Jamaica Kincaid Additional Biography

The Autobiography of My Mother

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The narrative in seven episodes recapitulates and foretells, in starkly poetic language, the events in Xuela Richardson Bailey’s life. The fragmentary photograph of a Caribbean woman that introduces each section is completed in the seventh section.

The central fact of the narrator’s life is the death of her mother when Xuela was born, its recital a repeated incantation. Her maternal grandmother was abandoned at birth by an unknown woman. Xuela’s father, of Scottish and African ancestry, gave his daughter—along with his dirty clothes—to be cared for by the woman who did his laundry.

From this unpromising beginning, the narrator creates a life for herself in a world from which she expects nothing. A highly sensual woman, she nevertheless withholds herself emotionally from those who might have loved her, refusing to compromise her fierce personal independence. Aborting the children she conceives, she refuses motherhood. Her power comes from herself: “I could sense from the beginning of my life that I would know things when I needed to know them.”

Kincaid, who was born in Antigua and came to the United States in 1969, works strongly against the tradition of black women writers who portray women bonding with each other against the racist, patriarchal oppressor. The women in this narrative distrust or hate each other. The politics of power fascinates Kincaid. In her reading of Caribbean history, there are the victors and the vanquished—all failed human beings. The strength of the black woman comes not from her Carib-African heritage, nor from those whom she loves. She lives in the existential present, creating herself, refusing to mourn her fate or regret her past.

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies, on May 25, 1949. She was her parents’ first child and their only daughter. Kincaid’s father, a carpenter, provided a good living for his family by local standards, although the family lived without indoor plumbing or electricity. During her early years, Kincaid became aware of the island’s powerful tropical beauty, an awareness that was somehow linked with her close and loving relationship with her mother. This picture of her early years forms the setting of her novel Annie John (1985).

Kincaid was educated in Antigua’s government-sponsored elementary and secondary schools. During her early school years, she became, like her mother, a voracious reader, particularly of British Victorian fiction, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) a special favorite. (The British influence on her education resulted from Antigua’s history as a dependency of Great Britain until 1967; it became an independent nation in 1981.) Gradually, she became aware that she had an excellent mind, but neither her teachers nor her family seemed to recognize it or to encourage her in academics.

When Kincaid was nine, the birth of the first of her three brothers severed her close attachment to her mother, and she felt increasingly alienated from her family, her schools, even from Antigua itself. By the time she reached adolescence, she saw the island as a place of repressive provincialism and longed to leave.

When she was sixteen, Kincaid found a job as a servant for a well-to-do family in Scarsdale, New York, and left Antigua. After working for the Scarsdale family for a few months, she found another job, this time as an au pair for the well-to-do Manhattan family of writer Michael Arlen (with whom she would one day work at The New Yorker). She had hoped to attend college at night and work during the day, but she soon realized that her Antiguan education was inadequate in some areas, and she first had to...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid, then Elaine Potter Richardson, lived with her homemaker mother and carpenter father on Antigua, a small West Indian island measuring nine by twelve miles. The family was impoverished: Their house had no running water or electricity. The young girl’s chores included drawing water from a community faucet and registering with the public works so that the “night soil men” would dispose of the family’s waste. Even so, her childhood was idyllic. She was surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the island, was accepted by her community, and was loved and protected by her mother. When Kincaid was nine, however, her mother gave birth to the first of three more children—all boys. At that point, the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in St. John’s, Antigua, the daughter of Annie Richardson and Roderick Potter, a taxi driver. Her father was not a significant presence in her life. The man she considered her father was David Drew, a cabinetmaker and carpenter whom her mother married shortly after Elaine’s birth. She learned to read at the age of three, and when she turned seven, her mother gave her a copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a birthday gift. The births of her three brothers—Joseph in 1958, Dalma in 1959, and Devon in 1961 (whose death from AIDS in 1996 would provide the focus for My Brother)—changed her life, not only because she was no longer an only child but also...

(The entire section is 518 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on the tiny Caribbean island of Antigua. The family was poor, but she recalls her early years as idyllic. As does the protagonist of Annie John, Kincaid felt secure as the focus of her mother’s attention. With the births of three younger brothers, however, Kincaid became increasingly alienated from her mother, and with adolescence, her alienation turned to bitter resentment.

In addition to her antipathy toward her mother, there were other reasons for Kincaid to leave her Caribbean home as soon as she was old enough to do so. As she points out in A Small Place, on Antigua blacks were still relegated to the bottom tiers of the social structure, just as they had been in the colonial past. Black women were even more repressed than black men. In her short story “Girl,” which appears in the collection At the Bottom of the River, the mother makes it clear to her daughter that a woman’s sole purpose in life is to wait on a man and to keep him happy.

Determined to find her way in the world, in 1966, the seventeen-year-old young woman left Antigua for the United States. Her impressions of the different country are reflected in her second semiautobiographical novel, Lucy. In common with the title character, Kincaid first supported herself by working as a live-in baby-sitter in New York City. Although Kincaid took high school and college courses, in the main she educated herself by reading. Eventually she found a job on a magazine, turned out articles, and tried her hand at short stories. She was finding a new identity as a writer; in 1973, she took the name Jamaica Kincaid, in a sense inventing herself as a person. In 1978, “Girl” was published in The New Yorker, the first of many stories to appear there. Shortly thereafter, Kincaid married and moved to Vermont.

After an absence of nearly two decades, Kincaid returned to Antigua. Having found herself, Kincaid was now free, and in the years which followed she often took her children to visit her early home. By leaving her native island, Kincaid learned not only to understand herself but also to empathize with women who, like the protagonist in Autobiography of My Mother and like her own mother, were assigned their identities in a society that permitted them no options.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jamaica Kincaid is a writer of powerful, lyrical prose that is intensely introspective, while also examining, through a very personal mirror, the realities of being a woman, a daughter, and a native of an island nation that, though it had some degree of home rule for most of her life, did not become independent from Great Britain until 1981. Born in Saint Johns, the capital of Antigua, as Elaine Potter Richardson, Kincaid was the daughter of a carpenter; it was her mother, described by Kincaid as a literate, cultured woman, who had the greater impact on her writing. In an interview with The New York Times Kincaid said, “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me,” a statement...

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(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Raised in Antigua, a small and beautiful island nation in the Caribbean, Kincaid experienced first-hand the colonialism that affects so many...

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(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Kincaid once said in an interview that her history began on ships and continues as corruption. By this she meant that the ideal human...

(The entire section is 503 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Jamaica Kincaid was born on May 25, 1949 to Roderick Potter, a carpenter/cabinet maker, and Annie Richardson, a housewife. She grew up in...

(The entire section is 345 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Kincaid’s work is dominated by the pictures of the beautiful island on which she grew up; by her tortured relationship with her family, especially her mother; and by her consciousness of Antigua’s tragic history of colonial rule and its wasted present of corruption and incompetence. In Annie John, Lucy, and The Autobiography of My Mother, Kincaid draws parallels between a government that fails to appreciate and foster its people’s abilities and the families of her autobiographical central characters, who also fail their children. The result inevitably is the child’s anger and rejection of the place that will always represent mother and home.

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(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In My Brother, Kincaid’s memoir of the illness and subsequent death of her youngest brother, Devon Drew, many details of her own...

(The entire section is 406 words.)