Jamaica Kincaid

Dwight Garner reviews Jamaica Kincaid's book "The Autobiography of My Mother".

Published January 13, 1996 10:39AM (EST)

Jamaica Kincaid -- tall, striking, clear-eyed -- turns heads when she strides into the lobby of New York's swank Royalton Hotel one chilly day in mid-December. It's not that she is trying very hard, dressed comfortably as she is in rumpled khakis, green blazer, and a mustard-colored bandana. Kincaid simply projects a natural authority that attracts attention, and that spills over into her writing. Over the course of only four books -- the novels "Annie John" (1985) and "Lucy" (1990), the short story collection "At the Bottom of the River" (1984), and her nonfiction book about her native Antigua titled "A Small Place" (1988) -- Kincaid has carved out a unique place in the American literary landscape. Writing in spare, deceptively simple prose, her fiction vividly and often harrowingly describes the difficult coming-of-age of strong-minded girls who, very much like herself, were born into tropical poverty.

Kincaid's new novel, "The Autobiography of My Mother" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), may be her most accomplished yet. Set on the island of Dominica in the West Indies, the novel charts the wide, troubled arc of 70-year-old Xuela Claudette Richardson s life. (At birth, Kincaid's own given name was Elaine Potter Richardson.) Most notably, the book is a striking portrait of a Xuela's struggle, as a young woman, to find her own language and identity in the face of an uncaring father, a country wracked by colonialism, and a mother she never knew.

Kincaid now lives in Bennington, Vermont with her husband, the composer Allen Shawn, and their two children. In her precise, elegant British West Indies accent, Kincaid spoke freely about her life and work, notably her recent decision to quit her longtime position as a staff writer for The New Yorker -- which she now describes as "a version of People magazine" -- and her relationship with Tina Brown. "She's actually got some nice qualities," Kincaid says about her former editor. "But she can't help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was a vaccine -- I would sneak it up on her."

You left Antigua to come to the United States when you were seventeen. Did you have any idea, in the back of your head, that you might someday be a writer?

None. Absolutely none. I came here to be an au pair in New York -- although servant is the word I prefer. I came to work as a servant, in somebody's house, as one of those many ladies you see with little blonde children. And when I first arrived I was incredibly depressed and lonely. I didn't know there was such a world as the literary world. I didn't know anything, except maybe how to put one foot in front of the other.

Yet you were somewhat educated, weren't you?

Yes. In school we read English writers -- Kipling, Carlyle, people like that. It was as if, as children, we were all being prepared for MFAs. We were all given this incredible literature to read. And my mother read, although she never read fiction. She read textbooks on health and the body, and she read biographies -- Mozart, Florence Nightingale, and such people.

As a child, I've heard, you would steal books from libraries.

It's true! I can't part with a book once I've read it. It's just an obsession I have. I can't go into a bookstore without spending money. When I look at somebody's library, I wish I could put my head to it and just absorb it.

Once you stopped being an au pair, and before you became known as a writer, how did you survive in New York?

I did all the things people do when they have no money, short of selling my blood or my body. I just sort of starved. I was a secretary, and I modeled. I posed for people. I can't remember if I did it nude. Oh, I certainly hope I did! [Laughs.] I did go to a party once, a Halloween party, completely naked. I went as Josephine Baker, and I only had bananas around my waist. And I sang back-up for Holly Woodlawn a few times! I have photos of myself onstage at a club.

Wasn't your friendship with the writer George Trow your first connection to The New Yorker?

Yes. I met George Trow through Michael O'Donoghue, one of the founding writers on Saturday Night Live. We'd met in an elevator when he was working at National Lampoon, and I was working for a magazine called Ingenue. Michael said "I know someone you'd like," and he introduced me to George Trow. I didn't know it would lead to anything. George was a great friend to me. He's someone I will always owe something to, in some spiritual way. He was kind to me, aside from the fact that he fed me when I was hungry. It's hard to say what would have happened to me if I hadn't met him.

I heard a story that your first piece for The New Yorker, a Talk of the Town essay, was sort of an accident. You had written some notes and they wound up getting published?

Yes -- and it was William Shawn who published it. And I thought: Oh, this is my writing. I'd written little things for the Village Voice, some television criticism. But it was William Shawn who showed me what my voice was. I began to write the stories that became "At the Bottom of the River," my first book, and he published them. He made me feel that what I thought, my inner life, my thoughts as I organized them, were important. That they made literature. That they made sense. There was a world for them. Not only for mine -- but many people's. But I am Exhibit A. Because I am not a man, I am not white, I didn't go to Harvard. The generation of writers from The New Yorker that I was a part of were white men who went to Harvard or Yale. And I was none of those things.

Your relationship with The New Yorker has always seemed to be a bit tempestuous. Didn't the magazine refuse to publish your nonfiction book about Antigua, "A Small Place"?

Mr. Shawn loved it and would have published it. Bob Gottlieb found it angry and didn't publish it. I actually miss Bob. I think he was kind of crazy sometimes, but I miss his literary judgment. I think the New Yorker has no literary tradition anymore. It's now in the realm of promotion and publicity.

Didn't you and Gottlieb argue fairly often?

Oh my goodness! I had a great big quarrel with him. Actually the other day I was thinking: I should write Bob Gottlieb a letter telling him that I miss his literary spirit. You certainly can't say about Bob Gottlieb, as you can about the current editor of The New Yorker, that he's not a literary person. He may have had some bad taste and bad judgment, but you can't say he wasn't a literary person. I miss disagreeing with someone on literary grounds.

You didn't get that under Tina Brown?

No, I didn't. It's hard to find an article in The New Yorker now that's not about some one -- a celebrity of some kind. It's a version of People magazine. I'm saddened. The coarseness of it, the vulgarity. But who wants to be in the position of arguing for good taste. Certainly not me! [Laughs.] I like bad taste, but there is a level that even I can't abide. I don't know one person who was there when The New Yorker was actually The New Yorker who hasn't been destroyed by it. But people have their families. I've never felt more sympathetic to people who sell out. People who stay on and try to have some health insurance.

Why exactly did you leave the magazine?

I was horrified, when I learned of it this fall, that my editor thought Roseanne was a source of intellectual interest. A marvelous monster, I think my editor called her. And I thought: Oh dear -- this is unfortunate. The thing I know most about Roseanne is that she fires her writers. And I am a writer. You know, when I crossed the ocean I aspired to be with something grand and really great and better than me. Not in New York with people who only care about other vulgar people of the moment.

How was your relationship with Tina Brown?

Oh, I like her very much. I just wish I could rescue her from her coarseness. She's actually got some nice qualities. But she can't help but be attracted to the coarse and vulgar. I wish there was a vaccine -- I would sneak it up on her.

Do you feel lucky that you were a part of The New Yorker during William Shawn's tenure?

Oh, we were very lucky. It was an incredible inheritance, and we took it for granted. We sometimes used to just laugh at people who wrote for Time magazine and New York magazine and other magazines. The things they would have to do. Now I'd be so glad if someone from Time magazine dreamed of smiling on me. I hope I say that facetiously. But one never knows, it might really be true. The New Yorker was sort of a separate world, and that was its power. And now it is part of the world and it only wants to be powerful in the world. I had to leave. I was worried about what was going to happen to me. Because -- how do you say it? -- If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Curiosity isn't allowed any longer. Joe Mitchell as a writer could not come up in The New Yorker today. I predict that this period in The New Yorker's history will produce no lasting writers. The writers coming up will be munched up and out.

You married into The New Yorker family, more or less, marrying William Shawn's son Allen Shawn in 1979. Did your relationship raise any eyebrows among other writers?

People would sometimes ask me -- mostly young white women who went to Radcliffe -- how I got my job, and I realized they thought I got my job through him. So I would reply to them: Oh, my father is the editor. [Laughs.] But you get a little insensitive to what people are thinking. Maybe there's that kind of racism around me every day, and I just never sense it. These days, however, I would have my picture taken by Richard Avedon and there would be a little column! I was perhaps overly proud -- I would defy Mr. Shawn in all sorts of ways. I remember once he wanted me to change something in my writing -- I had used the word hump in a sexual way -- and I wouldn't do it. He said: Well, Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth and John Updike have always made these special exceptions for The New Yorker. When they publish it in a book they will put it back the way they wanted it. And I said: "Well, they were wrong -- they shouldn't change things." I wouldn't give in, and he published it. I now would give in a million times to have that sensibility back. The word "hump"? Now it's just "fuck fuck fuck" in The New Yorker.

Let's talk about your new novel. "The Autobiography of My Mother" is similar to your two previous novels in that it is a coming-of-age story about a young woman from the West Indies. What brings you back to this topic?

If I had consciously designed my career, perversely enough, I might have worried about what people would say and done something different. I am not troubled, however, to be seen to be of one whole cloth -- that all that I write is a further development of something. Perhaps it is musical in that way. My work is a chord that develops in many different ways. I couldn't help but write these books.

Despite the novel's title, it is only tangentially about the mother in the book. Why did you call it "The Autobiography of My Mother"?

It was a deliberate choice. It is somewhat explained in the book -- that the main character is a fertile woman who decides not to be. And that is drawn from an observation I've made about my own mother: That all her children are quite happy to have been born, but all of us are quite sure she should never have been a mother. I feel comfortable saying that publicly, I think. I try not to corner my mother anymore. Because I have at my disposal a way of articulating things about her that she can't respond to. But I feel comfortable saying that the core of the book -- and the book is not autobiographical except in this one way -- derives from the observation that my own mother should not have had children.

You don't feel that you are who you are only because of who she was?

There is a conundrum, isn't there? Absolutely.

Has your mother read your books?

I don't think so, no. But if I were dying she would. She loves us when we are dying. She is very much there for my sick brother. I worry about her when he dies. What will she do?

"The Autobiography of My Mother" was first scheduled to be published two years ago. Is your brother's illness the reason for the delay?

No. The book took a time long to finish because it took a long time to finish. There was a lot of it I didn't understand. It often takes me a long time to write. I wrote "Annie John" and "Lucy" very quickly. But on the whole I write very slowly.

Are you one of those writers who keeps a regular schedule?

No. How I wish! Who are these people? That sounds marvelous. It takes me a long time to write, because I think out everything before I write it. When I write something, even a tiny section of a long thing, I think about it for many weeks. Perhaps that's why my work is always so much "my work."

Is the difficult relationships your characters have with their mothers one of the reasons why sex is so important in your books? Sex seems to represent a break the women make with their families -- it's a statement of independence.

That's certainly true in my new book. But a woman's sexuality -- a woman's body -- is also a weapon against her. This thing that is most natural for you is this incredible source of shame. All the things about men seem to be a source of inspiration and pride, but a woman is constantly hearing the opposite. Her period is a source of shame, and on the other hand you're in big trouble if it doesn't appear. It's always one thing or another with your body. Even if you were an old woman and could just go bare chested, those things on your chest are still so cumbersome. But I've long decided -- and I am only 46 -- that everything that is a source of shame you should just wear brazenly.

Xuela, the protagonist of your new book, says "Whatever I was told to hate I loved most."

Oh yes. To speak to me is really to read my books. I don't know why I write sometimes, because if you just sat down I would tell you everything in them. I really do believe that whatever is a source of shame -- if you are not responsible for it, such as the color of your skin or your sexuality -- you should just wear it as a badge.

Have you always been as headstrong as the characters in your books?

I hope so. I really feel that if I'd been born a slave, or a citizen of the Soviet Union during communism, I would have been dead within ten seconds. I hate tyrants. I hate tyranny. Better to be dead than red -- that's me. It's better to be dead than to have people forcing you to do things that are a violation.

How did someone from Antigua wind up living in Vermont?

It was just sort of a happy accident. We had a baby, our daughter. We had a little savings, but we spent it in our first six months oohing and aahing over her. Just then Bennington College offered both of us jobs teaching. We thought: Oh well, we'll just go off for a year. And we ended up staying. Everyone we knew laughed at us. This was 1985 -- ten years ago. It was as if we had said, We surrender. We seemed old. Little did we know it was the beginning of a new life. Everyone we knew had to make incredible compromises to live in New York, insisting that New York was wonderful -- when it's not at all, with children, unless you have vast sums of money.

You must certainly have stood out in small-town Bennington.

If I did, no one made me feel that way. Vermont has been wonderful for the children, too, who think the world really is like this. One day they were watching one of those Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland shows -- in which they'd say, Let's put on a show! -- and suddenly Mickey and Judy and the rest of the cast were in blackface. Their father was appalled, and took them aside afterward and started to tell them about the history of American injustice. And our little girl said: Oh come on Dad, it's not Mickey and Judy's fault! [Laughs.] Basically they don't feel like -- and we wait for them to be rudely awakened -- it has anything to do with them.

I imagine you have this idyllic life in your old rural house, with your husband composing, you writing. Then I read that your children love the band Offspring. That must shatter the peace.

Oh yes! Offspring and Green Day. And their favorite song, which I think is by Green Day, begins: Mom and Dad don't look so good. [Laughs.] We always take it personally when the kids start to sing that.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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