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.