Elaine Potter Richardson changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in 1973. She was 24 years old and had decided that ‘Jamaica’ was more stylish. More important, a new name would allow her to publish without attracting the attention of her mother, Annie Drew – no matter that Annie was living in Antigua and Kincaid in New York. She had been sent away from home at sixteen to work as an au pair. To punish her family, she refused to send money back. She got a full scholarship but dropped out of college to write. She found an apartment on West 22nd Street, sleeping first on newspapers then on a mattress she found on the street. Her diet was orange juice, powdered milk and multivitamins. She preferred to spend money, when she had it, on clothes: in ‘Putting Myself Together’, an essay from 1995, she describes a black corded velvet hat with a tassel at its centre, a crocodile leather handbag, satin scarves fashioned into cravats, a chequered blazer. She was rejected by Mademoiselle magazine (it didn’t hire black girls) before landing a job at Ingénue, which shared a building with National Lampoon. Kincaid struck up a conversation with one of its writers, Michael O’Donoghue, who suggested she meet his friend George Trow, a staff writer at the New Yorker. Trow organised a lunch with Kincaid and William Shawn, then editor of the New Yorker, at the Algonquin. Kincaid ordered the most expensive item on the menu – a seafood salad – while Shawn had a bowl of cornflakes (or so she wrote in one essay; elsewhere she gives a different account). At the end of the lunch, she was given a Talk of the Town assignment.
Her first New Yorker piece was published in September 1974. In it, a young woman called Jamaica tells the reporter ‘there are several things you ought to know’ about the West Indian American Day Carnival in Brooklyn. She speeds through the singers and spoofs, the men dressed as women and the competing costumes, to her central concern, ‘jumping up’ – what happens ‘when things get to be so exciting you just can’t sit still’. The reporter describes conversations with performers, singing styles and the audience, and records some of Jamaica’s comments: Lord Kitchener is ‘less slick’ than the Mighty Shadow, Lord Melody is ‘the raunchiest’. Jamaica gives two short reports of her own, on the history of carnival and on the parade. It’s a clever construction: Jamaica offers authenticity, while the voice of the reporter is reassuringly urbane. There isn’t much evidence of the novelist to come, but there is an indication of a formative conflict. ‘I love to go to Carnival now,’ Jamaica says, ‘because when I was growing up my mother would not let me “jump up”. My mother was so strict. All I wanted to do was “jump up” at Carnival and get little patent-leather shoes from America.’
For Kincaid, writing for Shawn meant coming ‘to know’ her work in a different way. Before, there had been her words and thoughts; now they had been ‘authorised’. Talk of the Town was her apprenticeship, and though the ‘sassy Antiguan’ voice wasn’t one she would adopt in her fiction, her success as a columnist gave her the confidence to follow her interests: ‘Nu Grape soda … the television commercials for Lenny’s Clam Bar, a restaurant in Queens. Fat girls … Circle skirts and saddle shoes. Tom McGuane novels.’ She reported on the black discotheque scene, where ‘you are expressly forbidden to wear blue jeans, sneakers, or any other kind of clothing that will make you look poverty stricken.’ She wrote about meeting the actor Richard Pryor, who in the course of their interview
bought a gold necklace … for the woman he had introduced as his girlfriend … a gold ring for his manager and a gold ring for his valet … wrote a cheque for sixteen hundred dollars to his jeweller … ordered a dinner of sweet-and-sour fish from Greener Pastures … picked up his spinach with his bare hands and said with a British accent: ‘I like my spinach squeeze-dried, don’t you?’
Particular events recur in Kincaid’s writing. As a teenager she was taken out of school to look after her baby brother, Devon, while her mother was at work. One day Drew returned home to find Kincaid reading and Devon’s nappy dirty. To the young Kincaid, ‘our fortunes, our prospects were not more than the contents of my brother’s diaper, and the contents were only shit.’ In retaliation, her mother gathered the books Kincaid had stolen from the local library and burned them. ‘It really did feel like an attempt at murder,’ Kincaid said in an interview. ‘My books were the only thing that connected me to a world apart from the cesspool I was in, and then they were just ashes. It felt murderous.’ It is impossible to write about Kincaid without writing about her mother. The maternal bond, or the lack of it, animates all her writing. Sometimes you wonder how much else there is to be said about her mother. What else is there to be condemned, to be mourned? It turns out there’s always more.
Lucy is a fictionalised account of the time Kincaid spent as an au pair after she arrived in New York, first to a couple she didn’t much like and then to Michael (a writer for the New Yorker) and Ann Arlen. In the novel Lucy Josephine Potter looks after the children of a wealthy white couple, Lewis and Mariah. Their apartment is large, clean and orderly. Lucy has never seen an apartment, or an elevator, or refrigerator.
The household … was made up of a husband, a wife, and the four girl children. The husband and wife looked alike and their four children looked just like them. In photographs of themselves, which they placed all over the house, their six yellow-haired heads of various sizes were bunched together as if they were a bouquet of flowers tied together by an unseen string. In the pictures, they smiled out at the world, giving the impression that they found everything in it unbearably wonderful. And it was not a farce, their smiles. From wherever they had gone, and they seemed to have been all over the world, they brought back some tiny memento, and they could each recite its history from its very beginnings. Even when a little rain fell, they would admire the way it streaked through the blank air.
One yellow head comes in focus, Mariah, who befriends Lucy. While her own mother scolds her for talking to men or not doing exactly as she is told, Mariah gives her books by Simone de Beauvoir and encourages her to use birth control. She speaks openly about her marital troubles. Lucy’s disdain for her mother grows, but her new environment only reinforces their bond:
My past was my mother; I could hear her voice, and she spoke to me not in English or the French patois that she sometimes spoke, or in any language that needed help from the tongue; she spoke to me in a language anyone female could understand. And I was undeniably that – female. Oh, it was a laugh, for I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother that I missed the whole story: I was not like my mother – I was my mother. And I could see now why, to the few feeble attempts I made to draw a line between us, her reply always was: ‘You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother, my blood runs in you, I carried you for nine months inside me.’ How else was I to take such a statement but as a sentence for life in a prison whose bars were stronger than any iron imaginable?
Desperate to perform some small act of defiance, Lucy considers taking her mother’s letters, nineteen of them, all unopened, and returning them, as she has read vengeful lovers do. But she worries that if she touches the letters she will ‘die from longing for her’. Mariah’s freedom isn’t available to her, or not fully. Lucy makes herself ‘alone in the world’. Men pass to and from her bed. The novel ends with her busying herself with ‘little things: I washed my underwear, scrubbed the stove, washed the bathroom floor, trimmed my nails, arranged my dresser, made sure I had enough sanitary napkins.’ Alone in her bedroom, she picks up a book Mariah gave her. In it she writes her full name, ‘Lucy Josephine Potter’, followed by the words, ‘I wish I could love someone so much that I would die from it.’ A double bind: the wish to die from love expresses at once the desire to not be alone and to be so deeply alone that you no longer exist. She does not speak of or see her mother again.
Kincaid’s attitude to her writing process is disarmingly simple. ‘Writing is like going to the psychiatrist,’ she told an interviewer in 1993. ‘I just discover things about myself.’ Derek Walcott, one of the few Caribbean writers she admires, put it well when he said that her sentences move towards their ‘own contradiction’: ‘It’s as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels.’ In The Limits of Autobiography, Leigh Gilmore describes her work as ‘serial autobiography’: ‘It is not that Kincaid is writing the same book over and over; rather, she is adding volumes to a series.’ But sometimes there are two Kincaids: Elaine Potter Richardson, the daughter of the domineering Annie Drew, and the self-fashioning writer, Jamaica Kincaid. In Kincaid’s fictional world, to be someone’s daughter is to carry a great burden. To become yourself, you must reject, kill, refuse the mother, leave home, write books and essays against her, marry a white man, build a life that is illegible to her. Even then, she retains the power to destroy your painfully constructed edifice of self-possession.
Her first published book, a collection of stories called At the Bottom of the River (1983), forms a portrait of an Antiguan childhood. In ‘At Last’, the description of the house in which the narrator lives becomes increasingly disconcerting: ‘the wood shingles, unpainted, weather-beaten, fraying: the piano, a piece of furniture now, collecting dust; the bed in which all the children were born; a bowl of flowers, alive, then dead; a bowl of fruit, but then all eaten’. Where is everyone now? There is mention of a hurricane, and as often in Kincaid’s stories, a dialogue: ‘We prayed. But what did we pray for? We prayed to be saved … Were we saved? I don’t know.’ Although she sometimes draws on folklore, and her style has been called magical realism, Kincaid has always rejected the description. Stories, relationships, dreams, the worlds she discovered in books as a young girl – these come together to create a particular mental landscape that is kept in check by the clarity of her sentences and the simplicity of their deployment. ‘The night-soil men can see a bird walking in trees. It isn’t a bird. It is a woman who has removed her skin and is on her way to drink the blood of her secret enemies. It is a woman who has left her skin in a corner of a house made out of wood.’
At the Bottom of the River opens with ‘Girl’, the first story Kincaid published in the New Yorker. Her ascent had been rapid and ‘Girl’, published in 1978, brought her to wide attention. It’s a short piece, a single sentence, yet seemingly exhaustive, listing everything an Antiguan girl needs to know to be a good daughter, rather than the ‘slut I have warned you against becoming’:
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the colour clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off … This is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast … don’t squat down to play marbles – you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers – you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all …
The mother’s relentless, rhythmic intonation is twice interrupted by the girl, once to ask a question (‘but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?’) and once in protest – ‘but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school’ – but the protest is ignored and the litany continues. There isn’t much room for a girl, any girl, to be herself in this world, but another story, ‘Wingless’, hints at moments of agency which become a source of pride: ‘I myself have been kissed by many rude boys with small, damp lips, on their way to boys’ drill. I myself have humped girls under my mother’s house.’ Kincaid doesn’t portray childhood, what she calls the ‘pupa stage’, as a state of innocence or compliance. When the girl speaks for herself, the desire for self-determination sits alongside her growing awareness of ‘the great danger in what I am – a defenceless and pitiful child’. She asserts her potential: ‘I shall grow up to be a tall, graceful, and altogether beautiful woman, and I shall impose on large numbers of people my will and also, for my own amusement, great pain.’
At the Bottom of the River came out a few years after Kincaid’s marriage to William Shawn’s son Allen. She was a staff writer at the New Yorker with two young children, regularly going back to New York from their home in Bennington, Vermont to write Talk of the Town, or to drop off new stories. Kincaid’s second book, Annie John, a collection of interrelated stories, was published as a novel in 1985, followed by Lucy in 1990 and The Autobiography of My Mother in 1996. The protagonist of Autobiography of My Mother is 70-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson, daughter of a Carib mother and a Scottish-African father. Brought up by an uncaring stepmother, she fixates on the loss of her birth mother: ‘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.’ But this isn’t Cinderella. In Annie John the mother is described as ‘a shadow standing between me and the rest of the world’, and as in Jung, this shadow becomes a repository for everything the daughter hates and rejects, the object of blame for everything that goes wrong in her life. The birth-death crux has another significance, too. Autobiography of My Mother is often read as a colonial fable, and Xuela explicitly compares the start of her own life with the creation of the African diaspora. As Kincaid said in a New York Times interview, ‘at the moment African people came into this world, Africa died for them … The birth of one is the death of the other.’
Annie John opens with a young girl’s realisation about death:
For a short while during the year I was ten, I thought only people I did not know died … From our yard, I could see the cemetery. I did not know it was the cemetery until one day when I said to my mother that sometimes in the evening, while feeding the pig, I could see various small, sticklike figures, some dressed in black, some dressed in white, bobbing up and down in the distance. I noticed, too, that sometimes the black and white stick-like figures appeared in the morning. My mother said that it was probably a child being buried, since children were always buried in the morning. Until then, I had not known that children died.
Kincaid’s child narrators are sometimes naive but they aren’t sentimentally treated. There is no false optimism or cloying moral; quarrelling families don’t magically make up; shadows don’t disappear. The cost of her clarity is most striking shown in My Brother, which is being reissued by Picador this summer along with the novels Mr Potter (2002) and See Now Then (2013); her collected Talk of the Town columns, Talk Stories; and My Garden (Book). Devon Drew was the youngest of Kincaid’s three brothers, the reason she was taken out of school and her books destroyed. He died of Aids in 1996, aged 33. Kincaid wasn’t speaking to her family when he fell ill and was told the news by a family friend. Her response was matter of fact, though she didn’t have all the facts:
He lived a life that is said to be typical in contracting the virus that causes Aids: he used drugs (I was only sure of marijuana and cocaine) and he had many sexual partners (I only knew of women). He was careless; I cannot imagine him taking the time to buy or use a condom. This is a quick judgment, because I don’t know my brothers very well, but I am pretty sure that a condom would not be something he would have troubled himself to use.
She returned to Antigua to oversee Devon’s care, upsetting the ‘hard-earned order’ of her American life, partly because she had money and access to medication, but partly because, as her mother said, she was always trying to do things she knew she could not do. There was no grand reconciliation. At times, her detachment borders on disgust: ‘He had gotten so black, the disease has made him so black … his lips were scarlet and covered with small sores that had a golden crust.’ She thinks about what her own life would have been like if she had stayed. ‘This might have been me dying young … I felt instinctively that of all the lives I might have had, this might have been me.’
The New Yorker had been a ‘spiritual home’ under Shawn, but after his forced departure in 1987, Kincaid found herself on combative terms with his successors, first Robert Gottlieb and then Tina Brown (‘Joseph Stalin in high heels’). She accepted a job as professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard, a position she still holds. She got divorced. And she devoted more time to her garden. In the opening essay of My Garden (Book), Kincaid writes that ‘my attachment in adult life to the garden begins in this way: shortly after I became a mother for the first time, my husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, a fork, some flower seeds to mark the occasion of that thing known as Mother’s Day.’ That sounds rather too neat, but she goes on to describe her conflict over learning the Latin names of plants, her growing interest in the history and terminology of botany and its parallels with the forced movement and enslavement of people. A dahlia seedling, transported from Mexico to a middle-class garden in Vermont, is no longer known as cocoxochitl but bears the name of the Swedish botanist who hybridised it. She finds herself curious about the conquistador who first noticed cocoxochitl, who ‘longed for it so deeply’ that he carried it away. ‘Hernándo Cortés,’ she writes, ‘would not have noticed it.’ The conflict is bound up with her own success. ‘I have joined the conquering class: who else could afford this garden – a garden in which I grow things that it would be much cheaper to buy at the store.’ She is no longer a woman on the ‘fringes of the world’, but comfortably close to its centre: ‘There isn’t a room in my house now that is as small as the house I grew up in.’
The garden brings her back to her childhood, through – inevitably – the figure of the mother. In swift associative leaps, Kincaid moves from Dominica (her mother’s birthplace) to Antigua, from the cutting to the seed, from Adam and Eve to Columbus and Linnaeus and then to herself, and ‘the thing that happened to me and all who look like me’. As she tells us, almost winningly, ‘in almost every account of an event that has taken place sometime in the last five hundred years, there is a moment when I feel like placing an asterisk somewhere in its text, and at the end of this official story place my own addition.’ She betrays her editor, who makes her promise not to learn the Latin names of plants, but it’s no surprise – betrayal is a ‘feature of any garden’.
Kincaid’s garden writing is less concerned with family entanglements. The sentences are more agile, the sentiments less expected. She might say: ‘I love the house in which I live. Before I lived in it, before I was ever even inside it, before I knew anything about it, I loved it.’ We see something of the Talk of the Town writer in her ‘satisfaction’ at ‘seeing the tips of the asparagus poke through the earth, coming all the way up, wonderfully whole, real, and without blemish’. In writing about the garden, she is also always writing about writing.
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