|Born||Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson
May 25, 1949
St. John's, Antigua
Jamaica Kincaid (born May 25, 1949) is an Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, gardener, and gardening writer. She was born in St. John's, Antigua, which is part of the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. She lives in North Bennington, Vermont, during the summers and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California as the "Josephine Olp Weeks Chair and Professor of Literature" as well as the "Professor of African and American studies in Residence" at Harvard during the academic year. Kincaid is an award-winning writer whose work has been both praised and criticized for its subject matter because her writing largely draws upon her own life and her tone is often perceived as angry. In response, Kincaid counters that many writers also draw upon personal experience, and thus to describe her writing as autobiographical and angry is not valid criticism.
Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, in 1949. She grew up in relative poverty with her mother, a literate, cultured woman and home-maker, and her stepfather, a carpenter. She was very close to her mother until the first of her three brothers were born in quick succession when she was nine years old. After their births, Kincaid felt that she was neglected by her mother, who thereafter focused primarily on the needs of her younger brothers. Kincaid later recalled, “our family money remained the same, but there were more people to feed and to clothe, and so everything got sort of shortened, not only material things but emotional things. The good emotional things, I got a short end of that. But then I got more of things I didn't have, like a certain kind of cruelty and neglect.” In a New York Times interview, Kincaid also said that “The way I became a writer was that my mother wrote my life for me and told it to me.”
Kincaid was educated in the British colonial education system, as Antigua did not gain its independence from England until 1981. Although she was intelligent and frequently tested at the top of her class, her mother removed Kincaid from school at age sixteen to help support the family when her third and last brother was born because her stepfather was ill and could not provide for the family any more. In 1966, her mother sent her to Scarsdale, an upper-class suburb of New York City, when she was only seventeen to work as an au pair. However, after this move, Kincaid refused to send money home. Additionally, "she left no forwarding address and was cut off from her family until her return to Antigua 20 years later.”
In 1979, Kincaid married the composer and Bennington College professor, Allen Shawn, son of The New Yorker's longtime editor William Shawn and brother of actor Wallace Shawn. They divorced in 2002. They have two children: a son, Harold who is the music producer/songwriter Levelsoundz, and a daughter, the singer/songwriter Annie Rosamond. Kincaid is the President of the Levelsoundz fan club, which is the official fan club for her son Harold Shawn.
While working as an au pair, Kincaid enrolled in evening classes at a community college. After three years, she resigned from her job to attend Franconia College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship. However, Kincaid dropped out of school after one year and returned to New York. In New York City, she started writing for a teenage girls' magazine and changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid in 1973 when her writing was first published. She described changing her name as "a way for [her] to do things without being the same person who couldn't do them—the same person who had all these weights". On her choice of first and last name, Kincaid explained that Jamaica is an English corruption of what Columbus called Xaymaca as well as it is the part of the world that she is from and Kincaid appeared to go well with Jamaica. Kincaid became a writer for The Village Voice and Ingénue. Kincaid's short fiction appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, where her novel Lucy was originally serialized.
The New Yorker
As a result of her budding writing career and friendship with George W. S. Trow, who wrote many pieces for The New Yorker column "The Talk of the Town", Kincaid became acquainted with The New Yorker's legendary editor, William Shawn, who was impressed with Kincaid's writing. He employed her as a staff writer in 1976 and then eventually as a featured columnist for "Talk of the Town", which lasted nine years. William Shawn's tutelage legitimized Kincaid as a writer and proved pivotal to her development of voice. In all, she was a staff writer for The New Yorker for twenty years. She resigned from The New Yorker in 1996 when the editor Tina Brown chose actress Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue as an original feminist voice. Even though circulation rose under Brown, Kincaid was critical of Brown's direction in making the magazine less literary and more celebrity-oriented.
Kincaid recalls that when she was a writer for the The New Yorker, she would often be questioned, particularly by women, on how she was able to obtain her position. Kincaid felt that these questions were posed to her because she was a young black woman "from nowhere...I have no credentials. I have no money. I literally come from a poor place. I was a servant. I dropped out of college. The next thing you know I'm writing for The New Yorker, I have this sort of life, and it must seem annoying to people."
Talk Stories was later published in 2001 as a collection of “77 short pieces Kincaid wrote for The New Yorker's ‘Talk of the Town’ column between 1974 and 1983”.
Her novels are loosely autobiographical, though Kincaid has warned against interpreting their autobiographical elements too literally: "Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true. You couldn't admit any of it to a court of law. It would not be good evidence." Her work often prioritizes "impressions and feelings over plot development" and features conflict with both a strong maternal figure and colonial and neocolonial influences. Excerpts from her non-fiction book A Small Place were used as part of the narrative for Stephanie Black's 2001 documentary, Life and Debt.
She never feels the necessity of claiming the existence of a black world or a female sensibility. She assumes them both. I think it's a distinct departure that she's making, and I think that more and more black American writers will assume their world the way that she does. So that we can get beyond the large theme of racism and get to the deeper themes of how black people love and cry and live and die. Which, after all, is what art is all about.
Her writing explores such themes as colonialism and colonial legacy, postcolonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, Kincaid also first explores the theme of time.
Tone and style
Her writing has been criticized for its simplicity and anger. As works such as At the Bottom of the River and The Autobiography of My Mother use Antiguan cultural practices, some critics say these works employ “magical realism”. “The author claims, however, that [her work] is ‘magic’ and ‘real,’ but not necessarily [works] of ‘magical realism.’” Other critics claim that her style is “modernist” because much of her fiction is "culturally specific and experimental". It has also been praised for its keen observation of character, curtness, wit, and lyrical quality. Derek Walcott, 1992 Nobel laureate, described Kincaid's writing: "As she writes a sentence, psychologically, its temperature is that it heads toward it own contradiction. It's as if the sentence is discovering itself, discovering how it feels. And that is astonishing, because it's one thing to be able to write a good declarative sentence; it's another thing to catch the temperature of the narrator, the narrator's feeling. And that's universal, and not provincial in any way". Susan Sontag has also commended Kincaid's writing for its "emotional truthfulness," poignancy, and complexity.
Kincaid's writing is largely influenced by her life circumstances even though she discourages readers from taking her fiction too literally. To do so, according to the writer Michael Arlen, is to be "disrespectful of a fiction writer's ability to create fictional characters". Arlen, who would become a colleague at The New Yorker, is whom Kincaid worked for as an au pair and the figure whom the father in Lucy is based on. Despite her caution to readers, Kincaid has also said that: "I would never say I wouldn't write about an experience I've had."
Reviewing her latest novel, See Now Then in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it “bipolar," “half séance, half ambush” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished. It picks up no moral weight as it rolls along. It asks little of us, and gives little in return.”
List of works
- Annie John (1985)
- Lucy (1990)
- The Autobiography of My Mother (1996)
- Mr.Potter (2002)
- See Now Then (2013)
- Uncollected fiction
- "Ovando" (1989), Conjunctions 14: 75–83
- "The Finishing Line" (1990), New York Times Book Review 18
- "Biography of a Dress" (1992), Grand Street 11: 92–100
- "Song of Roland" (1993), The New Yorker 69: 94–98
- "Xuela" (1994), The New Yorker, 70: 82–92
- Short story collections
- At the Bottom of the River (1983)
- Nonfiction Books
- A Small Place (1988)
- My Brother (1997)
- Talk Stories (2001)
- My Garden Book (2001)
- Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalayas (2005)
- Uncollected nonfiction
- "Antigua Crossings: A Deep and Blue Passage on the Caribbean Sea"(1978) Rolling Stone: 48–50.
- "Figures in the Distance" (1983)
- "On Seeing England for the First Time" (1991), Transition Magazine 51: 32–40
- "Out of Kenya" (1991) New York Times: A15, A19, with Ellen Pall
- "Flowers of Evil: In the Garden" (1992) The New Yorker 68: 154–159
- "A Fire by Ice" (1993) The New Yorker 69: 64–67
- "Just Reading: In the Garden" (1993) The New Yorker 69: 51–55
- "Alien Soil: In the Garden" (1993) The New Yorker 69: 47–52
- "This Other Eden" (1993) The New Yorker 69: 69–73
- "The Season Past: In the Garden" (1994) The New Yorker 70: 57–61
- "In Roseau" (1995) The New Yorker 71: 92–99.
- "In History" (1997), The Colors of Nature
- My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants they Love (1998), Editor
- Children's Literature
- Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip (1986)
- Selwyn Cudjoe, "Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project: An Interview," Callaloo, 12 (Spring 1989): 396–411; reprinted in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Cudjoe (Wellesley, Mass.: Calaloux, 1990): 215–231.
- Leslie Garis, "Through West Indian Eyes," New York Times Magazine (October 7, 1990): 42.
- Donna Perry, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," in Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990): 492–510.
- Kay Bonetti, "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Missouri Review, 15, No. 2 (1992): 124–142.
- Allan Vorda, "I Come from a Place That's Very Unreal: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," in Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, ed. Vorda (Houston: Rice University Press, 1993): 77–105.
- Moira Ferguson, "A Lot of Memory: An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid," Kenyon Review, 16 (Winter 1994): 163–188.
Awards and honors
- 1984 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for At the Bottom of the River
- 1984 Shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for At the Bottom of the River 1984.
- 1985 Guggenheim Award for Fiction
- 1985 Finalist for the International Ritz Paris Hemingway Award for Annie John
- 1997 Shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Friction for The Autobiography of My Mother
- 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of My Mother
- 1999 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction
- 2000 Prix Femina Étranger for My Brother
- 2004 American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2009 American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2010 Center for Fiction's Clifton Fadiman Medal for Annie John
- 2011 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Tufts University
- 2014 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for See Now Then
- 2015 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Brandeis University
- Deena, S. (n.d.). Jamaica Kincaid. Writers of the Caribbean. East Carolina University, Department of English, Multicultural Literature Program. Retrieved June 14, 2013 http://core.ecu.edu/engl/deenas/caribbean/kincaid.htm
- Jamaica Kincaid, PhD. (2015). Claremont McKenna College. Retrieved June 14, 2015 https://www.cmc.edu/academic/faculty/profile/jamaica-kincaid
- Jamaica Kincaid | Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence. (n.d.). Harvard University, Department of English. Retrieved November 7, 2015 http://english.fas.harvard.edu/faculty/kincaid/
- Benson, K.M. and Hagseth, C. (2001). Jamaica Kincaid. Voices from the Gaps. University of Minnesota. Retrieved June 25, 2013 http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/166247
- Loh, A. (2013, May 5). Jamaica Kincaid: People say I’m angry because I’m black and I’m a woman. Salon. Retrieved June 18, 2013 from: http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/jamaica_kincaid_people_say_im_angry_because_im_black_and_im_a_woman_partner/
- Pupello, V. (1997, Fall). Kincaid, Jamaica. Postcolonial Studies @ Emory. Retrieved June 14, 2013 https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/10/kincaid-jamaica/
- Jamaica Kincaid. (n.d.). BBC World Service. Retrieved June 14, 2013 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/arts/features/womenwriters/kincaid_life.shtml
- Cassidy, T.J. and Rose-Vails, S. (2003, January). Jamaica Kincaid. Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition, Literary Reference Center Plus. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://www.ebscohost.com
- Garis, Leslie (October 7, 1990). "Through West Indian Eyes". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 18, 2013.
- Levintova, Hannah. ""Our Sassy Black Friend" Jamaica Kincaid". MotherJones (January/February 2013). Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- Jamaica Kincaid. (2004). Encyclopedia of World Biography. The Gale Group Inc. Retrieved November 4, 2015 from: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Jamaica_Kincaid.aspx
- Halper, D. "Black Jews: A Minority Within a Minority". Ujc.org. Retrieved August 3, 2010.
- Morin, K. (1997). Jamaica Kincaid. Fu Jen Catholic University. Retrieved June 25, 2013 from: http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/worldlit/caribbean/jam~1.htm
- Sander, R. "Review of Diane Simmons, Jamaica Kincaid". Caribbean Writer: the Literary Gem of the Caribbean. University of the Virgin Islands. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- Ippolito, E. (1973). Jamaica Kincaid. The Literary Encyclopedia. Volume 3.2.2.05: African American Writing and Culture of the United States.Vol. eds: A Yemisi Jimoh (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Stephen E. Meats (Pittsburg State University). Retrieved November 7, 2015 from: http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2502
- Lee, Felicia R. (January 25, 1996). "AT HOME WITH: Jamaica Kincaid;Dark Words, Light Being". The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- Powers, S. (2001, February). Talk Jamaica. January Magazine. Retrieved October 23, 2015 from: http://www.januarymagazine.com/nonfiction/talkkincaid.html
- Bonetti, K. "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid." The Missouri Review. Retrieved November 7, 2015 from:http://www.missourireview.com/
- Jamaica Kincaid. (n.d.). Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. Literary Resource Center. Retrieved June 2014
- A Small Place
- "About the film". Life and Debt. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
- Garis, Leslie (October 7, 1990). "Through West Indian Eyes". New York Times Magazine.
- Frederick, R. D. (2000). Jamaica Kincaid. Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American, p.314-319. Retrieved October 21, 2015
- Garner, Dwight. "The worst books of 1997". Retrieved 2015-11-08.
- Garner, Dwight (2013-02-12). "‘See Now Then,’ Jamaica Kincaid’s New Novel". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-11-08.
- Lee, F.R. (February 5, 2013). Never Mind the Parallels, Don’t Read It as My Life. The New York Times, C1. Print.
- "Jamaica Kincaid". Literature Matters: Writers. British Council. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
- "Jamaica Kincaid". Fellowships to Assist Research and Artistic Creation. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved June 14, 2013.
- "Jamaica Kincaid". Tufts Now. Tufts University. Retrieved June 14, 2013.
- "Jamaica Kincaid Winner Of Center For Fiction's Clifton Fadiman Award", Book2Book, March, 25, 2010.
- "Before Columbus Foundation Announces the Winners of the 35th Annual American Book Awards", Agugust 18, 2014
- Cassidy, Thomas. "Jamaica Kincaid." Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Literary Resource Center. Web.
- Jamaica Kincaid: A Bibliography of Dissertations and Theses, ISBN 978-1-4536-7749-0.
- Voices from the Gaps, University of Minnesota: Jamaica Kincaid
- Literary Encyclopedia biography
- PEN 2013 Master/Class with Jamaica Kincaid and Ru Freeman
- Postcolonial Studies, Emory University: Jamaica Kincaid
- BBC World Service: Jamaica Kincaid
- Writers of the Caribbean, East Carolina University: Jamaica Kincaid