Jamaica Kincaid to speak at UCalgary as Distinguished Visiting Writer

Join Kincaid as she reflects on life and literature at MacEwan Ballroom on Feb. 9 with the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program.

A report by Alex Handley for The University of Calgary. 

It’s quite a distance from the dusty, bustling streets of St. John’s, the capital city of the small Caribbean Island of Antigua, to the quiet rural Main Street of North Bennington, Vt. And for one woman who calls the New England town her home today, the space between the two — and the journey there — has been much more than geographical.

Today she’s the well-known and respected author and artist Jamaica Kincaid. And on Thursday, Feb. 9 she will join the University of Calgary as the 2022-2023 Distinguished Visiting Writer to offer the free public event An Evening with Jamaica Kincaid. The evening will be moderated by Giller Prize-winning author and UCalgary professor of creative writing Suzette Mayr.

“I am so honoured to help welcome Jamaica Kincaid to the University of Calgary as part of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program,” says Mayr. “She is one of the literary giants of our time.”

Born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid was just 17 when she was sent from her island home to New York, leaving her family and the life she knew behind. She couldn’t know at the time that this first journey would serve as a road map that would prove longer, deeper and more significant to her future than any she had taken before.

When the unknown is the better option

An only child until age nine, Kincaid was taught by her single mother to read by age three. Interestingly, all the books her mother supplied were by, from, and about English authors: She was never introduced to West Indian literature. And while the possibility for attendance at university in Antigua was remote, it became virtually impossible as her family dynamics shifted.

Three brothers arrived in quick succession. In the culture of her homeland, chores fell to Kincaid and her mother’s attitude underwent a dramatic change. Kincaid was no longer a little girl to be nurtured; instead, she has said she became an object of derision.

Kincaid found work as an au pair in the suburbs of New York City and then in Manhattan. Eventually, she cut contact with the world she had known in Antigua and changed her name to avoid exposing herself and her family through her writing.

Finding a voice through images and words

Three years after arriving in New York, Kincaid took jobs in offices, picked up work as a model, and even spent time as a backup singer in a club. Life in New York provided her with access to all sorts of different people, and Kincaid took the time to learn from them.

It wasn’t until she discovered a passion for photography that she also began to find her words. She drafted poetry to accompany her visual work, then moved to essays and columns in well-known publications such as The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Ingénue Magazine. Her first published work was an interview with Gloria Steinem, entitled When I was 17, about Steinem and her teenage experiences.

Writing from experience is something Kincaid is known for. Although her works, which include poetry, articles, and books, are considered fiction, the fingerprints of her early life (her relationship with her mother, her upbringing in a place where colonialism was a prominent factor in the lives of the islanders) are repeated themes.

Her most well-known work is A Small Place, an expansive essay in which she returns to Antigua and views her home through an adult lens. Other well-known works include Lucy and Annie John, both pieces about teenage girls who leave home.

“I remember reading Annie John for the very first time, and it completely changed my understanding of what writing could be,” recalls Mayr. “Kincaid understood so fully what it was like to be a young woman coming of age. I am also a person of Caribbean heritage, and that book and her non-fiction book A Small Place gripped me in their description of place and how place can impact the psyche.”

Sharing her experiences with UCalgary as the 2022-23 Distinguished Visiting Writer

Today, Kincaid can be found at Harvard University, teaching in the Department of English and the Department of African and African American Studies. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, and the Dan David Prize for Literature.

And now, Jamaica Kincaid comes to the University of Calgary as Distinguished Visiting Writer. She joins an impressive list of literary luminaries to have held this title, including Lee Maracle, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, Margaret Atwood, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and illustrator Art Spiegelman, among others.

“The Distinguished Visiting Writer is enormously important to Calgary’s literary community,” notes Clem Martini, acting chair of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, host of the Feb. 9 event. “Thanks to the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, authors of Jamaica Kincaid’s stature and talent can be counted on each year to raise new perspectives and concepts which in turn refresh and renew the literary dialogue.”

An Evening with Jamaica Kincaid is free to attend but advance registration is required. Register to attend.

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