Jamaica Kincaid 1949–-
(Born Elaine Potter Richardson) Antiguan-born American novelist, essayist, short story writer, memoirist, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Kincaid's career through 2000. See also At the Bottom of the River Criticism.
Acclaimed for her lyrical prose and powerful voice, Kincaid is also known for the postmodern, stridently anticolonial stance discernable in her work. Most of her fiction is autobiographical, reflecting her belief that masters of whatever ilk are despicable, while slaves are always noble. Driven by anger and hostility toward the world of her native Antigua and its adopted British culture, Kincaid has explored the psychic side of island life through short stories in At the Bottom of the River (1983), while the public and personal aspects have received attention in the essay A Small Place (1988) and the novel Annie John (1985). Kincaid has also won critical praise for her novels Lucy (1990) and The Autobiography of My Mother (1995).
Born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, Kincaid attended government schools from the age of three, after having learned from her mother how to read and spell simple words. Within six months, she was attending school for a full day. She won a scholarship to attend the Princess Margaret School but left before taking her final examinations. Though she was the eldest of four children and a gifted, if somewhat rebellious, student, only her brothers were encouraged to aspire to a university education. Kincaid left Antigua at age seventeen and went to the United States to work as an au pair in Westchester County, New York. She had planned to pursue a nursing education, but once in the United States studied photography at the New School for Social Research in New York City and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire. In 1973 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid so that she could write anonymously. Her work came to the attention of George W. Trow, who wrote the “Talk of the Town” column in the New Yorker. Kincaid worked as a staff writer at the magazine from 1976 to 1995, contributing to and eventually writing the “Talk of the Town” column herself. Encouraged by William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, Kincaid began writing fiction as well. In 1979 she married composer Allen Shawn, the editor's son; they had two children, Annie in 1985 and Harold in 1989. Kincaid resides with her family in North Bennington, Vermont, and has recently appeared as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Kincaid's first book, At the Bottom of the River, won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her novel Annie John was followed by a group of prose sketches, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1986). Angered by the legacy of colonialism that she found when she returned to Antigua for the first time in twenty years, Kincaid wrote the book-length polemic A Small Place. Subsequent to the publication of Lucy, Kincaid was awarded honorary degrees in 1991 from both Williams College and Long Island College, and in 1992 she received the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund annual writer's award. The Autobiography of My Mother was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1997. The memoir My Brother (1997) also received a National Book Award nomination that year.
Most of Kincaid's works are characterized by an exploration of mother-daughter relationships, which serve as a metaphor for the relationship between colonial powers and the countries they rule—between the powerful and the powerless and the mature and the struggling to mature—all informed by betrayal. At the Bottom of the River contains a series of sketches, considered prose poems by some readers; most of these were originally published in the New Yorker. The brief story “Girl” consists solely of a list of admonitions from mother to daughter, increasingly dichotomous and ultimately manipulative. The final two sketches, “My Mother” and the title story, laid the foundation for Kincaid's acclaimed coming-of-age novel Annie John, which explores the personal networks of family and friends experienced by the heroine on the island of Antigua. In the course of the novel, young Annie goes from feeling that she is the main object of her mother's love and attention to feeling rejected and therefore betrayed by her. As she matures, she experiences a painful separation from her mother, beginning with the mother's refusal to allow Annie to continue wearing dresses made of the same cloth as her own and culminating in her denial of access to a treasured trunk that contains icons of Annie's infancy. At the end of the book, like Kincaid herself, Annie leaves Antigua, torn from all she knows and mourning the loss of the familiar, with her contradictory feelings for her mother still unresolved.
The essay A Small Place chronicles Kincaid's horror at the conditions in Antigua shortly after the nation gained its independence in 1981. She especially deplores the condition of the library, which had been a place of refuge for her as a child. She finds it closed (apparently permanently), damaged by an earthquake, and left to decay. Kincaid eloquently argues that the new leaders have retreated into corruption; they have opted for an easy and selfish way out by blaming the effects of lingering colonialism for the social ills afflicting the island rather than accepting the responsibility to create a legitimate Antiguan identity separate from the British legacy. Written in the second person, Kincaid leaves no doubt about the glaring contrast between what tourists observe and what real life means for impoverished Antiguans. Lucy, like Kincaid's first two works of fiction, is autobiographical. Nineteen-year-old Lucy leaves her home in Antigua to become an au pair, or nanny, in the United States. The novel chronicles her experiences during her first year in a new culture. Everything, from winter weather to sex, is new to her, and she explores it all with abandon. Loss and betrayal figure prominently in this work. Lucy becomes friends with her employer, Mariah, and tells of her increasing sense of displacement and abandonment at home as her mother bore three sons and transferred her attention from her daughter to them. Particularly unforgivable were her mother's limited expectations of her daughter in comparison to her sons, especially regarding education. Another betrayal occurs when Mariah's husband, Lewis, leaves Mariah and their four daughters for another woman, who is Mariah's best friend. Lucy's feelings about her mother remain unresolved, though the novel closes with her beginning to write in a blank book given to her by Mariah, her new friend and surrogate mother.
The narrator of The Autobiography of My Mother is Xuela Claudette Richardson, a seventy-year-old resident of the island of Dominica. Her mother was an orphan and died giving birth to Xuela. Her father hands Xuela over to his laundress to raise and visits her every two weeks, when he picks up his clean clothing. Throughout the novel he is an object of contempt. Xuela resolves to live for no one but herself, to love no one but herself, and consequently approaches the end of her life alienated but not forlorn. The memoir My Brother relates Kincaid's experiences with her brother, Devon Drew, as he died of AIDS at age thirty-three. Her involvement in his illness draws her back to Antigua, where she is still unable to resolve the conflict with her mother and must confront her own and society's complicated feelings regarding homosexuality. Kincaid's subsequent works, My Favorite Plant (1998) and My Garden Book (1999), differ substantially from her others. Having developed a passion for growing things, Kincaid has traveled the world as a plant enthusiast and writes, sometimes humorously, sometimes reflectively, about her experiences.
Kincaid's work is regarded as unique among the various schools of Caribbean writing—neither fully feminist nor Afrocentric—and she is one of the most respected of all women authors from the area. Critics uniformly praise her lyrical, sometimes incantatory prose. She masterfully employs the rhetorical device of the list, making of it a liturgy in works like “Girl.” Critics note that her emphasis on dreams, an important part of Antiguan life, lends weight to the magical realism sometimes employed in her fiction, particularly in At the Bottom of the River. Her images also merit praise, many commentators observe. The hallmark of her writing is the mother-daughter bond, an emphasis that has provoked extensive psychoanalytic and feminist discussion of her work. However, Kincaid's focus on the stresses, strains, occasional joys, and many struggles of this relationship throughout nearly all of her work is more often thought to mirror the same qualities inherent in colonial empires and their aftermath, particularly the legacy of British hegemony in Antigua. Kincaid's anger, though, especially in A Small Place, coupled with the bleakness and despair suffusing many of her characters and their lives, has caused some reviewers to dislike her embittered and emotionally detached heroines. Yet Kincaid's women are both memorable and indicative of the author's avowed desire to exceed convention and experiment with form, gender, and her characters' feelings. This experimentation has led some critics to note that Kincaid's works move beyond themes of racism and feminism to the larger world of universal human emotion; in this sense, her writing has been compared with that of Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
At the Bottom of the River (short stories) 1983
Annie John (novel) 1985
Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip [illustrated by Eric Fischl] (prose sketches) 1986
A Small Place (essay) 1988
Lucy (novel) 1990
The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1995
The Best American Essays, 1995 [editor, with Robert Atwan] (essays) 1995
My Brother (memoir) 1997
My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love [editor] (essays) 1998
My Garden Book (nonfiction) 1999
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David Nicholson (review date 3 July 1988)
SOURCE: “The Exile's Bitter Return,” in Washington Post Book World, July 3, 1988, p. 14.
[In the following review of A Small Place, Nicholson commends Kincaid's impassioned denunciation of Antigua's colonial legacy, but finds fault with what he sees as her failure to move beyond description.]
At a time when the travel narrative seems to be enjoying a renaissance in American publishing it is difficult to find a place in that genre for this bitter little book [A Small Place]. Though it is a narrative of the author's return from the United States to her native land, the island of Antigua, this is no simple account of a journey home. Readers who come...
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Louis James (essay date Winter 1988-89)
SOURCE: “Reflections, and The Bottom of the River: The Transformation of Caribbean Experience in the Fiction of Jamaica Kincaid,” in Wasafiri, No. 9, Winter, 1988–89, pp. 15–17.
[In the following essay, James discusses Kincaid's place in contemporary Caribbean literature and issues of self-awareness, alienation, and female identity in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John.]
‘Jamaica who?’ To speak of Jamaica Kincaid, from Antigua, as an important Caribbean writer, often causes surprise. Her writing has had its passionate admirers for some years, and has appeared under a popular paperback imprint in Britain, but it has received...
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Susanna Moore (review date 7 October 1990)
SOURCE: “A Journey of Self-Discovery,” in Washington Post Book World, October 7, 1990, p. 7.
[In the following review of Lucy,Moore commends Kincaid's powerful prose, but finds shortcomings in the book's detached protagonist.]
Jamaica Kincaid's second novel, Lucy, is cool and fierce. It begins one January night with the arrival of 19-year-old Lucy Josephine Potter, a clear-eyed, intelligent girl from the West Indies, in a big, dirty American city. She has come to work for Mariah and Lewis, minding their four young daughters. Lucy is unworldly. She has never seen snow or been in an elevator. She is accustomed to saying grace before meals and she...
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Giovanna Covi (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: “Jamaica Kincaid and the Resistance to Canons,” in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, Africa World Press, 1990, pp. 345–54.
[In the following essay, Covi examines intersecting aspects of African-American literature, postmodernity, and autobiography in At the Bottom of the River and Annie John. Covi interprets Kincaid's themes of racial identity, alienation, and history in terms of French literary theory, but maintains that Kincaid's writing defies easy literary classification.]
Derrida in Positions1 speaks of the necessity of ridding oneself of a...
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Opal Palmer Adisa (review date February 1991)
SOURCE: “Island Daughter,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 5, February, 1991, pp. 5–6.
[In the following review of Lucy,Adisa discusses Kincaid's portrayal of Caribbean life and continuities between Annie John and Lucy, concluding that the latter's protagonist is less likeable.]
Sardonic is the word that kept ringing through my head as I read Jamaica Kincaid's latest novel [Lucy]. Kincaid and I are sisters in that we are both children of the tropics, she a daughter of Antigua, I a daughter of Jamaica. So I should be able to say that I know Kincaid, but I don't, although I am intimate with a lot of the things she writes about. I...
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Hilton Als (review date 18 February 1991)
SOURCE: “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” in The Nation, February 18, 1991, pp. 207–09.
[In the following review of Lucy,Als discusses Kincaid's bitter depiction of Caribbean colonialism and racism in Lucy and A Small Place, noting their effect on shattering the popular myth of tropical paradise.]
With the publication of her short-story collection At the Bottom of the River in 1984, Jamaica Kincaid became our premier monologuist about the Caribbean. Focusing on her native Antigua, she wrested from it a variety of tales whose locus was dispossession: the emigrant who abandons the familiar in favor of self-invention in the new.
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Evelyn J. Hawthorne (review date Winter 1992)
SOURCE: A review of Lucy, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, p. 185.
[In the following review, Hawthorne discusses issues of racial identity and cultural displacement in Lucy,concluding that such themes are treated with more complexity in this book than in Kincaid's previous works.]
With Lucy Jamaica Kincaid continues a story of West Indian female development. Whereas the earlier bildungsroman-style works At the Bottom of the River (1983; see WLT 58:2, p. 316) and Annie John (1985; see WLT 59:4, p. 644) dealt with the adolescent years of a girl in the Caribbean, the new book presents a single...
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Moira Ferguson (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: “Lucy and the Mark of the Colonizer,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 237–59.
[In the following essay, Ferguson examines problematic issues of cultural, sexual, and racial identity in Lucy,focusing on the protagonist's struggle to free herself from the established order and prejudices of Eurocentric colonialism.]
As I go on writing, I feel less and less interested in the approval of the First World, and I never had the approval of the world I came from, so now I don't know where I am. I've exiled myself yet again.
—Donna Perry, “An Interview with Jamaica...
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Diane Simmons (essay date Summer 1994)
SOURCE: “The Rhythm of Reality in the Works of Jamaica Kincaid,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 466–72.
[In the following essay, Simmons discusses the recurring themes of loss and betrayal in Kincaid's fiction, specifically addressing the author's use of repetitive language and litanies in her prose to underscore contradictions and to effect closure.]
At heart Jamaica Kincaid's work is not about the charm of a Caribbean childhood, though her first and best-known novel, Annie John (1983), may leave this impression. Nor is it about colonialism, though her angry, book-length essay, A Small Place (1988), accuses the reader...
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Keith E. Byerman (essay date February 1995)
SOURCE: “Anger in a Small Place: Jamaica Kincaid's Cultural Critique of Antigua,” in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February, 1995, pp. 91–103.
[In the following essay, Byerman examines the significance of anger, resentment, and resistance in Kincaid's fiction as a response to colonial oppression and cultural loss in Antiguan society, particularly as experienced by women and symbolized by the mother-daughter relationship.]
Jamaica Kincaid's first three works—At the Bottom of the River (1983), Annie John (1985), and A Small Place (1988)—which are focused on life on Antigua, Kincaid's native island, reflect a deep hostility toward that...
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Jamaica Kincaid with Ivan Kreilkamp (interview date 1 January 1996)
SOURCE: “An interview with Jamaica Kincaid,” in Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, pp. 54–6.
[In the following interview, Kreilkamp provides an overview of Kincaid's life and literary career upon the publication of The Autobiography of My Mother, and Kincaid comments on her relationship with the New Yorker,publishing, and gardening.]
A teenage girl in the mid-1960s abandons her home on Antigua, a tiny island in the West Indies, bound for New York and not to return home for 19 years. She becomes an au pair for a family in Scarsdale, N.Y., then for a different family in New York City. She breaks off all contact with her mother, takes photography...
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Richard Eder (review date 14 January 1996)
SOURCE: “Sculpted from Fire,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 14, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder offers a favorable evaluation of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
Her mother was a foundling left near the door of a convent on the island of Dominica. And when Xuela, narrator of this beautiful, harsh story, was born, the mother died. So Xuela was a doubled orphan, her woman's lineage extinguished for two generations back.
Furthermore, to be a West Indian woman of color, a mix of Scottish, Carib Indian and African, was to have a history scrawled in such violently contradictory pen strokes—by white freebooters, indigenous...
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Merle Rubin (review date 17 January 1996)
SOURCE: “A Daughter Forced to Be Her Own Mother,” in Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1996, p. 14.
[In the review below, Rubin gives a positive assessment of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
The very title of Jamaica Kincaid's third novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, poses a paradox, and not just the time-honored one of labeling a work of fiction a true story. The narrator of this particular “autobiography” is a woman whose mother died giving birth to her. The life story that she tells is not her dead mother's, but her own.
Yet, because the narrator and heroine of this story has no children of her own, it seems impossible that...
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Lore Segal (review date 5 February 1996)
SOURCE: “The Broken Plate of Heaven,” in The Nation, February 5, 1996, pp. 23–5.
[In the following review, Segal offers a favorable evaluation of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
The heroine of Jamaica Kincaid's new novel [The Autobiography of My Mother] is Xuela Claudette Richardson. “Xuela” is for her Carib mother, “Claudette” for “some nuns from France” who brought the mother up, “Richardson” is for the Scottish half of her father's blood and the whole, she says, is a humiliation that could intoxicate you with self-hatred.
What those nuns from France brought her mother up to be was a “long suffering, unquestioning,...
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Johanna Keller (review date Summer 1996)
SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in Antioch Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1996, p. 368.
[In the following brief review of The Autobiography of My Mother, Keller praises Kincaid's prose, but finds the novel's rage one-dimensional.]
In her earlier novels, Annie John and Lucy, Kincaid traced the lives of expatriate Caribbean women, centering on their difficult relationships with their mothers. Mourning the mother's death and repeated loss becomes the life-long project of Xuela, narrator of this third novel [The Autobiography of My Mother], whose widowed father leaves her with a laundry woman, Eunice. After Xuela...
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Louis F. Canton (essay date Fall 1996)
SOURCE: “Romantic Struggles: The Bildungsroman and Mother-Daughter Bonding in Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John,” in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 123–42.
[In the following essay, Canton examines the complex process of female maturation and identity formation in Annie John. According to Canton, the novel embodies an integration of traditionally male-centered narrative modes, such as the Bildungsroman, and the protagonist's development may be understood in terms of psychological theories of mother-daughter bonding and archetypal elements of Joseph Campbell's “monomyth” concept.]
Shortly after its publication in 1983, Jamaica...
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Edyta Oczkowicz (essay date Fall 1996)
SOURCE: “Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy: Cultural ‘Translation’ as a Case of Creative Exploration of the Past,” in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 141–57.
[In the following essay, Oczkowicz examines the process by which the protagonist of Lucy attempts to forge an independent self-identity that reconciles her past experiences in post-colonial Antigua and present realities in America.]
In her potent essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Jamaica Kincaid writes: “The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark” (37). Her reflection delineates the “space” of complex post-colonial experience...
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Nancy Chick (essay date September 1996)
SOURCE: “The Broken Clock: Time, Identity, and Autobiography in Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 1, September, 1996, pp. 90–103.
[In the following essay, Chick discusses the inescapable burden of the past in Lucy, and the way in which the novel's female protagonist finally confronts her childhood through the act of autobiography. According to Chick, Lucy's conception of linear time is a psychological evasion that, in the end, gives way to the concept of cyclical time, reflected in the narrative itself.]
In the final chapter of Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid, the protagonist's new apartment faces a clock on a tower that Lucy...
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Andrea Stuart (review date 11 October 1996)
SOURCE: “Caribbean Frost,” in New Statesman, October 11, 1996, p. 45.
[In the following review, Stuart concludes that The Autobiography of My Mother is “one of the most beautifully written books I have read, and one of the most alienating.”]
“My mother died at the moment I was born and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” So begins Kincaid's dark and disturbing novel [The Autobiography of My Mother]. It tells of Xuela Claudia Richardson, who after the death of her mother is farmed out to the local laundress, along with her father's dirty clothes, and is finally...
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Jacqueline Brice-Finch (review date Winter 1997)
SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, p. 202.
[In the following review, Brice-Finch offers a favorable summary of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
What is the plight of a girl child who has no connection to her mother? If she is abandoned on a doorstep to be raised by nuns, perhaps she is then fated to die in childbirth. The grandchild is destined to be a solitary soul, disconnected as well. Such is the fate of a Carib maternal line in Jamaica Kincaid's 1996 novel. The Autobiography of My Mother is a lush evocation of personhood devoid of love, the emotion that binds one to another....
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Gay Wachman (review date 3 November 1997)
SOURCE: “Dying in Antigua,” in The Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 43–4.
[In the following review of My Brother, Wachman praises Kincaid's narrative voice and understated clarity, but finds shortcomings in Kincaid's understanding of homosexuality.]
To read Jamaica Kincaid's memoir, My Brother, is to re-experience her unforgettable narrative voice, revisiting Antigua over the three years that Devon is dying of AIDS, and re-characterizing the island, her mother and the child/adolescent self chronicled in her earlier books. The lucid, assertive, deceptively simple voice takes its time in fleshing out the figures of the memoir, both in their present and...
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Kristen Mahlis (essay date Spring 1998)
SOURCE: “Gender and Exile: Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 169–83.
[In the following review, Mahlis examines aspects of cultural alienation, the mother-daughter relationship, and female sexuality in Lucy, focusing on the female protagonist's efforts to “decolonize” herself. According to Mahlis, Kincaid's portrayal of Lucy evokes “the space of the female exile, a space that is shaped by the complex interaction between the female body and masculinist cultural imperatives.”]
But what I see is the millions of people, of whom I am just one. made orphans: no motherland, no...
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Deborah Plant (review date Fall 1999)
SOURCE: A review of The Autobiography of My Mother, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 73, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 137–39.
[In the following review, Plant offers a positive assessment of The Autobiography of My Mother.]
“[T]he name of any one person is at once her history recapitulated and abbreviated,” declares Xuela Claudette Richardson. Her name, she concludes, was not her “real name.” What she was called was rather the path to “a humiliation so permanent that it would replace your own skin.” Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother is an account of Xuela's search for who she really was and her conscious, studied avoidance of the...
(The entire section is 776 words.)
Maxine Kumin (review date March 2000)
SOURCE: “Growing Pleasures,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 6, March, 2000, p. 5.
[In the following review, Kumin gives a favorable evaluation of My Garden Book, although she expresses distaste for the book's graphic format.]
Jamaica Kincaid's passion for growing things, hovering over them with encouraging words, cursing the withered failures [in My Garden Book], is one I understand. Though my organic garden is limited to vegetables, except for a few edible, therefore utilitarian, flowers such as nasturtiums and citrus marigolds, I share her compulsion to raise plants out of the earth. The dailiness of this attention, the worry over late...
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Bloom, Harold [editor]. Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998, 186 p.
A collection of critical essays about Kincaid and her work.
Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid.” Missouri Review XV, No. 2 (1992): 125-42.
Kincaid discusses the characters and female relationships in her fiction; her cultural background, literary beginnings, and influences; and the impact of her early life and relationship with her mother on her writing.
Ferguson, Moira. Jamaica Kincaid: Where the Land Meets the Body. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994....
(The entire section is 402 words.)