Jamaica Kincaid, The Art of Fiction No. 252

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Darryl Pinckney interviews Jamaica Kincaid for The Paris Review, Issue 239, Spring 2022. Here are excerpts (the full interview requires a subscription—see link below).

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on Antigua in 1949. When she was sixteen, her family interrupted her education, sending her to work as a nanny in New York. In time, she put herself on another path. She went from the New School in Manhattan to Franconia College in New Hampshire, and worked at Magnum Photos and at the teen magazine Ingenue. In the mid-’70s, she began to write for The Village Voice, but it was at The New Yorker, where she became a regular columnist for the Talk of the Town section, that everything changed for her. Her early fiction, much of which also appeared in that magazine, was collected in At the Bottom of the River (1983), a book that, like her Talk stories, announced her themes, her style, the uncanny purity of her prose. She has published the novels Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Mr. Potter (2002), and See Now Then (2013). A children’s book, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip, came out in 1986. Aside from the collected Talk Stories (2001), her nonfiction works include A Small Place (1988), a reckoning with the colonial legacy on Antigua; My Brother (1997), a memoir of the tragedy of AIDS in her family; and two books on gardening, My Garden (Book) (1999) and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005).

Kincaid divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a professor of African American studies at Harvard University, and Bennington, Vermont, where her large brown clapboard house with yellow window trim is shielded by trees. [. . .]

This conversation began at a public event at the 92nd Street Y in 2013, and was picked up again in her Vermont kitchen eight years later, in the summer of 2021, when the social restrictions of the pandemic had, for a time, eased. [. . .] She is a presence; everything begins to happen when she talks. In person and on the page, Kincaid’s is a literary voice. She is alive to the advantage in the irony that her literary heritage had not predicted her, exalted, brave, free.

INTERVIEWER: Why did your family send you to America? Wasn’t London still a capital of empire in the mid-’60s, the cultural center of the Commonwealth?

JAMAICA KINCAID: If they’d known anyone in London, they would have sent me there. But they didn’t have any long-term plan in mind. The idea wasn’t that I would establish myself and then have the rest of my family join me. I was simply sent away to support them. My father—my stepfather—had gotten ill, and my parents had three boy children. The arrival of my youngest brother had plunged us into a kind of poverty we’d never known. It used to be a tradition in agricultural families that you’d sacrifice the eldest child. I remember the darkness of being sent away—sheer misery of a kind that I didn’t know existed. Until then homesickness was something I only knew from books. I think I first came across it in one of the Brontës. [. . .]

INTERVIEWER: Homesickness—this kind of interrupted love—is a big element in your work.

KINCAID: Well, perhaps, but I never really felt I belonged even in Antigua, even when I was little. My mother came from Dominica, and the thing about those little islands is that people from one island or the other don’t like each other. She was an outsider in Antigua, and she looked different. She was part Carib Indian, and they used to call her the Red Woman.

I suppose that my work is always mourning something, the loss of a paradise—not the thing that comes after you die, but the thing that you had before. I often think of the time before my brothers were born—and this might sound very childish, but I don’t care—as this paradise of my mother and me always being together. There were times when my mother and I would go swimming and she would disappear for a second, and I would imagine the depths just rolling over her, that she’d go deeper and deeper and I’d never see her again. . . And then she would pop up somewhere else. Those memories are a constant source of some strange pleasure for me.

I was pulled out of school to take care of my youngest brother while my mother went to work, and when she realized I hadn’t been looking after him properly, that I had been reading instead, she gathered all the books I had stolen from the library over the years and burned them. You can probably tell from my writing that I’m obsessed with notions of justice and injustice—those things that are wrong that can never be made right.

Nowadays if I were to be homesick it would be for Vermont, which is strange. But perhaps it makes sense—I grew up in a place where I saw the sea every day and, near the end of my life, I’m living in a place where the water has run out. [. . .]

Read full interview at The Paris Review. Subscription required: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/7879/the-art-of-fiction-no-252-jamaica-kincaid


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