Jamaica Kincaid Biography

Jamaica Kincaid began her life as Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson, but she changed her name in 1973 because her family did not approve of her writing career. She began composing articles for Ingenue Magazine and The New Yorker. Her first novel, Lucy, is somewhat based on her experience of being born in Antigua and moving to the United States. She explored these same themes in her earlier book Annie John. Another of her important works is The Autobiography of My Mother, which tackles issues of colonialism. Kincaid has also written short stories and essays, and she teaches creative writing at Harvard University. She has said of herself, “I’m someone who writes to save her life. I mean, I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t write.”

Facts and Trivia

  • Kincaid studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and also attended Franconia College in New Hampshire for one year.
  • In addition to writing, Kincaid is an avid gardener and has written many articles about gardening.
  • Kincaid married Allen Shawn, the son of her boss at The New Yorker. They have two children, but divorced in 2002.
  • Kincaid often writes about mother-daughter relationships and other feminist themes. She says, “I don’t really write about men unless they have something to do with a woman.”
  • Although Kincaid worked for The New Yorker for many years, the magazine refused to publish her nonfiction book A Small Place because of its tone, which was seen as too angry.

The Autobiography of My Mother

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2035

Jamaica Kincaid begins her tough, ironic, and lyrical novel by having her narrator, Xuela, a seventy-year-old resident of the Caribbean island of Dominica, announce that “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity.” Such a...

(The entire section contains 2035 words.)

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Jamaica Kincaid begins her tough, ironic, and lyrical novel by having her narrator, Xuela, a seventy-year-old resident of the Caribbean island of Dominica, announce that “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity.” Such a beginning promises the reader that an examination of big themes—life, identity, meaning—will surely follow, and in this respect, The Autobiography of My Mother does not disappoint.

Beginning with the subtitle, “a novel,” appended to the title on the front cover of the book’s dust jacket, the ironic self-contradiction is transformed by this work into a literary probe for exploring beneath the smooth surface of things. Besides juxtaposing the words “autobiography” and “novel,” the title conceals a deeper irony: The main character is childless and aborting her pregnancy at the age of sixteen. Furthermore, these ironies of the novel’s name are reflective of the ironies of Xuela’s life. For instance, Xuela loves only one man in her life, Roland, who is already married; she marries a doctor named Philip who worships her, but she refuses to love him. If at times such irony can seem to be pretty thin gruel for nourishing a novel, the writing is richly evocative enough that the fruits of a life sustained by irony seem alternately refreshing and bleak.

The heavy layers of irony and the problematic title will not seem too surprising to longtime readers of Jamaica Kincaid. Since her debut collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River that (1983), she has made a literary career out of mining the relationship between a mother and a daughter for every bit of irony and pathos it can offer. If her fiction has been narrow in its focus, it has also penetrated deeply.

Jamaica Kincaid—who was born Elaine Potter Richardson—created a lyrical beauty in At the Bottom of the River that she has never quite matched since. Not only the much reprinted “Girl,” which seems to condense a young life’s frustrations into a mouthful of overbearing, motherly instructions, but virtually every story in the collection has a compactness that seems to do more work than words normally can. The reader does not merely read the words of these stories; the images are also seen, felt, and experienced, but not always easily. The highly poetic prose of that work strips away the comfort of narrative, much as some of the best prose of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce does. Her follow-up novel, Annie John, was still highly lyrical in style, but was written in a much more conventional prose style. Because the two works cover much of the same ground—the development of a creative young girl as she matures, suffers a nervous breakdown, then recovers and leaves her native island (presumably Kincaid’s native island, Antigua)—they are almost inseparable complements of one another. Annie John provides a key to some of the more obscure passages of At the Bottom of the River without reducing the rich complexity of that earlier work, or sacrificing its own beauty.

Though her follow-up works—the memoir of growing up in a colonized land, A Small Place (1988), and the novel which follows a character very similar to Annie John into adulthood, Lucy (1990)—both contain powerful writing, the pains of childhood which ignited the writing of her first two books are replaced by an anger of adulthood. Though Kincaid’s writing was still well crafted, many readers found it less satisfying to follow where this new extension of her subject matter took her.

In contrast to her earlier fictions, which focused on a well defined portion of a life, in The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid for the first time takes it as her task to survey the entire shape of a character’s life. The childhood sections of the novel convey the same type of wonderment, longing, and loneliness of Kincaid’s first two books, and if she has ratcheted the emptiness and longing up a notch or two, one result is that the wonderment comes into greater relief. One incident which neatly captures the essence of this narrative contradance occurs early in the novel, as Xuela is describing her daily walk to school with a number of neighborhood companions whom she does not consider to be friends, but merely necessary companions. One morning when they come to a stream they have to cross, they see a naked woman bathing in the stream. One boy swims out to her until he exhausts himself and disappears without a trace; the woman disappears too. “That woman was not a woman,” the narrator tells us; “she was a something that took the shape of a woman.” For the other children who were there that day, this story entered into the realm of myth they did not really believe, “like the virgin birth or other such miracles”; a belief in this apparition “was the belief of the illegitimate, the poor, the low.” Because she identifies herself as an outcast, though, a belief in this apparition is important to Xuela; “I believed in that apparition then and I believe in it now.” Terror becomes an affirmation in outcast powers, which in turn becomes an affirmation of herself.

The pain of living as a colonized subject is an important theme in all of Kincaid’s fiction, but in The Autobiography of My Mother, this theme gets its fullest artistic treatment in her work so far. School, as it was in portions of Annie John, is presented as a training ground in the subtleties of colonization. The first words Xuela learns to read are words she sees written across a map she sees on her first day of school: “THE BRITISH EMPIRE.” Xuela’s teacher is described as a woman “of the African people . . . and she found in this a source of humiliation and self-loathing.” In her classroom, the students speak only English, although among themselves they speak a French patois. When her father remarries, Xuela’s stepmother will speak to Xuela in patois, although English is the language of the house, and Xuela recognizes this not as friendliness, but as “an attempt on her part to make an illegitimate of me.”

Once, her stepmother makes what seems to be a gesture of warmth when she gives Xuela a necklace to wear. Xuela is not fooled a moment; she puts the necklace around the neck of a dog and is unsurprised that he goes mad and dies. When the stepmother has her own children by Xuela’s father, her murderous rage toward Xuela seems to halt, but she brings up her children to distrust Xuela. Xuela tells us she did not hate this sister, though; “her tragedy was greater than mine; her mother did not love her, but her mother was alive.” This refusal to feel one negative emotion—hate—by replacing it with a distantly felt pity is typical of the refusal of strong emotions that characterize both Xuela’s young life and her adult existence. While such reactions allow her to be emotionally self-possessed, this self-possession comes at the cost of emotional self- amputation.

This relationship between self-possession and self-amputation becomes clearest in Xuela’s relationships with men. At the age of fifteen, she is sent by her father to live with a wealthy couple named Monsieur and Madame LaBatte, ostensibly to live there while she continues her schooling, but in fact to serve as his mistress—a scheme in which his wife fully cooperates. After their initial encounter, it begins to rain heavily, and Xuela goes into an apparent depression (somewhat reminiscent of a depression endured by the main character in Annie John at about the same age, though for different causes). It is only when she emerges from this depression (as his more or less full-time mistress) that she reveals to the reader her name, and she does so in a roundabout way, asking herself about the various sources of her full name, Xuela Claudette Richardson: “Who are these people?” “Your own name,” she asserts, “eventually was not the gateway to who you really were.” In part this is a comment on the confusing and contradictory threads that a colonial identity must coordinate: Each of her names represents a different cultural heritage. In part, though, it shows her backing into an almost God-like statement of existence as pure will: She is that she is.

Not coincidentally, this statement of the nature of her own existence leads to her most assertive statement of her own will—her decision to abort the pregnancy from this union. After some time, she comes to a disquieting acceptance of this action: “I would never become a mother, but that would not be the same as never bearing children. . . . I would bear them in abundance; they would emerge from my head, my armpits, from between my legs . . . but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god.” Self-will and self-negation are ultimate complements of each other.

As an adult, she has an affair with Roland, a married man, and when his wife confronts her and slaps her face, Xuela retreats into an ironic, distanced, musing: “Why is the state of marriage so desirable that all women are afraid to be caught outside it? And why does this woman, who has never seen me bore, to whom I have never made any promise, to whom I owe nothing, hate me so much?” Any answers to her questions—for instance, that marriage is closely tied to economic and personal sustenance, and that a person who threatens the marriage relationship is thus threatening the most personal realm of a married woman—are so obvious that the question cannot help but seem insincere. Yet from the above-it-all position that Xuela has constructed for herself, this refusal to understand cannot help but be sincere, even if it is intentional.

When Xuela herself marries, it is only after she is well past her childbearing years, and then to a doctor and friend of her father, “a man,” she says, “I did not love,” but who virtually worshipped her. Because she identifies him as “of the victors,” that is, the British, she takes a cruel satisfaction in this unequal balance of affection: “He grew to live for the sound of my footsteps, so often I would walk without making a sound; he loved the sound of my voice, so for days I would not utter a word.” Yet if her feelings toward him never coalesce into love, neither are they without tenderness. In the end, she says, “He became all the children I did not allow to be born, some of them fathered by him, some of them fathered by others”—surely a touching description for a seventy-year-old woman (Xuela’s age at the end) to use of her late husband, but horribly complicated when one remembers her will to destroy her unborn children “with the carelessness of a god.”

In “My Mother,” a story in At the Bottom of the River, Kincaid ends by describing a college age girl’s view of her now distant mother as almost godlike. In The Autobiography of My Mother, she allows this god to tell her own story, which turns out to be a story of lonely, loveless heights. Her will has shaped her own life so completely that the end finds her longing to meet death, “the thing”—perhaps the only thing she can conceive of—“greater than I am, the thing to which I can submit.” In writing this story of a woman who never submits to things anything greater than herself—not to pain and certainly not to love—Jamaica Kincaid has written a bleak, powerful tale of survival, and the psychological costs paid.

Sources for Further Study

Essence. XXVI, March, 1996, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 14, 1996, p. 3.

Maclean’s. CIX, April 8, 1996, p. 72.

Ms. VI, January, 1996, p. 90.

The Nation. CCLXII, February 5, 1996, p. 23.

New Statesman and Society. CXXV, October 11, 1996, p. 45.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, March 21, 1996, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 4, 1996, p. 5.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 20, 1996, p. 22.

The Wall Street Journal. February 2, 1996, p. A8.

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