,” she says. In an interview with DNA, the unassuming, melancholic writer says that while her roots in Antigua influence her work, she’s all-American now. Excerpts from an interview:

Considering the abuse you faced in your childhood, how important is conflict in the life of a writer?

I don’t know what’s important. I think each individual must have something that’s important to them. Perhaps the absence of conflict makes one a writer. Perhaps if I hadn’t had conflict in my life, I might have been a better writer, I don’t know. But my childhood in Antigua has influenced my work.

Do you regret never having had a formal education?

If I had had a formal education, I wouldn’t have been a writer at all. I might have become a scholar. If I had a proper training, a doctorate, say, I wouldn’t have become an artist.

Have you come to terms with the abuse you faced as a child and all the opportunities you were denied?

No. I still think, naturally, that I would want to be a scholar. But I love my life. I don’t have any problems with it. I don’t want to be anything else because I am what I am. But I still wish I had gone to college and sat around and studied Shakespeare and written some little thing about Shakespeare that no one would read. I love scholars. I think it’s the most wonderful thing — to be someone who studies a text and writes obscure things about it.

Do you consider yourself a pessimist or a realist?

I think I consider myself a pessimist. Which isn’t to say that I give up, but I think ‘Oh, it won’t work out’, but then I do it anyway. I don’t know if that’s a pessimist, but I feel I am a pessimist. It doesn’t stop me, but I am a pessimist. I didn’t think I would have success as a writer, but it didn’t stop me.

Does being pessimistic help you as a writer? How important is it to be happy?

I don’t know that there are any happy writers. But I don’t know that there is any happy person either. A happy person, to me, would seem to have the unique ability to shut out unpleasantness of life. I think happiness is something you run into from time to time. That’s why people take drugs and such. Happiness is not a natural state. If it were a natural state, there would be no word for it. You’d just sort of bump into it in the dark.

You said that you start writing stories knowing how they will end and that life is like that. When you moved to America, did you know how your story would end?

No. I thought I would be a miserable person for the rest of my life. I was very miserable when I first got to America because I was sent away from my home, my family. I was all alone. I didn’t know it would be possible to have the life I have, which is a relatively good life.

What do you like doing more? Writing or gardening?

I love reading more than I like writing. Most of all I love to read, and when I’ve satisfied my reading impulse, then I write. Writing is the second thing that I like to do best. Gardening is a form of reading. So is actually cooking.

What would you be if you weren’t a writer?

Probably someone who’s mad, standing in the corner of the street hectoring passersby to do the right thing. I’d probably be a mad prophet that nobody listens to.

For the original report go to

The caricature of Jamaica Kincaid by David Levine, done for the New York Review of Books, can be purchased at

4 thoughts on “There are no happy writers: Novelist Jamaica Kincaid

  1. “Happiness is not a natural state. If it were a natural state, there would be no word for it.”

    This must be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve read all week.

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