A significant voice in contemporary literature, Jamaica Kincaid (born Elaine Potter Richardson in 1949) is widely praised for her works of short fiction, novels, and essays in which she explores the tenuous relationship between mother and daughter as well as themes of anti-colonialism. A native of Antigua, Kincaid is considered one of the most important women Caribbean writers.
Once her brothers were born, Kincaid felt sidelined by her mother. To drown her heartache, she became a voracious reader, listing Jane Eyre as one of her all-time favorite novels. At the age of 17, she moved to New York City to work as an au pair.
Although it wasn’t her original goal to become a published author, that quickly became her reality. Kincaid went on to become a highly prolific writer, often writing about the heartache of a daughter, brought on by the rejection of a mother. Over a career that has spanned more than three decades, Kincaid has earned a reputable place in the literary world for her highly personal, stylistic, and honest writings.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on May 25, 1949, in the capital city of St. John's on Antigua, a small island in the West Indies that was colonized by the British in 1632 and achieved full independence in 1981. Her mother, Annie Richardson, was an emigre from Dominica. Her stepfather, David Drew, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Kincaid's maternal grandmother, a Carib Indian, also played an important role in her early life. Kincaid's biological father, Roderick Potter, was never involved in her upbringing. Her family was poor: they had no electricity, running water, or plumbing in their home.
Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, at which time the first of her three brothers was born. Until their birth, Kincaid had enjoyed the sole attention of her mother, who taught her to read when she was three and had given her a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary when she turned seven. However, with the arrival of her brothers, Kincaid's relationship with her mother changed dramatically. She was no longer a dependent young child and her importance in her mother's eyes was severely diminished because she was female.
Although Kincaid was intellectually gifted, she was not given encouragement in the British public school she attended on the island. Her teachers frequently found her attitude rude and considered her a troublemaker. Nevertheless, she was an avid reader and spent much time at the city's library, getting to know and admire the young librarian who worked there. Kincaid's love for books was so fierce that she stole some from the library and hid them under her family's porch. The bookish and small child was not well liked by her peers, who often picked fights with her and beat her up.
Discussing this period in her life, Kincaid recalled in a Kenyon Review interview with Moira Ferguson in 1994, "I would come home with my clothes in tatters and my face scratched up, and my mother would take me back to the person who had beaten me up and say 'fight, fight' and I couldn't fight. I would just cry and cry… ." Eventually, after years of abuse, when she was 11, Kincaid finally did fight back and win. After that, she was no longer tormented and she actually took on a leadership role.
As a girl there were few options available for Kincaid. She would have liked to have attended university in Antigua and remained there after becoming a teacher or a librarian, but she was not given that opportunity. Despite the shortcomings of her early education, she did acquire a strong background in English literature, studying the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and the King James version of the Bible. Kincaid especially loved the works of Charlotte Bronte, reading Jane Eyre numerous times.
Self-Exile in the United States
In 1966, shortly after turning 17, Kincaid was sent to the United States to work as an au pair for an affluent family in Scarsdale, New York. She was expected to send money home to her family, but she would not. She received letters from home, but she did not open them. It was in this state of self-exile that Kincaid would shape her new life away from the unhappiness she had felt in Antigua.
Shortly after leaving her job in Scarsdale, Kincaid found work for an Upper East Side family in New York City. After this move, she left no forwarding address and was cut off from her family until her return to Antigua 20 years later. While working in New York, Kincaid continued her education at a community college, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and began taking photography courses at the New School for Social Research. She later studied photography at Franconia College in New Hampshire on a scholarship, though she never earned a college diploma.
When asked in a 1996 interview with Dwight Garner in Salon if she had any aspirations to become a writer when she came to the United States, she stated flatly, "None. Absolutely none. [When] I first arrived I was incredibly depressed and lonely. I didn't know there was such a world as the literary world. I didn't know anything, except maybe how to put one foot in front of the other."
Although Kincaid was not fully aware of her literary ambitions during her childhood and early years in New York, she had gained much from her voracious reading, all of which was of an English literary tradition. She had never been exposed to West Indian literature. When speaking to Ferguson, she acknowledged that as a child she would imagine stories and conversations in her head, but she never wrote them down.
It was her experiences in photography that finally made her aware of writing. After watching the French film La Jete and reading Alain Robbe-Grillet, Kincaid felt her burst of inspiration. She told Ferguson, "I began to write poems. I began to write of my photographs—what I would take and [how] I would set them up. I would look at what I had written down, and that is how I would take the photograph. I would write down what I thought the picture should feel like. And I would try to take a picture of what I had written down."
Entrance to the Literary World
After three years as an au pair, Kincaid left to become a secretary, model, and backup singer in a New York club. In 1970, with bleached blond hair, Kincaid enjoyed a freewheeling city lifestyle, sharing with Garner that she once attended a Halloween party dressed as Josephine Baker with only some bananas wrapped around her waist. She began to contribute pieces to Ingenue, a teen magazine. Her first published work, "When I Was Seventeen," was an interview with Gloria Steinem about the notable feminist's own teenage years.
In 1973, Elaine Potter Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid mainly to keep her anonymity since she feared her family would disapprove of her writing and mock her efforts. After her contributions to Ingenue and the Village Voice, Kincaid began to make contacts with members of New York's literary society. One friend, Michael O'Donoghue, who was a founding writer for Saturday Night Live, introduced Kincaid to George Trow, who wrote the "Talk of the Town" column for New Yorker magazine. A strong friendship developed between the two and Kincaid began to accompany Trow when he researched bits for his column, adding her observations.
William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, ultimately asked Kincaid to write her own "Talk of the Town" piece. She submitted notes of her observations of the West Indian Day parade, and Shawn published the notes as a finished column. Beginning in 1976, Kincaid contributed regularly to the magazine as a staff writer under Shawn's mentorship. In 1978, she published her first work of fiction, the short story "Girl," in the New Yorker.
Kincaid acknowledged that Shawn helped her develop her voice and encouraged her to continue writing stories. Along with the significant development as a writer Kincaid received while working at the New Yorker, she also met Allen Shawn, a classical composer and son of Ted Shawn. They were married in 1979.
In "Girl" and nine other sketches, often denoted "prose poems" by critics, that appeared in the 1983 collection At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid plumbed her early life in Antigua, developing a series of "fictional narratives" centering on a young Caribbean girl. The stories were marked by a lyrically poetic, incantatory, rhythmic voice. Perhaps the most-discussed piece in the collection is "Girl," which is one sentence uttered by a mother to her child, listing in repetitive scrutiny a series of commands. Her breakthrough collection earned Kincaid the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Kincaid followed the publication of At the Bottom of the River with the slim novel Annie John in 1985. In this work, Kincaid writes a coming-of-age tale that focuses on the life of a young Caribbean girl. The theme of the mother-daughter relationship in which a mother devastatingly severs her bond with her daughter is at its core. This work was well received and critics praised its rhythmic quality, evocative images, and universal themes. Many critics have noted that her most significant theme, that of the mother-daughter bond, represents the larger issue of the powerful and the powerless, particularly as this relationship operates in a colonial culture.
The personal nature of so much of Kincaid's fiction is one of its salient features, and she admits that her difficult relationship with her own mother inspired her writing, though she maintains it was an act of salvation to write her thoughts down. "Writing is really such an expression of personal growth," she admitted to Ferguson. "I don't know how else to live. For me it is a matter of saving my life. I don't know what I would do if I didn't write. It is a matter of living in the deepest way."
Noting the autobiographical element to her writing, she asserted that "My writing has been very autobiographical. The events are true to me. They may not be true to other people. I think it is fair for my mother to say, 'This is not me.' It is only the mother in the books I've written. It is only the mother as the person I used to be perceived her… . For me it was really an act of saving my life, so it had to be autobiographical."
Angry Voice Divided Readership
With the publication of her nonfiction work A Small Place in 1988 and her third fictional work, Lucy, in 1991, Kincaid was no longer the darling of the literary world. Reviewers were divided over the angry tone expressed in both works. In A Small Place, described as "an anti-travel narrative," Kincaid returns to Antigua after having been gone for 20 years. She ultimately skewers the white tourist who visits Antigua with no thought to the poverty and the long-endured oppression of the colonized natives, while also pointing out the corruption of the post-independent Antiguan government.
Bob Gottlieb, editor of the New Yorker at the time, refused to publish any of the work in the magazine due to its angry tone. In her native Antigua, the government issued an informal ban on Kincaid, restricting her visits to the island from 1985 to 1992. Seemingly unaccepting of her resentment and frustrations, V.R. Peterson of People compared Kincaid to West Indian writer V.S. Naipaul, maintaining that "where Naipaul is humane and appreciative of the dark corners of the human condition, Kincaid seems only vituperative and intemperate."
Kincaid drew similar criticism for the novel Lucy. Annie John ends with the protagonist leaving Antigua at the age of 17, and Lucy begins with the eponymous protagonist leaving the Caribbean at age 19 to come to the United States to work as an au pair for a wealthy New York City family. Commentators note a more bitter tone to this novel in which Lucy will not bend to the powers that hold sway. However, most still commend Kincaid's storytelling abilities. Reviewing the novel, the Newsweek book critic summarized "Vinegary Lucy doesn't bother to be likable, but her shrewdness and her gumption make her good company all the same."
Kincaid returned to her familiar theme of the mother-daughter relationship and the cruel outcomes of colonization with her dark portrayal of seventy-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, the narrator of her novel The Autobiography of My Mother published in 1996. The novel, set on the island of Dominica, presents the life of the narrator and the mother whom she never knew who had died in childbirth. Xuela's life is mired in loss, and, as Andrea Stuart noted in the New Statesman, "[ Autobiography of My Mother] is simultaneously one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating." In 1997 this complex novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN Faulkner Award. It went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
In 1997 Kincaid published My Brother, a memoir of her youngest brother Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 33. This highly personal work addresses not only the relationship Kincaid had with her brother—the two were alike in personality though they had spent little time together—as well as the continued themes of her resentful relationship with her mother and the devastating outcomes of a post-colonial culture.
Reviewing the work in Time John Skow laments that while "there is deep, honest feeling here … it seems long past time for this gifted writer to tell us something new." In response to such criticism, Kincaid related to Garner, "I am not troubled … to be seen to be of one whole cloth—that all that I write is a further development of something. Perhaps it is musical in that way. My work is a chord that develops in many different ways. I couldn't help but write these books."
Central to this work is Kincaid's discovery after Drew has died that he was homosexual and the oppressive secret he had kept throughout his life. Kincaid's ability to address the personal themes within a memoir that, according to Brad Goldfarb in Interview, is "an almost ruthless desire to get at the truth" and still relate them to such universal themes as familial bonds and the overarching question of post-colonial issues, helped her earn a nomination for a National Book Award.
Fragrant and Thorny
As a child, Kincaid had been surrounded by plants on Antigua, and her interest in gardening developed steadily throughout her adult life. In 1985, when her husband accepted a teaching position in Bennington, Vermont, the couple moved to this idyllic community with their two young children, Annie and Harold. Leaving the confines of the city, Kincaid had ample space to garden, and she published My Garden (Book) in 1999.
This collection of essays marks a departure from the embittered tone of her previous works and was heralded as entertaining yet intelligent due to Kincaid's artful connection between gardening and philosophical and poetic reflections. While most reviewers concede that all of Kincaid's works, despite at times her harsh tone, are complex and stylistically unique, with My Garden (Book), Kincaid seemed to have expressed similarly profound observations in a more gentle, even humorous tone.
Mr. Potter, Kincaid's tenth book, is a return to a West Indian setting and characters from her family background. The narrator, Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, ruminates over the empty life of Roderick Potter, her father who has had no part in her life. Acknowledging the characters' obvious connections to Kincaid's own life, Susan Walker asserts in the Toronto Star that "it's unlikely any reader will mistake these characters for actual people. They are too encased in literary language, too distilled, almost mythic in the way they come to represent the way many people's lives are shaped by history."
While many of Kincaid's works are short in length, they have never failed to elicit respect, if at times reluctantly. Kincaid herself is a forthright person who speaks candidly. After she left the New Yorker in 1995, she spoke quite openly about her disgust at the "vulgarity" that the magazine produced under the editorship of Tina Brown. Her frankness, however, is always tinged with humor as she told Garner, "[Brown's] actually got some nice qualities. But she can't help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was some vaccine—I would sneak it up on her."
Kincaid has been awarded honorary degrees from Williams College (1991), Long Island College (1991), Amherst College (1995), Bard College (1997), and Middlebury College (1998). For a time, she continued to write from her home in Bennington, Vermont, teaching creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University.
As of 2019, Kincaid teaches exclusively in the English, African, and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University. Of course, she continues to write amidst her academic affairs. Her novel, See Now Then received the American Book Award in 2014. Also, in 2017, she was the winner of the Dan David Prize in Literature.
Kincaid has been, without question, a prolific writer. To get a better sense of her unique qualities and descriptive prose, you can pick up any number of her own books or find her featured in anthologies. Here’s a list to help get you started:
- Among Flowers, A Walk in the Himalaya (Directions), National Geographic, 2007
- Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, Alfred A. Knopf/Whitney Museum, 1989
- A Small Place, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
- At the Bottom of the River, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
- Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 13, Gale, 1994
- Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998, Gale, 1998
- Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001
- Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 4, Gale, 1993
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 2002
- Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001
- Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996
- Girl, San Francisco Examiner, 1991
- Lucy: A Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002
- Mr. Potter, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
- My Brother, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
- My Garden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
- My Favorite Tool, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
- Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992
- See Now Then, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
- St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1999
- Talk Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002
- The Autobiography of My Mother, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
As an academic and a writer, Kincaid has been published in countless periodicals. For smaller snippets of her work that still reveal a lot about her talents, take a look at any of these publications:
- Advocate, December 9, 1997
- Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1996
- Essence, March 1996
- Interview, October 1997
- Kenyon Review, Winter 1994
- Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2002
- Library Journal, October 1, 1999
- Literary Cavalcade, February 2001
- Maclean's, June 3, 2002
- Mother Jones, September/October 1997
- Nation, June 15, 1985; February 18, 1991; February 5, 1996; November 3, 1997
- New Statesman, October 11, 1996
- New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1999
- Newsweek, October 1, 1990
- People, September 26, 1988; December 15, 1997
- Time, February 5, 1996; November 10, 1997
- Times, July 20, 2002
- Toronto Star, May 27, 2002
- Salon, January 13, 1996; December 20, 1999
- Women's Review of Books, March 2000; September 2002
For more information, you can also read about Kincaid from these online sources:
- "Jamaica Kincaid," BBC World Service, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/arts/features/womenwriters/kincaid_life.shtml (February 11, 2003)
- "Jamaica Kincaid," Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/166247 (February 11, 2003)
Updates by Kit Kittelstad