At a Glance
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
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...
(The entire section is 3,743 words.)